Engage Your Expertise

“The work of particular teachers and principals is seldom visible to the public or even to other teachers and principals.  One way of making it more so is through writing.  Writing about practice is both visible and collegial.  It helps build a community of learners.”

The above mentioned quote comes from Improving Schools From Within authored by Roland Barth, a recommendation received from Austin Buffum, a name you may recognize for his exceptional work as both an author and speaker in regards to Response to Intervention.  For those of you who have heard Austin Buffum speak will most likely know that this serves as one of his favorite educational books.  And for good reason…

Throughout his book Barth provides a tremendous amount of wisdom for improving our schools and ourselves as educators.  Barth provides direction to the importance of “continuous, professional collegial relationships” and moving teachers away from isolation and involving them in the direct decisions that affect what happens in their schools and classrooms.  Throughout his book Barth hits on a multitude of issues that we are still grappling with as a professionals and as a professional community even to this day.  For example from his chapter on “Building a Community of Learners” Barth touches on a subject that still serves as a source of contention on all sides and pervades our work conversations even in the 21st century…tests.  Barth goes on to say that “Tests lead to a preoccupation with production, workbooks, worksheets, and drills…”  Which is a conversation that you still hear in many a schoolhouse still to this day.

Barth pushes the idea of culture and community in his work and the need for us to understand that “everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.”  A concern which pervades many of our professional development conversations in regards to building a community of learners.  To take it even farther, Barth provides this example…”In schools we spend a great deal of time placing oxygen masks on other people’s faces while we ourselves are suffocating.  Principals, preoccupied with expected outcomes, desperately want teachers to breather in new ideas, yet do not themselves engage in visible, serious learning.  Teachers badly want their students to learn to perform at grade level, yet seldom reveal themselves to children as learners.  It is small wonder that anyone learns anything in schools.”  Barth points us to deep and thought-provoking issues that currently affect how we are working to improve our schools.  Yet, Barth was writing and discussing these improvement efforts in 1990…

With a plethora of useful improvement strategies within his book, it would be quite easy to overlook a chapter towards the end of his work, “Practice into Prose.”  Trust me I did.  While it did pique my interest initially , it wasn’t until recently that I began seeing the true value in this chapter.

Barth puts forth in the opening paragraph…

Probably no professional development activity has as much potential for promoting reflection, clarification, articulation, discussion – and risk – as writing.  Successful writing about practice can be an endeavor from which ‘everyone wins’, and learns: the writer, the reader, and the school.”  

“And yet while writing about practice is a most powerful form of learning and of sharing craft knowledge, it is also undoubtedly the most problematical.  Encouraging teachers and principals to want to write about their important work, getting them to write, and then persuading them to clarify and edit their writing and to make this writing mutually visible can be tortuous.”

So let’s roll back to 1990…  I can see how these words would be very true and reflective of that period of time.  While writing and its overall benefits still have the ability to improve the practice of educators, I would say that the process has changed immensely in regards to the visibility and impact.  The advent of blogging and social media vehicles has opened up this avenue and given those willing to engage in the process a voice that would have been unheard of at the time Barth brought his book to print.  Educators have a truly epic opportunity to use their learning and expertise to impact in ways not previously imagined.  The question is…are we willing to open ourselves up and partake in this opportunity that is sitting at our fingertips?

Barth continues within the chapter to promote the benefits of writing…

“Consequently, writing about the practices and problems with which school practitioners deal intimately each day is often left to others.  Paradoxically, those who systematically examine and write about schools come, for the most part, not from the school community itself but from higher education.”

Our ease and accessibility to blogging and social media platforms has allowed the practitioners in our schools to share and collaborate in a manner beyond any possibilities of previous ages.  We not only have the ability to read about and learn from the strategies that actual practitioners are utilizing and finding success with in our schools, we are able to access, correspond, and collaborate with them to support our own work.  It is no longer about whether educators are willing to dive in and share their successes and failures…the question now becomes are you willing to engage in the process as either an observer, a participant, or even both.  It is no longer can I?  Rather, will I?

“So the problem for the practitioner-writer is not only finding enough time, given the intense and demanding nature of school work.  The problem is to identify for oneself and supply the conditions under which it becomes likely one will write.”  Looking back on this quote by Barth…I think the only question we have to contend with now is the question of time.  Are we willing to make the time to improve our practice and to increase our learning?  Are we willing to engage with others and build a community of learners beyond what was previously ever imagined?  No one will make the time for you.  Nor should they.  Leaders of learners make the commitment to increase their own learning…they don’t wait on the learning to be provided to them.  They go forth and seek out their own professional development for the benefit of those they serve and lead.  It serves as a moral imperative for them.

“Far more critical than insufficient time in discouraging practitioners’ writing is the underlying fear that ‘I have nothing to say,’ that ‘others will criticize what I write,’ that ‘my writing will neither be accepted nor used by anyone.”  And what I have found is that is true.  Very often we have nothing to say…that is, until we dive into the process.  Once we begin, it seems that it becomes difficult to turn it off.  More often than not once I see those once leery to dive into writing and blogging because they are worried that they will not have anything to say…struggle to find time to keep up with all that they want to write about once they have started down the path.  Time more than content becomes their struggle.  So don’t wait till you think you have something to say or you won’t ever start…it takes action.

While Barth’s words were written over twenty-years ago…they still have the ability affect the work that we do today.  I will leave you with one final quote from his work…

“Practitioners who work conscientiously to convert their ideas in print have an opportunity to convey to the public message that schools are complex institutions; that leadership and teaching are difficult; that more good than bad things are happening in classrooms; that good schools do make a difference for students, their parents, and professionals alike; and that it is quite possible, even common, for schools to improve from within.”

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One thought on “Engage Your Expertise

  1. This is an awesome post. Thanks for sharing Barth’s wisdom–as you can guess, I wholeheartedly agree! I recently wrote a post, “Just Write” which encourages all to write: http://teachwellnow.blogspot.com/2012/07/writing-and-sharing.html I appreciate your continued writing; your words continue you to push me forward as I develop my craft and practice. Finally, Buffum’s visit to my school system impacted my work greatly. I wrote a few posts about that–he is a catalyst for positive change and growth in schools.

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