My first year teaching was one of the best and worst years of my career. I was hired to teach 7th and 8th grade gifted humanities in a small suburban community just north of Chicago. The teacher that held this role previously, Diane*, had been promoted to Director of Engaged Learning for the district. In her new role, Diane was to work with ALL teachers (veteran and new) on their instruction. Diane was beloved by students, parents, teachers, and admistrators. She was a living legend.
I on the other hand, like most 22 year-olds, thought I already knew everything. I mean, I had a lot of educational experience. I had just completed 17 years of school as student and was still taking grad school classes. I knew what to do. I taught my students the way I was taught. Since the students were high-achievers I simply gave them “harder” and “longer” assignments. I did not tap into Diane’s expertise. I was FINE on my own.
Then, November came and I experienced my first parent/teacher conferences. I spent extra time preparing to meet with the parents of a student who I believed was not putting forth effort and was misplaced. Frankly, I had no idea why Joey* was in the “gifted” class. I remember sitting across from the parents of this 7th grade boy and telling them that their son could benefit from putting forth more effort, completing his homework, and being more respectful to his classmates and me.
I expected the parents to apologize on behalf of their son. I expected them to feel embarrassed by his performance. But, this is not what happened. Instead, the parents started asking me questions like: “Is it possible that Joey isn’t completing homework because the homework is not useful? Do you think that Joey would be more respectful to you if you were more respectful of his needs?” As I stumbled over my answers trying desperately to defend my professional actions and authority, the father of this child interrupted me and said:
“You have some big shoes to fill and from the looks of it, you will NEVER be able to fill them.”**
Ouch! What a blow to my ego and a test of my emotions. I bit the inside of my cheeks as to to not break down and cry in front of them. Finally, the conference ended. But, my journey was just beginning…what was I going to do now?
Luckily for me, conferences directly preceded a 5-day Thanksgiving break. During that break, I spent two days crying, two days being angrily defensive, and on the fifth day something changed. I asked myself:
“Could these parents be right?”
Perhaps the homework I assigned was irrelevant. Come to think of it…I hadn’t ever thought about student learning needs; I was simply focused on covering content. Then it hit me.
Maybe, just maybe, I was the one who needed to change and not the student.
This was a very scary realization. I had absolutely no idea what this change would look like or where to start. I knew I wanted to teach in a way that would best meet the academic and social emotional needs of each of my students, but how in the world would I do this? Plus, what if the other parents didn’t agree with my new approach? What if they were upset that I was no longer going to give homework for the sake of giving homework? What if they were upset that their child was assessed using a different method than one of his classmates?
The following Monday, I arrived at school early. I knew Diane (my predecessor with the big shoes to fill) would be there early as well. I told Diane everything that happened at conferences. I rallied off all of my fears and questions. Diane listened and asked insightful questions in response. Diane acknowledged my concerns and said:
“These are the experiences that mold us as educators. You can choose to try something new or you can continue doing what you are doing and see what happens.”
I chose to try. This was the best decision I ever made. Diane partnered with me to ensure that I was able to meet all of my students’ needs. This was in 2002. This was a time before terms like instructional coaching, mindset, and differentiation were commonplace. But, that is exactly what this experience exemplified. I had a growth mindset. I set a goal regarding differentiation with an instructional coach. I spent time and put forth the effort to complete successful coaching cycles with Diane as my partner.
Although change occurred rather quickly, I did not complete just one coaching cycle. I completed many over the next several years because learning in this capacity was invaluable for me. With Diane’s coaching, I set goals around instruction and assessment. I aimed to meet my students’ cognitive needs and ability levels. I was determined to do this by offering appropriately challenging content without sacrificing student interest.
I was also able to see why Diane was so revered in the district. Diane was a visionary who was able to affect change by engaging others in the process. I never felt that Diane was judging me. I never felt like she was competing with me. All Diane wanted was to see every student benefit from high-quality instruction. I was so fortunate to be able to learn from her.
Last week, my instructional coaching team and I gathered for two jam-packed days of learning facilitated by our coach/Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Becky Fischer. We participated in a storytelling activity, and I told this story. I prefaced my story with an apology for anyone who had heard the story before. When I finished telling my story, Becky, like she always does, asked me a thought-provoking question.
“You mentioned that you have told this story in the past. Why do you keep coming back to this story?”
Becky offered me an opportunity to reflect. I took some silent think time and here is my answer.
I tell this story because it is my “why”. This story explains “why” I am a proponent of differentiation. This story describes “why” I wanted to become an instructional coach.
I learned to differentiate because doing so was emotionally compelling to me. I hadn’t read about it in a book. I didn’t differentiate to comply with the district strategic plan. I had an experience that was so poignant I saw no other option.
I needed to differentiate and reevaluate instruction, homework, and assessment. I needed to differentiate to avoid future conflict with parents and more importantly, I needed to differentiate because that was what my students deserved. Above all, this story reminds me that we are all capable of change and sometimes the most difficult changes garner the best results.
*not their real names
**Joey’s father apologized to me for his statement at the end of the school year. He also said that my feet were growing.