Tag Archives: teacher professionalism

Respecting Teachers’ Professionalism in Reading Instruction

booksIncreasing the reading ability of young people is a major focus of critics of schooling, and prescribed remedies constantly rain down upon us. It is refreshing, then, to re-visit Richard Allington’s What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2006, 2nd edn.), as I (Clive) have recently done.

According to Allington, the remedies mandated at a system level typically have two flaws: (1) prescribing a single method for all students, and (2) not placing enough emphasis on the amount students read (including re-reading the same favorite works). With respect to the first, he says:

“Expecting any single method, material, or program to work equally well with every kid in every classroom is nonsensical. And yet we see increasing pressure for a standardization of reading curriculum and lessons…. The substantial research evidence that such plans have not produced the desired effects is routinely ignored in the latest quest for a cheap, quick fix.” (p. 34)

Regarding the second flaw in system mandates, Allington says:

“If I were required to select a single aspect of the instructional environment to change, my first choice would be creating a schedule that supported dramatically increased quantities of reading during the school day” (p. 35)

Unfortunately, federally funded Title I remedial reading and special education programs (in the US) have not increased the amount of reading children do. According to one study:

“[C]hildren who received reading instructional support from either program often had the volume of reading reduced rather than expanded as remedial and resource room lessons focused on other activities” (p. 43)

These “other activities” – such as extra phonics teaching, correcting pronunciation, asking comprehension questions – mean that children are interrupted in their reading. Apart from reducing reading time, this means children become used to being interrupted and read in a slow, hesitant manner, with half a mind on when the next interruption will come.

While attempting to support teachers in their reading instruction, then, it is essential to respect their professionalism so they are free to adapt to what works for individual students and give students abundant opportunities to read in peace.


Year 13 of Our Longitudinal Study of Teachers

Clare and I (Clive) and our wonderful research team are now in year 13 of our longitudinal study of 40 teachers, 20 of whom began teaching in 2004 and 20 in 2007. Every year we interview them and, wherever possible, observe them in their classroomClive Becks. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) continues to provide funding for the project and will do so for at least another 2 years. We are now gearing up for the 2017 interviews beginning in late April.
Of the original 45 teachers, 3 have left the study and 2 have dropped out of teaching, a remarkable retention rate. As the years mount, interest in the study grows. Four of five proposals based on the study for the 2017 AERA Conference in San Antonio were accepted for presentation. We were also asked to write a chapter on Longitudinal Study of Teachers for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education, to appear this year. For their part, the teachers continue to show resilience despite the increasing challenges of teaching (which they tell us about), including: larger class sizes, reduced special education support, increased standardized testing of students, and top-down control of teachers’ practices.

Based on the study, perhaps the biggest problem we see in education today is this ill-conceived, top-down monitoring of students and teachers, which does very little good and a great deal of harm, and ignores the steadily developing expertise of teachers – which again our study reveals. We can only hope that governments and school systems soon begin to realize the harm they are doing. Meanwhile, we work to encourage teachers to look for the many opportunities for decision-making and professionalism that still remain in school classrooms.

Teaching Between The Lines

A group of us just had a proposal accepted for AERA on teacher resistance, as part of a symposium on that topic. Our paper will be on how the teachers we are studying “teach between the lines,” finding ways to “live with” system mandates and teach (in varying degrees) in a holistic, constructivist manner.

I (Clive) just came across a very relevant quote in Nel Noddings’ 2013 book Education and Democracy in the 21st Century that will help us as we write the paper. She says:

“[In this book] we will consider how schools can help students to achieve satisfying lives in three great domains: home, occupation, and civic life…. [H]owever, I want to make it clear that I do not foresee dramatic changes in the basic structure of curriculum in America. We have to work within that basic structure. Sadly, I think we will go right on with English, mathematics, social studies, science, and foreign languages as the backbone of our curriculum. Indeed, if we continue in the direction we are now headed, the curriculum will become even more isolated from real life and its subjects more carefully separated from one another. It is this tendency that we should resist, and effective resistance will require collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.” (p. 11, my italics)

Wow! While talking strongly of resistance Noddings says we have to work within the system, which if anything will get worse. What then does resistance mean?

It can mean campaigning publically against the retrograde measures; or negotiating at the school level to modify their implementation. Or it can mean finding holes – or “interstices” as the post-structuralists say – within the system that enable teachers to teach the way they believe in, to the extent possible.

This third approach is important because it allows teachers to keep their jobs and continue to be there for their students. We mustn’t dismiss this type of resistance as mere compromise. Rather, we must join with teachers in looking for ways to teach well within the system. And teacher educators must discuss the challenges and possible strategies at length with their students, so they come to teaching prepared to teach between the lines, rather than having to figure it out on their own.



Reflections on Collaborative Lesson Study

When in Japan last week, I (Clive) was able to gather some opinions on “Japanese lesson study,” which to a degree is being advocated in other countries as well as Japan. Briefly, it involves a teacher preparing a lesson, perhaps with help from others, teaching the lesson with colleagues looking on, and subsequently getting feedback from those present (other than the students) on the lesson and its delivery.

During a visit to an elementary school, the principal told me that those doing the teaching don’t enjoy the experience, though he is inclined to think that on balance it is useful. At a teacher education institution I learned that student teachers have to engage in lesson study as a key element in their final practicum. A teacher educator commented that the student who is “on show” typically feels under extreme pressure, is unable to sleep the night before, has to keep entirely to a script submitted beforehand, and is subjected to strong criticism afterwards by fellow student teachers, notably for diverging from the script. She clearly wasn’t keen on the process, at least as implemented in pre-service programs she is familiar with.

It seems to me that collaborative lesson development has to be handled very carefully, in Japan or anywhere else. Discussing with colleagues what and how to teach has enormous potential benefits, and many teachers in our longitudinal study are in favor of it. However, a friendly, collegial atmosphere must be established; it should be made clear that each teacher is in the end responsible for their practice; appropriate departure from what is planned should be applauded rather than condemned; and there should be no expectation that all teachers will teach the same things in the same way. This is in keeping with important general ideals of teaching such as constructivism, flexibility, individualization, and teacher professionalism.