I believe central office leaders should spend at least a couple of days a year teaching students in the schools they serve. To me, it’s a great form of professional learning for the central office leadership team. It also fulfills a need during a substitute teacher shortage. In my district, all certified central office leaders, including the superintendent, substitute a minimum of three days per year. The receiving school and teacher do not know when or where we will be assigned. For efficiency sake, we are assigned to teach on days with a high number of unfilled absences. Typically, we know which days we might be needed, and we block those high absence days in advance. We get an early morning call with an assignment, teach the entire day, get assigned to duties, and leave notes for the teacher of record, just like other guest teachers.
By being in the classroom, central office leaders become more aware of changing demographics and of the challenges teachers face on a daily basis. By being assigned to teach students, central office leaders get the opportunity to try out the instructional practices we expect of teachers, recognizing the systems that both promote and stand as barriers to the expectations we’ve established. Guest teaching offers us first-hand experiences with iterations of innovation and authentic real-world learning and assessments – giving us the chance to see what works and what doesn’t. Most importantly though, it allows us an opportunity to build relationships with students – to meet them where they are – and to get to know them as unique individuals in our system, keeping us grounded in why we are in our roles, and hopefully helping us make more equitable decisions as a result.
The Call to Guest Teach
A couple of months ago, I got the call to guest teach. Finding out my assignment, I was eager to head to the school to look over plans and get myself prepared for the day. I was to teach one section of general 8th grade ELA, a co-taught section of 8th grade ELA, a section of Academic Lab, and two sections of English Language Development (ELD) for English Learners.
By the time I got to the school, checked in, got my guest teacher folder, lanyard, and keys, students had started arriving on campus. I headed toward my room for the day where the teacher left guest teacher plans with stacks of related books and assignments near her computer. I read through the notes, and realized I was already 5 minutes late to my morning duty by the basketball courts. Yikes! So much for having time to process the plans for the day. The principal greeted me outside and told me I didn’t have to do duty, but I assured her I was to do everything the teacher was assigned while I was there for the day. I did my duty until the bell rang, signaling time to head in and start the school day.
Each period of the day, I greeted students at the door with a high-five or fist bump, and when students reminded me, I remembered to take attendance. I have to admit, I didn’t do a very good job of remembering to take attendance, nor did I do a good job of following the lesson plan provided by the teacher. I just didn’t feel there was enough time to engage students meaningfully. I felt rushed. And if I felt rushed, I’m sure the students felt rushed. I wanted to know the students in the class. I wanted them to read, write, and talk about text. This has been our district’s focus with authentic literacy – more reading, writing, and talking about text, authentically. So as I actively sought to engage the students in dialogue related to the poetry they had previously read and were to use in preparation for an open book test, I was excited to hear what they had to say. But the students were relatively quiet. it appeared that talking wasn’t a part of their normal routine, and even with participant structures for engaging in dialogue, the period of time was too short and the culture of sharing and learning didn’t exist to the extent that would allow for this type of engagement on this day.
Don’t get me wrong. We still talked. But it was more of the teacher-student-teacher response pattern instead of the student at the center of learning patterns for which I was hoping.
Each class period went by rapidly. I ate in my classroom, and had students coming in and out during the lunch period due to a penny war challenge that was going on. They were vibrant with energy as they worked to sabotage each other by placing ‘silver’ in the coin jars located in each room. The money raised would go to charity (I can’t remember the cause), and it was good to see the students so into the giving spirit.
The last section of the day came quickly, and was the most challenging. This was the ELD block, and students are assigned to this class for two consecutive periods. During the first of the two periods, things went well. Students were engaged meaningfully in speaking, listening, and writing about a topic. They spoke to each other about their ideas and worked diligently to express them on paper. I was pleased with their effort, and impressed with how well they supported one another productively when they struggled with expressing an idea or spelling a word correctly. Before I was quite ready, the bell rang and the students left the room. I saw many of them skipping toward the restroom and water bottle filling station, while Some hung out near the door talking with friends, It’s a short three-minute passing period, so they were back in a flash. When they re-entered though, they took me by surprise. They had changed. Somebody took the souls of the students in fifth period and replaced them with cranky, burned out, and hyperactive spirits who didn’t want any part of the work assigned by their teacher for sixth period.
These new students could no longer sit still. They could no longer concentrate. They were turning on each other, and they were starting to turn on me, too. I allowed students to go to the restroom one at a time throughout the class period – they needed to move; to get out and about. I asked students who weren’t making good choices to find different places in the room where they could focus better – they complied. And I had a private conversation outside the door with one student who was becoming argumentative, telling him he was welcome to come back in once he was calm – he returned within a couple of minutes. It was the end of the school day, and the end of the school week, and it was December. These kids were done. They were fried. They were ready to go home and start their weekend.
It was like pulling teeth trying to get them to complete their assignment for the day. I tried every positive reinforcement strategy I knew. It wasn’t meaningful work, it was school work, and they got it done prior to the end of the day.
They exited the room the way they entered, with a high-five or fist bump, and I wished them the best for their weekend. I wrote notes to the teacher, gathered the things that needed to go to the office, and headed back to my office to catch up with work I had to do in my role as superintendent.
Reflections of an Equity-Driven Leader
I am glad I had the opportunity to teach that day, and look forward to the next two days that will occur during the spring semester. Guest teaching left me thinking about some distinct systemic and equity-driven questions I might not have otherwise considered. Below are a few examples:
- How can we expect teachers to engage students meaningfully in work worth doing if their day is broken up into multiple short periods of time that pass so quickly it feels like once class begins and work commences it’s time to pack up and start over with a new group? It makes me wonder about the philosophy and structure behind the master schedule – and whether or not our district has helped shape, and develop the capacity of our school leaders to construct a master schedule that puts students and equity at the center.
- Why would we assign all of our English Learners in the school to the same class (grades 6, 7, and 8) when their needs are so different? In other words, is there good rationale for placing newcomers who had just arrived to the US from another country in the same class as students who have been receiving EL services for 8 years? This makes me question how adequate and equitable our district resources are for providing effective EL services. It also causes me to question the effectiveness of our district’s current diagnostics and interventions for long-term ELs, or whether our long term ELs are a product of a larger systemic opportunity-to-learn issue.
- Why are we scheduling EL services at the end of the day instead of earlier on when our students’ minds are fresh and ready to learn especially if this is the only class taught? Again, a master schedule that prioritizes equity and student-centered practices could be an answer to this problem that our district can help solve.
There are so many rich and wonderful things to learn about our students, our schools, and our system as a whole, and we have a unique chance to do this learning by spending time in schools. But there is no experience quite like the experience of guest teaching for gaining first-hand knowledge and understanding of our school system.
Answering Your Call
If you’re a central office leader and you haven’t considered implementing a practice of required guest teaching for your team, you should think about the benefits. Bottom line is, if you want to learn more about how learning occurs in your district, you should do the learning where the learning takes place. If you want to better understand the limitations of your policies and practices, you should do the work where the policies and practices are implemented. If you want to understand the ways your central office can support more equitable practices in your schools, you should be willing to do the work in your schools. Finally, if you want to earn some credibility as an educator who knows how to teach and can do the things you are asking of your teaching staff, step into the classroom and teach, for goodness sake.
Equitable and inclusive practice should begin and end with the central office. See it and experience it first-hand. Learn the ins and outs. Demonstrate your willingness and desire to take it on and make a difference at the school level. You’ll be amazed at what you will learn – and staff members will think differently of you because you walk the talk; because you’ve stepped into their shoes, if only for a day. By stepping in and guest teaching you are demonstrating your desire to remember how challenging the work of teaching is. Most importantly though, by following through and addressing systemic equity issues identified through your experience as a guest teacher, you are demonstrating your commitment to ensuring that all students get a fair shake at a high-quality education in your district.