The Power of Teacher Expertise

in , by Stephanie, November 05, 2017
I am a literacy teacher educator. I work with preservice, new and practicing teachers to strengthen their understanding of effective literacy instruction and classroom practices. Students deserve teachers who have a clear and solid understanding of how literacy develops and the expertise to differentiate instruction to meet their needs. So, when I hear stories about teachers who are forced to use a scripted curriculum, I cringe. When I hear stories about teachers who do not have the power to create their own lessons or materials, I cringe. When I hear teachers sing the praises of teacher entrepreneurial websites, I cringe too. This past week alone, I heard from three different teachers who were using products from these sites as their “close reading curriculum” and even their literacy intervention.

I imagine these sites were created by well-meaning educators who wanted to harness the power of teachers sharing their ideas with others and provide compensation for those willing to do so. The idea is appealing to many teachers who work incredibly hard in their classrooms and deserve recognition. Even I was hooked into the promise of the site early on as I shared materials that I had created. But as I learned more about the materials that were posted, I was frustrated. They were pretty, yes, but not always based on sound literacy practices and were certainly not tailored to the needs of individual students. I realized that charging other teachers for these kinds of products was not something I could stand behind.

As a literacy teacher educator, I have a responsibility to advocate for teachers and their students. I build teacher expertise as the best form of literacy instruction and intervention and engage teachers in conversations that challenge their use of prepackaged materials for instruction. And I am not alone. Many others have written on this topic and generated lively discussion: Dr. Mary Howard’s Facebook post, Matt Gomez’s blog post, SpinEducation’s post and even cautionary guidance provided by the National Math TeachersCouncil. Inspired by these posts, I want to share how I have challenged teachers’ assumptions about sites such as these.

In the beginning of the semester during my literacy graduate classes, I ask teachers to share their favorite literacy activity with the class. They describe the activity and post a link to it. Inevitably, many of these activities are from paid teacher resource sites. Over the course of the semester, teachers learn about effective literacy instruction, develop their expertise on the sequence of skills development and explore principles of early literacy intervention. At the end of the semester, I ask them to return to their chosen activity and evaluate it based on their new learning. They are typically quite surprised at what they find: the activity typically looks pretty on the outside, but may not be based on best practices, it may teach early literacy skills in a sequence that actually makes it harder for students to learn and the font and embellishments may distract our most vulnerable learners away from the content we are trying to teach, among other revelations. It is typically an eye-opening activity for most. We share our results and conclude together that these activities, and the sites they are posted on, should be evaluated carefully before using them in the classroom, just like any other published curriculum. There may be good resources for teaching shared online, but we should privilege our own expertise and abilities to create instructional opportunities for students.

Rather than using technology to purchased prepackaged curriculum or teaching activities, we must use technology to carefully and thoughtfully grow our own professional learning network and collaborate with like-minded teachers who can fuel our goals and support our work. Let's arm teachers with knowledge of effective literacy instruction and support them as they develop their own expertise to create effective, authentic and responsive instruction for students. Join me on November 14th at the New York State Reading Association's Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY to explore how to use technology to boost your professional learning network and re-imagine literacy and literacy instruction for yourself and for your students.
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  1. I cannot even find the words to tell you how much I love this Stephanie! The idea that so much instructional ideas are available a the click of a buy button thus requires us to be very clear about our values. Having a knee-jerk reaction and merely buying for the sake of buying is NOT professional responsibility. Having a conversation and reflection on these things in light of our understandings will put an entirely different spin on this. I LOVE THIS and am so grateful that you followed through and too the time to write it. So amazing!

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    1. I am so thankful for your comments, Mary, and your encouragement to share my ideas. Teachers must be very intentional when selecting materials for their students, particularly when using sites such as these. I hope this gives them the confidence to believe in their own abilities and collaborate with others to continue their learning. Thank you for commenting!

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  2. Thanks for lending your voice to this important conversation, Stephanie. While there are plenty of great things being shared online, it's important for us to remember that not everything is wonderful just because it looks cute.

    I appreciate all of the external links you provided above.

    I won't be at the NY State Reading Association's Conference, but would love to hear you speak sometime. Will you be attending NCTE? (I realize they're in close proximity to each other.)

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    1. Thank you so much for your comments, Stacey. Unfortunately, I will not be at NCTE this year, but am happy to share my presentation through social media so we can connect virtually. I greatly admire your work and am thrilled to connect!

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  3. I have been hesitant to criticize TPT because so many teachers create so many great things and distribute them for free, so it was nice to think about teachers getting compensated for their creations. Having said that, the stuff I have seen purchased there is high on cute and low on content and creativity. So, I'm a little sad about that. I love the work you're doing. Great post.

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    1. Thank you for your comments! I had the same feelings, but never did name a site (there are many like TPT) and acknowledged we just need to evaluate the products carefully and not sell ourselves short to create these materials and resources overselves. I am glad you enjoyed my post!

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