Ambitious Teaching: A Beginner’s Guide

Are you preparing the next generation of early childhood educators and leaders? How long has it been since you critically examined your syllabi and teaching practices? Did you know you may be widening the research to practice gap by making higher education – a place of evidence-based professional development – a hostile and unwelcoming environment?

Existing literature suggests that power relations and issues of expertise limit the extent to which faculty engage students in the design of their own learning and listen or respond to their needs (e.g. Mihans, Long, & Felton, 2008). In your work, examine and challenge the culture of higher education and the role of student-faculty interactions within and beyond the classroom. These interactions are crucial to the development of higher education students’ self-concept, motivation, and achievement (Komarraju, Musulkin, & Bhattacharya, 2010).

You can engage in critical conversations about the expectations placed upon pre-service practitioners. Through ambitious teaching, taking risks pedagogically and reconceptualizing teaching and learning for teachers and learners, you can facilitate dialogue around the extent to which the traditional “status-quo” of educator preparation truly teaches the behaviors we want to see.

Presume competence, rethink relationships, and trust the students you are preparing for the workforce.

Let’s Get Started

  1.  Evaluate your beliefs.  I’m talking, back to the basics.   What do you believe about your learners themselves?  Do you believe they are generally committed and hard working or do you believe they are aloof, uncaring, lazy?  What do you know and believe about how people learn?  About how learning is assessed?  About how we can make learning visible?  This step takes work and time and reflection!  You can use this to get started.

If attendance and compliance count toward their grade, ask yourself what your grades reflect.  Do they reflect progress toward content mastery?  If students can demonstrate mastery on your assessments without attending class, what does that tell you about your course content, your assessments, your pedagogy?  These are just a few thoughts to get you started in unpacking your pedagogy

2.  Deconstruct your syllabus.  Take a good look at your policies, procedures,expectations, and language.  Does your syllabus invite and welcome learning?  Does it provide choice and flexibility?  What values does it communicate?  We compiled some tired and wired syllabus language for a poster presentation at the Division of Early Childhood conference.  The “wired” language prioritizes feedback and social learning theory.  Ask yourself if the beliefs you identified in Step 1 are reflected in your syllabus and if not, how can they be?  Jesse Stommel (jessestommel.com) has provided so much thought provoking content and syllabi language that helped us get started.  Also, we understand many universities and programs have required syllabus language.  We have both created an “official” syllabus for those purposes while providing a infographic syllabus to guide our work with students.

3.  Be transparent.  When I began on my journey toward a more ambitious and authentic pedagogy, I failed to include my students in my process.  Because I wasn’t as transparent with them about the how and the why of my approach, it was an unnecessarily difficult code switch for them.  I now introduce my expectations for participating in your own learning, for engaging in self and peer reflection, in revision and resubmission, etc on the first day of class.  We talk about it every course meeting.  I acknowledge it can be very uncomfortable as they’ve become so accustomed to working for points and providing work directly aligned with rubrics.  This kind of engagement requires trust and transparency.

4.  Trust your students.  Which leads us back to number 1.  We have to trust our students.  We have to encourage them to trust themselves.  They often feel so insecure in their own learning and their own knowledge, asking “is this what you want?”  We must consistently remind them that their work, their learning, isn’t for us, it’s for them!  And we trust them to learn it, know it, own it.

5.  Find your people.  This work is isolating, pushed back on, and quite honestly, harder.  Meaningful, intentional feedback, coming up with an individualized response including behavior and academic specific praise and constructive critique is exhausting.  So, find your people.  The ones that let you say, “I tried this new thing, here’s how it made me/my students feel, help me process this” and “I’m trying this and I’m getting this push back.”  It’s such deeply vulnerable work and we don’t know if it’s the right or best way.  But we do know that the traditional approaches do not work for us so we have to trust our gut and start here.  We have to talk about it, keep tabs on the evidence of what is effective, contribute to the research, and grow our practice.  That takes everyone working on it together.

This is a pedagogical journey.  We are on this journey together.  Each semester, we learn from our students and from each other.  We get just a little bit better, a little bit clearer, a little bit more trustworthy, a little bit more confident that what we’re doing is creating a community of lifelong learners, nurturing curiosity, and valuing knowing.

 

Tagging Parents for Summer

First, it is super to debut a guest post on TII. This work matters and is changing conversations for education and ambitious teachers.

“Tag Parents, You’re It.”

It is probably already, or otherwise soon approaching, summer for your students. While the hugs and tears and genuine statements of pride and hope are all present at this time of year, we must talk about something that is innocently NOT compassionate: “Tag! Parents, you’re it.” (also seen as “Tag, parents – Your turn.” or, on t-shirts, as “Dear Parents, Tag…You’re it. Love, Teachers.”).

T-shirt

I get it. You’re tired and ready for a margarita by the pool (because that is what teachers do during the summer, right?) but when you use/retweet/say this phrase you perpetuate a normative family, a lack of empathy, the de-professionalization of teaching, and that children are burdens in educator’s lives. Let us take a look closer at each of these messages.

  1. The normative family.

Embedded in the phrase is the loaded assumption that children go home to parents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 69% of children live with two parents, 27% with one (23% are single mothers, the others fathers). That means that about 4% of our students have other household arrangements – grandparents, aunts/uncles, neighbors, foster parents, etc. Note here, also, that this doesn’t even scratch the surface of family diversity in terms of what “both parents” looks like (e.g. adoptive parents, same-sex parents, emerging families) or the actual presence of adults in the household (e.g. working multiple jobs, health, homelessness, vulnerabilities).

  1. Lack of empathy.

Summer is tough for many children and families. About 21% of children live below the federal poverty threshold with 41% of those under 18 considered living in “low income families” (National Center for Children in Poverty, 2018). It is a great privilege if students can attend camps, go on vacation, or, more simply, have an available caretaker at home. At a bare minimum, we have to consider the implications of summer and added stress on parents to provide breakfast and lunch that was being provided by school: the number of children living in food insecure households (due to cost, proximity, and/or other resources) ranges from 8.5% to 20.8% in states across America (Household Food Security in the United States, 2015; Map the Meal Gap, 2016).

  1. The de-professionalization of teaching.

With teacher strikes and BAT groups rising, it is clear that it makes educators mad when others don’t take teaching seriously. It angers many of us when the “Those who can’t, teach.” statements are seen or heard. At the same time, though, there are so many versions of “anybody can teach” that get promoted all the time, like this. Families aren’t always equipped with the knowledge and resources to simply continue “school” throughout the summer. They can’t just be “tagged” for the job. That takes dedication and hard work on the part of educators to partner with families and support them in efforts to continue academic and social development at home. The phrase basically says, “Poof! My job is your job now.” without supplementing it with suggestions to families for active learning, continued practice, and reading and educational opportunities overs summer (although, return to #1 about the assumption about families to determine whether they have the time and resources to do this even when suggested).

  1. Children are burdens.

This one seems fairly self-explanatory, but I will partially flesh it out anyway. Tagging families because you are ready to wash your hands clean from the year suggests that you are tired of your students and ready for them to leave. Aren’t you sad? Aren’t you going to miss them? Does all the joy and learning they brought to you throughout the year get outweighed by your desire to kick them out of your classroom door? And while we’re at it, the phrase also indicates that the 6.5 hours that teachers are spending with children is equivalent to 24 hours a day they spend at home. Remember during the school year, families guard, care for, and exchange with them the other 17 hours and weekends: teachers are not parenting, they are not your children

At this point, I wonder how many have said, “Sheesh, it’s just a joke, of course I love and will miss my group of students and value families.” But, we have to mean it and we have to follow it in every facet of our teaching and in every post and comment we make. Deleting these phrases is akin to banding together to say that calling people “gay” or “retarded” is reprehensible.

So, next time you feel compelled to chuckle at or post “Tag parents, you’re it!” as your students are on their way into June, replace it by checking in with those without available adults, acknowledging the challenges summer presents, providing support for continued learning, and remembering how lucky you have been to share the lives of 17 (or 20, or 25, or 35, or 150) children all year.