I’m a thematic learner–that’s how I function in every aspect of my life. Personally, spiritually, and professionally, there are always a handful of critical issues that weigh heavily on my heart, and I fully devote myself to tackling them. For weeks or months or however long the passion is ignited, I read every book on the subject and scour the Internet for hours, working the topic into social media and real-life conversations whenever I can.I become a one-woman campaign to Solve the Mysteries of Life, whatever those mysteries might be for me in the moment.
Last year at ASCD, I was grappling with issues surrounding high-poverty classrooms: Is it possible to bridge the gap for EVERY child? How can we as teachers have the fortitude to continue reaching out for the unreachable? I came away from the conference feeling a bit of closure on the issue, with new understandings about how to comprehend the magnitude of what we’re attempting without letting the results overwhelm us. I realized that students from impoverished backgrounds and those with other learning challenges can be reached, but their success is most dependent upon the fostering of a personal and collective vision within the school community. Without a vision, the sense of purpose becomes lost among the innumerable day-to-day problems that exist in a high-poverty school. For months after the conference, my focus shifted to a new passion of exploring personal efficacy for both the teacher and student.
But that was all in 2009. (Or if that’s not middle school enough for you–soooo 2009.) I was Angela Powell, a classroom teacher from Fort Lauderdale. I attended ASCD in 2010 as as Angela Watson, an Educational Consultant from New York City.When I arrived in San Antonio, I recognized that my perspective had been influenced by a whirlwind year of marriage, relocation, and a new career path, but by the end of the weekend, I realized my viewpoint had not shifted in the way I thought it had, or that I wanted it to.
My passion-du-jour at the conference was certainly in a new vein–I sought out sessions on meeting the needs of adult learners, developing effective coaching models, creating inspiring presentations, and designing professional development.My essential question was, How can professional development motivate and inspire change in teachers as they move toward best practices?
But this year, I was far less successful in finding answers than at last year’s conference.The reason? I attended fewer genuinely informative sessions.It was a result of going to fewer presentations in general since I worked at the BrainPOP exhibition booth, and also due to the misfortune of choosing sessions that were just not very helpful in addressing my needs.At ANY conference, discussions with other attendees will confirm that the presentation quality is always hit-or-miss.It’s just particularly ironic in light of my topic choice, since you’d expect professional development ABOUT effective professional development to be, well, effective.
As I sat through one particularly irrelevant session, I wondered: Can we seriously expect all teachers to use best practices when all educational leaders don’t?Or perhaps that’s an inaccurate perspective—maybe a session that I found irritatingly slow-paced actually met the needs of people who prefer to learn by interacting, and the sessions that I found compelling were perceived as boring and one-sided by others. Every presenter has a different style, and though conversations with others didn’t reveal this, I feel that surely others must have disliked components I loved, and vice versa. If that’s the case, then I think the question is, Are we defining best practices too narrowly?If there’s no one best way to present at a conference, can we agree that there’s room for multiple presentation styles in the classroom?
I know that I learn best through lecture followed by informal discussion–picture a church service with a lively brunch debating key points of the Bible study afterward. Therefore, creating opportunities to talk about the conference was a huge priority for me. I gained some of my most meaningful insights through non-interactive sessions and conversations about them with other attendees.Listening to Yong Zhao and dissecting the presentation over dessert? Perfect. Reading his book in the coming weeks and then conversing about it online later will be the cherry on top. ASCD sponsored tweet-ups this year (meet-ups for Twitterers), and those were another incredible opportunity to establish and solidify connections so we can bounce ideas off each other long after the conference has ended.
I also made a point of eating every meal with a different group of people so I could hear about the experiences of as many attendees as possible. Some were teachers, others administrators, and still others were instructional coaches or specialists. Observing the differences in conversational tone and topics was fascinating—despite attending the same sessions, the ideas that classroom teachers focused on were often completely unrelated to those of out-of-classroom educators. In those moments, I developed a much clearer understanding of the direction in which my viewpoint has shifted in recent years, and where I need to refocus.
It’s my nature to immediately translate the philosophical to the practical. I have little use for theory when it’s not related to practice, and the real-world ideas I’m so focused on have been my trademark.I don’t do the research or disaggregate the data: I take the science behind what we know and translate it into the realities of classroom life. As a result, I focus on management issues and the little details. Yeah, sure, technology is great, the techie-types can dream up all kinds of classroom uses…but if the teacher has the whole class sitting idly while one student solves a lengthy problem on the Promethean, it might as well be a chalkboard. And if the teacher can’t think of a meaningful way to engage the class while she sets the equipment up, she won’t ever turn it on.
THESE are the problems that I see teachers get bogged down with, and coming up with solutions is what I love to do. But my experiences at ASCD have shown me that I allow practicalities to limit my perception of what’s possible. I don’t allow myself to fully imagine what a complete overhaul of our current grading system might accomplish for kids and teachers because I imagine the logistical nightmares. I don’t envision systemic changes in the way state standards are addressed and assessed because I dread the unavoidable upheaval in the classroom as already-exhausted
teachers struggle to adjust to something that requires such a tremendous learning curve.
There is a balance between being a visionary and being a realist, and I have allowed frustrations with “the system” to push me too far to one side. Hearing the ideas of educators from all over the world—in keynotes, presentations, small sessions, group discussions, and individual conversations—has been just the wake-up call I needed. There are so many more aspects of education reform and revolution than what I experience in my daily work.There is a bigger picture that I need to keep in sight and draw from constantly as I address the challenges of teachers I work with. It’s not enough to take the current reality and help teachers adapt to it–I need to research and dream of better possibilities beyond it, and help teachers adapt to THAT.
Critical transformations, indeed.
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