Science and Teaching for Field Instructors

Tale from the Field: Setting a Tone: How We Develop a Learning Culture Among Staff

From Ray Cramer, Senior Faculty for Teaching Practicum at Islandwood, Bainbridge Island, Washington.

As a graduate program, Islandwood has been focused on developing a culture of learning within their instructional staff for many years. Here’s a brief synopsis of how they do it.

Challenge people’s ideas of what science looks like and how we talk about it. This is a key feature of what we do with both students and staff. For example, instead of telling students, “We’re being scientists,” we encourage them to say, “We’re thinking like scientists.” This is a subtle, but important distinction. The first statement may ring false as students may think, “I’m not a scientist, I’m a fifth grader.” The second statement implies that no matter who you are, what you do, or your profession, everyone can develop their abilities to think like a scientist.

Develop a growth mindset. This is a key feature of what we do with both students and staff. A “fixed mindset” implies that we are born with certain abilities. One way we encourage a growth mindset with instructors is by telling them, “You can be a superstar instructor. It’s not innate, and it’s not a secret how to do it. We know what the skills are that you need to be a superstar teacher, and we know how to help you develop them. How? You need to embrace mistakes. You need to try to talk about reality—what really happened—as accurately and honestly as you can.” (We also use Islandwood’s Dispositions of a Whole Life Educator).

Helping instructors apply principles. Cohorts of instructors build principles they want to follow when teaching, when talking to each other, when interacting with other groups, sharing space, when planning their day, etc. These agreements are posted in a staff area. They also have a list of principles of instruction that they each write, alter, and try to follow. These are also posted.

Instructors create professional growth plans. These are created with the help of a mentor and are modeled after those used by preservice teachers in credential programs in Washington state (see Islandwood’s Dispositions of a Whole Life Educator, linked above). They look at dispositions, skills, and knowledge goals they want to focus on for that season. They’re aiming to keep all principles in mind, but their professional growth plan is the one they focus on. Their goals are informed by the principles but are different.

Observations of instructors. Instructors are observed once a week. The instructors are expected to tell the observer what to look for. If they say, “I’d like you to look for evidence of student engagement,” then we ask, “What does that look like? What exactly are the ‘look fors’ I should be watching for?” For example, “Am I responding equally to wrong answers without giving hints?” or “What’s the gender balance in those I am calling on?” We try to keep the observations “in their court.” It adds to the spirit of them being observed, not evaluated. It’s us working together to learn, grow, and look for evidence. They get a write-up of each observation. They also get a 5-minute video of their instruction. They’re encouraged to be directive about what they want recorded, and it should be something relevant. For example, “I want you to record the students’ reaction to this prompt ; ; ;” or “Can you film how I respond to students’ comments during discussion?”

Journaling. They journal every week, based on a prompt from practicum class from Monday. They don’t have to write on that prompt, but it’s a fall-back option. They are encouraged to take risks that get others reading and thinking. They’re asked to read each other’s blog entries and comment, and they get to see how many hits and comments they got. Their mentor gets an email any time there’s a post or comment, so they can see what the mentee is thinking about. This information feeds into our one-on-one meetings that happen every week.

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