I’m an Instructional Facilitator at a school with a winning basketball team. I go to the games and watch a whole community of like-minded coaches, players and fans who know what the end goal is – no question. They know the importance of strategy. They can see the necessity of revision. They appreciate the power of team reflection and the learning that comes even with losing. They take collective responsibility and can therefore celebrate success together. Then those same players walk into the classroom and the game changes.
I’ve recently been working with teachers who have volunteered to teach an elective course, having about 10 days to say “yes” to the opportunity and design the course, all while wrapping up their current semester. After my initial excitement around supporting them to plan what was sold to students as a “project-based course” we met to map out the semester using backward design.
Here is where my metaphor applies. Much work has been done in this K-12 school to standards map and create exemplary designs for learning (a.k.a. unit plans) with K-5 grade level teams. However, the secondary teachers for these new elective courses haven’t experienced this backward design and just want to know, in the most urgent way, “what am I teaching on Monday and where am I getting the resources to pull this off?” An essential question, indeed. The luxury the K-5 teacher teams, and the basketball team, were afforded that the secondary teams were not, was big picture planning. Being able to envision the whole and how daily instruction – both content and strategies – lead us closer to the end goal.
The Difference Between Surviving and Thriving Many of us survive in the classroom. If we’re able to build relationships with our students - two points. If we’re able to align our content with the standards - score another basket. Formatively assess and use data to drive our instruction - three pointer. Unfortunately, just surviving means we’re worn out halfway through the game. To have thriving classrooms that impact student learning, planning for teaching needs to be respected as much as executing the plan. When presenting at a recent conference I admitted to participants that the teachers I coach are close to mutiny every time I say, “the standards are your curriculum,” until they’ve gone through the process of standards mapping and their co-created plan is made visible. An administrator in the room said, “curriculum fidelity frees teachers up to teach,” and I had to agree. If you give teachers their class schedule mere days before the school year or semester begins then you better have a guide for them to follow. That said, if you want innovation, if you want teacher teams (and students) that can adapt, think critically and collaborate, then time to map their way to the win is imperative.
How School Leaders Can Help School and district leadership can provide the leverage to prioritize big picture planning, giving teachers time to big picture plan for teaching content, concepts and skills, using high-yield instructional strategies to engage all learners. Leaders, ask yourselves:
Why is time for big picture planning important? What will happen if we don’t prioritize this change? Why haven’t we done this before? What does this goal conflict with? Who has capacity to lead this work? How do we involve all stakeholders? Could the planning begin within an existing structure (PLCs, professional development opportunities, study groups, etc.)? How will we know if it’s working?
How Teachers Can Advocate Prioritizing big picture planning begins with school leadership, but responsibility also lies with teachers and instructional coaches too. What can I do? Begin by asking yourself a few reflective questions. What are my expectations for planning at the start of a school year or semester? How much time do I typically spend in “big picture mode?” Is the time sufficient? Do I rely on curriculum provided by my school or district? Does the curriculum lend itself to big picture thinking? Are my students aware of the big picture of instruction? How would they articulate it? What are my expectations for professional development time and structures to support big picture planning? Who has influence in that arena? Have I used my voice to advocate for timely big picture planning? How can I ensure that my colleagues and I don’t normalize untimely scheduling?
Nothing But Net Now that you’ve read this far I can admit that I’ve never voluntarily played a sport in my life. I’m strictly a single-sport spectator from a basketball family, where sitting in the bleachers became a way to spend quality time. One thing I admire about the players is how they can adapt and change the trajectory of the game on the fly with mere eye contact, hand signal or shout from the coach. Although the teaching profession is often tied to sluggish bureaucracies, I’ve seen that same transformative power happen in the classroom when teachers own their practice, when leadership provides the leverage and when student learning is everyone’s end game. With planning and reflection, all school teams can have nothing but net.
To learn more about Erin Sanchez, a PBL coach, practitioner and resource provider who prides herself on being a realist with just enough vision to be disruptive when necessary, please visit our Team Page.