Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Value of Questioning in Professional Growth

When I started teaching, I recognized the value of learning from teachers who had more experience and wisdom than I. Through a formal mentoring program at my school, I was assigned two long-term veterans as mentors, and we observed each others’ classroom practices and made time (when we could) to discuss how things were going.

As I look back, I am certainly grateful for the support that came from those mentoring relationships; I know that many new teachers get a much less auspicious start than I did. But as I reflect on the work my mentors and I did together, I see a way in which my perception of the experience was fundamentally flawed: I was seeking models of effective teaching practice when I really should have been looking for models of effective professional learning.

To be sure, I engaged in the professional development behaviors that I knew how to do. I bought books on topics that related to the courses and content I taught. I subscribed to English Journal and vowed (sometimes successfully) to read each issue. I even secured funding to attend an NCTE Convention. But none of those activities really “stuck” because I was engaging in them rather passively and superficially. I looked for resources that seemed topically relevant, saw what they had to offer, and either acted on them or didn’t.

What I lacked was the ability to formulate appropriate questions to address the issues and challenges I was facing in the classroom. Access to the best professional development resources around—publications, meetings, mentors—doesn’t mean much if those resources aren’t situated in a framework of active inquiry and application of new learning.

I’m likely being overly hard on myself. After all, when you don’t know very much, it’s difficult to know what you don’t know. That’s why, as I start work with students and other teachers this fall, I’m going to make a very conscious effort to acknowledge the centrality of good questions to the process of professional growth. Everyone is at a different place on the continuum of development, and the more models of sustained teacher inquiry we see in each other, the more likely we all are to engage in such practice.

Instead of reading a stack of student papers only to give them supportive feedback, I’ll also consider the questions their work implies both about their needs as learners and my needs as a teacher. Could I have built some additional scaffolding into the process to have achieved even better results? What do students need next to continue developing as thinkers and writers?

When student behavior disrupts the learning environment, rather than reaching for the phone to bring parents into the loop and achieve a quick fix, I’ll also inquire more deeply into what went wrong. How can I use the moment to teach respectfully about self-control? Did I contribute, even accidentally, to a cycle of conflict that could have been extinguished?

The needs of my students and my professional identity as a teacher are worth the investment of time that such reflective practice requires.

It took me too long to start to develop a sense of what it means to be an effective teacher-learner. It’s an important challenge for each of us to make explicit for each other our processes of asking good questions; seeking high-quality, relevant resources; and implementing action-based solutions. Whether you’re a mentor or mentee (and we’re all really both, officially or unofficially) this fall, I hope you’ll also work to bring to the foreground the importance of inquiry to the professional identity of teachers in your building.


Mrs. K said...

I completely agree. We need to look at what we are doing and how we're contributing to the state of our classrooms and schools in general. It's not enough to just read and attend conferences (even if the books are read and the conferences attended with good intentions). We need to look at what we are practicing and be willing to take the appropriate actions if what we are doing is counterproductive for our students.

Carol Christine said...

We also need to teach our students the importance and value of asking good questions. We should, of course, model, and we should give them many supported chances to ask questions about our classroom, about topics they are interested in, and about what happens around them.

mjh said...

Scott, you've been able to say something I haven't been able to. Thank you. I think it's related to the "can I use this on Monday?" syndrome. Perhaps you are too hard on yourself -- knowing the "motions" takes lots of energy and some time. The recent passing of Ken Macrorie made me recall that my feeling of unease about a sophomore writing course connected with his
"Uptaught," and then I had a real question to pursue.

Anonymous said...

Scott, Our school has found that using professional learning communities has promoted good questions and great professional discussion. The learning groups have zeroed in on common problems and read, tried things, etc. Then the group comes back and discusses findings. Did it work? How do You know it worked? What next? The communities have used student work and their lesson plans to allow the group members to help them improve learning.
This may not be exaclty what you are getting out, but I think that professional learning communities are great places to ask questions and explore professional practice if your school has the kind of environment that allows people to try things and make mistakes without being penalized.

CRC said...

CRC asserts. . .
You can become a better teacher of writing only by learning more about writing, about written language--the concrete reality of our work as writing teachers. You are uniquely a teacher of language and written rhetoric or discourse. Have you had a course in the history of writing, from its magical beginnings in what is now modern Iran? A course in syntax and cohesion? A course in the history of the English language? In the history of rhetoric? In grammar and cohesion? At least two writing workshops in different genres you teach? Have you read about how published writers actually manage writing projects, getting them accomplished without undue torment? Don't be diverted by all the abstract jargon that floats around in our field as a comfort to the uninformed--process, critical thinking, analysis, critical reading, thinking, critical thinking, etc. You are a teacher of English language and writing. Those are your subjects to know intimately. Nothing else can substitute. There are no shortcuts. This fundamental, grounding knowledge helps you make good decisions about how to help students of any age develop as writers. You translate it for your students. (It's not for you to teach and quiz in the form in which you learned it.)

And: You have to show students examples of the genres you want to teach them, even if you have to write models for them. Broad reading of any and all kinds will not teach students how to explain a concept or process, evaluate (make a judgment about) a movie or story, write a short story, take a stand on some local current issue, etc., etc.

Also: you have to carefully stage students' work on any writing assignment, from genre study, through invention, to revision.