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Feb 15, 2013

Selling student teaching and the communicative ecosystem

For the last two years, we have been worrying about student teaching placements. The new teacher evaluation system is making it harder with every semester. Teachers worry about student achievement, and are reluctant to give up control over their classrooms even for a few weeks. Many also feel stressed about the new system and don’t have time and energy to give to student teachers. They are especially disinclined to spend time bringing them up to speed on their immediate worries – SLO’s, teacher evaluation artifacts and rubrics. District officials further restrict our options, rightfully worrying that for some schools, student teachers would be a distraction.

We saw this coming for a while, and planted some seeds. Eileen Sullivan and Rainy Cotti, with quite a few of our colleagues from HBS and some other partner schools have piloted the Co-teaching in Student Teaching model; something we adopted from St. Cloud’s University in Minnesota. The Blackstone Valley School pilot is another version of the same idea. We kept talking about it, accumulating ideas. What if student teachers brought something with them, like a resource or a cool PD idea? What if we could guarantee that they know something about SLO’s?

There is a time when you have to collect all the smaller ideas and assemble them into one larger package. Why? Because what we need to do is to send a simple and clear message – a student teacher is not a liability, but an asset. You do not lose anything, but gain something. That’s the thing with messaging – sometimes you cannot get across a series of small incremental improvements; you need to make a case that we’re qualitatively changing the whole concept of student teaching. So this week, Karen, Eileen, Kim and I went to Donovan for lunch and tried to assemble the package. Here is the resulting draft.

The act of collecting a number of small ideas, trying to see a theme, a pattern – this is an increasingly important method of our work. We live in the age of hyper-effective communication. Thoughtful messaging is very important, simply because the communication space is so crowded. Our audiences are slowly developing the skill of message triage: if they suspect that someone did not work hard on making the message effective, they will tune out. In the past, the investment into communication was measured by expensive paper, good print, glossy photos. However, as these old signals become less and less expensive, it is the quality of the message itself that begins to play this role. Did you assemble small messages into one? Did you address my needs? Do you know me? Do you care enough to edit your message to the essential? Does it look good? Is it skimmable? Most of us by now have learned to ask these questions of the communications directed at us, but we’re long way from being able to answer them when we’re the messengers.

We live in the world where every communication becomes an act of advertising. It may rub someone in the wrong way, but I would argue this is going to a better world. It is a world where more and more people will learn to be better communicators. Teaching is better when we carefully craft and edit our messaging. Working with colleagues is better if we respect each other’s time and attention spans. (I am still being copied on two colleagues’ attempts to set up a meeting for just the two of them J). The ecosystem of human communications is definitely evolving. The species of smaller, purer, more powerful messages is evolving, and it is the survival of the fittest out there.

So, we need your wisdom and your help. We need this draft to be perfect. For example the name of the re-branded student teaching is terrible. (We briefly considered Teachers-In-Training, but disliked the acronym). The whole thing is still too long and confusing. We need to tailor it to superintendents, to principals, and to classroom teachers; all with different needs and agendas. Please edit, comment, brainstorm!

We have not yet considered if we can actually add these new requirements to students, but that is a parallel, and important conversation. Don’t worry, we will go through it item-by-item with chairs. But it is also the feature of the new world that we must weigh our actions not only by their internal merit, but also by how communicable they are.

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