A Tool to Guide Change in the Classroom

It’s January, albeit the end of January.  Most people (whether they’ll admit it or not) thought about changing and improving with the new year.  It’s a natural inclination–probably spurred on by targeted advertising and social media.  Change–specifically positive change–is necessary for growth or progress.

I’ve always appreciated that as teachers we have plenty of opportunities to turn the page and start fresh.  New school years, semesters, and even quarters are natural breaks that allow us to hit the reset button and find ways to improve, but even beyond that, we can resolve to change for the better with each new unit, topic, or text we teach.

To be the best classroom leader we can be we should always be on the lookout for improvements we can make.  Executive Coach Marshall Goldsmith (author of Triggers), created the Wheel of Change to guide business leaders through change within their organizations. Other life coaches have applied Goldsmith’s Wheel to help individuals focus on self-improvement.  I see it as a useful tool for evaluating our previously-taught lessons before we teach them to a new group of students.

Goldsmith’s Wheel asks us to evaluate the current situation, in our case, our lesson–identifying elements that are good enough to keep and those that should be changed or dropped altogether. The Wheel of Change helps us to zero in on the kinds of changes we need to make in our content, our delivery, our assessments, and our instructional routines.  These are four types of change he suggests we consider:

Creating is the easy part–we are constantly exposed to things we want to add or invent–we read an idea in a blog, learn something new at a PD, or find something on TPT or Pinterest. Depending on where you are in your career, you may be doing a lot of creating (new teachers, new preps) or very little (teachers with filing cabinets full of lessons).  

As the new teachers I work with remind me, it’s exhausting to constantly be creating lesson plans.  They all look forward to being able to reach into the filing cabinet or search the drive and find the lesson they taught last year and just go with it. However enticing that sounds, and as so many of us who have built those filing cabinets know, we need to be wary of just recycling what we did last year–there’s always room for improvement. 

Perhaps you can truly create/invent a new approach to an old topic.  For example, I used to have students do research presentations on various topics related to the 1920s as a pre-reading assignment for The Great Gatsby.  After sitting through too many lackluster presentations in front of disengaged audiences of other students, I created a choice board for students to explore all the topics on their own–making each accountable for learning something about each of the topics on their own. It actually takes less class time and the students definitely learn more.  New strategies, texts, and tools can be invigorating for us and our students.  

Although it might not sound like it, Preserving is also a choice Goldsmith encourages us to consider. We need to look at our lessons and determine if there is something good enough to keep, but maybe tweak a little.  For example, you know it’s important for the students to read the chapter, but felt that the chapter questions weren’t engaging enough.  Maybe you can improve the questions or use another technique for assessing understanding.  

Sometimes preserving means just keeping an aspect of your lesson the way it is.  If it’s not broken, it doesn’t need fixing, right?  This is important for new teachers, too, who are tempted to try to make everything from scratch.  Our own sanity may require that we maintain the majority of what we’ve done before (or what was suggested by the Teacher’s Edition).   

Eliminating can be liberating and therapeutic, but we are often reluctant to do so–even when we recognize that something is ineffective.  I’ll never forget the time I heard Carol Jago speak at  a training and she said something about English teachers feeling like they have to finish every book they teach.  If it’s not going well, she said, wrap it up by Friday–whatever it takes.  Skip sections, summarize, just be done with it.  Your students will be just as grateful.  I love this and I’ve done it–not just when it’s not going well, but when I’m running out of time.  There’s no harm in summarizing a chapter or two to finish a book before spring break.  The students will get more out of it if we wrap it up than if we drag it out (those who want to will go back and read what we skipped).  

We should also eliminate–reduce or get rid of–some of the busy work and bad habits we’ve built into our lessons over the years.  Is there any value in having students write definitions for the vocabulary in the chapter?  Yes, it gives us some time to grade papers, but what are the students getting out of it?  Review each component of the lesson and see if there are outdated or ineffective practices you can eliminate.   

Accepting is also a sanity-preserving choice. There are elements of our lessons that we may not like, but we may just need to make peace with them–each year is a process and you may not have time or energy to completely rework your lessons. And there are also plenty of things we have no control over–standardized tests, district or school-based curriculum requirements, for example.  Railing against things we can’t control adds nothing to the value we bring to our students.  This isn’t acquiescence. By accepting that we cannot change everything, we allow ourselves to focus on what we can change thereby making our lesson the best it can be at this time.  (Sounds a lot like The Serenity Prayer, right?) 

For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading for 10th graders in my school.  I really struggle to get my reluctant readers through that book.  Instead of arguing about it, through time, I’ve made peace with it and have found ways to create new approaches (the screenplay and an audiobook), preserve key elements (Atticus’s speech and the reading of the verdict), and eliminate parts of the the text by reading Spark Notes summaries.  It’s possible to accept something and make it better at the same time.   

Goldsmiths’ Wheel of Change can be used to evaluate every aspect of our teaching practices, not just our lesson planning.  Take time at the end of the week to reflect on your procedures, your instructional strategies, and how you spend your planning time.  Because, as they say, it never gets easier, you just get better.  What changes can you make that would make your classroom a better place for learning and teaching? 

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