I don’t believe in Superman

Most of the teachers in our school are trying something new this week.  Some of our teachers are new to our school, so everything seems new.  Some of our teachers were members of our senior class two months ago, which is alternately exciting and terrifying.  (ESL instructors with basic English fluency are really, really hard to come by.)  Many of us are dealing with brand new curriculum, books that only just arrived or that may not arrive until a few weeks after class starts.

We’ve only been back for four days, but it seems like a lot of people are at some stage of this script:

Act I: “I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Act II: “It’s going to work.  I think.”

Act III: “It’s going to work!”

We’ve been on an interesting journey as English teachers particularly.  We’re adopting a new curriculum, and we need to get familiar with it.  But the real changes aren’t in the materials; we’re making enormous changes in pedagogy.

In the context of American educational history, the jump we’re making is from, oh, the 1920s to the 1990s.  I’m really proud of the way my fellow teachers are stepping up to the challenge, but I’m also sympathetic when sometimes they look at me like their heads are swirling.  Most of them went to schools were the teacher lectured and the students copied down the letters on the board into their notebooks, and understanding was magically supposed to appear during the process.  Reading instruction meant popcorn reading from the basal.

Now we’re hopping ahead by several decades all at once.  We’re working on seating students in groups instead of rows- maybe even pairing kids with complementary strengths and needs.  We’re introducing the readaloud as a planned part of the curriculum.  We’re going to differentiate books for independent reading, including a true novelty: student choice.  We’re reevaluating whether kids need to stay absolutely silent or whether they might be able to whisper to each other in their table groups.  Maybe we’ll even get crazy and sit on a rug in a circle, if we can find a rug.

Everyone’s being absolute champs.  But sometimes, when it seems like too much too fast, or when one change seems too complicated, or if the coffee’s running low, someone will start reciting from Act I.

“I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Uh-oh.  There’s usually some sighing or forehead-rubbing at this point.  (So far, no one has worked up to the throwing up of hands in disgust; they’re not as dramatic as I am.)  It’s not that they don’t think Whatever It Is is a good idea, or that they don’t want to try it.  That would be a different problem.  It’s that they can’t figure out how to make it work.

Normally, school changes here get handed down by the Ministry of Education, so the response, if you got one, would be, “Tough.  Make it work.”  That’s a recipe for frustration and demoralization.

Instead, I’ve been going from classroom to classroom, teacher to teacher, whispering:

“I hear you.  Let’s try it and see.”

That’s the line that’s been getting us from Act I to Act II.  Once we get to Act II, Act III seems to sort itself out.

Don’t we all need this?  Don’t all our students need this?  Growing at anything involves something scary, risky, uncomfortable.  Doubt creates inertia.  We all need an external force, someone pulling us or pushing us or drawing us, to get us moving.

I am not waiting on a Superman to show up and dictate a perfect methodology for our school.  But I do believe in the effectiveness of being each other’s heroic sidekicks.  I do think we can say to each other, “I’m here for you, and you can do this.  Now go try something awesome, Batman, and if you land in a pit of tar, I’ll pull you out and we’ll figure out another plan.”