By Alaina Adams
Alaina Adams is a National Board Certified teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. In addition to teaching high school English, she serves as a cognitive coach and professional development coordinator at the Phoenix Union High School District and the Arizona K12 Center. You can read her blog at Stories from School AZ.
In my endeavors to elevate the teaching profession, I am fortunate enough to be part of the work that the Arizona K12 Center crafts around vision, leadership, learning, and technology in education. Recently, I was chosen as one of 20 teachers across the state to work as part of a TeacherSolutions team designed to improve teaching and learning in Arizona. This work will be based on the framework outlined in TEACHING 2030. On November 16th and 17th, I spent some time with Barnett Berry and CTQ staff to dream, play, and plan.
As my group explored teacherpreneurism and a future of innovation, phrases like "a league of extraordinary educators" and "teacher whisperers" playfully came up in conversations. At the end of my last day with the team, I found myself returning to an Outlook mailbox full of the current realities of teaching that I "have to" deal with. I'm frustrated that I don't have more cognitive coaches available to help advance my practice. I'm also frustrated that TV shows and movies (like Jersey Shore and The Horse Whisperer) will earn more money in one shot than I'll ever make in my entire career as an educator. To clarify my thoughts, I ended my day by posting this comparison between "horse whisperers" and "teacher whisperers."
Horse Whisperer: Horses that have suffered abuse from people or been traumatized through an accident may develop changed behavior that their owners find difficult to deal with, or may even result in the horse being labeled dangerous.
Teacher Whisperer: Teachers that have been traumatized by things like excessive testing, narrow teacher evaluation, misuse of national curriculum, data-driven instruction, stifling teacher accountability, elimination of tenure, competition for funding, punitive school labels, "education reform," and misguided philanthropists may develop changed behavior that some may find difficult to deal with, or may even result in the teacher being labeled dangerous.
Horse Whisperers spend years studying the horse and its behavior in natural surroundings. They learn to read the silent but incredibly powerful communication we call body language.
Teacher whisperers, given appropriate release time, can study the behavior of teachers in their classrooms. There, they can study body language like the elevation of voice, eye-rolling, head flopping on the desk, and sporadic tears to understand a teacher’s entire language of communication to best gauge their needs.
Horse Whisperer: Young horses that had received little handling but were destined to be riding horses, for example, were once trained to work using quiet, brutal methods of coercion. This system was called ‘breaking.’ ‘Making’ a horse is preferable to breaking one.
Teacher Whisperer: Probationary teachers that received little mentoring but were destined to be classroom teachers, for example, might have been ones hustled through subpar certification programs. This system is called ‘fast tracking.’ ‘Making’ a quality teacher is preferable to rushing one.
In some public demonstrations, a horse whisperer will stand in an enclosure, which a young untrained horse is released into. The horse’s natural instinct is to fight or flight. The whisperer becomes the herd, the safe place to be, by his use of body language. First, he sends the horse away; he has not yet invited it to join his herd! He drives the horse forward and keeps him away.
In some school districts, only one teacher whisperer stands per campus, of unreasonable sizes, in which un-mentored teachers are released into. The teacher’s natural instinct is to sink or swim. Though the teacher whisperer becomes the safe place to be, he or she is often busy corralling other un-mentored teachers, and the un-mentored teacher-in-immediate-need is often driven away.
Horse Whisperer: During this training period, the horse's body language is clearly visible to people watching. The horse whisperer approaches as if he or she has all day to stand there. The result is a clear understanding that can be successfully built on. No shouting, no fear, no pain. A calm and positive mutual understanding provides a sound basis for true partnership between man and horse.
Teacher Whisperer: Given ample exposure to teacher whispering methods, teachers can change their body language and perform better on evaluations. This process can take several weeks or years. It is always approached as if the teacher whisperer has all the time in the world to stand there. No shouting, no fear, no pain. A calm and positive mutual understanding provides a sound basis for true partnership between teacher and whisperer.
The horse whisperer does not perform tricks. He, or she, uses the oldest language in the world in order to read the horse and communicate with the horse, combined with equine psychology, to achieve partnership.
The teacher whisperer does not perform tricks. He, or she, uses the oldest language in the world in order to read the teacher and communicate with the teacher, combined with human psychology and compassion, to achieve partnership.