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January 06, 2009

Professional Problem Solvers

Sometimes I think that the word "teacher" does not adequately describe my profession.  In reality, I am a nurse, mommy, confidant, playmate, safe haven, leader, observer, and perhaps most often a problem solver.  At the beginning of the year, we talked a lot in my classroom about what it looks like to be a good "problem solver."  There are three questions that good problem solvers always ask:

 (1) How do I feel?  Good problem solvers may feel happy, sad, scared, or angry when a problem occurs, but they always calm down before trying to solve the problem.

(2) What is the problem?  Good problem solvers need to know what is going on with everybody involved in the problem.  They often ask questions to figure out how other people feel or what they want. 
(3) What can I do?  Good problem solvers try to think of ways to help solve the problem and make everyone feel better.  You can often solve a problem with friends by sharing, trading, or taking turns. 
While these steps are broken down into "kid-friendly" language and are easy for three- and four-year-olds to apply to their lives, the same general process holds true for solving "grown-up" problems.  I spent a great deal of time over winter break thinking about my classroom and how to improve it in the coming year, and I found myself asking the following questions: 

 (1) How do I feel?  What do I notice in terms of student achievement, planning, or daily routines?  What is challenging?  What is working well?  While I am not identifying feelings per se, I am isolating the events and observations that are weighing on my mind and are, as a result, the most poignant. 

(2) What is the problem?  What is the underlying issue behind the observations?  This could be something related to concrete data, i.e. not all of my students are able to generate rhyming words, or something related to planning, i.e. I am unsure of how to best structure our mornings on days when my students do not go to art, music, or PE. 
(3) What can I do? In order to determine a solution, I need to first isolate the root of the problem.  Are my students not able to generate rhyming words because they do not know the difference between words that rhyme and words that start with the same beginning sound, or because I have not given them enough opportunities to practice the concept, or because I have not adequately explained to families how to practice this concept at home?  Once I understand the underlying cause of the problem, I can generate a list of possible solutions to address the issue at hand.    

I firmly believe that this process of reflective problem solving -- both for students and teachers -- is one of the most important factors for a successful classroom.  In order for my students to be independent, critical thinkers in pre-k and beyond, they need to learn how to identify and solve problems in their own lives.  In order for me to structure my teaching in a way that meets the needs of all of my students, I need to reflect on what is happening and how to address any shortcomings.  When my students and I work together as problem solvers, our classroom runs smoothly and efficiently and we all learn something new in the process!

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