What can I do to help you?
These words are hugely powerful and tragically underused at every level of the education world.
In the classroom, teachers have been taught since the dawn of time that they should be clear about their expectations. This is excellent practice; let the student know exactly what you want from her. If she has trouble meeting that expectation, be certain that you are explaining the expectation clearly. And then ask the student, “What can I do to help you?”
It may well be that the student won’t be able to tell you. That’s okay. Just asking the question signals a shift in your classroom dynamic; instead of a setting in which the teacher demands performance from a student, who is on her own to produce the required signs of learning, the Seven Words reframe the classroom as a place where the teacher and student are teamed up to conquer learning obstacles together. Students benefit from knowing they aren’t alone in the struggle, and teachers are reminded that students are their partners, not their obstacles (a view promoted from teacher accountability systems that say, “You have to get good scores out of your kids, or else.”) It’s worth noting that computerized personalized [sic] learning systems cannot ask this question in any meaningful way.
The Seven Words are also powerful for building administration. Sadly, may teachers have never, ever had a building principal ask the question. Instead they hear “Make your test numbers” or “Follow the proper procedures” or “Here’s one more program I expect you to use in your class.” There are plenty of expectations, but far too few building principals consider their job top include helping teachers meet those expectations. Some administrators pride themselves on an Open Door Policy (“Any teacher can come talk to me any time she wants”) and some principals roam the building, popping into classrooms to see what’s going on. But I’ll bet there are few teachers in this country who have ever had a principal walk into their classroom, sit down, and say, “I just wanted to ask what I can do to help you with your work.” Without something that explicit, some teachers will never believe it’s okay for them to ask their boss for help with anything, ever.
The Seven Words would help at the policy level, too. We’ve been subjected to decades of school “reform,” ongoing attempts to make schools better. And yet, as policy makers discuss various fixes and programs and policies, they rarely take the step of going to actual classroom teachers and asking, “What can we do to help you?” When teachers are allowed in the room at all, they are usually carefully handpicked teachers who will be friendly and agreeable.
Of course, the Seven Words are rarely used with teachers at the policy level because so many players at that level are there to sell something. They have decided on their own that No Child Left Behind or Common Core or Race to the Top or Competency Based Education or Any Amount of Ed Tech Whizbangery will fix things before they so much as look at an actual classroom teacher. But even after such policies are adopted, policy makers could say, “Okay, we’ve decided you’re going to do this thing. What can we do to help you implement our idea successfully?” But even that escapes them. “Just expect real hard and throw some professional development at them. That should fix it.” Even when things fail, few reformsters say, “Yeah, we really should have talked to teachers first.” The diagnosis is invariably Bad Implementation or Insufficient PR or Not Enough Teacher Training.
The failure of the Obama-Duncan School Improvement Grants and turnaround programs like New York’s Renewal Schools all follow this same pattern. Top-down government officials declare, “This is what you’re going to do to fix things.” But nobody goes to the schools, sits down with teachers, and asks, “What can we do to help you?”
W. Edward Demmings believed that the answers to an organizations problems could be found closest to the place where the actual work was being done. The folks who have taken the reins of leadership in the education world would do well to remember his insight. But “What can I do to help you” doesn’t just yield the most useful advice for helping schools; it breaks down the sense of isolation. Teachers are used to working in a solitary setting, and they’re used to being ignored by people who make decisions that affect the classrooms where they do their actual work. Teachers are used to being over-extended jugglers who only see the bosses long enough for them to toss in one more ball (or cement block or running chain saw) and then run away.
We could improve the working conditions in schools and the morale of the teaching force, even as we uncovered some of the solutions to school improvement. It wouldn’t be easy (for instance, some people would have to give up pet ideas that aren’t actually helping anybody), but starting the process would be simple. We could do it with just seven words.