Roberto Germán 00:01
Welcome to Our Classroom. In this space, we talk about education, which is inclusive of, but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host, Roberto Germán, and Our Classroom is officially in session. Today's episode is titled Collaborating to Learn, and I'm joined by Dr. Towanda Harris, who has been a teacher, staff developer, literacy content specialist, instructional leadership coordinator, and instructional coach. Currently an adjunct professor of reading and writing at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. She brings over 20 years of experience to the education world. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. With us today, Dr. Towanda Harris. Well, I'm here with Towanda Harris, the doctor. Yes, yes, indeed. I am blessed by her presence. And if you don't know, she is the author of The Right Tools. That's right, folks. We talk a lot about toolboxes and whatnot. Right? And expanding, expanding our toolbox as well. The thing is, you gotta have the right tools. You-- you just can't-- just can't have the toolbox. I mean, the toolbox is necessary, but you gotta have the right tools. And so we're gonna be digging in with Dr. Towanda Harris, the author of Right-- The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Thank you for being here today.
Dr. Towanda Harris 02:01
Thank you. Thank you. It is such an honor to finally be on this wonderful, wonderful podcast. Just thank you for just providing this space for educators to just share and, you know, in the spirit of collaboration, it just makes so-- so much sense to bring us all together. So I thank you for just this platform and all that you're doing in education, and I'm excited to be here. Just kind of share some nuggets and just dialogue.
Roberto Germán 02:31
Yes, yes. Well, you know, I'm-- I'm-- We're blessed by the work that you do. And folks, Towanda gave us a ride to the airport when we were in California for NCTE, for the National Council of Teachers of English Conference. All right? So she's-- she's a-- a woman of service. All right? A giving person, a generous person, and a collaborative person. And that's what I wanna focus our conversation on today. Chapter five of your book is titled, How Do I Collaborate to Learn Even More? And I wanna spend time hearing you talk about collaboration, and we'll start with a couple of the conversation starters from your book, from this particular chapter. And so, first, how have you seen the use of collaborative planning support teachers and improve student performance? And you could talk about this from the angle of what you do as an educational consultant. We know you're out there crushing it, giving schools, giving districts the support that they need. Or you could talk about it from your past experience as a classroom teacher, either one.
Dr. Towanda Harris 03:41
Okay. Well, let me just give you a little bit of background of, you know, how this book came about. I started as a classroom teacher, and I remember walking into the classroom with this idea of me changing the world. Like, oh, yes, I'm a first year teacher. I went the traditional route. And I'm like, okay, I'm going into the classroom and I am going to, you know, make changes for better, right? And so I get handed this book, and this book is a scripted program, and I'm sitting here like, okay, so-- so what am I supposed to do with this? You know what-- And they're like, just read it word for word.
Roberto Germán 04:21
Dr. Towanda Harris 04:22
Word for word? Yeah. Don't-- don't veer from the-- the-- the pages. Read it line by line, and that is what you're going to do. And I'm thinking, well, that is absolutely not what I got in my teacher education program to go into a classroom and read this book. And I remember there were administrators walking around at certain times in the morning, and they would make sure that everyone in the entire school was on the same page at the same time. And I know it sounds absolutely crazy, and I'm sitting here like, this is not what I thought education was going to be. And so that was a hard transition for me to go from-- from this idea of, oh my goodness, we are going to have this-- You know, I'm going to change the-- the world for education. And then I go in and I'm handed this book.
And so I had to start figuring out how do I, number one, meet the needs of my students? Because when the door closes, my students are looking at me like, how are you going to support me? And then also, how do I, you know, benefit from the brilliance of my colleagues? You know, how do I have this collaborative spirit just kind of flowing through when the resource doesn't always allow that to happen? And so I had to learn that firsthand. And so that was kind of the thinking behind this book. How do you vet and evaluate resources when it's-- it comes to you already packaged? You know, we want to make change. We want to say, no, we don't want this. But what do you do when you walk into a school and that is the requirement that you have to use that particular resource?
And so, the chapter that I wrote about collaborate-- collaboration, my first year teaching, I was definitely blessed with an amazing third grade teaching team. Shout out to my colleagues, Mr. Gates, Alison, Ms. Burton Selema. Like, we had such a-- a beautiful-- a beautiful time together. And because of that, we really played off each other's strengths. And so we knew where our shortcomings were on our own, but we also knew who to go to to help us with those shortcomings that we had. And so we understood that we didn't come with all of the answers. And so, with that being said, knowing that that is my experience when it comes to collaboration, when I do go into schools and I talk about this idea of working together, I always say, we are better together. And that basically means that please don't walk into a space thinking you have all of the answers.
It is okay. When you stop learning, you need to stop teaching. That's just the truth. And-- and so if you walk in and you say, I've got it all together, you will be sadly mistaken because our students come to us different every single year. Sometimes every single day depending on how they're feeling. Because, you know, life is lifing. I always say life is lifing. And because life is lifing, our students are experiencing it, and we are experiencing it, and we have to figure out how to be our best for our students so that they can be their best for the world.
Roberto Germán 07:50
It's-- it's wild to think of how robotic of an approach a district will be willing to take. Right? So I'm thinking about this example that you just offered, and I went through something similar-- through something similar when I-- when I started my teaching career. I was teaching English at the local high school where I'm from in Massachusetts. And I was given what felt like a very scripted program. There might have been a little more flexibility than what you had, but still I-- I was-- I had a lot of trouble adapting to what I was being asked to do. And I had a decent team. Didn't-- Not quite as great as what you just described but there was also just a lot of tension in that building from constant turnover with leadership from all these new curriculums they kept throwing to the teachers. Just change and change and change and no consistency, not a strong culture. And so it's-- it's good to hear you talk about that importance of-- of collaboration. And I-- I wanna hear you unpack the second conversation starting from chapter five, which is how might the ELL, special education and gifted teachers be a resource to provide additional support in the classroom?
Dr. Towanda Harris 09:11
Oh, my goodness. They are so crucial to, you know, supporting students oftentimes. And, you know, this has just been my experience. I have 20 plus years in education, and I started as a classroom teacher. I became an EIP teacher, and then I was an instructional coach, and then I moved to the district level, and which I supported principals and their leadership teams. And so I had the experience of, you know, being in the classroom, boots on the ground, and then going to support those that would kind of shape the-- the support or the professional development or the capacity building in a school building. And, you know, one of the things that I just-- I-- I-- I see oftentimes being not valued as much as it should be, would be the role of those that support ELL students as well as those that support special education students and those that support gifted students.
And so think about our package programs that typically schools would get. These-- When the schools get the programs, they're not making accommodations or they're not showing you the best strategies to use to best support an ELL student and to best support a student that has special needs or to best support a student that is gifted. And so what ends up happening, just my experience of-- of what I've seen is the teacher, because, you know, the teacher wants to do the best that they can, but they don't always have the time to-- to differentiate as much as they should be differentiating. They kinda just build the plane as it's flying. And the danger in that is that you are not adequately meeting the needs of those particular students that are in there. And so, there are assumptions and biases that we don't acknowledge that we bring to the table about ELL students, about students with special needs or about gifted students.
And it starts to kind of weave its way into our daily instructional decisions. And so, without the expertise of someone who, you know, has studied and understands fully the scholarship behind the best way to support students with special needs, or the best way to support gifted students as well as ELL students, without that person as a thought partner at the table, we're kind of left to our own devices. And, you know, it-- it-- I've seen it go south so many times. I've-- I've seen it harm children so many times because we use the resource to lead our decisions as to what's best for students. And so we start to say things like, oh, well, if this child doesn't get it, then they are reading two and three grade levels below because they don't have the capacity to do that. And I'm like, I argue it all of the time.
That is not true. It just means that you are not putting the-- the best support in place to allow that student to be their best selves in that setting. I have, personally, my daughter. I love her, love her, love her, I love her personality, the energy that she has, and she brings into any educational space. And to know my daughter is to know that she is full of energy. But my daughter also has ADHD as well as Tourette syndrome. That is-- Those two things, one by itself is enough to kind of, you know, be an obstacle. But two of those together, I am-- I am always amazed at how she unapologetically shows up in spaces and that she confidently, authentically shows up as to who she is and is confident in her ability to do this work.
And I remember on the early onset of, you know, the diagnosis, I had to be an advocate to say, this has nothing to do with her intellectual capacity. It has nothing to do with her ability to think critically, but it has everything to do with how you support her to be her best self. And so, sometimes when we don't have thought partners at the table that this is just what I do, you know, and when I leave out those collaboratives, those-- excuse me, those individuals to be at the table to collaborate, then unfortunately we don't always have the right tools that we need in order to best support those very students that need us to give them those strategies.
Roberto Germán 14:21
Hmm. That's a lot. Yeah, that's a lot. Thanks for sharing that. Thanks for offering the example of your daughter and her learning differences. And obviously, the need for you to strongly advocate for your child ‘cause, you know, parents are gonna be the best advocate for their kids. And we know in-- in schools, in many schools, sometimes if you don't strongly advocate for your child, then they might get left behind. Shouldn't be that way. But we know it is. And obviously, your daughter has an advantage in that she has an educated mother who knows her stuff, who's been on the ground. And so, you know, I-- I-- I wanna think about action steps. And given the work you do as an educational consultant, I know you're working with a lot of schools, you're working with districts, what are some of the barriers that hinder collaboration? And also, what are three immediate action steps a school leader can take to start creating a culture of collaboration?
Dr. Towanda Harris 15:26
Okay, so the barriers, oh my goodness, there are quite a few, but I'll just kind of start with this. I think one of the-- the biggest barriers that I see would be too many agendas, you know? I-- I think that, you know, sometimes when you have so many folks at the table, they come with their own personal agenda as to why they are contributing to this space. And because of that, we lose sight of why we're doing this work. You know, that kind of leads me into what are those three main things, or what are some three action steps that schools can do now? First and foremost, you know, we-- we talk about this idea of backwards design. And so, I-- I have so much experience with supporting leaders and helping them with strategic plans and helping them to meet goals and all of those things.
But one of the-- the pieces that I think often kind of gets put to the side would be starting with the student first. So when we talk about backwards design, if the student is not a crucial part of that end goal, then you are going to start to make decisions based on test scores or based on, you know, achievement, based on all of these things. And you forget that you have a human being, tiny humans. As Ariel Johnson would always say, tiny humans sitting before you, right? And so, if you're thinking about action steps, the first piece would be to start with a student first. And so that might be creating a student profile. What-- If-- if a student goes through my school, or goes through my program, or goes through my classroom, what type of student do I expect to come out of this? And I'm not talking about a student that passes the standardized test at the end of the year, you know. Like, don't get me started. That's a whole another podcast that we will talk about standardized tests.
Roberto Germán 17:43
No, we gonna bring you back on
Dr. Towanda Harris 17:47
But you know, when you talk about this measure that you-- No, well, the-- the-- the measures of success that you are placing on a student, we think about sometimes we always go to the test score part, but we don't think about the actual human being. How are they going to be more empathetic? How are they going to be more compassionate? How are they going to add to, you know, making change into the world? I think about Dr. Muhammad's criticality pillar when she talks about going out into the world and fighting against injustice and oppression and all of those things. How are we creating this student to-- or creating space for the student to be a critical thinker? And so that is first and foremost, it could be to create a student profile. The next would be let's look at our resources. What resources do we have to do this work?
In my book, I talk about doing an audit, an audit of your resources. And because when we think about resources, sometimes we think about this one size fits all, or this is what the package or the-- the-- the company said, how we need to use this resource, but understand resources are created without our students that are sitting before us in mind.
Roberto Germán 19:06
Dr. Towanda Harris 19:07
So we might need to, you know, make some adjustments, right? I remember this is kind of-- This is related, but not related. I had a dermatologist, right? And so my dermatologist, she had-- had prescribed me this thing. It was like an oil or something like that. And it was a black woman. And she said, “This is what it says on the label as to how you use it, but for your hair, this is how you need to use it.”
So instead of following the directions, I know you, and because I know you, this is what adjustment you are going to need to make. But it's the same resource, right? It's the same-- the same resource, the same medication that would be good for anyone with that, you know, that concern. But for me, she knew that I had to be a-- I had to make an adjustment to receive the benefits of this particular oil. It's the same thing with our students. If we are taking a resource and using it the same way for every single student, that will not always bring out the best in that student. And so we have to make adjustments, but that means that we have to know our students, right? And so, if we don't know our students, and we have these expectations that are varying from student to student based on our assumptions, remember going back to, you know, our biases and all of those things that we just kinda choose not to unpack sometimes.
And we bring them into, okay, well this resource isn't working for you, so there's something wrong with you. No, that just means I need to make an adjustment to it. So yeah, the first thing would be the student profile. The second one would be the resource. And the last one would be, who needs to be at the table? So if we're talking about making these changes and supporting our students and being the best for our students, we have to be honest with ourselves. And so, yes, I know it's the scheduling issues I work with in schools for years, years, years, years. And I know that schedules don't always allow for everyone to be at the table at the same time. But I've saw-- I've seen some very creative ways that schools have made accommodations for that. That might mean that there might be a, you know, a report or someone that kind of sits in and shares what that particular person or the-- that role, the coordinator or whoever it is that couldn't be at the table because of scheduling reasons, but still has the information to share, or they may have office hours. All of these things, you can make sure that those voices are heard at the table.
Roberto Germán 21:52
Well, that's good stuff. Free PD folks. Free PD. So school leaders, let me repeat this for you in case you missed it. All right? If you are looking to create a culture of collaboration, three immediate action steps that you could take, create a student profile. Two, make sure you have the necessary resources. And three, identify who needs to be at the table. That's good stuff, Towanda. Let's talk about teacher shortages. All right? We-- we know we got teacher shortages across the country, and I'm wondering what action steps you would encourage for collaboration in this particular case as we think specifically about teacher shortages. What would you encourage school leaders to do to encourage collaboration amidst dealing with teacher shortages?
Dr. Towanda Harris 22:53
You know, when I work with schools, one of the things that I always ask, I say, okay, what do you expect teachers to do? And then the next question is, how are you going to support them to do that very thing? Right? And so sometimes we-- when talking with administrators, there's this expectation of what they want teachers to do. But then when I ask that second question, how are you supporting them to do that? It's like, because they're just supposed to do that. And I'm like, well, are you giving them the time to do that? Are you providing them the professional development to be equipped to do that? Are you providing them the resources in order to do that? And so if, you know, leaders aren't honest with themselves as to how they're adequately supporting teachers to do what they expect them to do, then you're going to have teachers that walk away from the profession.
And so, you know, I-- It-- it-- I remember on social media there was this big divide of teachers supporting teachers that walked away and teachers saying, no, well, I'm staying, I'm, you know, rolling up my sleeves and I'm not going to leave my students. And for me, I said, you know, do whatever you need to do. And I know that is a hard-- that is, you know, a hard truth for some folks. But the reality is, I'm not with you day to day. And I've worked in some settings in which I did not have adequate support from leadership, but I was expected to move mountains and I was expected to change the culture of the school as well as my classroom. And that was hard, you know, being a first year teacher trying to do all of these things in my classroom. And honestly, if it wasn't for my team, I probably would not have had the support and the-- the professional development that I needed in order to be my best for my students.
And so, when you think about this idea of teachers leaving the profession, or there's a teacher shortage, I always kinda-- kinda pull back and say, well, how-- how are those teachers in that school building being supported? Not only, you know, in their being valued, their voices being valued. So when, you know, there is maybe some feedback, some changes, some adjustments being made, what time is being allowed for them to complete these expectations? What resources? But that professional development piece sometimes gets pushed to the backside because of, I guess, financial reasons or what have you. But I've-- I've seen schools use-- risk financial resources to buy stuff, right? I'm going to buy this program, I'm going to buy these tools, I'm going to buy all of these things. Well, how about helping to build the capacity of the teachers so that regardless of what resources, what programs, what all of those things that happen and come in your school building, the teacher is equipped and feels adequately supported and prepared to be their best selves for their students.
You know, and I think sometimes, and not all of the times ‘cause I don't want this to come across like a bashing of any particular group, and I'm just only speaking from my experience. But sometimes we lose sight of the student, right? And so it becomes adults against adults. I don't have this and I don't feel this, and I don't do-- And, you know, sometimes we don't acknowledge how the student is feeling in the very classroom. And so, if I am an educator and I'm walking in and I'm, you know, I'm feeling frustrated, I'm not feeling supported, I'm not doing all of these things, think of how my instruction is going to be in that classroom with those students. Think of, you know, my patients, my ability to just be responsive when I have to make adjustments, real time adjustments so that, you know, their experiences are centered, their voices are centered and all of those things.
And I am allowing them or creating spaces for them to think critically. If I don't feel supported, then that's not going to happen in my classroom. It's not right. But unfortunately, that's kind of what ends up happening when there isn't support all around. So that reflection piece and that adjustment piece is crucial in all aspects from the leaders all the way down to the teachers. Where am I in this work? Be honest with yourselves, what do you need? And if the community to grow and to be your best self is not present in your school building, go out and find community. You know, I think, you know, sometimes we just stay in our school building, we say, well, we're not supported. All right. That's not enough. You know, I mean, I don't-- It's not enough for you to say, I tried and I keep going. Yeah. You know, I-- I-- This just-- It is what it is. No, it can't be what it is because our students can't afford us coming in and not being our best selves. So how do we kind of fill our cup up with a community? And it might be outside of our school building. And just being very mindful to find that.
Roberto Germán 28:46
Right. And-- and there's so many communities that are accessible now to folks. Whether we're talking about communities that meet in person or virtual communities, there are a lot of resources. So that's good. That's good encouragement there ‘cause it is true. I've-- I've had that experience where I've heard folks express those sentiments and they do get stuck. Some people do allow themselves to get stuck and yet we would not accept that from our students, right? So we-- we gotta keep that same energy. So I'm gonna modify this next question. And if you had the opportunity to have lunch with anybody, but in this case, I-- I wanna connect it to the notion of your book, the concept, the theme of your book. I want you to think about your tools and tools that you may be lacking or-- or tools that you need to reinforce and who it is that could possibly offer that to you. And so, if you had the opportunity to have lunch with somebody that could offer you the right tools in areas in which you're lacking or areas in which you wanna grow, areas of development, who would that be and why?
Dr. Towanda Harris 30:07
Oh, that is a hard one. Okay. Okay. I'm going to dig way back for this one. So I have been intrigued by the story of Clarence Benjamin Jones. He is the one who wrote the “I have a Dream” speech, right? And so I think about how, you know, when we think of the, “I have a Dream” speech, we always think about Martin Luther King, you know, of course, because he's the one that delivered that wonderful speech. But I had the opportunity to see and interview for-- It was probably like a two-hour interview with Clarence Benjamin Jones. And I really did not realize all of the backstory that he experienced before he got to the point of being the advisor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And what was probably just most inspiring for me is considering all of the trauma and the just frustration and the bitterness and all of those things he experienced, he still made sure that he used those experiences to, you know, be his best self to help him in his future.
Not for himself, but for others. And, you know, that right there, when I think about the right tools, I think about how oftentimes we are given-- You know, this is kind of what we're given in education. And so as a classroom teacher, I walk in and I don't know year to year what I'm going to-- to have before me. And I don't know year to year who will be my administrator. It might change. I remember I was at a school for 10 years, 10 or 12 years. And in those 10 or 12 years, I had four different administrators.
Roberto Germán 32:17
Dr. Towanda Harris 32:19
And it didn't start off that way. I started off with one, she was amazing. And then all of a sudden, something happened, and then it was like a revolving door and I had to make those adjustments. Now, I could have been very bitter. I could have just been very, you know, angry and frustrated and all of those things. But I knew ultimately if I were that way, I could not be my best for my students. And, you know, I used to tell my students, when I close the door-- when I close the door, this is our world. You know, like we-- This is our world and we decide how we want to engage in our world. And they felt that. They felt safe in my room. They felt loved in my room, they felt confident in my room. And I-- I knew that if I use those experiences outside of my classroom, the negativity, all of those things, the frustration, all of the things that happen outside of my four walls of my classroom, then that would harm children. And so, you know, thinking about how Clarence Benjamin Jones used all of his experiences in life to then write this amazing speech that, you know, when I hear it, I am brought to tears, you know, and just to know how jam-packed it was. And so I-- I can't help but wonder how much of his past trauma and his past experiences and all of those things fueled his pen as he began to write that awesome historical speech.
Roberto Germán 34:03
Hmm. That was good. That was good. Hmm. Now you gotta send me that interview.
Dr. Towanda Harris 34:08
Roberto Germán 34:09
You're gonna have to send me that interview.
Dr. Towanda Harris 34:11
I will. I will.
Roberto Germán 34:12
I need to learn more about Clarence Benjamin Jones. Thank you for sharing that. So for those that are listening, what is the message of encouragement you want to offer them?
Dr. Towanda Harris 34:23
Okay. So the message of encouragement, be kind to yourself. I-- You know, I-- I think-- I remember just when I was a first year teacher and I-- I spent probably about five or seven years in the classroom, right? And so me being in the classroom, I had a lot of goals, but I realized that those goals were personal goals and they did not consider the very students that would be walking through my doors. And so when I didn't meet my personal goals, I began to, you know, attach my value to me not meeting those goals. But as I began to mature in the field, in the education field, I realized that it was not so much about meeting those goals, but it was more so about me making an impact on the very students that walked through my door. It was about making connections.
It was about creating spaces in which students felt safe, seen, valued, and heard. And sometimes in education, the measures of success become more quantitated looking at test scores. Not to say that achievement is not-- You know, that's one measure, but it's not the only measure when we talk about student success. But I began to think, oh, if I get my students to pass this test, then I'm a great teacher. Or if I get my students to do this, then oh yes, I am a-- You know, I'm wonderful. But I didn't realize that it had nothing to do with the quantitative pieces or even the qualitative pieces. It had everything to do about how my students felt when they were in my presence, right? And so affirming their brilliance, affirming their, you know, what they bring to the table, allowing their voice to just fill that space up.
And so when I say be forgiving of yourself, it-- it really is to kind of block out all of the outside noise and to focus in on making connections with your students and understand that-- understand that success for you might not be what the world sees as success. But at the end of the day, if your students feel valued, if they feel seen and they feel heard in your presence, then that is more than half the battle. That removes so many obstacles for them to then achieve what the world says that they need to achieve.
Roberto Germán 37:19
Indeed, indeed. So essential that we build those enduring meaningful relationships with our students. Thank you, Dr. Harris. Where can we follow you?
Dr. Towanda Harris 37:32
Oh, goodness. So I am on just about every single platform. I am on-- I'm on Facebook @Harris Innovation Consulting. You can follow me on Instagram, Harris Innovation Consulting, a cg I believe. And then I'm on Twitter. And even though, you know, I'm holding on. I'm holding on. I know there's gonna be a comeback for Twitter. And then I am also on TikTok and LinkedIn. And so you can just type in my name, Towanda Harris, or Dr. Towanda Harris, or you can look up Harris Innovation Consulting Group.
Roberto Germán 38:12
Yes, I love your TikTok videos. Very informative, very well done, very effective.
Dr. Towanda Harris 38:19
Roberto Germán 38:21
Yes. Keep pressing on. Dr. Harris, it's a pleasure. Truly is. I really appreciate the work that you are doing and the-- your presence, your knowledge, your-- your impact. And I’m-- I'm looking forward to continuing to collaborate with you in whatever way the good Lord allows. But you're-- you're somebody who I just, you know, I-- I-- I just feel this presence from you that-- that draws me in.
Dr. Towanda Harris 38:55
Roberto Germán 38:56
And I've learned a lot, even in this short time, listening to you speak about collaboration. And so folks, if you don't have the right tools, please do yourselves a favor. Get yourselves a copy of The Right Tools: A Guide To selecting, Evaluating, and implementing Classroom Resources and Practices written by Dr. Towanda Harris. Thanks for your time. Peace and blessings.
Dr. Towanda Harris 39:21
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Roberto Germán 39:25
As always, your engagement in Our Classroom is greatly appreciated. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias education in society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your host, Roberto Germán.