During my first year as Chief Academic Officer of Collingswood (New Jersey) Public Schools, I visited just about every classroom in our eight-building district at least once. I thought it was imperative for me to see as many teachers as possible, to immerse myself in our district's culture, and to build rapport.
Now, a year later, I'm blessed to have made real connections with many teachers. So, on a random Sunday, I reached out to those folks, told them that I had an idea bouncing around my head, which I dubbed flash lessons, and hoped for the best.
At its core, the purpose of the flash lesson is to work with as many teachers as possible. Each lesson is:
- Catered to both the teacher and his or her students
- An invitation for the teacher to become a student again
- A reminder that administrators were once teachers, too
For teachers who don't yet trust and respect me, an invitation won't be extended -- and that's OK. Teachers are, by nature, protective of their practice and their space. In this way, even before I enter a teacher's room, I must establish the requisite rapport to garner the invitation. From there, the teacher picks the class, the day, and the time. Then she gives me a sense of what she's doing, has just finished, or will be doing soon. Finally, I show up and get to work.
The spirit of the flash lesson is, like a bolt of lightning, unpredictable. I tell the teacher as little as possible about what I have planned because I want him to be completely vulnerable and, quite frankly, a student in his own class. When I have a question, I call on the teacher first. When I need a volunteer, he is my first participant.
My first volunteer, Sarah, is a third-year, middle school language arts teacher with whom I've become close. She's bright, funny, and incredibly driven. In her room is an in-class support teacher, Ryan, who doubles as a high school social studies teacher.
After showing the final scene from Dead Poets Society, during which Mr. Keating's students stand on their desks and say, "Captain, my Captain" in a show of protest over their teacher's dismissal, I asked the class, and the teachers, if they had any idea what I had planned.
"You're going to make us stand on our desks?" suggested one precocious seventh- grade student.
"Exactly," I said.
And we were off.
Meant to create controlled discomfort and to elicit honest, impromptu responses, this flash lesson focused on public speaking during which participants, while standing on their desks, complete phrases, prompts, or statements that I created.
The first participant was Ryan, who responded to this prompt: "The most important person. . . ever." When he finished his response, which centered on his relationship with his father, the reverent silence was broken by his students' raucous applause.
By the end of the period, most of the kids had requested to participate twice, we had stumbled upon several valuable public speaking strategies, and we had laughed the whole time.
But it was the first response, by a teacher, that made my first flash lesson a success because, while I love our students, this kind of exercise is actually designed for our teachers.
Ultimately, I had no idea if anyone would invite me in. Moreover, I didn't know if the lessons would work once I was invited. What I learned, however, is that only the former matters. Like an educational grandparent, if I show up and the lesson bombs, I get to leave and let the teacher move on without me. But the fact that teachers are willing to give up control of their rooms -- to an administrator -- without so much as a hint about what will happen when I get there, well, that's how I know the flashes are working.
Since that first lesson, I have gone on to teach lessons on thermochemistry, evolution, World War II, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For all but one, I admit to having only a Google-search-based knowledge of the content, yet teachers keep inviting me in.
Too often, administrators leave the classroom and only return with a laptop and a framework. For many of us, leaving the classroom is really only a physical phenomenon because we never really leave. I confess that my flash lessons are motivated, in small part, by my own envy of so many amazing teachers who work in my district. But what I couldn't have counted on was the camaraderie, rapport, and trust that the lessons would create between administrators and teachers.
I will never understand why some administrators struggle to build rapport with teachers. Most administrators were once teachers, and, in some way, we always will be. Ultimately, we need to remind ourselves of that immutable fact, to be as human as possible, and to look for, rather than to abandon, our own "flashes."
If you're an administrator, how do you stay involved with your teachers and their students? Please share your own strategies and experiences in the comments section of this post.