Principles for the Selection of Focus   Catalog #213: Helping Others with Their Teaching

All of us who teach, at whatever level, have to face the fact that we cannot offer our learners all the possible advice, suggestions, commentary, or information that might be helpful or instructive to them. When we work with people in any situation, we constantly make choices concerning the nature of the interactions we have. Like all teaching, the work involved in helping others with their teaching is embedded in relationships. It is useful to assume that relationships have to have content and that people cannot just "relate" without some content that is of mutual or shared interest or concern. In the case of professional relationships, the content is about something outside of the two or more individuals in the relationship.

The potential contents of human relationships are so large and broad that some decisions must be made concerning which content is most relevant, appropriate, and useful at any given time in any given situation. Similarly, there are probably more than a dozen "right" or effective ways to respond in any given situation—and probably just as many ineffective ways. Since we cannot respond in all the ways that are possible, choices have to be made. Some choices are made by invoking tradition (e.g., this is how we have always done it). Others are made because it is thought that teachers either want or expect them, or will attend carefully to them. Some choices reflect philosophical commitments. The principles outlined below are recommended for use when considering what content to focus on when interacting with the teachers and student teachers we want to help.

1. Focus on Teachers' Understandings of Situations

The term "understandings" is used here to refer to teachers' ideas, thoughts, constructions, concepts, assumptions, or schemas about such things as how children learn, what "works," how they affect their pupils, what they expect of themselves, what others expect of them, their roles, their duties, and so forth. Perhaps the most useful course of action available to inservice educators may be to focus on helping teachers develop understandings of their work that are more appropriate, more accurate, deeper, and more finely differentiated than they had previously been (see Katz, 1977b). The rationale underlying this principle is that the focus on understandings helps the teacher acquire knowledge, ideas, insights, or information he or she can keep and use after the inservice educator has left the scene.

Directives, prescriptions, instructions, or even "orders" might also address the problem the teacher is trying to cope with, but their value is likely to be of short duration. It seems reasonable to assume that modified understandings are more likely than prescriptions and directives to help teachers to generate appropriate new behaviors by themselves. To illustrate, one teacher complained that she had been unable to stop one of her kindergartners from persistent hitting of several others in her class. When asked what approaches she had tried so far, she explained that she had already hit the boy as hard as she dared in order to "show him how much hitting hurts." In such a situation, the inservice educator might want simply to prohibit the teacher's hitting by citing a rule or regulation or a philosophical position.

However, the teacher's understanding of a kindergartner's ability to learn, when the kindergartner suffers pain after he or she has been hit, that it is important not to hit others seems inadequate. In this case, the teacher's understanding of the situation she is trying to cope with could be improved by suggesting to her that when adults hurt children (by hitting them) and provide a model for hurting others, they are unlikely to convince children not to do so as well. Such a principle concerning the adult as a model of desirable and undesirable conduct applies to many situations other than the specific one in question.

Other aspects of this teacher's understanding of children's responses to censure and her knowledge of alternative ways of handling the disruptive behavior of children might also be addressed by the inservice educator. While a directive or school district regulation might change the teacher's behavior in a particular incident, only modification of understandings is likely to have enduring value or to serve as a basis for more appropriate action in subsequent similar situations.

Inservice educators often struggle with the question of how directive they should be. They frequently try to relate as "equals" to the teachers they are trying to help. While they are equal in most respects (e.g., they are equally adults, professionals, educators, citizens, etc.), it is taken to be a general principle that the role of any teacher—in this case the inservice educator—is legitimized by the fact that a teacher is someone whose understandings of the phenomenon of interest are better in certain ways than those of the learner. That is to say, an inservice educator is someone who has more useful, appropriate, accurate, or differentiated understandings than the teacher being helped. The tacit acknowledgment that such differences exist legitimizes the educator's right and authority to provide inservice training.

2. Focus on Strengthening Desirable Dispositions

Widespread enthusiasm for performance-based teacher education, and for competency-based education in general, seems to be associated with the risk of underemphasizing the development of learners' desirable dispositions. Dispositions, as defined here, include relatively stable "habits of mind" or tendencies to respond to one's experiences or to given situations in certain ways.

In deciding what responses to make to teachers, it is reasonable for teacher educators to choose those that are likely to strengthen enduring dispositions thought to be related to effective teaching. Examples of such dispositions include openness to children's ideas and feelings, inventiveness or resourcefulness, patience (i.e., longer reaction times), friendliness, and enthusiasm.

Dispositions likely to undermine effective teaching include tendencies to be impetuous, unfriendly, hypercritical, rejecting, racist, sexist, and so forth. Two suppositions provide the rationale for this principle. First, as already suggested, it seems obvious that we cannot teach all the knowledge, skills, methods, techniques, etc., that are of potential use to teachers. This being the case, it seems advisable to teach teachers and caregivers in such a way as to strengthen their dispositions to go on learning, and to be inventive long after the inservice educator's work with them is over. Second, while we indeed want to help teachers with specific pedagogical skills and methods, it is important to do so without undermining their dispositions to be resourceful and "self-helpful." In short, we should guard against helping a teacher acquire competencies in a way that might engender or strengthen a disposition to be dependent or helpless.

3. Focus on Maintaining Competencies Already Acquired

In our eagerness to be "change agents," we may overlook the possibility that the teachers we work with may already have the competencies appropriate for, or required of, a given situation. Indeed, Gliessman (1984) has suggested that virtually all of the component skills of teaching are within the repertoires of most people, whether they have anything to do with teaching or not. People know how to listen, explain, give directions, state rules, etc., without professional training. Training is intended to mobilize already available skills into coherent and appropriate patterns for teaching.

Thus, the focus of inservice education should be on helping teachers use already available competencies more reliably, consistently, appropriately, or confidently. For example, a kindergarten teacher might be sufficiently skilled at guiding a discussion with pupils but may vary too greatly in his performance from one occasion to the next. If so, he probably does not require a training module on discussion skills, but would perhaps benefit from a fuller or better understanding of the causes of his own performance fluctuations, or from assistance in becoming more alert to cues that cause him to perform in ways that—as the saying goes—he "knows better" than to do! He might be helped, at least temporarily, by the suggestion that he refrain from leading discussions except when classroom conditions are optimal. In that way, the teacher may be able to consolidate and strengthen mastery of a skill he already has before trying it out under less than optimal conditions. Similarly, teachers of young children are often exhorted to "listen" to the children. It is reasonable to assume that all teachers have such listening competencies in their repertoires, although they may employ them inappropriately or inconsistently.

In yet another case, a teacher may have the skills required to deal with a given situation but fail to use them with sufficient confidence to be effective. For example, if the teacher's actions betray a lack of confidence when she is setting limits or redirecting or stopping disruptive behavior, children may perceive mixed signals, challenge her, and thus exacerbate the situation, causing her already low confidence to decrease further. In such cases, the inservice educator's role becomes one of "shaping" or supporting the teacher's efforts to practice and strengthen already available behavior, rather than focusing on the acquisition of new competencies.

4. Focus on Building Long-Term Relationships

This principle refers to those situations in which an observation of a teacher prompts us to offer "corrections." Sometimes, in our eagerness to be helpful and to establish our own credibility, we may offer corrections too hastily. Although in certain situations it may be appropriate to make corrections, there is often the risk of losing the opportunity to go on helping that teacher over a longer period of time by alienating him or her through premature corrections. The principle of withholding correction is not a matter of the "rightness" of the advice but of allowing sufficient trust to develop between the inservice educator and the teacher so that the advice can be seen as an offer of help rather than as a criticism from an outside expert.

5. Focus on Providing Moderate Amounts of Inspiration

Many of the teachers we are trying to help can cope admirably with the complex tasks and responsibilities they face. They may not require new techniques, modules, packages, or gimmicks, although they may believe them necessary, but simply need occasional renewals of courage to enable them to sustain their efforts and to maintain enough enthusiasm to keep working at an unglamorous and often under-appreciated job. Excessive sapping of courage or enthusiasm, at times approaching depression (i.e., believing one's efforts have no effect), is a potential cause of ineffectiveness, no matter how many competencies the teacher has. Such ineffectiveness may depress enthusiasm and courage even further, which in turn may again decrease effectiveness, initiating a downward spiral. The inservice educator may be able to intervene in the downward spiral by providing moderate inspiration, encouragement, and support.

It seems important that the inspirational message be specifically related to the work setting and its characteristics rather than be a generalized message of good will. It is also suggested that supportive and encouraging messages contain real and useful information about the significance of the teacher's efforts. For example, it is likely to be more useful to say something like, "Those new activities really seemed to intrigue the older children in your class," than to say, "You're doing great." Furthermore, it may be wise to provide inspiration in optimum rather than maximum amounts so that teachers do not become "hooked" or dependent on it, thus undermining their dispositions to be self-helpful in the long run.

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