Start Here

The most useful professional development (PD) I’ve had over these past 10 years in education has been from presentations, workshops, and blogs that have given me a “start here.” It’s usually in the form of someone figuring out a really effective way to do something, then putting it into some kind of ready-to-go format, whether that’s a packaged method, or list of steps. The “start here” works because it’s the culmination of trial, error, and revision. The “start here” works because it represents the essential. When I’ve used someone else’s “start here,” it’s been really effective. Naturally, there’s adaptation and I’ve been able to put my own spin on things, but only after I’ve implemented whatever was presented to me. So what’s the problem?

Some teachers begin to change the “start here” right away.

For example, if I share a cocktail recipe with you called “The Lance Drink,” and upon seeing .25oz Sfumato in the ingredients you decide to just leave it out, you haven’t actually made The Lance Drink. You’ve certainly made a cocktail. It’s close, but something else. You’ve mixed together ingredients of which the outcome is unknown…and there’s a good chance it might not turn out very good. Let’s say you love vodka. It’s in every cocktail you make, no matter what. When I give you my recipe, you sub vodka for The Lance Drink’s rye base. Why? That’s what you’ve always used. It’s what you’ve always done. So you mix…you sip…but you immediately spit it out because vodka is a horrible combination with the other ingredients. You might even say “gee, this Lance Drink isn’t so great.”

Teaching is a bit like that.

Instead of going with something tried and true, teachers tend to hold onto stuff that just doesn’t mix, not giving the “start here” a real chance. Sometimes, they might go as far as to claim that the “start here” doesn’t work (or whatever), mischaracterizing whatever was presented to them. In the worst of cases, other teachers that never got the original “start here” just listen to the ones who changed something right away, and shun the changed version before they can try the original, effective one.

The next steps—for anyone who works with these teachers—become searching for how to reconcile old principles in the changed version with new ones that the original “start here” was based on. Sometimes there’s no solution. The principles are too conflicting. Sad. Yet it all could’ve been avoided by just taking the “start here” and rolling with it. I’ve actually heard back from teachers who’ve experienced both, mostly when it comes to grading practices. Instead of rolling with the “start here,” they tried some weird combo, thought things didn’t work, then gave up only to revert to old ways. Then, sometime later, they gave things another try—exactly how it was presented—and come to find out they’re all of a sudden embracing the change. Again, it all could’ve been avoided.

So, in sticking with the metaphor, what’s your vodka? Let go of that, and why not give rye a try next time?

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