And Getting Better: A cultural shift to improving math teacher PD

2019-04-01 | National Council of Teachers of Mathematics

Our new advocacy approach is a cultural shift for the Council with a focus on building connections (make a friend), using powerful stories to catalyze change, and asking questions.If you don’t know Joanna Burt-Kinderman, you should. 

We asked Joanna to share her story as it embodies these principles, and demonstrates the power and impact of an advocate and leader. 

“High school teachers like to close their doors and rule their own kingdoms.  Especially math teachers.  What you’re proposing will never work.”  I heard this often early in my ongoing journey of organizing collaborative professional development for math teachers in my district.  Now, seven years later with student outcomes near the top of state rankings, the same questions come in the past tense, with an echo of incredulity and wonder that teachers actually truly enjoy working together.

Teaching is perhaps the most social of professions.  At every moment, you are orchestrating complex and multi-layered interactions between young people. On your best days, the learning about math that you orchestrate capitalizes on connections and disconnects between people, ideas and the intersection of both.   Yet the life-long journey of *learning* about teaching is lonely for many, many teachers, especially in rural areas like mine.  Learning about teaching gets siloed because my only evidence comes from the measures I value – the questions I ask, the interventions I believe in.  The only interaction many teachers have about what they are learning comes dressed as an evaluation, often given from someone who has no context for the teaching and learning of math.

As math teachers, we want to orchestrate student-centered learning.  We want our kids to discuss and defend, see new connections and look through different lenses.  We want them to be comfortable being wrong and approach divergent thinking with curiosity.  Yet we treat our teachers like robots to be perfectly programmed.  Our PD too-often hands them a prescriptive solution and watches only how well they implement an idea intended to solve a problem that they did not diagnose – an idea may not even agree with.   Teachers then become door-closers.  They already have “the research”, they already know what works “for my kids”.  They are stuck with both an intractable problem of seeing only through their own possibility lens, and being the only person in the world who deeply understands their own classes. 

So what if we reverse the PD cycle? Much like the wonder that can be found when you reverse the “I, we, you” direct instruction to a “You, y’all, we” problem-based approach, what if we begin *Not* with what research suggests are the problems of teaching and learning, but instead with what our teachers see as failure points in their own classrooms and student understandings? 

Over seven years, I have been using this approach, and am witnessing a grass-roots revolution of the culture of math teaching.  Teachers are addicted to problems.  We bring our problems to one another openly and find those concepts or constructs that trouble us all.  We try to put on fresh lenses to ask ourselves why this is a problem, we come up with potential solutions then we iteratively test solutions with one another  - coteaching, modeling, adjusting all the while. 

That’s not to say I have it all figured out.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But I have some burning questions that are bugging me:  What would happen if we could work like this at scale?  What if bringing research to practice has been the wrong construct all along?   Instead, what if we start with what bugs teachers, and *then* invite research forward to help us understand why?  What if research-driven solutions aren’t prescription, but rather help us craft a menu of potential action that a teachers can choose from, based on what she and her learners are hungry for?  What if we could focus new research on the very valuable insight these teachers have, the subtle and powerful ways they adapt and improve as they implement new ways of doing business?

Learning is best done in community, with deep interest in where failure occurs.  After all, it’s when things don’t work perfectly that we are inspired to imagine what “better” could be.  Improvement is a science unto itself, a journey that’s more fun with friends.  Here in the hills of WV, we’re redesigning what it means to teach – with more emphasis on the role of learning.  We’re opening our doors to one another, our practice to critical inquiry and the futures of our students to new frontiers.