13. (part 2)Using design thinking to improve professional learning with Jennifer Bairos

Welcome back to the Cohort 21 Face to Face session. This is part 2 of a short series on the podcast chatting with teachers who are actively engaging in the design thinking process to improve one aspect of their practice.

If you have never heard of Cohort 21, it is essentially a community of teachers in and around the province of Ontario who gather together four times a year to plan, refine, and execute action research in their classrooms to improve teaching and learning. I love getting to record conversations with teachers about their journeys with Cohort 21, as I see this professional development as a kind of incubator for educational innovation. If you don’t have access to the Cohort 21 experience, I actually wrote an article on how you can emulate this kind of PD in your own backyard and I’ve linked to it in the show notes.

Today, I talk to Jen Bairos, a middle school French teacher who wants to help her students embrace the ambiguity, uncertainty, and “grey area” of oral communication in another language. Like our guest last week, Mary Ellen Wilcox, Jen hopes to instil in her students a sense of confidence, especially as they try to do something that is actually really hard and they might not be at yet. Mary Ellen and Jen are both Middle School teachers, so the questions relating to building confidence at this developmental stage of children I don’t think is a coincidence.

Let’s get right to it: here is my conversation with Jen Bairos.

One aspect of Jen’s practice that is clear to me when re-listening to this recording is that Jen is modelling for her students exactly the kind of learning that she hopes to inspire in her classroom: she is fully embracing that “grey area” of not quite knowing something. This is basically what I was trying to say at the end of our conversation: when we ask a question that we truly don’t know the answer to, it’s a little scary. I think this is why even as adults who are trying to design action research in our classrooms that we gravitate towards the safe questions that already have the solution in mind. When we ask questions that we genuinely don’t know the answer to, we acknowledge that we don’t know something and I think this is often outside of our wheelhouse as teachers. I can only speak for myself, but I definitely gravitated towards this profession because I liked being a student and getting things right. So when we are putting ourselves in the position of not knowing, it is risky!

This following segment of conversation with Jen happens about two months later. Listen to how her thinking evolves and shifts as she investigates her dilemma a little more closely. Jen is willing to let her learning shift the question she is asking and embrace that beautiful messiness that is learning.

This is the thing about teaching: it is tangled, endlessly complex, and our learning as teachers doesn’t end just because we have finished a unit, a project, a semester, or a year. I loved Jen’s grappling with how she knows that her “end” isn’t going to naturally coincide with the final Face 2 Face session for Cohort 21. And this is exactly how real learning looks. I remember when I participated in the Klingenstein Summer Institute, the head of food services at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey spoke to our whole group about the the process of improvement. This man ran an incredible kitchen that produced incredible meals that would have made many restaurants blush. His takeaway message was just be 1% better than you were before. Those small incremental improvements add up and after you have been at your practice for 10-15-20 years, you might have made drastic improvements, but only because they built on each other over time.

So for anyone listening that is engaging actively in their own improvement as a teacher, whether through Cohort 21, another PD group, or through your own self-driven inquiry, my advice from my conversation with Jen Bairos is to just be a little better than before and allow yourself to go slow.

That’s all the time we have for today folks, keep slowly getting better, and remember we are teaching tomorrow.

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