Teaching Strategies

Sparking Change in Teaching Practices

Educators share key moments that catalyzed change.

March 27, 2019

We know the world is changing. Today’s students spend more time looking at screens than talking to each other. They read and write more than any past generation, yet the bulk of their written communication is on social media. The industries they will enter and the jobs they need preparation to take are ever-changing.

In order to serve our students, we too must change and grow. As teachers, we need not frantically chase the next new thing in education, but we must improve the core of our craft as research, best practices, and the world evolve. But how?

The Systematic Approach

We often think of growth in a gradual and systematic way. We improve incrementally as a result of our school leadership and district systems.

But focusing solely on systems-level change in education is problematic. Researchers examined professional development systems in three large districts and concluded that many were a mirage, noting, “We found no evidence that any particular kind or amount of professional development consistently helps teachers improve.”

Although the research doesn’t mean we must abandon formal professional development, we recognize that in order to truly grow, we must look beyond systemwide options to make change.

The Moments That Change Us

I recently posed a simple question about change on Twitter: “What moments cause us to actually change our practice?”

As the comments rolled in, patterns appeared—each illustrated by powerful stories of real teachers and real change. Many responses showed a picture that was drastically different from our prevailing systematic view. (The responses below have been lightly edited.)

Listen and Respond

Elementary teacher Kory Graham shared, “I think my teaching has always been out there—I’ve never been a great rules follower when it comes to what I do in my classroom. But this answer by a fourth grader on a student survey really hit home, and reminded me to keep pushing the boundaries as much as I possibly can.”

Her student had written, “I did not really enjoy all the talking you did. I enjoy more doing than explaining. I think that next year you should think about letting us figure some stuff out ourselves.” The response struck a chord with Graham and prompted her to move toward change.

English teacher Adrianne Moe described a similar experience: “One day I just got tired of talking. I was tired of performing. I asked myself why I was the one doing all the work when the students were here to learn. After that, I have completely shifted to student-centered everything. If I talk for more than 10 minutes, it’s too much.”

By simply gathering feedback and being open to listening, Graham and Moe experienced moments of change that had a lasting impact on their practices and students.

Soliciting feedback from students and then reflecting on the information they provide can be catalysts for change. Giving students a formal way to offer their suggestions—such as a survey—can be a powerful tool in shaping how an educator approaches change. When change is driven by student input, educators may find deeper engagement and motivation.

Use a New Lens

Secondary English language specialist Bret Gosselin was presented with—and was willing to reflect on—a new view of his former students: “After I left the classroom, I got to work with my former students post-graduation as they tried community college. None of them tested into college level and most failed their developmental courses. I went back into the classroom and changed everything.”

By observing his students in a different environment, Gosselin confronted the results of his teaching and changed “everything.” Finding opportunities to interact with students outside of your typical routine can provide a space for better understanding their needs. A simple practice of observing students outside of your classroom could offer an unexpected insight about how you teach.

Teacher and writer Jennifer Wordsworth changed her viewpoint after an exploration of research: “I researched homework and learning outcomes, realized homework is useless, and stopped assigning everything except reading/spelling and larger projects. I’ll never go back.”

By being willing to challenge an assumption she held, Wordsworth applied research to improve her craft and help her students. Finding relevant research can provide new insights on your practice.

Teacher Brandy Heckman experienced powerful shifts in perspective through an event in her own life. “Becoming a parent changed all of the above. Sheds a whole different perspective on things. Also, seeing the homes of students can shift thinking,” she wrote.

Seeing students as whole people can inspire teachers to make real change.

Create Defining Moments

Each culture has big moments—birthdays, weddings, graduations—and “every last one of them was invented,” according to Chip and Dan Heath. In their book The Power of Moments, they argue that moments provide the spark for change. “In organizations, we are consumed with goals. Time is meaningful only insofar as it clarifies or measures our goals,” they write. “But for individual human beings, moments are the thing.”

The Heaths write that we “can create defining moments” if we’re conscious of them as a tool for change. Although many of the moments described in the Twitter comments above seem random, certain practices can increase the likelihood of transformative experiences. By gathering student feedback, reflecting on our experiences, challenging our assumptions, and seeking to see students through new lenses, we lay the groundwork for important moments to occur. Systems and goals remain important for professional development, but don’t forget the power that moments have to transform.

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