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.

  • DeidraGammill

    Thank you for sharing!

    Thank you for sharing! I love what your colleague came up with and successfully implemented! Must say I love the name as well. I’ve periodically asked successful teachers in my school to let me sit in on a class because I know they do “this” or “that” extremely well. While they’re flattered that I want to learn from them, I’ve been surprised that often they are uncomfortable with me in the room, as if they think I’m there to evaluate rather than learn. I suppose that’s the result of years of keeping our doors closed. Since all the teachers in your group choose to be there, I’m sure they are more receptive to having other teachers watch and learn. 🙂

  • Rey Carr

    Peer Support

    Wonderful news that the Hawk Watch Club found a way to attract teachers to help each other. Not only will this peer-to-peer connection improve what student gain the classroom, it will also provide the kind of atmosphere teachers need to stay in the profession.

  • JasonParker

    Thanks for sharing!

    This is definitely one of the better TedX talks that I’ve seen in recent months (and I watch many!). Thank you for articulating your story, and weaving it into the premise that Todd makes in the talk. 

    I also LOVE the “Hawk Watch Club” name. 

  • Amanda

    I would suspect that the snoecd and fourth quarter student teachers are better than the first and third quarter students teachers simply becuase they have already had their first placement and they now know some of the things they can expect. My snoecd quarter is going much better than my first if only because I had no clue what I was doing my first quarter. I still have no clue on somethings but the more common occurances, such as a student acting up or mistiming of lessons, have become easier to deal with. As for the teachers that think that both groups aren’t very good well they are right and they need to remember what it was like for them. This is my first time infront of a classroom. I HAVE NO CLUE WHAT I AM DOING YET. You don’t throw a 16 year old kid behind the wheel of a car by themselves and say See you later. First you have to teach them. So if the students teachers aren’t good or experienced then all is right with the world. Granted there should be some level of competancy esspecially when it comes to the snoecd and fourth quarter student teachers. Another problem the veteran teachers may be seeing that a student teacher is trying a new style and they themselves are unfamiliar with and may see that as bad becuase as human beings we are uncomfortable with change.

  • TriciaEbner

    Going to watch this . . .

    TedX talk. It sounds like a must-see.

    In my building this year, we’re being encouraged by administration to do some peer-to-peer observations. It’s a good step, and it’s good to have administrative support for this. When concerns me a little bit is that for some, it may become a “checkbox,” something that must be done, but the true value of it gets lost because it’s now something on the to-do list. Hopefully, the experience will be so powerful and meaningful that it will overcome the “check” mentality. 

    We do have an after-school book study group, teacher-initiated and taecher-led. This is our second year of it. Many of us who attended the first year are back. Part of it is because the book we’re reading is powerful and has great ideas in it (Teach Like a Pirate). But the bigger portion most returning members named is the power of the discussions, collaboration, and commiserations. 

    There is no denying the power of teacher-initiated, teacher-led professional development, whether it’s peer observation or book studies or even a more “traditional” PD approach.