Growth Buddies: Priceless Professional Development

It all started when…

Michele: “It all started because my last hour French students were driving me crazy. Becky was teaching in an eighth grade English classroom kitty-corner from mine, and I wandered in. I basically wanted to vent but everything changed when Becky asked me a few challenging questions. I knew I needed to try something different with those students but didn’t know what. Together, we reframed my thinking, shifting the focus from student misbehavior to classroom expectations and how to communicate those more clearly.”

Becky: “At the end of a school day, I am wiped out and crave adult contact, so I welcomed Michele’s company. But what got my attention was her willingness to accept challenging questions without getting mad at me. That willingness signaled to me that she wasn’t just venting but genuinely looking for new ideas/solutions. (Note: Venting is healthy and helps release tension; complaining saps energy.)”

Growth Buddies Michele and Becky discovered a synergy that helped them both improve their instruction.

That was the first step on the path to becoming Growth Buddies. Over time, we have tackled a wide variety of issues and challenges together. We have dealt with classroom management issues and developed effective procedures, explored best practices in teaching, delved into more effective curriculum delivery, and completed professional development activities along the way.
We have supported our buddy in personal crises and professional set backs and successes. Now, as comrades-in-arms, we are willing to face the next challenge because we are not alone; we each have someone who understands who and where we are. Growth Buddies share a relationship that begins where each person is today. They help each other reframe thoughts about challenges in order to discover renewed direction. Growth Buddies are willing to pose the hard questions and discuss solutions.

Start at the Beginning

Growth Buddies sounds interesting, but…

  • You’ve tried to establish relationships with staff members but everyone is too busy.
  • Nobody likes you.
  • You don’t have time.
  • What could a math teacher and a language arts teacher have in common? Art and health teachers? Social studies and French teachers? Science and PE teachers?

Finding a Growth Buddy is like dating—you will find the perfect fit if you keep looking. Your Growth Buddy doesn’t even have to work in your building, district, or town. All you really need in a Growth Buddy is someone who wants to improve the craft of teaching or is interested in what motivates learning.

The most important attribute is a willingness to walk with you on this journey of professional development and exploration. Here are some questions that bridge content areas and deal with cross-curricular issues that every classroom teacher struggles with.

  1. What procedures have you found to be critical to your classroom management?
  2. What procedures have you found to manage the paper flow?
  3. How do you assess student progress without collecting and grading every assignment?
  4. What routines make your classroom run smoothly?

These are questions that every teacher, regardless of content area, wants to explore.

Can you remember a time when something wasn’t working, but you had no idea what do about it? Enter your Growth Buddy.

Michele: “When I was frustrated with my students’ misbehaviors, Becky helped me see the problem in a new way. I was stunned when she audaciously asked, ‘How do the students know what you want them to do?’ Huh? That was pretty obvious: A ‘good’ student sits still and stays focused on the assigned task.

“Seriously? I can laugh at myself now. Who can expect seventh grade students to sit still at the end of the day and focus on a given task for more than five minutes? I was following research that says changing things up frequently keeps the brain engaged. But that was also giving students multiple opportunities to chat instead of focus on the next task. I was taking their chatting as a sign that they were not interested in my lesson, taking their behavior as a personal insult instead of looking at it in terms of their adolescent development.

“So this is where Becky and I started. By reframing the problem, I changed my focus, seeing more options. If their behavior was a result of their stage of development and/or time of day, what could I do to get different results? This led me to clearly defined classroom expectations that I still demonstrate and practice with my students. The dramatic results saved my career as a teacher. Today, as my students and I learn each other’s signals, it no longer feels like a runaway horse. When I step into that classroom, we gallop along through the curriculum.”

Have you ever worked hard to develop a lesson, planning for every possible contingency, only to have it flop when you rolled it out? We have.

Michele: “Sometimes my students don’t seem to understand my crystal clear directions. By having a colleague outside of my content area play the role of ‘learner’ for me, I can beta test my lesson or project before rolling it out. My ‘outside’ colleague can point out what is unclear or ask questions that are probably the same questions my students will have.

“Another benefit is that my outside colleague is also a teacher. She can help tweak directions, objectives, and language to make it clearer for students. Finally, because my outside colleague has expertise and experiences that are different from mine, she can help me see more cross-curricular connections.”

Being Growth Buddies is a journey. We discovered a cycle that is similar to work-out stations at a gym. We call them our Growth Buddy Journey Stations (see Figure 1). It doesn’t matter what the problem is or where we start in the cycle, we end up visiting these stations along the way.

 Figure 1
Growth Buddy Cycle Chart

Sharing the Journey

When we became Growth Buddies we discovered a synergy between us. We began sharing in each other’s successes and thirsting for more knowledge. We researched and discussed best practices in teaching. We quickly learned that time flies when we get together to “talk shop” and that we both walk away energized.

Eventually this positive and inquisitive workplace relationship blossomed into a friendship in which each of us feels cherished and accepted—even when we are at our worst. We agreed from the beginning that no one is perfect and that life is a journey that is more fun when we face it together.

  1. Being with our Growth Buddy makes the journey more rewarding.
  2. As we work to reframe the problem, more possibilities surface.
  3. As we talk about issues, we can visualize students’ reactions and anticipate our responses.
  4. In the process, we reach greater clarity.
  5. Our Growth Buddy can offer alternative perspectives while being an advocate for our students.
  6. Together, we can make more connections, resulting in more aha! moments.

Give yourself a priceless gift. Dr. Seuss said it all in I Can Read With My Eyes Shut: “You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.” It’s surprising what you find when you are looking. Find a Growth Buddy!

Rebecca Kordatzky, a veteran eighth grade language arts teacher in Milton, Wisconsin, coaches teachers.

Michele LaPean-Usher is dual-certified in French and Spanish and has taught grades 7–12 for more than 20 years in Milton School District in Wisconsin.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2014