Developed by
Dr. Judith M. Newman

English Quarterly

A Direct Intervention

Margaret Swain

Irene is a grade one teacher in the final years of a long and dedicated career. During her career, she has been an elementary teacher and teaching administrator. Although Irene was one of the first teachers locally to adopt many of the orthodoxies of whole language, such as "Big Books," her classroom practices have remained quite traditional. She believes in a teacher-centred, teacher-directed curriculum and a good measure of skill-and-drill. She has adopted, in addition to Big Books, chanting from charts and a form of writing from predictable patterns which has tended to be a sophisticated fill-in-the-blank worksheet. Reading in her grade one class consists of everyone reading together in a large group-Big Books, familiar stories, songs and poems. Consequently, Irene was only generally aware of any of her first grade students' particular capabilities. Her reports on the children were very non-specific and applied to almost every child.

Since I read and sign every report card before it leaves the school, I had an opportunity to read Irene's report cards. I was uncomfortable reading virtually the same comment for almost every child in the class. Only two novel comments appeared: one indicating a particular child was probably reading before she came to school-"a very good reader;" another indicating three children needed "to work harder."

I decided to talk to Irene about the need to indicate what she knew about her students individually and about their reading abilities. In our conversation, I explained why I felt it was important for her to relate exactly what each child could do as a reader and what she was planning to do next in order to help him or her continue progressing. I asked that next term she show an increased knowledge about each child.

I was uncomfortable after Irene and I talked, however. Over the years, I had extended many invitations and demonstrations to the staff about the importance of knowing our students as individual readers, writers, and thinkers. I could see my efforts had had little impact on Irene. Now I was feeling torn between believing it is important for students to have more individualized support for their reading and concerned about not treating Irene as a professional colleague. I knew our chat didn't sit well with Irene; she saw my concern as criticism and when does criticism that demands action ever sit well?

Over the next few day I distributed some samples of evaluation materials for both group and individual assessment from several different sources to all the lower elementary teachers. I mentioned to Irene that if she did not have enough books and materials to run an individual reading program and/or a home reading program, like one of the other teacher's in the school operated, I would obtain more material for her-an offer she accepted readily. And then, except for regular, brief classroom visits to see the children working, I dropped the subject.

The following term, Irene's reports arrived on my desk and they clearly indicated that she had learned a great deal about her students' reading abilities and problems. Her reports appeared less judgmental and blaming than previously. There were fewer comments about "putting out a poor effort" or "if only so and so would work harder." I commented to Irene, in a note which I included with her returned reports, that parents would certainly know from her comments what their children were doing in reading and how they could support them at home.

The third term reports and the year-end reports similarly showed Irene's increased awareness of her children's reading strategies. As I handed her back her end-of-year reports, Irene commented that she felt really good about her teaching and report writing this year.

"You know," she said, "I've worked really hard, I know my students better this year than ever before and my reports have been so easy to write." No smile, no surprise, no boasting, no reference to my perceived criticism of her; just a matter-of-fact statement. Irene turned and left the staffroom, obviously pleased with herself as a teacher.

I was pleased that Irene felt good about herself, too. I had been afraid that my direct intervention, which had upset her at the time, would affect her long-term feelings about herself as a teacher or would produce strained, uncomfortable relations between her, the staff and me. I had felt that such direct intervention had been necessary but, at the same time, I had been uncomfortable exerting my authority. Although it doesn't stop me from doing it, I am always uncomfortable telling professional staff to do something in a particular way-my way. I prefer to engage the teachers in dialogue and inquiry about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it serves the children. I prefer to offer suggestions and build on what is already going on in the classroom. But when options have run out, when no invitation or suggestion has been considered, and no change has occurred, then, as principal of the school, I feel it is important sometimes to intervene directly-albeit with as much tact as I can muster.

In Irene's case, once I had laid out exactly what I expected from her, she complied; at first annoyed with the extra work it appeared to entail. In the end, the extra work was balanced by the increased satisfaction she felt. She seemed to be genuinely pleased at knowing the children more thoroughly. She discovered she was better able to do what was needed to help them.

According to Donald Schön (Argyris & Schön, 1974) people would often do better being treated to "valid information" rather than sugar coating their behaviour with "tactful comments or criticism." In Irene's case some direct expectations let her know what I wanted her to try and her trying paid off as I hoped it would-a sense of satisfaction at knowing her students better.

However, as principal, I constantly wonder when I should invite, when I should encourage, when I should nudge, and when I should intervene directly. When should I insist on things being done my way and when should I back off and respect the teachers' decisions?

How do I encourage teachers to be more aware of their students and, in turn, more aware of themselves as learners? Am I kid-watching/teacher-watching-not only for problems but also for the strategies that teachers are using and supporting their efforts? How do I make sure I am learning from them?

Clearly, there's no one infallible way of accomplishing what I feel we need to accomplish. Being a principal is very like being a teacher. I, too, need to examine my assumptions and the decisions I make.

Argyris, C. & D. Schön (1974) Theory In Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Margaret Swain is Principal with the Halifax Regional School Board, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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