Friday, 16 September 2016

How Do I Start?

I understand from the thirty thousand foot view, but how do I start?

This is the question of the month for teachers. It is also asked by educators in leadership roles, those who support teachers in a myriad of ways and with a variety of job titles and descriptions – consultant, coach, facilitator, team leader, lead teacher, instructional support …

Fourteen years ago, when I stepped out of my classroom and into the world of instructional support and professional learning, I asked myself the same question. The twinge of anxiety behind the question was fuelled in part by those around me who said,  “It must be really different (and therefore terrifying) to work with adult learners.” The implication being that this new job had nothing at all to do with what I had done as a classroom teacher.
I am forever grateful that it did not take me all fourteen years to figure out that this is simply not true. While I no longer have a classroom and students in the traditional sense, and there are definite differences in supporting adult learners, I start with each new teacher or team of teachers in ways that are very reminiscent of the tenets that guided me as a classroom teacher.

“Relationships Are All There Is.”

This quote from Margaret Wheatley (2002, p.19), all five words of it, describes to what I attribute any success I have ever had as a teacher or consultant. Just as it was in my classroom each new school year, building relationships with the educators I work alongside is my first priority. If we are to do real work together, teachers and school leaders need to know they can trust me. They need to know that I honour their practice and believe in their ability and willingness to do all they can in service of their students. They need to know that it is safe to try new things and take risks in my presence.

Gradual Release of Responsibility Works With Adult Learners Too

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I taught a lesson in a classroom that was not my own, with the classroom teacher and other team members observing. It was not something I had ever experienced during my years as a classroom teacher. But from the moment teachers began to share their observations, I knew the gradual release of responsibility that had been a cornerstone of my teaching was equally essential in my role as instructional support. Modelling, shared practice, and independent practice are not artificial constructs that exist only in “school” learning. It’s how most of us learned to drive, what apprenticeships are based on, and how I think about professional learning. Seeing is more than believing, it is understanding. When we take professional learning into the classroom and do a demonstration lesson for others to observe and then debrief together, talk honestly about what worked, why it worked, what we might do differently next time, we are modelling. We engage in shared practice when we co-plan, co-teach, and look at student samples together. And, just as it does with students in our classrooms, this gradual release leads to more reflective independent practice.

Assessment In The Service of Learning Does Not Have a ‘Best Before’ Date

I use the principles of assessment for learning with all learners, regardless of whether they are under or over eighteen.  All learners need and deserve:
  •          A clear learning destination – where are we going?
  •          Descriptions of quality and proficiency – what can success look like?
  •      Triangulated evidence that we are making a difference with the changes we are implementing.
  •      Opportunities to self-/peer assess, set goals, and talk about our learning

This is how I start – with the same good teaching practices that helped those who hired me believe that I could be of service to my colleagues.


Wheatley, M. (2002). Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future. San Francisco,CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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