I looooove reality tv. I know, I know – it’s killing my brain cells, but I can’t help it. The raw emotion, uncomfortable situations and outlandish experiences created by our friends in the entertainment industry are just too compelling to resist on a snowy winter weekend snuggled at camp where we have limited channels. It’s here where I discovered my love for the CBS reality tv show, Undercover Boss.
The premise of the show is simple, yet powerful: CEO’s disguise as ‘regular employees’ in various areas of their company, developing genuine relationships with their underlings, as well as learning invaluable information about the inner working of their businesses. This inevitably leads to the CEO’s making positive changes based on their experiences that improve their productivity, admin/employee relationships and of course, bottom line. As a nice silver lining, the regular employees who hosted the ‘disguised bosses’ are financially rewarded when the identities of their CEO’s are revealed at the end of the show. Cue kleenex.
Since the first time I viewed an episode of Undercover Boss, I couldn’t help but wonder how the principles of the show could relate to my classroom and the education system as a whole. I suddenly saw my students in a very different light: I needed to learn from their experiences, get to know them better and accept their feedback to grow as an educator.
I decided to give it a try in my classroom. I couldn’t really disguise myself without my students wondering if I should be committed, so I chose to consciously use some other methods of gathering information about their experience in my classroom. My efforts in this quest have positively influenced both my relationship with students and my pedagogy.
Here is my guide to becoming an ‘undercover boss’ in your classroom in three easy steps:
#1: Go back to school
Have you ever been frustrated when students need more time to complete a task than you’ve allotted in your schedule, or because they’re confused with an assessment that you thought was pretty straight forward? I know that these are #teacherproblems I used to face on a regular basis.
So, I decided to go back to school. Not completely, but part-time. I started working beside my students completing nearly every activity and assessment I asked them to do. I learned sooooo much through this process. Not only did I find some activities were boring, confusing and/or far more time-consuming than I assumed, I also found technical issues with links and apps. I asked students to use.
Simple, but powerful: through this process, my pedagogy improved, and I created fantastic exemplars and step by step visual guides for my students. I also found that through completing these activities and assignments, my students respected me so much more: I was walking the walk. They also had a chance to learn more about who I was and perhaps how they could connect to me as a person.
#2:Conference to build relationships
I’ve been a fan of conferencing ever since I began an Independent Reading Program in my classroom. I couldn’t believe how simple, 5 minute conversations about reading interests and habits helped me connect with students, build relationships and learn about their lives. Until I started this classroom habit, there were students who sat in my room for an entire semester that I rarely to never had individual, meaningful conversations with.
I try to conference with my students regarding their reading goals, but also larger writing tasks and ISU projects. Through these three avenues, I end up speaking with each student individually at least 6-7 times a semester for a minimum of 5 minutes. It doesn’t sound like much, but the impact is significant. These conversations have allowed me alternative assessment opportunities, as well as a means of learning about my students: interests, strengths, weaknesses, future goals and home lives.
For the first time in my teaching career, I honestly feel like I ‘know’ each and every student in my classroom. The fringe benefit of this habit is that I rarely to never have discipline problems in my classroom, and I find it quite easy to convince students to submit late or owing work. Most importantly, through this simple relationship building practice, students feel like I care about them as individuals as well as their interests and future – and I genuinely do – much more than I did in the past (Is that bad to say? Can I say that out loud?).
#3: Ask for feedback, then use it
I’m not great at accepting feedback – that’s the perfectionist in me. Not only do I take it personally, but it affects me emotionally. I used to be scared of feedback: pretending that I didn’t care what students thought about my classroom habits, teaching style and syllabus – because ‘I’ was the ‘teacher’, and what ‘I’ did in my classroom was ‘my’ choice. But watching undercover boss’s grow and improve their businesses based on their employee feedback made me realize how incredibly valuable my student’s feedback really was. I decided to check my ego at the door and give it a shot.
My quest for feedback started through individual conversations with students, as well as informal classroom discussions. I’ll be honest – it was hard at first. Because these were face to face, I didn’t feel like I was getting the whole story from my students. After all, I’m the one grading them, right? Who wants to tell their teacher that their style sucks at the end of a course, a couple days before exams are being marked?
Next, I graduated to a paper surveys and asked students to anonymously answer them. I included questions about everything from my classroom rules, to my teaching style, voice pace/volume, assignments, reading choices, etc. Now I was getting somewhere, but it was onerous to comb through the surveys and I was new to the concept that I wasn’t the best teacher on the planet and had nothing to improve upon. Therefore, change came slooooowlllllyyyy.
Enter my feedback God: Google Forms. After learning the Google apps. in September 2015, this was one of the first tools I used. Suddenly, gathering feedback was easy to deliver, simple for students to complete anonymously (often in 5 minutes or less on their phones), and the results were collated, allowing analysis at a glance. I also started to really use the results of this information in terms of course planning, teaching strategies, etc.
I recently gave my classes this semester a course culminating form to complete. Here are some pics and my reflections about them below:
Reflection: Based on this feedback, I know that my Independent Reading unit is a hit with students, and they feel like it’s improving their language skills. I will continue to keep that flourishing in my classroom.
Reflection: Again, this tells me that my students love Independent Reading, but they are also enjoying the Genius Time Project. The third area of the course they enjoy most are Articles of the Week (hot topic reading and media texts we talk about, actively read and write about). Interestingly, ‘traditional’ English studies units (Gothic Literature and Macbeth) round out the bottom of the barrel. Based on this feedback as, well as feedback last year about a Shakespeare unit, I will be removing it from my course. Sadly, it just isn’t connecting with my students, and they’ve asked for more current literature to study – so I’m going to try it next semester.
Reflection: The message about removing Shakespeare again is loud and clear in this selection of student comments about making the course more engaging. Although this screen shot shows only a couple of comments, students also share some great ideas: a reading class challenge – and some surprising comments (asking for more lectures). In actuality, 4 students asked for more lectures in this feedback section, so that is something I will be working into my class again next semester.
Potential Obstacles for Classroom Implementation
The single biggest obstacle to implementing the habits of becoming a ‘undercover boss’ in your classroom is time. Teaching through exemplars and conferencing are two habits that are massively time-consuming. But everything in the classroom is a tradeoff, isn’t it? Trust me, this trade-off is worth it, and will pay dividends in authentic relationships with students and the improvement of your pedagogy and classroom activities/assignments.
Another obstacle that may rear its ugly head is pride. By asking for, accepting and implementing student feedback you are acknowledging that you don’t know everything, and that student input is just as important in your classroom as your own visions.This is a tough philosophy to change, especially for teachers who are more set in their ways and have been teaching from the same binder since 1995.
Principals, Superintendents, Directors, School Trustees and even Ministry of Education employees would also benefit from becoming a ‘Undercover Boss’
This is something I began to think about as I implemented the ‘undercover boss’ habits in my classroom. What would happen if administrators, trustees or MoE employees implemented these same habits with teachers in their school or districts? How would this impact decisions at the ‘next level’ that were made involving: teacher PD, budget allocations, school/board/ministry policies, curriculum, etc.?
Classroom teachers are a vast chasm of untapped knowledge in the education industry. In 15 years of teaching I can count on one hand how many times a high level administrator (other than my direct principal) asked my opinion, feedback and thoughts about anything. And God forbid someone from the Ministry of Education (or the Minister) would actually consult teachers about the decisions that impact them on a daily basis that aren’t working and need revision (hint: attendance policy!!!!!!).
Moreover, other than direct administrators (principals and vice-principals), no sr. level administrators, school trustees or Ministry of Education employees have contact with teachers or students on any kind of regular basis, let alone develop meaningful relationships with them. Is there not something wrong with this? Why are there ‘school board’ offices anyways? Wouldn’t it make more sense to disperse higher level administrators in schools so that they can be in touch with their populous?
I genuinely believe that if educational administrators and Ministry of Education employees became ‘undercover bosses’ for even short stints, it would significantly affect the administrative decisions they make on a regular basis. Perhaps, more than anyone in education, it is these officials who need to swallow their pride, make room in their daily tasks and come hang out with the ‘common folk’ for a day.
The Final Word
If you haven’t seen the show, Undercover Boss – check it out. It’s 30 minutes of your life, just give it a try. Then think – really think – about what applying that strategy in your classroom (or school/district for administrators) could look like. What might you uncover if you accepted that those technically ‘beneath’ you in the stratosphere of education may have a goldmine of information that could inform your growth as an educator at any level? Educational institutions are structured very much like businesses, so if CEO’s of multibillion dollar companies can see benefits in this practice, I am sure that those in education could also reap some rewards.
Make a goal of stepping down from your ivory tower this school year; spend some time developing ‘undercover boss’ habits. You won’t regret it.
Comment below! What do you think of the concept of becoming an undercover boss in your classroom/school/district? Do you already do this? What successes have you experienced?