Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Think Like a Teacher

What does it take to be a leader? Because I am a teacher, I think about the skills teachers have that equip them to lead. Are there lessons that political leaders in Alberta could learn from teachers?
My dad, former teacher, school administrator and Mayor of Tumbler Ridge
A lot of my fellow teachers don't have confidence in their leadership abilities but in my small town, teachers are not just the leaders of their large and complex classrooms; they are often leaders in community groups and other nonprofit organizations. They frequently spearhead innovative projects that make our community a better place. Sometimes they enter politics. My own father went from air force pilot to engineer to teacher to principal to assistant superintendent to healthcare administrator to alderman and later, mayor of Tumbler Ridge B.C.

Some of my relatives don't think much of teachers. When Justin Trudeau was elected they said "Trudeau never held a real job in his life, what equips him to lead?"

For those of you who have never taught, let me assure you teaching is a very real job. A job that requires a myriad of skills that equip people to lead. Teaching requires logistical and organization skills, communication skills, and a thick skin. These are skills all leaders require.

The more you teach, the more you get stuck in the mind set of thinking like a teacher. As Justin Trudeau said shortly after election, "Being a teacher is who I am. It's the way I see the world, the way I understand it..." His recent mini-lecture on the basics of quantum computing exemplifies this worldview.

What does it mean to "see the world as a teacher"? Is it really a worldview? Is there such a thing as "thinking like a teacher?"  

I say there is.

In the summer of 2012 I attended an Olympic Soccer event in the UK. Thousands of people congregated in confusion outside the Coventry Stadium. No signage. No people on hand to say "If you are carrying a bag, you must go through this line for security. Then you must go all the way around the building with your security clearance to enter." People were milling around, frustrated and confused. They would get in one line only to get to the front to be told they had to stand in another line. I said to my husband "If the teachers at CJ Schurter had organized this, this wouldn't be happening." Why? Because experienced teachers speculate on every possible way some thing could go wrong. Teachers would walk themselves through each step of the process, thinking of the pitfalls along the way and coming up with solutions to prevent them.

Teachers see disparity and diversity first hand every day. It's not something they pay lip service to-they live it. Their students are culturally and linguistically and personally unique. They have social and economic differences. They do not have all the same benefits. They don't all start from the same place. As teachers, we see it as our job to give all our students the opportunity to succeed as individuals in society, no matter what their starting place is. That is just part of how we see the world. Sure some teachers get jaded and tired and frustrated. But recognizing our differences is the place we start from.
Drafting boards at South Peace Secondary, Dawson Creek. 1967

Teachers think about how to share ideas. You'll be sitting with your teacher friends watching the Superbowl and someone will say, "You know, you could use that ad to teach such and such a concept." Your retired friend says "I don't think that way anymore." A year later he's back in the classroom. Because he does think like that and he always will. Sometimes "thinking like a teacher" leads to the offering of unwanted advice or the correction of people's grammar or the pointing out of misunderstandings about politics. It might not make you popular, but you just can't help yourself.

Teachers know people don't all think the same way. Not just kids but their parents and their peers have different background knowledge and different values and beliefs. Thinking like a teacher means speculating on gaps in understanding.  It means knowing that people have misconceptions.  It means asking yourself "How did [that kid/my neighbour/Alberta's Plebiscite Warriors/the fools on the Facebook Discussion forum] come to that conclusion?" 
Even Alberta Education knows that is what teachers do.

When a teacher begins a lesson, he or she knows what errors in thinking a student may bring to the subject.  A grade seven teacher knows many students will think "a lot" is one word or the word "month" has a "u" in it.  High school teachers know kids might not remember what BEDMAS is, or think Hitler was a communist, or believe the government is to blame for the falling price of oil. 

One thing I have learned in past 30 years is that if there is a way to misunderstand something, someone will misunderstand it.  If there is a distracter in a multiple choice exam that I think no one would ever select-no matter how ridiculous- someone will select it. Guaranteed. 
My great aunt Margaret who taught junior
high special ed in the Peace Country

These are skills teachers have. Today's leaders should try to "think like teachers." When they roll out legislation, think about the diversity of the population. Think about the best way to teach people why this legislation is necessary. And ask "What preconceptions and misunderstandings might citizens bring to this new bill? What possible ways might they misinterpret its intent or implementation?"  

Once leaders have analyzed the misunderstandings, make preemptive strikes. Plan for successful implementation. Don't assume people will understand what you are trying to do. Communicate clearly. Have a back up plan if things get derailed.

You know what?  Being a teacher-like being a leader-often sucks. You are judged from morning till night by everyone. Kid failed an exam? Your fault. Kid misbehaving?  Your fault. Economy in the toilet?  Your fault.  Kid won a scholarship?  Good for him! Economy booming?  Thank industry and the hard workers of the province! The fact that people think that way is something else you accept as part of your worldview.

Thinking like a teacher won't stop the personal attacks. But it might prevent misunderstandings. Think about the diverse citizens of this province and the many ways in which they see the world before you even begin to implement your plans.

Think like a teacher.