Beyond Average

To see real change in the educational system, we need to start looking beyond the label of average student and teacher.

For the past two years, I’ve given up a lunch period once every two weeks to participate in the Hawk Watch Club, a peer-to-peer observation group in my building.

Our bimonthly meetings focus on a variety of topics and issues. Meeting one is a community-building week, with a potluck lunch, and a short reading/discussion about a classroom strategy or a philosophical idea. Meeting two is a time to debrief our monthly classroom observations, which focus on one teacher a month.

This might sound like something that the instructional leadership or administrators might have “voluntold

” teachers to participate in, but the Hawk Watch Club was actually started by a science teacher, Megan Fretz, who recognized the value of being more actively involved in a wider variety of classrooms in our school.

Her vision has turned into a mini-movement in my building. There are regularly about 30 teachers from all disciplines who participate, which represents about a third of our staff.

As a member of more traditional leadership models in my building, where sometimes it feels like pulling teeth to get buy in from my peers, I have thought a lot about why the Hawk Watch Club is so successful. Strangely, it was in one of our discussion weeks that the reason hit me.

In 2013, Todd Rose gave a TED talk at TEDx Sonoma County about the myth of average. He discussed the engineering behind fighter jet cockpits and how the U.S. Air force discovered 60 years ago that building cockpits to fit the average size of a pilot actually led to cockpits that fit no one.

Using this metaphor as his model, he called teachers out against teaching to the average, or middle, of our classes. His claim is that if we are instructing towards the “average” student, we are, in fact, teaching no one. He suggests that teacher would do better by teaching to the edges of our classes, which would allow learning for a broader array of student ability and interest.

If we are instructing towards the “average” student, we are, in fact, teaching no one.

There is a strong parallel between classrooms and traditional school leadership models and professional development efforts. All were designed to serve the “average.” None have led to the kind of wide scale change that is so desperately needed to make schools the innovative and creative environments they need to be to meet the needs of an ever changing and dynamic student body.

Megan has told me that she doesn’t have a lot of interest in being a traditional teacher-leader. She feels like the old system limits the impact she can have on true change in our school community. By making the process completely voluntary, she empowers teachers to participate in critical reflection of their practice by choice, rather than by force. Through this grass roots movement, she has managed to attract a wider variety of teachers than traditional committees and classes have engaged.

Besides the personalized feel of our meetings and interactions, the model works because we have managed to bond as a group by virtue of becoming participants in each other’s classes. We aren’t there to evaluate each other, but to build a better understanding of teaching and learning.

As a part of this club, I’ve spent time in classrooms of every subject area. Whenever I go in to observe, I try to behave like a student so that I can see how learning happens in each class. It is humbling, fascinating and fun.

Participating in the Hawk Watch Club has allowed me to grow as a teacher and as a teacher-leader. I’m grateful to Megan for her efforts and am encouraged by her passion for teacher leadership and her efforts to empower a larger spectrum of teachers through her non-traditional model.

We need more teachers like Megan to break free from traditional models. We also need teachers who are willing to transform traditional models into something that promotes the same aim. With strong teacher leaders working to change the system from both extremes, perhaps we can finally move our system beyond average and meet the needs of all the unique people within.