Integrating Social Justice and STEM Pedagogy

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

As educators, we are constantly searching for new ways to meaningfully engage our students. Amidst a wave of requirements, numerous standards, and unforeseen circumstances, it is easy to get lost in the overwhelming list of “have to’s” forced on us. So much so that when students ask the inevitable “why are we learning this” question, it is tempting to default to the “because I said so” answer. This response is both well known and disappointing to students while also feeling empty and unsatisfactory to the adult providing the answer. We want to be better than this, we want our students to care about their learning, and we want the education we provide to be relevant. One meaningful way to approach this conundrum amidst the chaos is to look to social justice issues and ways that that they overlap with STEM. The intersection of these two pedagogical paradigms engages a wide variety of students, provides relevant learning opportunities, and all while potentially addressing a wide swatch of standards.

Why Social Justice?

If we as educators don’t start the conversation and work against the inherent injustices within the framework of systems that we and our students function then who will? When it comes to wealth, opportunities, and societal privileges, kids don’t get to choose these things. If our job is to truly prepare our students for their futures then our job is also to prepare students to change those futures for the better as well. Students are always asking why?  And, rightfully so.  When students see that they can help others and improve the world around them in a concrete way then that answers their why at a visceral level.

Why STEM?

Ensuring diversity of representation as we prepare all students for a future that doesn’t exist yet is important, and that future will be heavily dependent upon STEM understanding and applications. Someone who is “STEM literate” understands this and can apply that working knowledge in a variety of contexts and real-world situations. Overall, we need STEM literate workers to fill the employment gap while simultaneously addressing the wage gap. Just as important, we need STEM literate citizens that understand the consequences of their vote on issues such as climate change and genetic modification.

Why the Combination of Social Justice and STEM?

Social Justice is a collective effort toward addressing many of the issues facing society and STEM provides a way to address many of these challenges in new, unique, and innovative ways. Together, Social Justice and STEM can provide an effective platform for identifying, addressing, and even solving a lot of the modern societal issues that exist. STEM education opportunities provide a variety of ways to magnify student voice which is critical to empowering students’ ability to effect change on social justice issues. Ironically, a major issue of inequity centers around underrepresented populations in STEM fields. This in and of itself is a social justice issue.  These same populations are inherently interested in solving social justice issues so when STEM is introduced in this manner then the diversity of interest in STEM education increases.

What Does Combining Social Justice and STEM Look Like?

Combining Social Justice and STEM in education can take on a variety of forms. Social Justice issues can be big problems that occur at a state, national, or even global level.  The same is true for STEM issues.  One example would be the climate crisis and the social impact that this has on exacerbating equity issues across society.  A solution this combined issue would be one example. Global problems are often difficult for students to relate to so looking at the local community can help improve relevance, engagement, and understanding.  Food scarcity for local populations within the community may be addressed or even solved by a STEM-based solution. Younger students, and, honestly, students of all ages, may also benefit from looking at age-appropriate social justice issues in their school community.  Is everyone being included at recess regardless of differences?  How can this be addressed?  Is there a STEM-based solution that might help?

How Does One Begin to Go About Combining Social Justice and STEM?

Meaningful and engaging learning opportunities with the “why” built into the activities provide students with relevancy and reason for their learning. Starting with what students know is arguably the easiest way to build on background knowledge when attempting a new idea or approach in the classroom.  School-based solutions have the added advantage of students being able to help their peers and benefit from their solutions.  This could be something as simple as friendship solutions, conflict resolution, and addressing litter. Local community issues allow students to engage with what they know at a broader level.  Making a difference in what may seem like their broader world can also build confidence combined with important civic engagement lessons.  Issues such as retirement community support, homeless shelter needs, and overall safety provide some examples. Global problems provide an opportunity to raise student awareness to a broader level.  Many STEM-based resources allow students to now participate in a broader dialogue.  Looking at problems to evaluate and propose solutions for such as world hunger, education, and basic health needs are just some of the possible examples.

All of these potential problems, topics, and approaches make for potential classroom projects. A guiding pedagogical structure can be very helpful when trying to figure out how to plan for multiple areas of focus within the scope of the overall learning. PBL pedagogies are a great place to start. Select a school of thought such as project-based learning, problem-based learning, place-based learning, or another, and then start small. A great STEM mantra to keep in mind when designing a potential lesson or unit that blends social justice and STEM is to KISS: Keep It Super Simple, learn alongside your students one step at a time, and “be the change you want to see in the world”.

References

  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  2. Careless, J.E. (2015). Social Media for Social Justice in Adult Education: A Critical Framework. JOURNAL OF TEACHING AND LEARNING, VOL.10 (NO. 1), pp. 13-26.
  3. Kukulska-Hulme, A., Beirne, E., Conole, G., Costello, E., Coughlan, T., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Holmes, W., Lochlainn, C.M., Mhichíl, M.N.G., Rienties, B., Sargent, J., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Whitelock, D. (2020). Innovative Pedagogy 2020. National Institute for Digital Learning. Retrieved from https://iet.open.ac.uk/file/innovating-pedagogy-2020.pdf
  4. Miller, A. (May, 2015). Avoiding Learned Helplessness. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/avoiding-learned-helplessness-andrew-miller
  5. LEXICO. (2020). LEXICO Powered by OXFORD. Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/social_justice
  6. Teaching Tolerance. (2016). A Framework for Anti-bias Education. The Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/frameworks/social-justice-standards
  7. Basham, J.D. & Marino, M.T. (2013). Understanding STEM Education and Supporting Students Through Universal Design for LearningTeaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 45 (No. 4), pp. 8-15.
  8. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/download/?Num=2336&filename=Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf
  9. Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., & Ganley, P. (2015). Addressing Learning Disabilities With UDL and Technology: Strategic ReaderLearning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 38 (No. 2), pp. 72-83.
  10. Reed, M. (2018, July 9). Making STEM Accessible to All. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/making-stem-accessible-all

Social Justice Pedagogy in a Digital Age

According to the Lexico website (a collaboration between dictionary.com and Oxford University Press), the definition for social justice is “justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.”  Often a misunderstood and ambiguous term for most, this succinct definition of social justice provides a foundation for basing social justice education efforts in the classroom.  Social justice is about closing opportunity gaps in regard to education, wealth, and societal privileges.  Still, how does one define Social justice as a pedagogy?  The 2020 Innovative Pedagogy Reports provides the following description, “Social justice pedagogy is founded on the idea that education can be liberating and can help people address injustices in their own lives and in society. It aims to educate and enable students to become active citizens who understand social inequalities and can contribute to making society more democratic and egalitarian.”  Student are not powerless, and through empowerment they become powerful change agents across their various communities.  Technology in education provides a powerful medium and platform that magnifies student voice in the world.  By modeling personalized support for educators, we can support them in providing individualized learning opportunities that empower students.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

3) Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.

3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.

3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

How can educator support be personalized and modeled in such a manner that effective use of technology improves student learning to the point of individualized empowerment?

The What of Technology to Improve Student Learning

There’s so much out there in terms of technological options that we, as educators, need to be really careful and focused in terms of the tools that we utilize.  There are too many relevant technology tools to list ad nauseam, so general function in terms of general concepts is a better focus in lieu of an attempt at a comprehensive list.  From there, educators should focus on tools that facilitate the desired functionality and that are available and supported within the current educational context.  This is the type of individualization needed to support teachers with implementation.

Tool functionality should scaffold student communication, ease student management for the teacher, and safely facilitate communication with an authentic audience.  Student communication benefits from software that assists students in typing via word prediction, voice to text software, audio/video recording, etc; a few select examples include co:writer, Dragon Speak (most modern word processing applications support this feature), and FlipGrid.  Student management software should allow teachers to easily set up, manage, and provide feedback for students among other classroom management features; a couple of platform-specific examples include Google Classroom and Microsoft OneNote.  Publication software should prioritize student privacy above all else and provide a mechanism for students to share their work with an authentic audience of some kind; for this, classroom management apps like Class Dojo that allow private communication with parents work well, postings on the school website without identifying information can work, FlipGrid can also work in this setting, social media with careful permissions and guidelines can accomplish sharing, as can limited access student blogging sites, among others.

Skipping Straight to the Why with Social Justice

Social Justice provides students with a “why” for their learning and work.  Providing students with purpose dramatically increases engagement in their learning.  Without a “why”, the only thing that students have to go on is “because I told you so” from the authority figure.  This approach primarily teaches compliance and most schools depend upon a compliance-based model.  Compliance requires constant monitoring and an external behavior incentive system that is often complicated, extensive, and time-consuming to enforce.  Providing students with meaning to their work moves students toward intrinsic motivation.  Ideally, social justice pedagogy can even move students to a level of empowerment where they see the positive impact that they can have on their community.  One of the challenges in modern society is that too many educated citizens think that they alone cannot effect positive change in their community.  This is because this was not taught or modeled for them.  Instead, compliance to the system was instilled, and this perpetuates the system’s status quo at the expense of the individual while also at the expense of missed opportunities to improve the system by effecting positive change.  Ironically, social justice themes were more prominent in early education and became diminished with the advent of the industrial revolution, as cited in Social Media for Social Justice in Adult Education: A Critical Framework, “While social purpose education was intended to help citizens live and participate in a democratic society, the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fueled a focus on education for skills training and citizenship programs for immigrants (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007)”. Historical anecdotes of education being a threat to a monarchy or dictatorship are good examples because the “dangerous ideas” taught encouraged people to think for themselves and to seek change in the freedom for their own betterment as well as others. While we wouldn’t dream of burning books today, we still have modern-day versions of these systemic issues.

Since schools can function as microcosms of society at large, it is important to teach social justice concepts that empower students to positively effect change within their community and the various systems around them.  Not least of which to consider is the school system.  Social Media for Social Justice in Adult Education: A Critical Frameworkprovides another research citation that speaks to this is, “Social justice education is a ‘praxis’ that includes a theoretical account of oppression and privilege, as well as practical strategies for changing social institutions. Schools are primary sites for this critical transformation since they reproduce inequality. Educating students to overcome internalized forms of oppression – such as racism, sexism, classism and homophobia, offering them a framework for understanding the external structures that are the source of these different oppressions, and empowering students to become agents of change, are all important goals of social justice education.” (Kohli, 2005, p. 100).

Teaching tolerance and, beyond that, acceptance are basic concepts that are accessible by K12 students.  The more nuanced and advanced concepts involves around race, religion, language, gender, and socio-economic status among other demographic categories need to be carefully considered based on what’s grade-level appropriate.  That being said, the basic idea that you are different but I should still accept and respect you can start with something as simple as animal caricatures that include a different animal being included even though it’s different.  From there, building into more advanced concepts around acceptance and inclusion regardless of the type of difference can be developed.  Beyond the need for the individual to practice this, there is the concept that we must advocate for others to be treated equitably as well.  When students realize they can effect change for the better treatment of others then they can be empowered through practicing basic advocacy within a safe environment.  As student understanding develops, then more complex concepts like systemic bias can begin to be addressed as well as the need for every individual to work toward equitable systemic change.  Students can eventually understand their own individual circumstances through the lens of bias, opportunity, and privilege relative to others and what that means in terms of their responsibility to work with, through, and against adverse contexts that they or others may face.

As we look to find space in an overcrowded curriculum and schedules, it’s also worth noting that social justice pedagogy overlaps with and ties into social emotional learning and service-based learning and can be integrated via PBL units.  SEL is a newly established and fast growing focus and area of student education.  The latter, service-based learning, is still nascent but so important in terms of providing students with a positive means to impact their environment.

How Do We Become Change Agents for Empowering Students?

One key to empowering students is identifying technology already supported within our teaching context and with which we have some experience.  We, as educators, can then adapt the technology to meet the needs of fellow educators and students.  Using ISTE standards to help guide this implementation can play a critical role in meeting multiple needs at the same time.  For example, we can look to ISTE Coaching Standard component 3d, “Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.”  Personalized support that meets educators where they’re at can help them in the process of empowering their students.

In addition to finding technology that empowers students, providing opportunities for students to address social justice issues within their local context is important.  Starting small with simple and accessible lessons then building from there.  Lessons can be geared around historical social justice efforts such as the women’s suffrage or the civil rights movement.  Providing opportunities for anti-bullying and inclusion lessons can help make the concepts more concrete and accessible for students.  Additionally, projects that advocate for accessibility or cleaning up litter at the local park or playground can empower students to make a difference within their relevant world of experience.  These examples barely begin to scratch the proverbial surface of what is possible, as the possibilities for making change, no matter how small, in the local community are endless and create a positive ripple effect that grows over time and beyond the community itself.

Beyond identifying technologies and potential lesson examples, standards can help facilitate and guide efforts toward effective implementation within education settings by providing carefully researched and written educational targets.  One such set of potential standards has been crafted by a national organization called Teaching Tolerance. Teaching Tolerance is dedicated to social just education.  Finding social justice teacher resources is key in order to provide teachers the ability to teach social justice concepts effectively, given how limited teachers’ time is and how thin their bandwidth is stretched.

References

  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  2. Careless, J.E. (2015). Social Media for Social Justice in Adult Education: A Critical Framework. JOURNAL OF TEACHING AND LEARNING, VOL.10 (NO. 1), pp. 13-26.
  3. Kukulska-Hulme, A., Beirne, E., Conole, G., Costello, E., Coughlan, T., Ferguson, R., FitzGerald, E., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Holmes, W., Lochlainn, C.M., Mhichíl, M.N.G., Rienties, B., Sargent, J., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Whitelock, D. (2020). Innovative Pedagogy 2020. National Institute for Digital Learning. Retrieved from https://iet.open.ac.uk/file/innovating-pedagogy-2020.pdf
  4. Miller, A. (May, 2015). Avoiding Learned Helplessness. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/avoiding-learned-helplessness-andrew-miller
  5. LEXICO. (2020). LEXICO Powered by OXFORD. Dictionary.com and Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/social_justice
  6. Teaching Tolerance. (2016). A Framework for Anti-bias Education. The Southern Poverty Law Center. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/frameworks/social-justice-standards

STEM for All Students

Meeting Students Where They’re At

So often school has a one-size fits all approach.  This is partially because individualizing content and activities is hard and time-consuming.  On the other side of this coin, a lot of students aren’t getting the opportunities that they deserve to access their education.  This is a broad topic and way beyond the scope of one blog post.  With this in mind, I’d like to narrow down to looking at ISTE Standard 3 which focuses on addressing digital learning needs, but I’d like to broaden the discussion a little from there to include STEM since I can speak to this from my overall background and experiences.  While I’m not sure how to individualize STEM education for every student in a given classroom setting, I do think we can do little things to move beyond a singular approach so that more students can have the opportunity to access this learning.  Culturally relevant pedagogy can help more students access standards-based content in a manner that’s developmentally appropriate for them. And, per the Edutopia article entitled Making STEM Accessible to All (Reed, M. 2018), “But there are benefits to being exposed to STEM in the classroom beyond test scores, such as improved problem-solving skills, creativity, mental alertness, and teamwork and collaboration. As leaders, we must ensure that every student has a chance to reap these benefits.”

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

3) Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.

3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.

3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

How can instructional coaches and professional development providers partner with other educators to engage and support all students with culturally relevant digital and STEM learning content that’s both developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards?

Providing STEM Opportunities For All Students in the Classroom

I’ll be honest, I struggled with how to individualize learning for students in my classroom.  I have yet to find an approach that accomplishes this without exponentially increasing the teacher’s workload.  This did get me thinking about how to better reach my students for whom the generic approach wasn’t working, though.  I tried to consider how to integrate reading in a way that students reading 2-3 levels below grade-level could still participate and be successful because reading to learn is where students with learning disabilities most often struggle (Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., Ganley, P., 2015).  In my experience, the same was true for writing to learn and for the math involved.  I also partnered, paired, and grouped very carefully with this in mind.  How were students balancing each other out skill-wise so that their team could learn and perform at a higher level than any of them could on their own (we transformed our table groups into “learning teams”).  In support of my English learners and special education students, this often meant collaborating with the corresponding teachers.  Could we move content around for a special event or flex the schedule?  Could the teachers and students try pushing into my classroom for a unit?  Could the various groups of learners work on the content in parallel and then come together for a culminating activity?  Getting creative is key and often not as much work as one might think… just intimidating when it comes to the hardest part: getting started.

STEM Instructional Coaching in Support of All Students

As an instructional specialist and coach, I tried to continue collaborating with other specialists so as to better reach more students.  The special education and English learner teachers and I collaborated on activities that were unique and special just for their students.  We also worked with classroom teachers that were willing to make adjustments wherever possible.  I branched out to working with the music and PE teachers when I could. According to Basham, J.D. and Marino, M.T. (2013), “The success of students with disabilities who participate in general education STEM classes is directly linked to teachers’ abilities to understand students’ unique learning need and problem-solving abilities (Marino, 2010).”  Technology is incredibly powerful when it comes to helping students access learning in a variety of ways.  If they can’t write then can they speak to text?  Can we use a text reader for reading?  How about video access?  Screen recorders?  All different ways for students to show they learned the STEM content itself as opposed to testing them on other skills like communication, reading, writing, etc.

One thing I learned along the way is that there are a lot of students who will find their first big successes in STEM-based activities, if they are given the chance.  I first saw this in my first year teaching.  “J” was special education student that struggled with reading and writing in particular.  Traditional school was a chore, though, from which he derived no joy and was barely passing, except, when it came to STEM oriented activities that possessed a technology component.  Here he excelled.  I tried to nurture this where I could but opportunities were limited at that time. In spring, when I received a flyer about the new district technology academy opening up, I saved a copy and handed it to his mom and implored her to look into it for him.  She did, he blossomed, and eventually became one of the IT leads for the district, went on to work for a leading technology company, developed brilliant anti-malware software in his free time that he sold to a company, and now serves as a lead network administrator for a leading nonprofit.  “S” was another student who had Tier 3 interventions and so missed most classroom content time yet excelled.  I was able to engage and support him in our after-school robotics club where he became a leader, one of the most adept programmers, and a brilliant designer.  He figured out challenges that stumped the adults and was able to do so remarkably fast.  With regard to anything mechanical, he was absolutely brilliant.  The special education teacher and I created as many unique and special opportunities for him as we could and he shined.

Students like “S” and “J” are examples in the current educational system where essentially taking our metaphorical “fish” that are gifted swimmers and only testing them on their ability to “climb trees”.  The system is hardwired, mammoth, and often set in stone so it’s difficult for teachers to make adjustments but it’s worth doing what we can where we can.  Getting creative with the standards is one way so that students can demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of contexts.  I kept a clipboard with a roster on the wall for each content area and would grab the appropriate one in a hurry if I noticed an opportunity for a quick data point in the midst of a unique learning opportunity that I hadn’t anticipated.  Adjusting schedules where we can around the edges is another place that we can make small changes that add up over time and if enough teachers speak out then larger changes can occur, e.g. in my previous district, over many years and much advocacy science instruction eventually became protected time during the K-6 elementary school day.

Professional Development Provider: How Do I Support All Students?

These are all connections based on my current research connected to my previous educational experience.  This all comes back around to my essential question but from my current context as a professional development provider.  Every context is so different, and I my experience is limited.  Even the most experienced teacher cannot hope to experience even 1% of possible contexts out there.  Knowing this is to recognize that every educator is the expert on their teaching context, so, as a professional development provider, how can I support and empower them?  I think looking at the research, identifying patterns of success, and truly listening to each educator in order to learn from their experience are good places to start. Teachers want professional development that’s relevant, treats them like professionals, and is delivered by someone who understands their experience (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2014).  Some things I’ve noticed so far, most teachers did not have any STEM training as part of their teacher certification process so some initial basics are needed in order to help them get up and running.  Growing teacher confidence is key and even more important than ability.  We can always learn alongside the students as we go.  Planting seeds, encouraging ideas, and validating early thinking are some ways to encourage teachers to support all students in STEM education efforts. 

Drawing Conclusions for a Truly Broader Impact

I’ve written mostly to special education examples because that’s where my current research led me but there are so many broader examples to explore.  English learners need additional ways to access content and it needs to be okay for them to find ways to show what they know via native language when possible and native culture when appropriate.  Student minorities need to see themselves and their cultural values reflected in the learning and career opportunities so that they can truly see themselves growing up into a variety of STEM roles.  Girls need supports and encouragement that are at least as supportive and encouraging as boys often receive in these areas.  By providing a variety of ways for students to access their learning and working to make STEM both available and accessible to all learners, we can start to make small steps together as educators to show that all means all and truly starts with meeting each student as an individual where they are at.

References

  1. Basham, J.D. & Marino, M.T. (2013). Understanding STEM Education and Supporting Students Through Universal Design for Learning. Teaching Exceptional Children, Vol. 45 (No. 4), pp. 8-15.
  2. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/download/?Num=2336&filename=Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf
  3. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  4. Hall, T.E., Cohen, N., Vue, G., & Ganley, P. (2015). Addressing Learning Disabilities With UDL and Technology: Strategic Reader. Learning Disability Quarterly, Vol. 38 (No. 2), pp. 72-83.
  5. Reed, M. (2018, July 9). Making STEM Accessible to All. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/making-stem-accessible-all

If You Build It (Relationships) Then They (Teachers) Will Come To You

It’s All About Relationships

My principal, Gregory Kroll, is one of my personal and professional heroes.  Now, I know longer teach at Martin Sortun Elementary, but, at 8 years, he was my longest running principal.  The man gave more than I knew was possible and had a heart to match.  Whatever you needed, whatever it took, he was there for you.  One of the things he used to tell me is that teaching, coaching, and working in a school “are all about relationships” at the end of the day.  What your relationship is with a person (colleague, parent, student, etc.) will affect every aspect of the interactions and outcomes.  His insight shed light on the need to be aware of relationships as will as the need to grow and cultivate positive relationships with everyone (not taking anything for granted).  This leads me directly into the first component ISTE Coaching Standard.  Without 3a, components 3b-3d are difficult at best.  Establishing trusting relationships is the foundation to any form of instructional coaching. 

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 3

Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches:

  • 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.
  • 3b. Partner with educators to identify digital learning content that is culturally relevant, developmentally appropriate and aligned to content standards.
  • 3c. Partner with educators to evaluate the efficacy of digital learning content and tools to inform procurement decisions and adoption.
  • 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

Essential Question

As a professional development provider and instructional coach, based on my experiences and expertise how do I establish trusting and respectful relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies?

My Time as a Teacher: True confessions time…

True confession, as a classroom teacher, I thought I knew a lot more than I did.  While I sought out and grew under mentors, I was not generally open to working with instructional coaches on a 1:1 basis.  I think part of this extends from the fact that I spent my first six years in a building that did not have an instructional coach and thought I was doing fine growing through other professional development opportunities.  It helped that my principal, Cathy Lendosky, was extremely skilled at developed effective professional development so our teacher workshop days were high quality experiences.  So when I arrived at Martin Sortun going into my seventh year of teaching, I didn’t see the need.  It also didn’t help that the instructional coaches were both in my peer group and so had the exact same amount of instructional experience.  Knowing what I know now, I was definitely wrong.  I still participated in every PD opportunity provided by the instructional coaches outside of 1:1 coaching, but I only engaged in that when requested and wasn’t an active, growth-minded customer interested in continuing the practice over time.  I think in part, it’s because of relationship.  They were my friends and colleagues, so there was something there but there wasn’t an established professional development relationship with my instructional coaches.

Instructional Coaching: Lessons Learned…

The tables had certainly turned when the opportunity presented itself for me to become an instructional coach.  Very quickly, I realized that I needed to learn and grow a lot if I was to be an effective instructional coach.  My (now fellow) instructional coaches were probably delighted at my newfound interest and both readily coached me.  I was trying to make up for lost time.  On the flip side of things, having been a reticent classroom teacher when it came to coaching, I knew how to engage the other teachers like me.  It was all about relationship.  I made sure that they felt “invited” but not pressured so that there would be no hard feelings but they’d also feel free to say “no thank you” to opportunities that I provided.  Conversely, I went out of my way to make sure that they’d be curious about whatever little tidbit from the training did make it their way and to profusely thank any of them that did show up.  I sincerely believe that teacher planning time is far more precious than gold.  My follow-up touch points would also be quick, to the point, and hopefully meaningful which I’d do via a quick in-person interaction or short email.  Mostly, I’d just see how it was going and if there was anymore that I could do to support following the training or activity.  Would they like me to come in and co-teach a lesson?  I’d be happy to do all of the planning and teaching if they’d just like to be present alongside me.  This approach usually worked and each co-teaching experience looked different depending on the teacher’s experience.  As time and interactions progressed, I focused on building the relationship.  What did they need help with?  What worked?  What could I offer that helped them accomplish one of their goals?  Relationship, relationship, relationship.

Professional Development Provider: The More You Know…

Relationship as a professional development provider is definitely much harder.  It’s hard to have relationships with 50 or more of your “closest friends” from across the country that you just met.  And yet, relationships are just as important in this context.  So building relational capacity from the moment those educators walk through that door is key.  And, as a designer of these professional development opportunities, it’s really important that those relational capacity building activities are built into the course syllabus design.

This is all much easier said than done. Designing in time for developing relational capacity takes discipline because it is so tempting to either view this as “fluff” or cut this time in the interest of other content. Additionally, building relationship is work. Hard work. You have to care. People can sense a lack of authenticity so this means being vulnerable because you have to be your real self and invest emotionally. Passion for the topic can help but there’s no substitute for legitimate relational connection.

The More You Know, The More You Realize How Little You Know

The more you know, the less you know seems to have been a theme for my career.  Every time a professional opportunity expands my horizons and helps me to grow and learn more as an educator, the more I realize that the percentage of what I actually know is really much smaller than I thought.  It’s almost like professional knowledge pie chart where my personal piece grows at a much slower rate than the total knowledge I’m aware of and therefore appears to always be shrinking over time.  The realization can be a bit overwhelming, but there is also comfort in knowing that no one person can possibly have all of the answers.

Ultimately, you don’t know what you don’t know and so need to be open to learning along the way.  Relationships were a constantly recurring theme for me when it came to my professional growth.  Either it was there or it wasn’t there and I often grew in my practice in direct proportion to the type of relationship I had with my professional development providers.  In turn, the same was true for participants that I supported.  Relationships are a two-way street and so both people need to invest in order for there to be a relational benefit.  When they do, then relatable learning can happen and level of relational capacity developed forms the foundation for broader and deeper levels of professional learning and shared throughout all of ISTE Coaching Standard 3.

Interestingly enough, there was a video that I participated in as part of my instructional coaching work when I was bridging over to the role of professional development provider.  It’s a snapshot of where I was at during that point in time as well as a representation of the many different kinds of amazing educators that I had the opportunity to work with and support.  If you’re curious, you can watch this video as it highlights one of my final projects as an instruction coach focused on STEM integration at a K-6 STEM Lighthouse School.

References

  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  2. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28th). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-06-28-5-things-teachers-want-from-pd-and-how-coaching-and-collaboration-can-deliver-them-if-implementation-improves
  3. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (2014, December). Teachers Know Best: Teachers’ Views on Professional Development. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved from http://k12education.gatesfoundation.org/download/?Num=2336&filename=Gates-PDMarketResearch-Dec5.pdf
  4. Dorr, E. (2015, November). How Administrators Can Design the Best Learning Experiences for Teachers. EdSurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-11-04-how-administrators-can-design-the-best-learning-experiences-for-teachers
  5. Gilliam, J. & Ferguson D. (2018, September). GUEST VIDEO: STEM TEACHING AND LEARNING AT MARTIN SORTUN ELEMENTARY. Washington STEM. Retrieved from https://washingtonstem.org/martin-sortun/