The Struggle is Real

 

I work with teachers every single day. I work with veteran teachers, new-to-the-profession teachers, highly skilled teachers, and teachers who are still learning the craft. Teachers most often feel confident about teaching the content they are required to teach. They tend to struggle more with classroom management/organization, classroom discipline, and providing for the multiple needs of their students on a routine basis. Another area of challenge for many teachers is allowing students to struggle.

Teachers by nature want to see students succeed; so much so that all too often teachers don’t allow students to struggle long enough to build deep understanding. Whether one calls it “productive failure” (a concept coined by Dr. Manu Kapur) or “growth mindset” (Carol Dweck) or something I like to refer to as “effort creates ability”, giving student time to struggle is a challenging instructional concept for many teachers.

Allowing students to struggle is different from intervening with struggling students. We know students will come to us with learning gaps. In education, we tend to think of struggling as something we need to eliminate or remove from the equation of learning for a student. In fact, if you do a Google search on “helping students struggle” you will find pages and pages of links to help the “struggling student”. We know we have students who struggle to learn and reducing the learning gaps that cause that kind of struggle is necessary. However, the purpose of this article is to help educators think about how they can build “struggle” into the learning process in order to help all students build knowledge, competency, and confidence in their academic pursuits.

Letting students struggle has some very important, and lasting, effects on students. Students who are given time to struggle with content, concepts, and critical thinking benefit by:

  1. orienting students to a focus on learning over knowing
  2. engaging in challenging tasks that help the brain make new connections and, thus, become smarter
  3. seeing how a “work hard and get smart” approach allows them to overcome many challenges
  4. learning that is easy isn’t usually a good use of their time
  5. developing a sense of academic pride and self-confidence in tackling and resolving challenging problems
  6. seeing the value in embracing mistakes instead of avoiding and covering up mistakes as a necessary part of learning
  7. gaining motivation and interest in the learning process as they seek solutions to mistakes and unknowns

Allowing students to struggle in the learning process promotes the process of studentsimage working hard at reasoning through challenging problems in order to gain new knowledge and understanding. The process of struggling will oftentimes include failure as students try out new thinking and apply prior learning to novel experiences. Students need to engage in difficult experiences where solutions and answers don’t come easily. They need to experience failure and frustration as part of the problem solving and learning process.

 

How can teachers help students embrace “the struggle”? What are some ways in which teachers can foster, in students, the appreciation of struggling to find answers and make learning connections? A few easy strategies include:

  1. Design the questions you will use as the teacher in a way that requires students to think more deeply about the problem or make connections to other content or concepts.
  2. Have students articulate their thinking process to their current point of struggle or even ask them “what would you do if you knew what to do?” Sometimes thinking from the endpoint to the point of struggle allows students to see new options.
  3. Utilize classroom routines that promote and develop struggle while providing a structured process to move students towards a solution. As the teacher, see how you can teach a concept/skill without explicitly telling students what they need to do.
  4. Utilize small, incremental goals throughout the learning process to help students see their progress and understand that success can occur throughout the struggle.
  5. When students succeed, praise their efforts and strategies as opposed to their intelligence.
  6. Design classroom activities that involve cooperative–rather than competitive or individualistic–work.
  7. Include student choice and voice in the learning process. When students can choose their topics of interest and evidence of learning, they are more likely to persevere during challenging learning experiences.

Helping students understand that struggling is part of the learning process is an essential consideration for all educators. Students need to understand that learning can sometimes be very difficult and answers don’t always present themselves easily or clearly. When we rely on the typical process of “I do – We do – You do” for our imageinstructional delivery, we may inadvertently shortcut deeper learning available to our students. Implementing the strategies mentioned above can help your students understand more deeply, persevere more consistently, and grow more fully. How will you help your students struggle this year?

 

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Take the Wheel!

In cycling, there is a phrase known as “taking the wheel”.  The phrase refers to taking thecycling lead in a pack that is drafting.  The leader creates an aerodynamic “bubble” that allows others to take advantage of the slip stream and conserve energy.  In fact, the work of the leader and the pack that follows allows the entire group to ride faster and conserve energy!

As leaders, there are things we can learn from this cycling analogy in our own work with educators on our campuses or in our districts.  We are always trying to develop our team and encourage them to achieve goals and improve the work of the team members, individually and collectively.  Knowing the most effective actions a leader can take in steering the process of collaborative improvement is critical.  Let’s take a look at some of the principles of “taking the wheel” that can help us as leaders:

  1. If you’re the stronger rider, take the wheel!

In cycling if you’re a strong rider you are expected to take the lead for the group and help pull everyone else towards the goal. follow-my-lead

As a leader on your campus or in your district, you’re staff is expecting you to take the lead and help to pull them towards the goal and to encourage them to push on even when they are tired and ready to stop.  Leaders aren’t afraid of challenging headwinds and they refuse to allow excuses to rise up and prevent the team from charging towards the intended goals.

  1. Be a mindful leader!

The leader who takes the wheel is allowing the riders who follow to recover by riding in aerodynamic slipstream that forms behind the leader.  The bubble can actually extend to 7 or 8 riders behind the leader.  This can prove helpful for the pack in keeping them fresh cycling-2and together but the leader has to remember to watch the pace of the ride and the terrain ahead.  If riders aren’t prepared they can easily be dropped from the pack and might not be able to catch up to the pack once left behind.

As a leader on your campus or in your district, you too need to be a mindful leader.  You have to monitor if or when your followers need a rest and when the pace of work needs to be adjusted.  You have to be watching the terrain ahead and prepare your followers for what is coming.  The goal for the leader is to not “drop” anyone along the way.  The best leaders help their team set attainable goals with clear markers along the way.  They know that progress can be its on motivator and they ensure that the whole team experiences that progress.

  1. Know when to lead and know when to follow!

In cycling, if you tend to follow too often and are reluctant to do any work in leading out you’ll be labeled lazy and considered a “follower”.  In cycling terminology, a competent rider never wants to be labeled a follower.  On the flip side, jumping out to the lead too often or for too long can lead some to be seen as the hero for sacrificing themselves for the good of the team.  They can also be seen as a sort of donkey with no brains for failing to use their efforts more wisely.

As a leader on your campus or in your district, it’s imperative that you undergatens-leaders-followersstand your team and your organization well enough so you can lead when you need to but follow when necessary as well.  Understanding that giving others on the team who have better or different skill sets than others a chance to lead is important if the team is going to improve and getter better at what they do.  As a leader, if you’re always out front you will get burned out and your effectiveness will diminish as other team members crave a chance to lead or grow tired of looking at the same back side.  By developing other leaders who can take the wheel for your team, you develop capacity in your team and relieve yourself from being the only one who breaks new ground.

  1. Equipment can make all the difference!

I can remember when I started riding as part of my training for a spring triathlon.  I used my hybrid “get around” bike and it often times seemed like I was pedaling a bike with cement tires.  Once I finally invested in a true road bike, not only did my times improve but riding was actually enjoyable!

As a leader on your campus or in your district, do you have the right equipment?  Do your plan-prepare-performteam members have the right equipment?  If your organization is going to meet the goals set before them, they will be more likely to
do so if they have access to the right kind of data along with coaching in how to use the data and time in which to do the work it takes to improve instruction.  How about professional development?  Equipment makes a difference but the skill and competence of the rider has to improve to get the most out of the equipment.  It works the same way with our teachers.  Leaders have to develop the skills, talents, and understandings of their staff in order to maximize the benefits of having the right tools.

Campus Principals: Do you attend PD with your teachers?

I left the campus principal role a few years ago and moved into central office to lead curriculum and instruction at the district level.  One of the things I still try to keep as a priority is to attend PD sessions with district teachers and leaders.  I do this to monitor the quality of the PD I am sending district staff to but I also do it to build my own knoteachlearnblocks1wledge and skills while also connecting with the teachers in my district.  I want my teachers to know I’m approachable, I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to learn new things and I want to stay in tune with what is happening in the classroom.

I believe most campus principals share my thoughts.  Campus principals are always thinking about professional development for their staff and looking for ways to improve student learning through better teaching.  Campus principals know an effective professional development (PD) plan can be one of the best ways to improve student learning and develop a cohesive campus culture.  All too often the campus principal is the one providing the professional development to the staff or is responsible for authorizing and sending staff members to various PD opportunities.  However, I suggest one aspect of PD that principals should consider more carefully is the process of learning alongside their staff.  Yeah, that’s right!  Principals should attend PD with their teachers and learn with them.

There are 4 good reasons why principals should attend PD sessions with their teachers.  I hope the 4 reasons I’m going to share with you inspire you to join your staff in learning at an upcoming PD opportunity.

  1. It’s Fun!
    • It’s easy for principals to get caught up in the day to day administrivia. There are many days where principals can feel far removed from the teaching and learning that goes on each day at the campus because of the administrative duties that come with the position.  Principals should be the instructional leader for the campus and while most principals love the chakeep-calm-fun-learningllenge of leading a campus, they also know that it comes with a price that often times removes them from being directly involved with student learning like when they were still teaching.  By going to PD with their teachers, principals get the opportunity to reconnect with the skills and experiences that attracted them to education in the first place.
    • Getting out to a PD workshop with teachers can make the process of staying current on best practices and researched-based instruction much more interesting, engaging, and relevant. Don’t just read an article or a book but rather jump in with your teachers and learn in an authentic and meaningful way!  That is much more fun!
  2. Learn about and relate to your staff!
    • Much like sitting down at a meal builds fellowship and helps one get to know someone, attending PD with your staff and learning beside them is a bonding experience. By participating in PD, you get to engage with your staff in a way that is different than the typical supervisory roles and duties principals take on.  By learning with your teachers you get to see their thinking and understand what they value and how they reflect on their practices.  Opportunities for deeper discussions about learning and the teaching craft can occur in an authentic setting like a PD workshop.
    • Also, don’t bail out at the lunch break to go answer emails and return calls. Take the lunch break and go eat with your staff.  Again, this provides wonderful opportunities to learn more about the personal side of your teachers and you can share similar stories and happenings as well.
  3. Show them you are a learner too!
    • When you attend PD sessions with your teachers you let them know that you are a lifelong learner and are willing to acquire new skills and ulead-learnernderstandings as well. It shows them that you are vulnerable and interested in the things they do day in and day out with their students all year.  It will also provide you a natural connection to deeper conversations later in the year as you and your teachers reflect on what was learned at the PD and how they are implementing it in their classroom. You will also have a better understanding of how the PD fits with the initiatives and goals of the campus from firsthand experience.
  4. Identify potential leaders!
    • Another aspect of attending PD with your teachers that can pay off in the long run is the opportunity to identify potential leaders on your campus. By engaging with teachers in PD you will begin to see which teachers are natural leaders in those kinds of settings but you will also be able to sei-am-a-leadere your thinkers, dreamers, and even your pioneers who are willing to lead the charge!
    • By having a deeper and more authentic understanding of the skills and personalities of your teachers, you can better match leadership opportunities with teachers on your campus. You don’t have to leave it to chance or to those who always tend to lead but instead can tap into the experiences you had with your teachers during the PD and connect the traits you saw in your teachers with the opportunities on the campus.

So this is a call to all principals (and even central office leaders), go find some PD opportunities for your teachers and be an active participant with them!  You just might find you enjoy the opportunity to learn with your staff while at the same time building trust, competence, and a culture of collaboration!