Adapt or Perish

By Tracy Reimer & Michelle Wang
Principal, September/October 2020. Volume 100, Number 1.

The first year of teaching is often referred to as a baptism by fire. That’s likely more true now than ever before: New to the field, novice teachers are instantly—and publicly—accountable for their success in getting a diverse student body to meet rigorous academic standards that can prepare them to succeed in the 21st century.

Teachers are desperate for a silver bullet or quick fix that allows them to meet students’ needs, but such complex challenges can’t be addressed by relying on the skills developed in traditional preparation programs. To be successful, novice teachers must develop adaptive mindsets—an authentic commitment to continual learning, an inclination toward innovation, and an openness to new patterns of behavior.

Too Focused on Technical Skills

In most states, early career teachers complete competency-
​based preparation programs, culminating in supervised pedagogical skill application and standardized assessment of content knowledge. Technical skills are imperative to teacher success, but they are not enough to address the achievement gaps, discipline gaps, and graduation differentials between white students and students of color, or between socioeconomic classes. Technical skills also can’t help conquer work-induced mental health disorders, secondary trauma, or teacher burnout.

The need for teachers to cultivate adaptive mindsets is becoming more widely acknowledged. Recently revised National Association of Educational Procurement accreditation standards require preparation programs to include teacher “disposition” development. Disposition impacts teaching practice and beliefs, and beliefs impact expectations.

In Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, author Paul C. Gorski says that what teachers believe about families and students who belong to marginalized groups informs how they teach, interact, and advocate for them. Unfortunately, educators often hold lower academic expectations for these students, offer them less positive reinforcement, and deter them from advanced and honors classes even when their grades warrant their inclusion.

Developing Adaptive Mindsets

Onboarding teachers effectively involves helping them understand how their own personal experiences and identity create their perspectives. And understanding their perspectives is a first step toward understanding their impact on others. This gives teachers the self-awareness to reflect upon how they might change their pedagogy to better serve students.

Novice teachers benefit from school cultures that identify and address inequities intentionally. These schools examine how policies and practices reinforce privilege and marginalization in student groups and establish an expectation for teachers to focus on changing the conditions that result in such inequities, instead of trying to “fix” marginalized people.

Simple practices can be implemented throughout a school and reinforced with communication explaining the rationale. At the elementary level, for example, student classroom supplies can be gathered and shared, eliminating any advantage to the student whose parents can afford the 64-crayon box with the built-in sharpener. Teachers can also opt to study the alternative narratives behind history lessons.

Media centers and common area hours can extend before school and after school, allowing students access to computers and the internet in order to complete assignments. The district can solicit donations for an “angel” account that covers the cost of meals for students. Or the district can eliminate admission fees to athletic events and activities to reduce the financial burden on students, families, and community members.

Some changes intended to increase equity can backfire, however, resulting in novice teacher frustration and negative impacts on student learning. One example is the trend of districts toward eliminating suspensions in an effort to address their disproportionate use against black males. Adaptive work to provide teachers with professional development about implicit biases and the impact of such biases on behavior would likely prove more effective.

Modeling the Adaptive Mindset

Sioux Trail Elementary School in Burnsville, Minnesota, has a student population consisting of 54 percent students of color; 48 percent of its students live in poverty. Community demographics have changed dramatically in the last two decades, but school practices haven’t kept up, exacerbating inequities.

With the support of the school principal, an adaptive-​minded teacher leader identified the need to review the school’s traditional gifted and talented program, which used standardized assessments to identify a small group of students to be pulled out of mainstream classrooms for enrichment. Program review team members embraced the motto, “Labels Are for Soup, Not Kids,” declaring that all students are gifted with unique skills, passions, and abilities. A single grade-level team piloted new student programming that eliminated pullouts and instead implemented a genius hour for all students. Four years later, the entire school has a genius hour.

Guaranteeing access to enrichment programming to all students required the transformation of longstanding habits and deeply held assumptions, but students gained efficacy in their individ­ual talents, and the families of traditionally identified “gifted and talented” students realized that their children were still getting consistent, quality programming. In 2017, Sioux Trail was named one of the “Top 20 High-Poverty Schools Beating the Odds” in math and reading and became a Minnesota School of Excellence.

Adaptive work is contingent on leadership. Professional development programs must be designed to include opportunities for teachers to develop and practice adaptive change. The one constant in education is change, so teachers and administrators alike must be open to the transformation of their traditional habits and assumptions.

Tracy Reimer is a program director of the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program at Bethel University.

Michelle Wang is an adjunct instructor in the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program at Bethel University.

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