“Teaching more than virtually any activity (aside from parenting, perhaps) depends on quick instinctive habits and behaviour, and on deeply held ways of seeing and valuing.”         ~Deborah Meier~

When you spend a few hours in the classroom of a skilled teacher (as I did today) the gravity of Deb Meier’s quote becomes apparent.  A skilled teacher makes is all look so easy that the old cliches about how ‘any one can teach’ become almost believable…almost.

It is important for me to remember that, although it is the teachers who are seen, what must be observed is the practice, not the people. Failing to observe and describe the practice, and ascribing credit to the personality, or aura of the person is a risky and ultimately unproductive endeavour.

Let me give a contextual example. If you walk into any K-12 classroom and ask a student to tell a bit about themselves it is unlikely that they will tell you that they are a ‘student’ or launch into a complicated description about how the task they are engaged in defines who they are or what they value. Kids are able to separate who they are from what they are doing (at least in school). It would be great if teachers adopted the same disposition.

Often, in my supervisory capacity, I work with teachers around changing their practice and often this is taken as a personal or evaluative challenge to who they are (as opposed to what they are doing). This is why I spend a lot of time and effort building trust and using precise, non-judgemental, descriptive language when working with colleagues.

It is, after all, about the practice, not the person. Our challenge is that we have evolved a culture in our schools that places too much emphasis the ‘personality’ of the teacher and not enough on the practice. It is easy to see how this can be, things move so fast in classrooms that there exists a steady blur between the teacher and the teacher’s practice.

Let’s work on changing this, let’s lead in a way that helps our skilled and dedicated teachers know that we want to use processes like Action Research, Lesson Study and Co-teaching to capture the best practices so we can build a body of professional knowledge that all of us can draw upon.

After all, the people are important…and so is the practice. We need both.

Cross-posted with my blog thesmalleroffice.


  1. This is an important point, Brian — it is only when we get to the point where we can have conversations about practices INSTEAD of conversations about people that we get to the real meat of changing instruction in meaningful ways.

    Let me push back a bit here, though: Do you think it is REALLY possible for a principal to have these kinds of nonjudgmental/nonevaluative conversations with teachers?

    I know that as a teacher, ANY time that I’m talking with my principal, I feel like I’M being evaluated. Those conversations — no matter how much I trust my principal — are inherently different simply because in the end you ARE making judgments about me as a person and a practitioner.

    That’s why the most productive conversations that I’ve ever had about changing instruction have happened with my peers INSTEAD of my principals. By taking away the threat of evaluation, I’m far more open to critique and challenge.

    Does this make any sense?

    April 19, 2012
    • Hi Bill,

      Your response makes perfect sense. I’m quite confident that most classroom teachers feel the same way and that is key to the thrust of my post.

      My worry is that if the productive conversations you refer to happen without principals the cultural shift that we need to happen will not. This is not only unfortunate but also part of the bigger problem~ hierarchy and ‘position’ seem to be more important than learning and collaboration, for students and for teachers.

      I’ve learned a great deal about ways that I can try to collaborate with teachers in a safe and non-judgemental stance from Richard Elmore’s work at Harvard:

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my post.


      April 20, 2012
    • Shawn Blankenship said:

      Great post Brian. I agree that the focus must shift from teaching to conversations centered around student learning. Bill, your comment has me thinking. How do my teachers perceive our conversations? If I am totally honest with myself, they may feel a little threatened simply because I am always challenging them to do more. The problem is, I make it a focus to provide ongoing feedback throughout the school year so that the evaluation is not a surprise. I believe if it is a surprise, more than the teacher failed. With this said, what can I do differently? What can I do more?

      I guess the question, “Is it REALLY possible?” is a great question. I think the best leaders have the ability to engage in honest and transparent conversations without any judgement or threat. Maybe I should listen a little more, replace feedback with guiding questions, and work to instill self-evaluation skills.

      Thank you both for causing me to think about my own practice and ways in which I can improve as a leader. Non-threatening conversations are essential for growth and improvement, therefore, what are some steps principals can take to engage in non-threatening conversations? Bill, what steps could I take if I were your principal to EARN your trust and your ability to speak freely and engage in a productive conversation?

      April 21, 2012
      • I appreciate the feedback and thoughtful response. That ‘trust’ word pops up again and again in this area and I wonder how many of us in the principal’s role account for the ways that we can build (or diminish) trust.

        I think that Shawn’s reflections on trying to listen more, ask guiding questions and work on self-evaluation skills are not only helpful habits for administrators, they also would be helpful classroom practices.

        April 22, 2012

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