Leadership · Curriculum · Lifelong Learning

Differentiation is hard. Any classroom teacher especially knows the rigors of striving to address the needs of the whole child–for every child. In a way, being all things to all people might be easier than being or providing different things to different learners. At least equality is consistent; it’s equity wherein lies the unique challenge to give others what they need, when they need it, and in the manner most appropriate.

One Quick Example

I’ll never forget when it finally clicked for me. And it was the way in which it was delivered that made it stick. In my first year of teaching, our ESL teacher made a few quick announcements at a staff meeting. However, rather than telling us just one more thing to remember (and potentially forget) on our daily To-Do List, she did something… different. She did a simple role-play.

In fact, it was so simple and quick, that I can almost recite it from memory nearly two decades later. That’s powerful. And effective. And she involved others in so doing.

“Come up here for a second, John. I’m the teacher, you’re the student.” Then, she whispered something to John that the staff didn’t hear.

“John, please write your name on the paper.” John did nothing but stared straight forward. The teacher tried again. This time, she added an action by pointing to the paper.

“John, please write your name on the paper.” Again, John did nothing. This time, she did something that I’ve seen (and done) several times over the years.

JOHN, WRITE YOUR NAME ON THE PAPER!!!” Still, John did nothing. But now he was also scared and slightly deafened for a moment.

Do you see what happened there? John got equal treatment. The rest of the class received the same instructions, and with the same delivery. And when John did not comply, pointing and yelling were not effective. They weren’t even close to the target. Yet, possibly out of tradition, those two were the first arrows drawn from the quiver.

At the very least John needed a simple example, demonstrated with role-play modeling, and with multiple opportunities for small wins along the way. Words and actions of affirmation would help reinforce new knowledge and behaviors the teacher wished to see repeated, transferred, and applied in future learning experiences.

One Quick Application

Of the fifteen duties I assume every week, none race with more exhilaration than calling numbers in afternoon carpool every day. In the midst of potential chaos, this role requires a certain calm in the name of safety. It demands authoritarian leadership–not democratic.

Therefore, with microphone in hand, whistle around neck, and bright orange vest around torso, I take this job very seriously. In fact, I take it so seriously, I often found myself not differentiating–not being effective in a moment that begged for order and efficiency.

When I needed the second grader to wait at the green dolphin, I said:

“478, green. 4-7-8, green.” There was no response. But I always try twice, just in case there was human error in the disconnect.

“478, green. 4-7-8, green.” Still, no one was getting up to wait at the green dolphin.

In the moment, I did the unthinkable:


Frustration begins. Adrenaline on the rise. Anxiety mounts.

The student wasn’t responding–What shall we do now? Upon reflection, I think the problem was not with the student not hearing me. The problem was with me not communicating effectively to the student. What I was sending wasn’t being received.

And it was in that moment, I remembered my ESL teacher modeling differentiation at a staff meeting nearly 20 years ago.

Immediately, I asked the parent for the name of the child. It didn’t work.

Next, I also asked for the grade of the child. Message received!

There are at least two aspects of leadership needed in every situation: content knowledge and people skills. I’d argue that one is more important than the other. And I’d profess that both are always a work-in-progress.

What are your thoughts? Comment here!

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