Facing the fear of change for the benefit of students: Braving a change of grade level assignment

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“…in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolstoy

The above quote from Tolstoy touches upon an almost universal truth.  Humans, more often than not, tend to look at how they can change the world without first examining how they can change themselves.  It is hard to turn the lens of critical analysis upon oneself and to embrace change as a key component to continued growth.  Humans, for the most part, tend to find their comfortable niches and stick to the routines that have proven manageable.  I say “manageable” because these routines may not always be the most effective; they simply have to suffice for the task at hand.  We get comfortable and begin, like Garth in Wayne’s World II, to “fear change”.  It would seem that the very nature of the universe is change and it is the one thing that can be counted upon time and again to strike the most fear into the hearts of humans.  Fearing change is like wearing a blindfold. It hinders you from seeing the bigger universe.  It is time we take off our blindfolds and venture forth into the world with our eyes wide open so that we may be able to help our students succeed in life.

You may be asking, why I’ve developed a sudden interest in change and the natural fear that seems to go along with it.

The truth is that next year I will be starting a new school and my vision is to have this school be the very essence of change. It will exist to improve student learning through the piloting of new programs and initiatives.  It will become a laboratory in which our goal is to help all students achieve mastery of their subject domains. I’ve long been, and continue to be, a supporter of using research to drive instructional and organizational decisions. However, I’ve found almost zero research for one of my initiatives that will be implemented next year. I’ve conducted research in a multitude of literature journals and educational databases from the university and I’ve still found little in the way of research.  That means that the initiative I am proposing is based upon anecdotal observations.  I propose the following:

Every three to five years, teachers should change the grade level in which they teach.

I know that some teachers are already pointing their slings and arrows in my direction, however I ask that, if you are one of these teachers, you hold back your attack and first listen to the reasoning behind this initiative so that you might understand why I have chosen this course of action.  Perhaps by the time you are done reading, you too may be swayed to take arms against a sea of troubles with me (Hopefully Shakespeare doesn’t mind me repurposing his words).

Let me preface this next section by stating that next year every teacher at my school is experiencing some type of change (be it grade level assignment, subject matter taught, or pedagogical methodology).  The response has been overwhelmingly positive from my faculty and many are excited to be a part of this initiative. With that being said, here are my observations (and these are taken not only from schools in which I have taught but in visiting many other schools and observing their operations).

Stagnation can lead to atrophy


As a reminder, these are all of my own anecdotal observances they are not based on any research.

I have witnessed teachers who teach one grade level for many years.  By many I mean 10 +.  Some would argue that this would make the teacher an expert in that grade level and I would agree.  This is certainly a possibility, however, more often than not, I have found that teachers in this situation tend to stick to the lessons they like the most, they don’t embrace new teaching methodologies, and they genuinely have a severe lack of understanding of what other grade level teachers do throughout the year.

In the process of remaining the same, they begin to whither in their effectiveness as educators.  I’ve witnessed teachers teaching lessons about butterflies, dinosaurs, family trees, etc. when these topics are not even part of the standards that are supposed to be taught to their grade levels. I’ve witnessed teachers who actively resist utilizing new technologies that have been proven by research to help improve student learning, teachers who are more happy using an overhead than actually having a student interact with the subject through using technology.

In essence, teachers in this situation tend to get stuck in a feedback loop and never really develop beyond their first few years of lesson plans. The tragedy is that students suffer at the cost of keeping a teacher comfortable.

Lack of organizational understanding


The other observation I have made is that sometimes teachers who remain within one grade level tend to become an island unto themselves. They lack a clear understanding of what other teachers do for the school and only focus upon their single room. Imagine a teacher who never understands the pressures and responsibilities that an 8th grade teacher has in helping his or her students enter high school, the responsibility of teaching sacraments in 2nd grade Catholic school, or the difficulties in planning weeklong science camps in the middle school?

For some, it is difficult to develop a true respect for the roles and responsibilities of other grade levels until they have been asked to take on those responsibilities. In this regard, I seek a deeper understanding and mutual respect among fellow educators.

The god complex


I’ve witnessed this in at least two different schools with teachers that have held a single grade level position for more than 10 years.  Sometimes teachers begin to believe that they are the best individuals for the grade level and that no one can do the job better than they can.  I’ve heard these teachers actively throw near tantrums when a change to their curriculum is introduced or when a teacher is asked to take a portion of their class to teach because the class size is too large for one teacher. I am under no misconception. I know there is always someone in the world that can do the job better than I can. My job is to do the best I can with what I am assigned.

The danger is that these teachers develop such hubris that they begin to stop seeking better ways of teaching and actively derail new initiatives if they do not fit within their comfort zone. It is better to be humble than to build delusions of grandeur.

The plan


So, what then is my plan?  As an administrator of a Catholic school I have a global view of the teaching landscape within my site.  I am not hindered by thinking of only a single classroom or grade level, yet I also lack research to support the initiative. Does that mean I should do nothing and allow 200 + children to remain in a situation that I feel is not in their best interest? I think not. So here is my plan.

First of all, I need teacher buy-in.  For the most part I have it.  Any new teachers that are hired will be hired with a full understanding of this plan and that should help alleviate any anxiety about moving to another grade level (after all I will be upfront and discuss it during the hiring process).   Once I have teacher buy in, I need to develop the implementation.

I do not believe that switching grades every year is helpful (unless a teacher specifically requests it).  Rather, I believe that 3-5 years allows a teacher to develop a thorough understanding of the grade level they are teaching and to have confidence with their subject matter.

I also do not believe in drastic changes, such as moving an 8th grade teacher to teach Kindergarten.  It takes a special teacher to teach kindergarten and a special mindset to teach middle school. Drastic changes such as these would happen only at the request of the teacher and only with thorough analysis and review conducted by the administration.

What I propose is that teachers move within roughly a 3 grade level setting.  For example teachers moving from grades 1-3 would help develop a greater understanding of the responsibilities of these grade levels in developing literacy for students.  Grades 4-5 may wish to move up or down depending on their preference. Middle school is a bit tricky.

Middle school tends to be departmentalized and I do not believe in moving someone outside of his or her credentialed area of expertise. Therefore these changes would largely be between grade levels.  Most of these teachers teach grades 6-8 for their particular subject so their curriculum really doesn’t change that much.  However, changing homeroom grade levels does introduce them to the responsibilities that each grade level faces.

This is truly a pilot program that I am initiating in my school next year so I will be carefully assessing its effect upon student learning.  If it proves successful, then I will continue to adapt.  If it does not, then I will adjust as necessary.  The one thing I cannot stand doing is nothing.

As an administrator, it’s my duty to ensure that the students receive the best possible learning opportunities.  I know that there are teachers out there who will read this post and have an immediate negative reaction.  I also know there are some who would be excited by such an experience.   The nature of my school next year is innovation and change and if all faculty members believe in this, then I believe we can accomplish great things for our students.

Perhaps Tolstoy was correct and its time we look to changing ourselves in order to help change the world. After all, Socrates believed that “The unexamined life is not worth living”.  I agree. It is time we examine our practices, our lives, and start truly living in the realm of modern education.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this topic.  What has been your experience with this? Would you like to try a program like this or does it cause anxiety? I look forward to your comments.

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