Teachers As Learners...
by Hal Portner
Need Something? Ask!
Some material for this article is adapted, with permission from the publisher, from Portner, H. (2002) Being Mentored: A Protégé's Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA.: Corwin Press, Inc.
I am an advocate of individualized professional development. I encourage teachers and administrators to supplement the professional development provided by their schools and districts by identifying and addressing their own specific professional growth needs. But individualizing doesn't mean you have to do it all alone. There is a lot of help out there --- if you ask for it!
For example, if you are looking for equitable ways to grade individual students working together on a group project, ask an experienced colleague how she or he does it. Teachers and administrators love to be asked --- and thanked --- for their opinions, suggestions, and advice. Let's look at some ways to help your colleagues help you.
Where to Ask
The most direct way to ask for something is, of course, face-to-face. But there are other ways teachers have found to ask for help. For example, Louise, a teacher in a suburban district in a New England middle school, announced during a faculty meeting that she would very much appreciate from her colleagues any ideas and materials to help her assess student learning styles. Not only did she personally receive some useful information, but as a result of her request, the idea of sharing spread throughout the school so that now, if a teacher hears of new material or effectively uses something new in class, the specifics are automatically shared with the entire staff via a bi-weekly faculty newsletter.
Another teacher posted a 'want ad' on the teacher room's bulletin board. She advertised for information she could use for a unit on agriculture. It turned out that the hobby of a fellow teacher was 'meteorology.' He provided a wealth of information, data, and hands-on equipment that she used to teach her students about the effects of climate on crops.
Of course the chatboards and live meetings provided by Teachers.Net offer the opportunity to ask thousands of fellow educators for help. The responses to many of the questions asked on these postings are often practical and insightful.
You may have heard of or used other ways to ask colleagues for help. If so, I would appreciate hearing about them. You can e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
How to Ask
When you ask for help, ask assertively. To be assertive is to honor your own basic rights without violating the basic human rights of others. You have the right to ask for help, just as the person you ask has the right to refuse. For example, you have the right to ask a colleague for permission to use a new lesson plan he developed, and your colleague can respond just as assertively by saying, "I appreciate your interest in the lesson plan, but I prefer not to share it."
Being assertive does not mean being aggressive, i.e., invading the other person's boundaries. For example, a request like "Hey, Charlie, lend me a copy of your lesson plan. I don't have time to do my own," is aggressive because it violates the other person's right to courtesy and respect. On the other hand, being assertive does not mean allowing one's own boundaries to be restricted. If Charlie had shared the lesson plan even though he did not really want to, his response would have been nonassertive.
What to Ask For
Even if you are assertive, you may not get what you ask for unless you are clear about what it is you want. What are you really asking for when you make a request for help? G. M. Gazda et al, in their book Human Relations Development (Allyn & Bacon, 1991), present a framework that identifies several types of requests for help.
One type of request is a request for action. Do you want the person to do something? If so, say so. For example, suppose you want your colleague to look at and comment on your new lesson plan, and you say, "I have developed a lesson plan but I'm not sure it will work." He or she may or may not offer to look at it and even if he or she does, you may not get the type of response you really want. On the other hand, "Please critique my new lesson plan. Will it work?" directly asks for the desired response --- in this case, an opinion of its worth as well as action.
Another type of request is for information. For example, "Where is the copy machine located?" Not, "Can I get this copied?"
A third type of request is for understanding or emotional support. This is more difficult to ask for than the other types and you may find yourself making such a request with an undercurrent of anger or frustration. For example, saying, "I'm going to meet with a parent who is also in education. How should I handle it?" may seem to be a straightforward request for information, but may really be signaling for emotional support. It can be difficult, but if you really want and need understanding, you should express your feelings. "This parent is a college English professor. If he challenges me, what should I say?" may sound like a request for information, when you what you really mean is, "This parent is a college English professor. He probably knows more than I do about the subject. What if I make a fool of myself?" Understanding which type of request you are making can help you phrase your question to best elicit the kind of response you want.
Mary is a student teacher. It was during the second week of her teaching practicum that she was first exposed to the concept, Writing Across the Curriculum. Mary was observing her cooperating teacher, Ms. Perry, teach a ninth grade English class. "You've probably seen this format in some of your other classes," Ms. Perry said to her students. "We will be using this format for our writing here as well. In the upper left hand corner will be the FCAs. There will be one, two, or three areas for you to focus on in your assigned piece of writing."
FCAs? Mary hadn't heard the term before. She was curious. If the students knew about it --- and she was going to be teaching them soon --- she better know about it, too.
Later that day, during their prep period, Mary asked Ms. Perry, "What are FCAs? You used the term with the ninth graders this morning."
"Why, FCA stands for Focus Correction Areas*," Ms. Perry answered. "They're an element of Writing Across The Curriculum, a writing program we use in all the academic classes."
Mary asked Ms. Perry and the other teachers, "Do any of you have materials about FCAs and Writing Across The Curriculum?"
They promised to look, but neither Ms. Perry nor the other teachers were able to find more than a couple of worksheets, although they all remembered having received quite a few materials. Mary wanted her own complete set of materials. She asked Ms. Perry where she could get some.
"The office should have some on file," Ms. Perry suggested.
Mary asked Sue, the office secretary, but she could not locate any. Mary asked Sue, "Who else may be able to help me?"
"The principal," Sue answered, "but she's not in just now."
"Can I leave a note in her mailbox?"
"She'll get it quicker if you tape it to her office door."
The next day, Mary received a complete set of materials.
Mary told me that shortly after receiving the material, a student had asked for her help with an assignment involving FCAs. She was delighted to have been able to respond to student's request.
Mary might have ignored Ms. Perry's reference to FCAs or waited until she actually took over a class and had to plan a lesson, but she decided to be proactive --- to ask.
Who did she ask? Her cooperating teacher, other teachers, the secretary, and the principal.
Where did she ask? She asked where she supposed the answer would be most readily available, in the teacher's room, then the school office.
How did she ask? Assertively through the use of direct questions, and, at the suggestion of the secretary, with a note taped to a door.
What did she ask for? She asked for what she thought she would need in the not-too-distant future. She asked for information (what is an FCA?) and action (please provide me with materials).
Why did she ask? Because she felt a need to know, to have, and to learn.
In summary, you will get helpful responses to your requests when you do the following.
Understand that you have the right to ask for help, as long as you do not infringe on the rights of others by doing so.
Respect the right of others to deny your request.
Look for a variety of ways and places to ask for help.
When you ask for help, decide whether are you asking for action, information or emotional support.
Limit your questions and requests to what you really want or need.
* Focus Correction Areas (FCA) is a set of criteria, developed by John Collins in 1982, for assigning and evaluating student writing.
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