Last year around this time, I was introduced to Mr. Wayne, a history teacher at one of the schools where I was doing some coaching. I sat down with Mr. Wayne and other members of his team to help them learn how to plan more rigorous units and lessons in preparation for his district’s adoption of the Common Core (CCSS). Although we weren’t working specifically with CCSS at the time, the principal and I felt that helping teachers learn how to un pack the standards and use them to plan rigorous units was a great way to help them transition to CCSS when it was time.
During our first meeting, I began by asking Mr. Wayne and his colleagues why they were teaching the standard they had chosen to work on. Mr. Wayne quickly answered,
“Because it’s in the curriculum.”
I smiled and prodded, “But why is it in the curriculum?”
“Because it’s on the test,” he explained, growing a little annoyed at my questions.
“Ok,” I nodded. “But why is this so important that it is in the curriculum and on the test?”
Mr. Wayne rolled his eyes. “I don’t know,” he shrugged and picked up a stack of papers and flipped through them.
I kept pushing and other members of his team began to venture explanations. Mr. Wayne continued to shuffle through his papers and tuned us out. Many of the teachers on his team found their own why that day but Mr. Wayne seemed not to care. He just wanted to get through the training, get the template “right” and move on with the rest of his life.
I kept coming back with my annoying questions and after a while, Mr. Wayne ventured an answer or two that went just a little beyond his “it’s on the test,” response but when I finished working with the school that year, I had little hope that he would ever start to think rigorously about his own planning. He seemed content to do what he was told.
I had also trained the instructional coach on how to coach teachers to think more rigorously about their planning and unbeknownst to me, she continued to work with Mr. Wayne. Over the course of the year, she gently pushed him to think through his standards, identify the thinking processes demanded by his standards, and plan more rigorous lessons. Slowly, she was able to get through.
A year later when I returned to the school, I still remembered Mr. Wayne. So, when I went in to work with him and his colleagues, I was fully prepared for his resistance.
I started as I always do by asking teachers to explain why they were teaching their standard and what thinking process their standard ultimately demanded. To my utter amazement, Mr. Wayne started by explaining in great detail why the standard was important, and what thinking was involved. I looked at the coach quizzically and she just smiled. It was a great coaching session and I could see the progress these teachers had made. After the session, I walked over to the coach.
“You set me up,” I accused playfully.
She smiled, “Oh you mean Mr. Wayne?” she asked. “Isn’t that something?”
“It’s utterly amazing!” I exclaimed. “What happened?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know really. I think that he couldn’t answer the why question because he really had never looked at his subject that way. So I helped him get some subject-area training offered by the district and then kept having those why conversations you taught me to have. One day it just clicked for him and now, you should see his classes. He’s really come a long way.”
I am still amazed at the power of rigorous planning. It can transform your entire teaching. At Mindsteps, we have a saying – “Rigor requires rigor.” If you want to improve the rigor of the instruction at a school, you have to start by improving the rigor of the way that teachers plan and think about instruction. You cannot have one without the other.
But when you do engage teachers in rigorous thinking about their planning and instructional practices, not only does it increase the rigor and power of their plans, it literally transforms their teaching.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can transform your own teaching or the instruction of the teachers you lead, contact us to schedule coaching at your school or check out our free rigor resources here.