An Inside Peek at a Public School Shifting to the PBE Model - Part Three: Classroom Practice
Last spring, I was lucky to work with a small cohort of colleagues from Gorham Middle School (GMS) in our shared effort to implement Proficiency-Based Education (PBE) practices in our unique classroom settings. This cohort formed out of USM’s 4-course Certificate of Graduate Study in Proficiency-Based Education program, which was piloted with Gorham Schools these past two years. From this cohort, I connected more deeply with a fellow sixth grade colleague who has been a classroom teacher for over thirty years! She invited me to attend a presentation of her implementation of formative and summative assessments, during which she shared that for seasoned teachers, the switchover to PBE is hard, no matter how willing a veteran teacher is to adapt and grow.
Teachers in all of Gorham Schools are working to make the shift to PBE, and as would be expected, it’s harder for some than others, given a wide variety of factors. Regardless of why, as we work alongside each other, shared support is meaningful, valuable, and essential. Also adding meaning and value to our efforts is having performance indicators and scoring criteria that we feel appropriately reflect the teaching and learning happening in our classrooms. Gorham Schools’ staff, administration, students, and community have been working consistently to ensure the quality and relevancy of our PBE guiding documents; for more information about the structures we have in place for this, please see my previous two posts. I would advise anyone interested in changing their classroom practice to first ensure the quality and relevancy of district-level PBE documents before investing countless hours into making the shift.
With that said, I closed out my personal PBE work of the 2017-18 school year by conducting brief interviews with some of my GMS colleagues. I asked my peers three questions; 1) Please describe one successful change to a classroom practice, as well as a change to a classroom assessment, that you have observed happening this school year; 2) What has been the most meaningful/most impactful professional development you've seen occurring around PBE in the Gorham Schools? What professional development do you feel is still needed? Why?; 3) What advice would you give a teacher who is broaching PBE implementation within their practice without learning and growing opportunities being provided by their district? What advice would you give a teacher who is broaching PBE implementation within their practice with learning and growing opportunities being provided by their district? Upon collecting and analyzing their responses, I identified that two significant themes trended throughout all responses.
Disequilibrium & Starting Small
Because transitioning to PBE is a paradigm shift for all, it is almost guaranteed to feel messy at some (or many!) point(s). The nature of this work can be uncomfortable, especially if one feels as though they are under a microscope. Sarah Collins, Spanish teacher at Gorham Middle School, says, “At my last school, they used the term "disequilibrium" to describe the feeling that many teachers get during the transition to PBE. While much of PBE is simply best practice, there are some changes, in practice and in mindset, that go completely against what we are used to. This work and this change is powerful and important, but it is not easy, and it's not comfortable. If you are feeling a bit "unbalanced," a bit "uncertain," know that this "disequilibrium" is a sign that you are moving in the right direction. Recognize the feeling, sit with it, and grow.”
We don’t expect our students to do something exactly right the first time; we must show ourselves the same patience. Additionally, we don’t expect our students to know how to create a complete, proficient final product in the beginning stages of a unit. Instead, we create scaffolds that provide the building blocks needed for effective learning and skill development. We can adopt this mindset of scaffolding and apply it to our work with PBE practices, as Sarah Titus, Physical Education teacher at Gorham Middle Schools, explains. “Take small steps and expand from there. Whether it be one unit, one standard, or just with one performance indicator. By starting small, it makes the jump less scary, like when you learn to dive and you start your dive kneeling and just plopping yourself into the water.”
Learn From Each Other
Collaboration is the foundation upon which I built this three-part blog series, and I’m not the only one preaching it. It is essential for us to work together, learn together, and grow together in order to truly do our best work. According to Kelly Winslow, French teacher at GMS with 25 years of classroom teaching experience, “To be able to be in a cohort of fellow professionals within my district was incredible. Not only did I have the opportunity to work with colleagues from other grade levels, but I also forged closer bonds with colleagues in my own building. We connected on professional and personal levels in order to support one another in our coursework and in our classrooms. I know that I can seek out these wonderful teachers whenever I need their guidance and that they will give me their honest opinions.”
Further, Sheila McAtee, math teacher at GMS with 25 years of classroom teaching experience, explains, “I have found that I need to collaborate with fellow teachers - sharing my ideas, seeing what works for others, and looking at and searching for good practices. I have been actively seeking others for their feedback and insights on making my classroom better for kids.” There is no denying the natural growth that comes with working alongside others; this is why we encourage collaboration among students in our classrooms, and why I am encouraging collaboration among teachers in our schools.
As you approach the 2018-19 school year, I encourage you to welcome the disequilibrium Sarah Collins describes and to seek support from your colleagues; recognize those in your community who are interested in growing their professional practice and support each other. Challenge yourself to walk through your days with courage and patience, and speak honestly with yourself, recognizing your fear, validating your values, and trusting the process. I wish you so much luck on your journey!