Thursday, February 20, 2014

Freedom to Fail Means Moving Forward

Much has been written about failure and the failure floor allowed by schools in their grading policies.  I recently worked for a public school district that literally combed through every teachers failure for each marking period with a fine tooth comb trying to prevent any teacher from failing a student less face termination or reassignment of classes.  While I think we need to be like the IRS and stalk kids to do their work and never let them think it's an option to slip, when they make no progress after repeated efforts by the teacher and they do not put in any effort into their own success, we need to hold students accountable.  Sometimes this failure can teach them to try harder next time.  In fact, I have failed a few students in my career and almost all, with an exception of one, have grown tremendously.  Granted it was not for the year, but for a trimester or quarter, but each has come back from it stronger.  I did not hold the "F" against them and I did not treat them as unworkable.  Instead I redoubled my efforts and tried to get to know these students and their families better through the process.  It became incredibly productive.

At my first job, I did nothing but lecture.  I loved lecturing and I did not really believe their was any other effective way to teach since I had been so successful as a student learning this way.  I was projecting my own success onto my students.  I was also completely wrong.  While my students got top notch grades on the AP exams, I doubt they can really recall much of what they learned that year today nor.  Even more importantly, I did not take advantage of the opportunity to really give students skills they could have gotten.  The worst was that I had missed out on this opportunity.  This was failure.  I had definitely, uncategorically failed.

After quite some time and a switch to public school teaching, I had a change of heart.  In public school, I got to experiment teaching students of all levels and being encouraged to work with experts in the field who had tried various techniques and enjoyed keeping up to date on the latest practices.  I saw with my own eyes how different strategies could be successfully and unsuccessfully implemented.  The general environment among many tenured teachers was one of experimentation, constant experimentation.  The general environment among non-tenured teachers was to copy whatever format the principal or assistant superintendent/director of curriculum, assessment, and evaluation prefered (Often a certain type of intro to a lesson, specific note sheets, a certain way to do group work, etc).

This same phenomenon does not exist in private schools where tenure is not a factor.  After attending NAIS, I spoke have reflected on what many heads of school have said about what goes on in their school.  They notice the newer teachers again trying to model whatever their direct superiors want rather than innovate.  I can understand this as there is so much a new teacher is still trying to learn.  It might be a mistake to innovate simply for innovation's sake.  They see the more seasoned teachers vary in dedication to new techniques and experimentation greatly.  Some are pretty set in their ways and feel secure in their jobs having friends or family involved with the school.  Others want to constantly learn, but fear this could impact them negatively.  Still others fear they will just be thrown a different set of classes the following year, so why should they put in all the effort of redoing a curriculum or approach when they will never see the reward.  Then, there are others who are always trying to be the best they can be and truly look at each day teaching as a gift.  I won't lie; I adore those ones.

Motivating teachers to innovate can be taxing, but especially rewarding.  How can we encourage experimentation among every teacher in a school?  In order to do this, we have to let them fail and fail big. The way to avoid having students become profoundly negatively impacted would be to simply contain the failure. How can we contain their failure?  Ask them to experiment with specific courses, with specific units, with specific lessons, not all the time.  Schedule the potential failure just like many schools schedule the professional development and tests.

Give teachers the freedom to experiment.  Teachers that have been in a school for 4-5 years, who have consistently positive reviews, probably could be given 3 year contracts precisely for this reason.  It would free them up to experiment, to take risks, and to become great.  New teachers need mentor teachers in their department or a related one (department size and school culture) to walk them through experimentation and help them know when to do so and when to not.  Sometimes they would benefit from a teacher in a different department mentoring them instead because they will be less judgmental.

The most seasoned teachers, those who have been in the building 15+ years, should be given motivation to experiment through perks.  The perks could be multi year contracts contingent upon this innovation being documented, more prep time, financial incentives, or more days off and less proctoring duties.    Positive recognition should also not be discounted.  We want our teachers to feel valued, because valued employees work the hardest and focus the most on doing their best.  Will they mess up?  Absolutely.  We even want them to.  Because how they learn from failure it will help them and their students.