“Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes,” a teacher I had never met and will will unlikely ever meet again shared with me at the recent NYSCATE (New York State Association for Computers and Technology in Education) conference. We were at a session on Creating a New Learning Culture in schools. The presenter, Dr. Billie McConnell, was informative, even inspirational, sharing the need for change, compellingly presenting statistics about how unprepared our children are for the world they are inheriting, and sharing a vision, replete with videos of some of the most creative, insightful student-centered, individualized learning experiences I have ever witnessed. He outlined a problem, a significant problem with schooling today, and showed us a profound solution.
And, then, came the question I wait for at conferences; the question I hope somebody will be brave enough to ask in a setting in which we do not know each other, do not need to work with one another for more than a few hours, and consequently, sometimes, when courageous or frustrated enough, can express what is truly on our minds. I must paraphrase, yet nontheless share the essence of the words spoken. “This is all well and good, but it takes a tremendous amount of work, way beyond expectations in our contracts,” a teacher boldly stated. “I am a teacher and in my early years in the classroom I would have aspired to teaching as you show. Yet, now I am also a father of two young children and the demands to teach the way they do in those videos are way too high. It takes much more time to prepare than we have. What do you expect for us to do?”
Dr. McConnell respectfully validated the question and moved on with his presentation. In fairness, Dr. McConnell was showing us through his presentation what a new learning culture can be. He was wise, experienced and insightful, relaying a profound vision and a substantial amount of information to us in a very short time. I appreciated and respected the learning. And yet, I longed to engage in further conversation with this outspoken, articulate teacher and the other educators who had chosen to come to a session on Creating a New Learning Culture. I longed to delve into dialogue beyond making a case for what is needed in schools, beyond a vision for what is possible in schools, to an honest sharing of what creating that culture is like in the trenches, in real schools and in real classrooms, with the multitude of demands and challenges that exist.
I raised my hand and myself blurted out, with more urgency in my voice than I had intended, a request to pause and speak further about what this teacher had shared, to open the conversation with others in the room about how we can work with the limited resources of time and funding available, and yet make progress. How can we engage with teachers open enough to attend conferences and speak their minds, passionate about helping students, yet skeptical about what is possible in their own classrooms and schools? How can we support teachers honest about how very challenging and demanding changing a culture of learning is? Was Dr. McConnell showing in his videos a few outlier teachers, particularly wise and resourceful, or could the remarkable accomplishments of these superb educators be replicated in classrooms and schools throughout the country? Again, respectfully, Dr. McConnell validated my participation and moved on. I admire Dr. McConnell’s ability to remain focused in the face of participants, primarily me, attempting to shift the focus of his well thought out, well received, important presentation. Looking back, I appreciate that he remained focused and moved on. And yet, I continue to long for a venue in which to discuss the truth from the trenches of our classrooms and our schools; the demands and complexity that envisioning our efforts anew will entail.
As the presentation ended and I stood to leave, the woman sitting next to me turned to me and said, “I am a teacher and I can tell you what I would like from my administrators.” “Please do,” I replied, “that would be so helpful.” “Our hearts would sing if our administrators really made it safe to try new things and make mistakes.” With that, as participants for the next session began to file into the room and we both needed to leave, I thanked her and bid her good-bye, realizing that in a conference boasting many experts, numerous of them nationally reknowned, this wise and honest teacher had just offered me the greatest gift and insight I had received during the entire three days of the conference. We can only risk growth in environments in which we feel safe and protected. This is true for our students and is true for our teachers as well.
Can we hold the bar high with a vision of learning that is compelling, meaningful, and relevant for our students? Can we support teachers facing a plethora of demands and seeking to make progress with limited resources, time as well as funding? Can we empower teachers to make progress while still attaining a healthy work-life balance, grounded and present for their students as well as their families and themselves? Can we enable teachers to feel safe and protected as we venture forward with approaches requiring risk?
How can we help make risk-taking safe and progress manageable? How can we help our teachers’ hearts sing?