It is the beginning of a new school year. This is a time when educational staff—teachers and therapists—are trying desperately to engage with new students in their classrooms or caseloads. Questions, e.g.…
- How do we get students to pay attention and focus on the lessons we prepare with great dedication?
- How can we deal with challenging behaviors, different language and reading levels of students, as well as diverse levels of skills of classroom assistants?
…can be all-consuming and overwhelming as we search for external solutions to the interaction and teaching challenges we experience in the classroom. The challenge for those involved in professional development of educational staff is how best to support teachers and therapists during this process.
I recently enjoyed reading an article by Ariel Sacks on professional development. In this article, the writer asks the question: What makes a great teacher—personality or pedagogy? She explains that neither a good personality nor pedagogical expertise on their own guarantees successful teaching outcomes. Rather, it is the teacher’s willingness to take risks and be vulnerable that is pertinent. She proceeds to explain the importance of teachers’ self-awareness and the need to look at one’s own identify as a basis for effective teaching. Developing an understanding of students’ knowledge and skill levels—i.e., what they bring to the learning situatio—is essential to effective classroom-based instruction. However, it is not enough.
After years of working in professional development with teachers and therapists, I have come to realize that we often miss out on an essential component of professional development, that is, allowing opportunities for teachers and therapists to reflect on how they work and interact with students as a basis for change. Teachers’ self-awareness of how they like to work and interact with students is pivotal in assisting them to make the necessary modifications in accommodating students with diverse needs in the classroom.
Traditionally, we often opted to provide big group trainings to expose teachers to the necessary knowledge and strategies that they can use to succeed. However, the support to help these professionals to infuse what they have learned into their own teaching style and classroom have been few and far between. Change happens incrementally. And for change to happen, it requires that the professionals have the confidence and trust in themselves and the school environment to grow in their self-awareness by exploring diverse strategies.
At the core of professional development is supporting individual teachers and therapists to engage in meaning-making with their students. Meaning-making is a process of dialogue that can manifest through verbal and/or nonverbal means, but focuses on what happens “in-between” the communication partners during the process of interaction (see Alant, 2016, Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Engagement and Participation for more detail on the concept of meaning-making and its association with self and other awareness).
Meaning-making is a process that requires not only a cognitive understanding of the message sent, it also requires an openness to and interest in the other to allow for new nuances of meaning to develop between the communication partners. Emotional resonance between teacher and student forms the basis for this process. One needs to make a connection with students that goes beyond the mere exchange of messages (and requesting responses) to allow for the development of new nuanced meaning. It is about the “in-between”; that is, the mutual experience of “being together.” The level of meaning-making between communication partners is, therefore, a primary indicator of the quality of interaction. How aware are we of the level of meaning-making that we engage in when interacting with our students? Are we aware of how our own style of interaction can impact on our students’ communication and challenging behaviors?
Meaning-making with students in the classroom can only occur if staff are willing to and provided with opportunities to explore, reflect, and grow in their interaction with diverse students in a supportive teaching environment. After all, it is about the quality of our interaction and learning. As the old saying goes, “It’s not just about the hours we put in that count, it is what we put into the hours.”