Sunday, March 10, 2013

Adminstrators Role in Encouraging Teacher Risk-Taking

In previous posts I discussed the need for risk-taking and how teachers can inspire risk-taking in students. Today, I’m going to focus on how administrators can encourage risk-taking in the their teachers.

One of the biggest impediments for teacher risk-taking is that so much is at stake. Our best teachers realize that every minute of every class matters. Hard-pressed to effectively teach the curriculum in the allotted time, teachers stick to their tried and true lessons. If a lesson bombs, conscientious teachers feel immense pressure to make-up for lost time. For these reasons, teachers often stick with what’s comfortable, not wanting to leave their comfort zone. In these days of high-stakes testing, I can’t blame them.

To encourage teachers to step out of their comfort zones, school leaders must be trusted.  The relationship between trust and risk is paradoxical. There is no trust without risk. There is no risk without trust. Risk-taking requires everyone to go outside their comfort zones. Taking risks will increase trust and allowing teachers to take more risks, they’ll become better at taking future risks.

How can administrators create a risk-taking and trusting environment?

1.     Communicate. Make it clear that you want teachers to try new lessons, knowing that the outcomes are not sure. Clarify the degree of risk that is acceptable. Teachers need to know that it’s more than okay to diverge from the district prescribed pacing guide, for example. Once trust has been established, ask teachers to invite you into their classes when they’re trying a brand new lesson. Make it a school-wide goal that each teacher will create at least one brand new lesson.
2.     Collaborate. As administrators, we must find time to allow teachers to work together. Providing teachers time to brainstorm, share and discuss is vital. To become the best, teachers must communicate and collaborate side-by-side. A team approach lessens the apprehension associated with taking risks. Risk-takers need support, creative license and encouragement to try new things, to occasionally fail and to recover.
3.     Professional development. As teachers we often revert to the safety of lectures or what we’re most comfortable with. At our school's edcamp earlier in the year, two teachers presented on how they used games and high-energy activities in their classes. While they presented, an excellent veteran teacher turned to me and said, “I’ve always wanted to try things like this, but was never sure of myself.” For the next 30 minutes she scribbled notes and asked questions of the presenters. Armed with new strategies, she tried several of them out over the next few days with great success.
5.     Recognize behaviors as much as outcomes. Last year, a non-tenured teacher tried something new for her formal observation. Her lesson bombed. In all fairness much of what happened was beyond her control: the Internet went down and several students were absent due to testing. The lesson, of course, was contingent on having access to the Internet while students worked in groups. Because it was a new lesson, the teacher didn’t have a bunch of tricks up her sleeve to deal with these problems, so the class slowed spiraled out of control. It would have been easy to give the teacher a scathing observation.  Instead, I focused on the teacher’s positives. Her lesson was well designed. She remained calm and collected (tougher said than done as the Internet periodically came and went, teasing her and her students). Never punish a teacher for a well-thought out risk.
As administrators, we must encourage risk-taking. Risk-takers are more likely to feel trustworthy and accepted. Teachers should be encouraged to try something new, so they can prove themselves and learn from their experiences.

We owe it to our students to encourage risks. 

How do you encourage risk-taking behavior?

1 comment:

Barbara Warren Madden said...

The three words a teacher wants to hear from an admin are, "I TRUST YOU."