Man-made specialist islands – the disconnected floating masses that drift around at a school due to the mentality that these classes serve to cover mainstream teachers’ prep times. How do I know about them? I have been on one myself many times throughout my career. Being on one of these islands is a very isolating experience as an educator. Quite often we are left out of professional development provided to mainstream teachers, so we are never quite sure if we are in line with the teaching philosophy of the school. We are unaware of the special learning needs and individualized learning plans that exist, so when these students arrive in our classes, we don’t know how best to support them. Our classes run as stand-alone subjects with no links to what students are learning in their other subject areas. This often means we plan alone and are left out of team collaborations. We are told about special events at a school in the last minute, and need to adapt on the fly. In short, the islands are there, however they are often overlooked.
Is it beneficial for a school to have these man-made floating islands? Absolutely not. Specialists play an integral role in education, and when included and informed they can have a huge impact on student learning. I know this from my time at the Netherlands Inter-community School (NIS) when the Language Framework I developed was implemented. When the islands disappeared, student learning in each class became relevant and interconnected. Because we specialists knew exactly what was happening in the mainstream, we were able to tailor our classes accordingly – what we covered in our classes linked to the other classes. We began joining in on staff collaborative planning and began contributing to International Primary Curriculum (IPC) entry and exit points. We invited mainstream classroom teachers into our classrooms so they could observe how we were connected to them. Information on student learning needs were shared with us so we could better support them in our classes. Slowly the mentality that we were there to cover prep times began to change, and we became equals – the islands disappeared and we were able to become part of the mainland. The result? The rate of student success increased significantly.
How does a school go about removing these man-made islands? The first step is acknowledging the importance of the specialists and designing an inclusive Educational Framework. Once the framework (plan of action) is in place, the next step is designing individualized planners that take into account teachers’ diverse needs, and that link the classes together. Afterwards, timetabling that allows for both collaboration time between specialists and between specialists and mainstream teachers must be ensured. Once all three of these areas are complete, administration needs to begin sharing the new plan of action with staff. The shift in the staff’s mentality will not be immediate, but once the shift occurs, the results are well worth it!
We as educators know the feeling that comes right after attending an educational conference or professional development, that euphoric high of new possibilities in our classrooms. We come back to school energized, refreshed and excited about sharing what we have learned with others. And we do, for a few days. We try out a few new websites, test out a few new games or worksheets, and then the reality sets in: how exactly do we implement the big ideas that we’ve absorbed during educational conferences in our classrooms? And then the ideas fade away, and are put on the back burner for another time, another school year perhaps ... and therein lies the problem with professional development – no one is providing the tools for us to realistically implement the big ideas in the classroom, and we as teachers (for the most part) are left grasping the small, concrete tidbits that are provided.
So how do we fix the problem? How can we make sure that the big ideas can be implemented in the classroom? The answer – planners. For each professional development session attended, there should always be a moment for us teachers to look at our individual school planners and discuss the changes we would need to make in order to incorporate new ideas. We may need a new planner all together. For example, if we are attending a session on guided reading, we should walk away with a modified or new planner (see planner below) – the tool on hand – so that when we re-enter our classrooms, we have a clear plan of action – not simply just some activity examples to do – because once you complete the activities, then what? And how many of us have time to review the notes we took during the session? And who do we ask for assistance once the session is over?
We as educators need to push for a change in the way professional development is currently being offered. If we are expected to evolve and grow as teachers, we need to push for proper tools to be provided so that we can do so. Otherwise what is the point of professional development?
Imagine if that euphoric high that accompanies making a change in our classrooms and our schools could last more than just a few days ... with planners included as part of professional development, that feeling could very well become a constant presence in our lives as teachers.
When we graduate from university as teachers, we think that we are prepared for a career in education. We can assess, we know the basics of lesson planning and how curriculums work, we have been schooled in classroom management, we have completed the practicums, and then we enter the workforce. We naively march into our new school with the idea that we are prepared, only to discover that we are not. What university hasn’t prepared us for is the individual way schools run things, and the lack of structure. We have endless questions that seem to have vague answers, inconsistent answers, or simply no answers at all: is there a set way of lesson planning?, how are we to assess students?, is there a clear teaching philosophy in place throughout the school or are we left to our own devices? The only constant is that we know our students and we aim to do our best no matter the circumstances - our goal is for our students to achieve at their highest levels. We learn to accept that teaching isn’t an easy profession, to accept that sometimes we have to guess what administration is looking for and hope we get it right, and to appreciate that asking different teachers the same question will lead to different answers – no one is totally sure.
But does it have to be this way? Should it have to be this way? Absolutely not. Our training as teachers did give us the basics to apply at any given school, but if we had walked into a school that had a proper educational framework alongside its vision and mission statement, and individualized planners that met the needs of each teacher, we would have had a completely different experience. The framework would have outlined the school’s plan of action towards meeting their vision and how every single teacher connects in the big picture. The individualized planners would have been the tool we could have used to help the school achieve its goals. We would have been confident in knowing that what we were doing was what we were supposed to be doing and we would have walked into a cohesive teaching staff that understood how every grade and class connects, all headed in the same direction.
If we as teachers were able to work at schools with the proper structure and plan of action in place, it would change our entire career experience. Instead of the constant worry of figuring out and guessing, we could focus entirely on what matters the most, and why we chose to go into the profession in the first place – our students.
If you are wondering what an educational framework is and how individualized planners work, please read the following articles:
A Vision vs an Educational Framework
What is an Educational Framework?
The Power of Planners