Confessions of a Learning Consultant

I feel like a fake. I don’t really know how to do my job, and that’s difficult. I’ve thought that I should consider changing the name of my blog from Wright’sroom to Lamentations, considering the amount of struggle that surfaces here lately.

I don’t feel like a consultant, and I don’t have any idea what it would feel like if I did.  I don’t remember if I felt this way when I was a beginning teacher –that was awhile ago.  I attend meetings with other consultants, who have an extensive knowledge of their area, and I feel like I have little to offer in comparison.  I think to myself, “I can see why they have their job; how in the world did I get hired?” And I’ve considered that maybe I should just go back to my classroom.

What makes it difficult is that I’ve left a role I knew so well, even in the midst of an inquiry classroom that had just fallen apart. I knew who I was. I had a solid identity as a teacher. I knew and loved my students. But I think the bigger thing is that I had agency. I was able to empower myself to make changes and my students to become learners. I’ve discovered that’s a really important thing.

In my current position, I feel like I have little agency. The question often asked is, “how do we help teachers create student-centred classrooms?” How do we help them make the shift?

I’m not sure how many teachers are aware there’s been a shift. I know for a number of years I didn’t.  I ran a pretty decent teacher-centred classroom, not because I thought it was the best option, for me it was the only option I knew of.

Part of the problem is that we continue to perpetuate the system. Our universities continue to graduate teachers who establish traditional classrooms.  Why? That’s what they know. How many inquiry/PBL/flipped/tech-centred university classrooms exist?  Tech classes are considered electives, and until education programs begin to produce teachers who are student-centred, we’re going to have to continue to help teachers unlearn and relearn this teaching thing.

The other night I was discussing my new position with a friend; he used to be a consultant for the health region.  He posed the question, “If your time was money, where would it best be invested, and are you investing it there now?”

Wow. The first thought that came to my head was, “well, I’m creating an inquiry/PBL wiki.”  But to be honest, I couldn’t bring myself to say those words. They sounded hollow, almost pedantic.  My second thought was, “Really? You think you’re going to create change with a wiki? All the wikis in the world won’t create change.” So instead I mumbled something about needing to think about it.

“If your time was money, where would it best be invested?” This question has haunted me for days. The answer that I’ve come up with is people. Find teachers in the division who want to shift their classroom and invest heavily in them. I think the key to this is being real about what a student-centred classroom is really like.  Messy. Disastrous at times. And likely the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But exhilarating, like you never thought teaching could be.

Start with 5 teachers. Invest in the infrastructure they need. Maybe it’s round tables painted with whiteboard paint, so that students can draw & collaborate, instead of rows of desks. Maybe it’s technology.  Maybe it’s training.  But this in itself won’t make the difference.

The difference is investing heavily with time. Right from the beginning of the year, sitting down and planning the first unit together, walking through what an inquiry, student-centred unit looks and feels like. Brainstorming the possibilities as a team. Facilitating the use of technology. I think once teachers hear the possibilities, they get excited and begin to envision what it can look like too.

Teachers have the same difficulties as our students. It can be hard to envision something other than what you’ve always known.

After planning, team teach the first unit together. It might mean as a consultant being there every morning for the first couple of weeks, so that teachers can learn and grow in confidence, as we facilitate their learning.  So that they’re not left alone when things fall apart, like inquiry classes inevitably do, causing them to retreat to what they know “works”.  Helping with prep. Helping with assessment. Helping students unlearn and relearn, as necessary.

This requires an ongoing, working relationship, and it needs to be a priority. The intention is to slowly work your way out of the job — at least with that particular teacher. That was my goal as a senior highschool teacher. I scaffolded as necessary, and then worked my way out of a job as my students became confident, self-sufficient learners.

To me, this is the solution that’s sustainable in the long run. While it creates small change at first, it holds the possibility of creating lasting change.  And I wonder, if the investment occurred year after year, that there might be a tipping point.

But this idea isn’t easy.  It’s certainly not cheap. And it’s likely only for the brave. There’s also no guarantee it will work.

I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to fix education, to shift classrooms, and sustain change. I think only a great deal of hard work, struggle and creativity will do that.

Photo courtesy of Flickr cc: Martin Gommel

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About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. I am currently a PhD student in the area of Curriculum and Instruction. My focus is play-based learning in high school, and it's impact on brain development.
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18 Responses to Confessions of a Learning Consultant

  1. A fascinating posts which very much reflects my own feelings of being out of the classroom in a similar role after a period of time. I eventually came to accept that I would have less immediately visible agency in my role compared to being in the classroom, but this would be more widespread. But, since then I’ve come to think too that I should perhaps have focused in a smaller group. The question I would ask though, would this have been to make me feel better or would it genuinely lead to a greater impact?

    With your group of teachers you’re going to focus on, why not have them come together as a Professional Learning Community and have them carry out a collaborative enquiry into inquiry based learning? I’ve recently found this to be a very effective approach to leading and supporting pedagogical change.

    • I think you ask a really good question. Would it only make me feel better because I could see some visible impact, or because it’s truly what’s best for moving forward the division. I like your idea of the PLC of enquiry into inquiry. It could help sustain change and provide support when needed. Thanks for your insights!

  2. Tera Johnston says:

    Shelley, I have been following your posts for about a year, gleaning ideas and strategies to flip my teaching on its head and create more meaningful experiences for my students. Each time you post a new blog, I get so excited to read and be inspired by Wright’s Room. Thank you for being so transparent about the process that you’ve undertaken with your students and now with this new consulting position. I’m about to venture among my own faculty and start the conversation that will hopefully shift our focus to a more student-centered classroom. After recently giving my students an opportunity to brainstorm possibilities for building their own unit, my eyes have been opened to the creativity, inspiration, and IDEAS that can pour forth if we just give people an opportunity to explore in an environment that promotes forward-thinking and celebrates a willingness to try someone new. It only takes a spark to light a fire. You’ve started a spark in me, and I desire to spread that passion and inspiration to my colleagues and my students. It is a learning revolution after all.

  3. Mary Ann Reilly says:

    I can remember the shift I made from teacher to working as a staff developer many years ago. The emotions that accompanied the shift remain with me, 20 years later. As I read your post and I got to the sentence where you talk about the tables and the paint, I smiled and thought how your insights, talent, experiences, and oerhoas most important–empathy are most likely why who ever hired you did so.

    I look forward to reading how your work evolves as I have no doubt it will. One of the key understandings I came to as I transitioned into a coaching, consulting role is that I never left teaching, although I did and do miss the intimacy and energy that accompanies being a teacher, especially a high school teacher. I did find that teaching at a university reawakened my imagination, as did/does making art.

  4. petchamon says:

    Somewhat of a kindred spirit here – ex-teacher, moved sideways to being s school tech. coordinator (but still working with kids) and now a tech integrator (where the focus is working with teachers.) I resonated with everything you wrote, except you have an additional challenge – I believe you made the switch mid-year when classroom patterns are already established, and in the winter when energies are at a low ebb. That’s heavy sledding! I agree with your friend who offered the money/investment comparison. You now have the potential for profoundly influencing the learning of many more students, albeit indirectly, and over years to come. Using what we know about how change happens naturally, I believe you’re right to focus on those who are up for some trailblazing – the homesteaders and settlers will come later when they see the potential for making their classrooms dynamic places for empowering students to own their learning. Most teachers I’ve worked with need to see it to believe it – as you pointed out. It’s not that they’re unworthy of the investment, it’s that now is not the time to make that kind of investment there. Have faith, and keep blogging! I could feel you working through the challenge as you wrote the post – and I believe your plans are exactly what I would do and for the same reasons. Your teachers are lucky to have you as a resource.

    • I’m always surprised by how much I learn from reader comments, and how they provide insight into things I’ve never thought of. It didn’t occur to me that starting the position mid-year would impact my experience as a consultant, but it makes sense. It seems to me that we’re on the downhill slide toward June, and teachers are necessarily open to a great deal of change in their classrooms, at this point in the year.

      Thanks for your insight & encouragement!

  5. Rayleen says:

    Your article made me smile! As I began reading I was smiling because those are the very same thoughts that I had when I began as a consultant in the fall. I am just a classroom teacher, not an “expert”. I have some experiences with learning that helped move my students forward in their ability to succeed as a learner but I don’t have the knowledge it takes to do this! So Shelley, you are not alone in these thoughts. Every time I enter a meeting I sit there and think I don’t have a lot to offer however, what we do have is the reality of what it is teachers do. We know the pressures and successess of the classroom so I think that makes us someone that teachers can relate to. As a division we need to move away from the expert model and more towards a collaborative model, if we can get buy in with this I think that change will happen.

    As with you, I feel that I made more of a difference in the classroom than I am now. I keep telling myself that change doesn’t happen overnight and that I must be patient! I always refer to what you shared with me about starting PBL with your students…..”I start with the unlearning.” Maybe that is what we need to do as well…..have a conversation with teachers, have them “unlearn” the old ways and embrace the new ways. So your friends suggestion about “if time were money….” and your idea about 5 teachers and working closely with them is a great place to start. We just need to find the 5 teachers willing to take the journey.

    All I know is that in my eyes, we are lucky to have you as a consultant on our team. I have only been following your blog since the fall but you have inspired me so much that I want to go back to the classroom to try all these ideas! So you do know what you are doing and as a team we can make a difference in student learning. It has only been a short wihile that change has been implemented change takes time. As our fearless leader says….”one teacher at a time.”

    • Thanks, Rayleen! This transition thing is hard! But maybe you’re right. Maybe it does begin with unlearning. Maybe it’s finding ways to slowly destroy the traditional thinking around teaching, and showing the possibilities of what teaching can be. It would be terrific if we could find 5 teachers, or even 1 or 2.

  6. rcantrell38 says:

    Shelley,
    I know the writing of this post must have been therapeutic for you. Here’s hoping the exercise moved you in a positive direction. I’ve been following you for a couple of years and just know you are a dynamic teacher. Your passion for kids and learning seems to flow from each of your posts. I hope you are approaching teachers the way you were approaching your students in your last year in the classroom. Teachers thrive on discovery learning, compassion, empathy, loving support just like your students. The big difference is a connect and success with one teacher will reach so many students in years to come. I know this transition is difficult but you have what it takes to be a dynamic facilitator with all adults. Don’t forget to celebrate the small successes and pause often to smell the roses.
    @rcantrell

  7. jsb16 says:

    FWIW, I’d love to have you in my classroom as a consultant to help me (and my students) complete the transition to student-centered learning!

  8. tkonynenbelt says:

    I’ve been teaching for over twenty years and sometimes it feels like the more I teach, the less I know! I keep trying to reach that sweet spot of competency–maybe in my next life?

  9. Polly Dunning says:

    I’m in my second year of teaching, I’m not yet 24 and how you feel is how I feel! Like a fake! But we’ll both get there eventually!
    I’m really interested in PBL. I’d never heard of it until January this year where, as usual, my twitter pln came in handy! My issue is I feel like I’m in the boat all by myself trying to steer a new course with no map, no experience and no crew! None of the teachers I work with are interested in moving away from their booklets! But gee I feel grateful for my pln! People have been offering to help me left right and centre and I’ve now managed to get the whole school onto edmodo!
    I think you’re right about investing time, but I just keep thinking that I’ve got to try things out and take risks. What’s the worst that could happen? The pros outweigh the cons! And, as always, under promise and over deliver!

  10. boadams1 says:

    Shelley, this post is a true gift to me. Thank you. I have been a professional educator for 20 years, with the last 9 as principal learner of a junior high school. On July 15, I am venturing into new territory as a consultant – opening an educational innovation practice at an existing strategic design studio named Unboundary. I am excited and terrified, and your reflection here has helped me tremendously to center.

    I love your idea of building on what’s working, and I wonder if you’ve read the Heath brother’s book Switch. You remind me of Dr. Sternin and bright spots. Also, I love your sentiment of putting yourself out of a job if you do your job well. I wonder if you have read Peter Block’s book Flawless Consulting.

    I wish you the best, and I thank you for being my teacher for a long time through this blog.

    • Thanks for your incredibly kind words :) I love how you describe yourself as the principal learner of your current school, I think that says a lot about the way you think about education. And to that end, you have the right stuff to help others look at education differently.

      But it is a hard and frustrating road, at times. There are so many teachers who don’t perceive education and our roles, as you or I may. So it’s really important to find those few teachers who do and start there.

      I’ve read Switch, which is part of the reason I’ve begun as I have — that and necessity! I haven’t read Flawless Consulting, but it sounds like something I need to read! Thanks for the resource and good luck in your new adventure!!

  11. Heather says:

    Hi, I just started reading your blog and I quite enjoy your honesty and candidness. I am commenting much after the fact so I hope I am being relevant.

    – You said the university graduates are coming into the classrom as traditional teachers because that is the way the university is teaching. I think the reason that 1st year teachers have classrooms like 20th year teachers is because they are afraid to rock the boat, they have a million other things to think about (scholastic book orders, hot lunch orders, being monitored, signing upto be choir leader, basketball coach, soccer coach, sports school representative, FN+M school representative, assembly leader, etc.), they are trying to stay caught up with marking and planning and they are trying to make a good impression on their collegues who they think know more than they do about teaching. I think that many young teachers would love the opportunity to flip their classroom and make it student centred but there is a lot that is against them. I think the best thing you could do is take five teachers under your wing, promise them that they are allowed to take risks and anything that happens will be a learning experience, and take away some of the responsibilities that bog teachers down so they can focus on their goals. So – your idea is great! Please do it – I’m in Swift Current but I’d love to part of your plc!

    – I think there is more student centred learning going on in the average classroom than meets the eye. In my classroom, the traditional learning that goes on is easy to assess, easy to describe and easy to justify but there are numerous examples of student directed learning that goes on too. It is just harder to align that learning to curriculum expectations so I tend to de-emphasize it when I’m talking about learning in my classroom.

    – And finally. I have taught grade 4 for five years and I am far more on the side of experiential and student centred learning but I do see the value of traditional learning. I am still trying to find the mix between the two and in my case I am leaning back towards traditional learning a bit. (Just a bit!)

    Thanks for a great blog, I will be frequenting this site!

  12. Anne says:

    I just discovered your blog and this post really hit home for me. I struggle with many of the same issues you do, particularly in changing teacher practices. I too have found that selecting a small group and working with them is much better than trying to change an entire school or district. I look forward to reading others posts, thank you for sharing your experiences.

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