Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tale from the Field: Focusing on the Long Term: How We Overcame Resistance

From Heather MacDougall, Director of Santa Cruz Outdoor Science School, Watsonville, California.

When we first started implementing BEETLES we met some resistance, but we’ve since made a big leap away from that. Here’s how:

We’ve changed the way we do job Interviews. We talk about how we’ve adopted a new curriculum: BEETLES. We let potential employees know right away that we’re going to expect them to be able to change their teaching style, and they need to be OK with that. We look for familiarity with BEETLES/student-centered teaching. We’ve also changed our interview questions: We ask, “Tell us how you would teach about decomposition or adaptation.” One of the things we’re looking for is whether or not they include a discussion on the topic. We also have them teach a lesson. We ask, “Are you open to learning new teaching styles and philosophies?” They always say, “Yes,” but it’s interesting what they add to that. We have about a two-year turnover on teaching staff, which allows us to grow and change our culture relatively quickly.

We’ve empowered our lead field instructor to have a pivotal role. Our lead field instructor has been a huge asset. They have some authority but are also teaching all the time. We’ve found that the lead field instructor needs to have 100% buy-in, because they need to be able to cheerlead. Since they also teach in the program, other instructors can more easily connect with them as a more experienced person doing the same work. They also see what’s going on out there more than a director does, so I trust them to make the call—what does the staff need now to keep growing? They can also share their own successes/struggles/reflections about teaching with staff and to set that as a norm and to help define the culture as self-reflective.

It takes a lot of work. It’s not easy. People will revert back, until you reach the tipping point when this way of teaching has become your program’s culture. We would focus on a student activity at the beginning of each week and let folks know that they all needed to teach it at some point during the week. At the end of the week, we’d talk about successes and challenges. This creates an “everybody’s doing it, so I better do it so I have something to share” feeling.

Through these and other discussions, I can get an idea of who’s doing it and who’s not. It’s where individuals’ relationship to BEETLES/teaching becomes apparent, and where their fears or challenges come out. Obstacles that get in the way of doing it, such as fears or if their value as a teacher feels threatened, come forward, sometimes because they say it, and sometimes you just notice it. Those issues we address individually. One instructor came to us from a very science=facts program. We had to have a lot of conversations about things like, “You don’t need to tell them all this information they can easily get online.”

The book Switch has been helpful to me. In it, the authors (Chip Heath and Dan Heath) describe how human decision-making is like a tiny rider on a huge elephant. The rider is logical thought that thinks it’s in charge. The elephant is emotion, and it always wins. They suggest that for change to take place, you need to direct the rider, motivate the elephant, and shape the path. An effective way to direct the rider is by focusing on what is working well and expanding on it. An experience or a story often is effective to motivate the elephant. Then you shape the path by making change “easy,” removing as many obstacles as you can. One of the ways we’ve done that has been by providing plenty of staff reflection and planning time, and it’s within the work day, not on instructors’ own time. They are given planning time every day. I think resistance comes from people’s emotions, not their rational thoughts, and I try to appeal to their emotional experiences by supporting them as they develop new teaching styles.

Top-down and peer-to-peer. Without some top-down directives to change, I don’t think changes would’ve happened, but the peer-to-peer influence is more powerful, and that’s part of why our lead instructor is so influential. That’s why I’ve given them a lot of power to do whatever they think is right to implement. One programmatic feature that helped inspire more peer-to-peer influence has been increased opportunities for peer observations. One week we didn’t have many students, so we had “peer observation week.” All instructors were paired up, and each pair took turns teaching or observing each other, using reflective teaching tools. That way, everyone got experience following/giving coaching/being coached. The staff learned from this, appreciated it, and wanted to do it again. A takeaway has been that they really appreciate peer review. Now, whenever we have a staff member who is not teaching during a program, they use reflective-observation tools and observe different staff each day.

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