Ross Cooper

Principal or Asst Prin - Elem

Nyack, NY

Interests: Active and...

  • Posted 1 Year ago
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3 Tips For Progressive Educators

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Over the past month or so I’ve had a handful of conversations with different teachers (from districts other than my own) who deem themselves to be progressive, and they expressed frustration in working with teachers who most would classify as traditional. 

This type of friction between progressive and traditional (which I’m sure also exists in other professions) is nothing new, as I was first made aware of it when I started to attend educational conferences around 2011. Through private exchanges with some of the more forward thinking educators with whom I came into contact, I started to uncover a pattern; many of these educators weren’t put up on a pedestal in their respective school districts. And, in many instances they struggled to fit in, get along with others, and/or “win” administrative support. (Of course, there were/are most definitely exceptions.) 

As a progressive fourth grade teacher of six years, I had administrative support. But, I can also say with confidence that I didn’t exactly fit in with all other teachers (including my fourth grade teammates), and often times I grew frustrated with the ways in which I believed students in other classrooms were being taught. 

Looking back (albeit briefly, because we don’t want to obsess over the past), these experiences, some of which were painful, have taught me lessons that have helped me to grow as both an educator and a person. At the same time, as an administrator, I can empathize with progressive teachers who are frustrated with traditional coworkers, and I can also cite my mistakes so others can learn from some of the problems that I helped to bring upon myself.

That being said, here are three tips for progressive educators.

1. Nobody Is Trying to Harm Children

During my time as a teacher, I can recall instances in which I literally resented other teachers because of their more traditional methods: an overabundance of worksheets, countless packets, too much direct instruction, no technology integration, etc. What I realize now is that (1) getting angry doesn’t solve anything, and more importantly (2) none of these traditional teachers are actually trying to harm children. I sincerely doubt any educator goes to work thinking, “I can’t wait to give students the horrible education they don’t deserve.” In fact, I’m sure there were teachers who thought I was the one hurting students. Either way, if we’re blinded by resentment or other negative emotions, progress will be hindered.

In general, we tend to teach the way we were taught until something better comes along that we’re able to wrap our heads around (and possibly, this something must also take a comparable amount of effort to implement as what we did before). This buy-in isn’t as a result of conversations, but rather when we experience something in action and we see that it works.

2. We Need to Communicate

But, if we want buy-in (or embracement, which is a term I prefer), and we’re not even having conversations, then we’re dead in the water. When I was a teacher, I generally didn’t have these conversations because (1) it was easier not to, and (2) I didn’t actually think they were necessary. In other words, a part of me actually thought that other teachers automatically knew about the benefits of my teaching style, but they were making a conscious effort not to get on board. (In retrospect, this sounds silly. But I know there are other educators with this same mentality.)

As a fourth grade teacher, If I wanted to make something happen in my classroom, all I really had to do was find a cool idea and then implement it. I was the one in front of the students. But, if we’re not directly working with the students we hope to impact (as an administrator, teacher in another classroom, etc.), many layers exist between finding an idea and having it positively affect children. One of these layers is communication, which is an art form in and of itself, and it should be treated as such. And, if we’re not willing and prepared to communicate why others should change, we shouldn’t expect them to do so.

3. We Need to Learn

But, if these conversations are all one-sided, and we approach them as if we’re the ones with all the answers, nobody will move forward and we will most likely damage relationships. It’s easy to have the mentality, “Those educators are traditional. I am progressive. How can I get them to…?” The first problem with this mindset is that it implies successful change occurs as a result of people having things done to them, as opposed to everyone working collaboratively.

The second problem is, we’re labeling teachers and compartmentalizing their styles (which I’m trying my best not to do throughout this blog post). In doing so, it becomes easy for progressive educators and traditional educators to completely dismiss each other’s contributions (which, admittedly, I was guilty of at times). Even if we don’t believe in pretty much anything a particular person says and does, we can be intentional about finding ways to learn from him, while also making sure to acknowledge what he brings to the table. We can’t expect others to want to learn from us if we’re not willing to learn from them.

In the End

These are really three tips I wish I could deliver to a younger version of myself. At the same time, while these tips are presented as if they’re for those who view themselves as progressive, without question they apply to all educators.

We can deflect or reflect. But, the only actions we can change are our own. So the question to ask is, “What can I do differently?”

What can you do differently?

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