Leadership: Transitioning a department to CI with grace and diplomacy

I started my career in a state and a district where the department chair held enormous power to dictate what other teachers do in their classrooms. It was not until I moved to California and taught in a district with an extremely weak department chair that I realized the strength in weakness. A good leader empowers others. However, a good system of leadership does not rely on a master leader; it simply empowers every teacher to take control of their own professional path.

I have heard horror stories from other schools about polarized departments and colleagues who refuse to speak to each other, but we avoided many of the pitfalls as we transitioned our entire department from a textbook grammarian approach to a full comprehensible input (CI) approach. Here is my advice for leading such a change.

(1) Reaffirm respect for the professional educator to determine their methods

There are three parts to this: first, respect and voluntary commitment is the only way a true paradigm shift will ever take hold. I truly believe that top-down change will only be subverted. You cannot force it. Second, respect for difference will protect you as you develop and change your teaching. When I was the only CI teacher in my department this was magical. If you want to criticize me, then look at my results, not my methods. If you want to know how I got those results, look at my methods. Third, even if you are a strong-arm department chair and could force people to change their methods, you will at best win a battle and lose the war. The last thing you want is to be leading the charge from behind a group of reluctant soldiers. CI will be judged in your district by the performance of CI teachers, so do not muddy the waters by forcing textbook or grammar-oriented teachers to put on a false cloak of CI. If you are lucky enough to be the department chair, remind yourself often that your role is to support. Teachers lead.

(2) Plan on flexibility

It may be tempting to rush to get a CI curriculum, adopt it in committee and then worry about how to implement it later. In the case of CI, however, what to teach goes hand in hand with how to teach. Every experienced CI teacher must understand how to determine the what on their own because there will come a time in which s/he realizes that the class has moved too fast. A new CI teacher must learn to teach for mastery and never feel pressured to move on to the next unit. Merely having a department pacing guide and hearing about “where” other teachers are is enough to shift back into the old paradigm of “covering” units. Plan on a transition period lasting several years so that teachers can learn how to ask a story and truly go at the speed of students. This does not mean that there are no guides, but no standardized guides until teachers are masters CI skills such as going slow, story-asking, pacing to the speed of the slow-processor and classroom management for the CI classroom.

This paradigm shift between teaching to a pacing guide and teaching for mastery takes longer than one might expect because, for most of us educators, teaching units is a pervasive, unconscious way to structure education. Almost every CI teacher goes too fast as they barrel through stories. The major thing that a new CI teacher must learn to do is to slow down and learn to speak with students, not at them. Observe non-verbal signs of comprehension and learn skills of mindfulness.

Also keep in mind that you too will be changing. When I first made my transition to CI, first through SIOP and then through TPRS, I made a vocabulary guide for each level taught by my department so that other teachers would feel empowered to ditch the textbook. That vocabulary guide, simplified from the textbook series that they were using, still called for way too many words to be taught, many low-frequency terms, and worse yet missed the premise that new vocabulary should be embedded within structures. After years of professional development we all came to an agreement on a guide built around structures that use the sweet sixteen verbs. A mandatory list of high-frequency structures could have been presented early on in this process, but I suspect it would have been subverted by the inclusion of low-frequency words that the textbook teachers believed to be crucial. How do you explain to non-CI trained teachers that the word October or being able to say the alphabet is not high-frequency enough to be included in an essential learnings document for Spanish 1? It is best to put all of those questions on hold until everyone is ready to produce an answer grounded in SLA research.

(3) Work with people who want to work with you

After attending my first summer NTPRS conference I started telling little things to my department that I thought would mesh well with their teaching practices at the time. For example, instead of presenting verbs to students in the infinitive form I suggested that they present them first conjugated in the 3rd person singular (as they tend to do in TPRS). I supported my advice by showing them writing samples of Spanish 3 students who were constantly just writing an infinitive rather than conjugating the verb. Yet even my closest colleagues have told me that, at the time, they smiled and dismissed everything I said as pure craziness.

The problem was that I was directing my comments at the entire department, during a meeting when they had to be there, and not in an organic way at all.

I later secured funding and invited two close colleagues to attend a workshop. These were the teachers who had told me that my students were much better prepared than others. We all attended a Blaine Ray training, obviously not an approach that I follow nowadays but still a valid and effective CI method. Learning German with Blaine was a bonding experience like no other, and I am so glad that I brought only the two that were already curious. Writing a 200 word quick write in German, a language that we only had a couple of hours of learning, was such a revelation that they both abandoned all previous lesson plans. One erased her hard drive so that she would never go back to the old ways of teaching.

So I think, rather than winning over everyone at once, work with those who are curious first. Let people come to you. Let the excitement coming from your classroom and the excellence of your former students attract the curiosity of your colleagues.

I also suggest that you let your colleagues choose their mentors. I brought Ben Slavic and Tina Hargaden to present a three day workshop to my department because their work has impacted me greatly, but most of my former colleagues continue to practice a Blaine Ray style of CI. We have to be okay with each other, even if we would not adopt each others ideas.

(4) Win over administrators

Some administrators have a hierarchical approach to running a school; they mistakenly believe that if they dictate a course of action then the “good” teachers follow and the rest must be badgered until they give in. Por las buenas o por las malas. If there is one overarching idea that I am trying to communicate, it is that a major paradigm shift like the one represented by CI cannot successfully take root through authoritarian means. Do not let an administrator who does not understand SLA determine a time line or otherwise commandeer the process of change in your department!

Administrators do have a role, of course. If you have an administrator evaluating your performance as a classroom teacher then it is crucial that s/he understands what they are observing. Bryce Hedstrom´s checklist for classroom visitors helps focus their attention on some traditional areas of concern, such as how students learn grammar.

Even if you are not department chair you can impress them with data about your students. I think that fluency writes are some of the most eloquent pieces of positive propaganda that a CI teacher can provide. Invite them in for story telling, but be sure to have a whole class worth of quick writes ready so that, when the administrator inevitably asks why there are only a handful of kids “participating” (i.e. the vocal few), you can show evidence that even the quiet ones are acquiring much more than if they were participating in paired forced output activities.

Be prepared to advertise your successes. Higher retention of students from year to year may be a headache for administrators who have to create the sections and find funding (an admin once frankly told me that every new section I was asking for has a price tag), but it also can be related to higher and more competitive college placements. When graduated our first IB students from a newly created IB program I was proud to report that, with only a four year language program, 100% of our students passed the IB Spanish language exams and our first year scores were better than the world-wide average. I went to great lengths to impress upon my principal and the IB director that most IB schools have at least a 6 year language program starting in middle school.

Once you have sold yourself, be prepared for the typical administrator response: “let´s get other teachers using these methods“. Here is my rehearsed response: “I am really happy that you are on board, but I don´t feel right telling other teachers what to do in their classrooms. What I would like are the types of resources that will help me get better at this method so that other teachers are won over by the superior results of my students. There is a training that I would like to attend with (fill in the name of an interested colleague)…” Try to always have a concrete item in mind that an administrator can provide you, whether it be a $20 guidebook, $200 for novels for your classroom library or $500 for training with hotel included.

The rest of your colleagues will start to notice when 2 or 3 colleagues are sent to another city for a two or three day training. Prepare your principal now so that he or she knows that you cannot be the one training your colleagues: the real ah-ha moment is when the language teachers are immersed in a completely new language and are learning faster than they ever guessed they could. They also have to feel how much repetition they need in their new language so that they can apply that knowledge to their classes. If you are still the only CI teacher in your department then your next step, beyond developing your own skills, is to find one receptive colleague to help you ignite the fire.

(5) Take control of the department budget

Of course, wait until a good part of the department is interested in the new methods so that you are responding genuinely to department needs, but at a certain point I put a hold on ordering office supplies, cultural materials (videos, supplies for art projects) and all the other things we used to purchase so that we could prioritize new methods. Schools spend tens of thousands of dollars on textbooks; once you have won over administrators do not shy away from pointing out that CI works best when teachers are supported by materials as well, which do not cost nearly as much. CI works wonderfully in a low-tech, low-funding environment.

Following the approach described in this website, each teacher will need very little: a supply of butcher paper, plenty of thick, colorful markers and crayons to create the One Word Images. Most of the texts in the first semester are either student created or simple, teacher created texts. By second semester you will want to be building a classroom library, but the lack of a library in your first years will not doom your class. Start by purchasing the lowest level books you can find; even upper level students will benefit from pleasure reading with extremely easy texts.

However, not all of your colleagues are going to feel comfortable creating a curriculum out of thin air by simply listening closely to their students. If you want to help your colleagues, provide them with choices to help them develop as they feel comfortable. For my department I bought two copies of all three levels of Fluency Matters’ textbook series Cuéntame más. Even after extensive training the teachers were afraid of abandoning the security of a textbook. Most people taught one chapter and never looked at it again, but they would never have made the leap without the TPRS textbook. Two of our teachers occasionally still use the textbook… but at least it is so clearly explained that I know they are providing CI to their students. One of our teachers uses Martina Bex’s Somos curriculum for her level 1 and 2 classes. She likes the way that, like a textbook, every minute of class can be planned out and accounted for. While I think that my own approach described on this website has plenty of railings for teachers to grasp hold of, I respect her professional judgement. I sometimes worry about another teacher who does so many movie talks that I fear he is simply watching YouTube in class, without the benefits of talking through the video and verifying comprehension. I remind myself that he is growing and adapting to CI is a process.

Yes, there may be some danger in providing a buffet of CI techniques where teachers are all doing something different in every class. But there is also danger in remaining so dogmatically fixed on your own distinct approach to CI that you cannot support a colleague who is exploring her own path. We all have strengths and weaknesses; the approach to CI that your colleagues eventually choose reflects their comfort and strengths as educators. Let them grow as they best can.