Coaching a Culture

Losing Authority, Gaining Perspective

I became one of them.  I am the guy who left the classroom to become a coach.  To this day, I find solace in the idea that I am there to support teachers, however, I no longer can be seen as an expert as I am no longer in the classroom.  I have influence, but no real authority; I am not an administrator, but I have lost the authority that comes from being a practitioner.

I could jump on my soapbox about how coaching is important.  I could reach for the nearest megaphone to remind everyone reading this that they are who they are as a result of some type of coaching, even if it was a negative experience.   As I have grown into my leadership role in and out of my school, I have seen more and more teachers, both experienced and not, resistant to the idea of coaching.  And in writing this, I am consistently using the wrong pronoun.  I keep saying “I,” rather we should be saying “we.” We all believe that our kids need coaching, so why would we be any different?  As such, let us all accept two assumptions:

  • The need for systemic, ongoing coaching is not isolated to any one building
  • This problem is not a professional problem, but a cultural problem

These problems are not mutually exclusive, but rather intricately connected.  While the work surrounding school culture continues to grow in momentum, not enough progress has been made, yet.  There are examples of places where it works.  Thomas Nelson High School in Nelson County Kentucky has created digital infrastructures to support the practice of teacher growth while protecting the teacher’s time and professionalism.  Teacher-Powered Schools has gained a national following because of the work they do around empowering teachers to grow and lead.

And while there are certainly more, they are not the norm, rather the exception.  What are the schools doing the work around coaching well actually doing?  Are they addressing instructional issues?  Systems issues?  Whatever the answer, changing a school’s culture takes everyone, and I believe coaching is the key to the change.  Let us offer one more assumption; in this context, “coach” is not defined as someone with the title of coach.  A coach, in this case, is anyone helping others grow, whatever that looks like.

So What, Now What…Three Ideas to Implement

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Silly)

Teachers are notoriously resistant to change.  In talking to three colleagues, they all stated the same need.  Find two or three things to focus on for a year, and monitor its success.  People become frustrated when things change day-to-day.  Consistency is the key to student success, and according to my colleagues, also key to the success of teachers.  Teacher leaders need to advocate for keeping changes to a minimum and celebrating the successes of the implemented systems and visions.

Make Initiative the Norm

Teachers are, for a myriad of reasons, often beaten down.  Their sense of self-fulfillment and self-direction become sacrificed as the onslaught of data talks, tests, and day-to-day bureaucracy take hold.  With the loss of personal fulfillment and self-direction comes an ugly outcome; teachers lose themselves and their passion.  They lose their sense of identity around their job.  They lose their voice.  They may be able to address the science of teaching, but they lose the ability to engage in the art of teaching.  Coaches and teacher-leaders need to build the next generation of teacher-leaders by helping them to reclaim their initiative.  When someone says, “we can’t do that,” the response should be a visceral “why not”.

Innovation and initiative are easy to stifle in a building, especially when the leaders of the building do not believe in the work.  The beautiful thing is, however, teacher-leaders can be innovative through grassroots work.  Subtle, little changes can make tremendous impacts.  Someone will value the work, and it is up to coaches to guide and encourage the work.  It is also imperative that those coaches and colleagues celebrate the achievements and impacts of that innovation.

No One Gets to Opt Out

This idea is the most important of three steps.  Everyone should receive coaching.  Top down, left to right, everyone needs coaching.  The time for coaching is a sacred time.  It should be professional, but collegial.  In short, even the principal can learn something from the classroom teacher.  This type of forced vulnerability can be difficult, but it also creates empathy and understanding.  Lastly, it gives teachers power.  Shared leadership emerges when everyone is given voice and authority.  Do you want to change a school’s culture?  Change how leadership is seen.  If people invest themselves through shared leadership, school culture improves.

In Short

Coaches can be no more than teachers who want to help.  They help others through formal or informal processes.  Every teacher-leader is a coach, and every teacher is capable of teacher-leadership.

As is written by Bill Mulford, the Director of Leadership for Learning Research Group for the University of Tasmania, student outcomes improve when teachers and those who support teachers have consistency, feel valued, and receive support.  From the same paper comes this graphic on page 16.  It shows that teacher recruitment, development, and retention increase when teachers feel valued, feel autonomous, see themselves as a leader, and see improvement in their capacity.

I have the title of coach, but I also have the self-given title of teacher-leader.  I see my role to help others grow, but I see my higher calling to be one of school culture.  My role is to improve my school culture by ensuring everyone is coached, empowered, and elevated.

My question of you is simple.  What coaching and culture experiences do you have that you can share to continue to grow the work?

Nothing Scares a Teacher More Than Change: A Reflection on Being 1:1

I would like to introduce Lauren Richardson.  Lauren is a middle school Spanish teacher who works for the Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio.  Lauren and I attended Miami University of Ohio for our undergraduate and I am a HUGE fan of her work.  Please read, enjoy, and most of all, SHARE! -Noah

by Lauren Richardson
@srarichardson
richardsonl@masonohioschools.com

Nothing scares a teacher more than change.  For me, this looked like our entire middle school going 1:1 with Chromebooks. I was nervous. I have always been what I consider tech-savvy and aware of trends in the educational technology world. What I was not confident in, however, was how I would manage 28 student devices in an 8th-grade Spanish classroom. To gather as much advice as I could on the 1:1 environment prior to implementation, I consulted Classroom Management in the Digital Age written by Heather Dowd and Patrick Green.

I was worried that I needed to have the Chromebooks out every class, not because the district said we had to, but because of the expectations, I had for myself. If I have Chromebooks in my classroom, I am going to use them daily, because that is what a tech-savvy teacher does, right? Wrong. You must first start with purpose. Do you need immediate data on student comprehension? Great use of the Chromebooks. Are you putting a worksheet into electronic form to save copies and to “use” technology? Stick with the copies. As a Spanish teacher, I found certain staples I would utilize in my classroom to use technology meaningfully (Quizlet, Quia, Flipgrid, YouTube). It is a no-brainer to give the students an opportunity to receive authentic exposure to language and culture on a Chromebook.

In short, the ability I now have to break down the classroom walls and give students access to an endless list of experts is invaluable. If you are transitioning to a 1:1 environment and are concerned about how much you have to use the device, don’t worry. One week you may use the device two days, another week you may use them every day. The quantity of time that students use the device is irrelevant. The quality of enhanced experiences the technology provides students is what matters. Think first about purpose.

Next came the question of managing 28 devices in one room. Classroom Management in the Digital Age offered some eye-opening thoughts on how to successfully manage all of the Chromebooks. First, if your lesson is engaging, you are incorporating student interests’ and giving students choice and opportunity to explore, management will be minimal. If students are engaged in the lesson, they will not find a need to go elsewhere for entertainment.

This challenged me as an educator even more than the past to create lessons that were exciting, relevant, and required higher order thinking skills. Sometimes, however, the lessons that seem best in our minds can fail and we need to call in the management reinforcements. Dowd and Green offered some quick sayings in order to gain student attention and minimize screen distractions. Here are some of my favorites for quick transitions while using devices:

  • “45 your screens.” (Students dip screens to a 45-degree angle)
  • “Descreen.”
  • “Tip the top.”
  • “Dock it.” (Students put their devices in the upper right-hand corner of their desk.)

Like most teachers, I try to be organized and to always have routines in my class. How would I signal to kids that we were using Chromebooks for the day? Would I teach them a routine at the beginning of the year when discussing rules? What would be the consequences for inappropriate use? In the end, the procedure of when to take out devices developed naturally.

At the beginning of the year, I simply asked students to be responsible and respectful in their use of their devices. I find a lot of “management” is avoided by having positive relationships with your students. If you show respect for them and your interest in making class engaging is evident, they will not want to show disrespect by playing games or surfing the internet. They will want to engage with you during your class period because you are making it an experience.  

Sometimes, I may not know the answer about a vocabulary word when WordReference.com does. It’s okay for my students to log on and look without asking my permission. Sometimes students want to know more of the “why” than I have time to explain. They might need a visual representation instead of the verbal explanation I am offering. Maybe they want to add the Spanish song I am playing to their Spotify playlist. I do not want my students to feel as though they need to ask permission every time they take out their computer.

Room 414 offers more than Spanish language and culture. I want my students to feel my support in exploring their curiosities. They need to know I trust them. Other educators I know have found success in implementing various procedures in device management such as a Slidedeck (Daily slide indicating agenda and whether students will need devices) or Whiteboard signs (Green side means Chromebooks used, Red side means no devices needed for the day) if classes need a bit more direction. Dowd and Green call these procedures “activators” as they allow teachers to get class started without giving explicit instructions.

The past year going 1:1 at our middle school was more enjoyable that I had imagined it would be. Once the school year began, I no longer worried about how much I was using the Chromebooks.  Instead, I focused on utilizing them as a tool to increase engagement and allow student choice in pacing and activities. Your students will not question how much you use the devices, and parents will not be disappointed if their child does not receive electronic homework daily.

You know what is best for your students; continue to trust that intuition. Keep teaching to ignite student passion for learning.  Be excited that each child has a portal to explore beyond the curriculum. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Dowd and Green say it best, “Having the right attitude is the single most important trait for navigating, processing and learning in a connected classroom.”

Now, get ready to create and experience a learning environment that you wish you had when you were a kid.  Do you have any tips for someone that is entering a 1:1 classroom?  Please share not only to me, but to your networks as well.  Together we are stronger.

 

The Moments That Change Us: Education and Mindset

Here is an ugly truth.  It is unlikely that you, or anyone else, will experience a formative moment every day.  If we are not careful, however, we can go whole days, weeks, or (GASP) months without a formative moment.  As someone who fancies himself a life-long learner, the prospect of going weeks, or even months, without an awe-inspiring moment seems preposterous.  Realistically, however, I know that it has happened as I have forgotten to be cognizant of the world around me.

As I previously stated about teacher self-care, teachers need to take the time to learn in the summer.  For me, that learning takes two thematic tracks: teacher mindfulness and instructional coaching. Clearly, there is a natural connection between the two.  The books I chose to read this summer, contain many formative tidbits. However, what I realized today is that I need to stop worrying about the formative.  I need to worry about the transformative.

Formative vs. Transformative

According to daretobewise.org, formative activities are those that, “…by themselves leave our perception of the world unchanged,” whereas transformative activities are those that, “…give birth to our inner potential and allow us to do more, think more, feel more – be more.”  I love this idea.

Think of it this way.  You are reading a book on mindfulness.  It is called Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness.  It has many great suggestions on how to implement and teach mindfulness.  Furthermore, it even has a step-by-step process for you. You read the book and you think to yourself, “That has some great ideas.  I should try one.” This book provided a formative moment as it added a layer to think about, but it did not fundamentally change you.  Then you read another book called, Hacking Leadership.  You read the book and suddenly a transformative moment happens.  Where you could have read the book, taken its (AMAZING) ideas, and moved on, you connect the dots. After reading the two books, your viewpoint fundamentally shifts and you have changed.

Welcome to my summer thus far.  I have gone from knowing I need to change to changing my mindset altogether.  The proof will be in the pudding come August, but a changing mindset is important to the transformation process.

Here is what I want to stress to you.  In the opening of this piece, I suggest that people may go for a long time without formative moments.  This is, possibly, still true.  However, I would like to add an addendum to my argument.  Every moment is formative if you pay enough attention it. Furthermore, the more mindful you are of each individual moment (I told you I have been reading), the more likely you are to find a transformative moment.

The Takeaway

I am reminded, once again, that education is the most human of professions.  It relies on intellect, emotion, problem-solving, and deep passion.  And yet, the things on which teachers most often focus are ultimately irrelevant to personal improvement or what’s best for students.  Test scores don’t ultimately matter.  Data walls and name-and-claims don’t ultimately matter.  Professional growth goals don’t matter.  Transforming into a professional who best serves students is what matters.  Aiding students in their pursuit to transform into something more is what matters.

As we get tired and as the year continues, it will be harder to be intentional in trying to move from formative moments to transformative moments.  However, remember this: our uniquely human profession exists in an extraordinary, rich world.  All things considered, we have an immense opportunity.  I ask that each of you become aware.  I ask that each of you slow down.  Lastly, I ask that we all be mindful of the small moments that influence us in order to truly transform.  Forget about the things that don’t matter and focus on those that do.  Most importantly, enjoy the ride and don’t forget to look up at the light bulb going off above your own head.  After all, isn’t it fun to see it above your students’ heads?  Remember to have fun with yours, too.

 

A Reflection on Deeper Learning

Words cannot express the awe I am in.  After attending the Jefferson County Public Schools Deeper Learning Symposium, I am left energized to go to work, as well as hopeful for the future of education.  The conversations, themes, and topics around deeper learning were not necessarily new, yet the major change I saw was how teachers received the conversations.  There was very little naysaying or disbelief, rather a desire to change the status quo because the status quo is becoming antiquated.

Before the Symposium, I researched what “deeper learning” actually meant.  According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, deeper learning revolves around “deeper learning competencies, stronger assessment, high quality instructional materials, and an engagement in the research base around instructional practices.” Deeperlearning4all.org goes a bit further, stating that deeper learning prepares students to, “know and master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback.”

IMG_7638
Dr. Marty Polio

So, knowing all of this, why was the Deeper Learning Symposium so powerful? To me, the power in the three days rested in that people from all over the country spoke on deeper learning for not only students, but also, Dr. Marty Polio stated, teachers and those who support teachers.

Those Who Teach

Deeper learning is clearly a student-centered practice.  From using Google tools in the classroom, to incorporating project-based learning, the sessions offered provided insights into how to change instructional practices to personalize and deepen student learning. Session after session sparked ideas, shifts in mindsets, and growth in skills to allow teachers to provide students the opportunity to learn not only in a way that is personal to them, but also to learn in a way that prepares them for a future that today’s educational model does support.

It is imperative to note that teachers still have much work to do.  Whether it is further changing their own methodologies, the practices of fellow teachers, or the mindsets of the administrative staff around them, teachers will have to take the energy and motivation from the Symposium and work tirelessly through struggle, failure, and naysayers to do what is best for students.

Those Who Support Teachers

Clearly, classroom practitioners are the front line of engagement, but there are many allies who support the front line.  To me, this is where the Deeper Learning Symposium was truly innovative and empowering.  Teacher leaders, from both inside and outside the classroom, were encouraged to raise their voices in support of improving the pedagogy of the United States.

Outside of the sessions, teachers and organizations were cultivating interconnectedness between teachers and those that can support them.  As time went on through the Symposium, it was clear that those supports came in more than one form; there were those whose title was to support teacher-leaders, but there were also teacher-leaders stepping up to support their fellow teachers.  This community spirit will improve the professional practice of all involved.  Everyone, from coaches to teachers to administrators, is bettered through collaboration, critical feedback, productive struggle, and mutual mission and vision.  To me, the true power of deeper learning came in these moments.  Teachers internalized the need to change and found those who could support them in that endeavor.

So What Now?

Honestly, I am having trouble identifying the words to express the power of the Symposium.  The movement has begun.  That much is evident.  And while I am struggling to express the past, I have no issues with expressing the vision of the future.

All teachers, whether they attended the Deeper Learning Symposium or not, need to rethink their practices.

Whether it was changing, as Dr. Christopher Emdin suggests, mindsets, or changing what it means to be connected, we all need to improve every aspect of our practice to improve the outcomes and futures of the students we serve.  This is a whole child issue.  It is not a grades or tests issue.   So what can you do?  Research.  Read.

IMG_7893.JPGReach out.

JCPSForward is a good place to start.  They are an organization, of which I am a member, of teachers and support staff dedicated to connecting and empowering teachers in their search for better practices.  You can also join the JCPSForward Twitter chats by following the hashtag #JCPSChat.  The next one is Monday, June 19th at 8 PM.  If you don’t know how to engage in a Twitter chat, please reach out to me and I would be happy to support you in that practice.

Keep up the energy and the belief.  Keep up the spirit of the Deeper Learning Symposium (check out the hashtag #jcpsdl).  And, as always, move forward for our students because #ourstudentsdeserveit.

The Teacher Effect: A Reminder that Every Moment Matters

He was an easy kid to like.  He had a million dollar smile and the looks to match.  He was part Italian, part black, and had an intriguing androgyny.  He was destined to be a model. He was not the best student, but he never gave up.  Paul (name changed) embodied a worldliness and empathy that many adults seem to lack.

These characteristics didn’t exist in isolation.  I had seen many seniors blossom into little adults and fundamentally change who they had been up until that point.  Not Paul.  My wife had Paul in middle school and said he was the same way even back then. I worried about Paul last year, but he always seemed to find his way amongst the chaos.  His family life was less-than-desirable and he was poor.  He had some friends, but not many because he thought on a different plane than them.  He had a girlfriend to whom he was devoted, though she frequently did not return that devotion.  And yet, even on my worst days, Paul would step up and ask after me, my wife, and my daughter.

Struggle as he did, Paul still managed to triumphally walk across the stage at graduation; he plastered his award winning smile on his face as he threw his fist in the air.  Through the following year, he still kept in touch to let me know he was alive.  He wasn’t accomplishing his dreams, but as he said, he wasn’t doing so, yet. And the year marched on.

As my own, tumultuous year came to an end, I was excited to get back to center.  I had plenty of pleasure and professional reading to do.  I had conferences lined up.  I had daily workout and diet plans.  In short, I was going to engage in the self-care that all teachers need to do in the summers.  Then I got a message: “Hey.”

Paul was reaching out.  It had been a long time, so I was anxious to see what was going on.  I asked if he’d been well.  His response floored me.

“Not really.  I have been going through a lot and idk how you are going to take this, but I have a drug problem…almost any pill that will get me high, mostly Xanax.  I hate who I’ve become.”

For the next hour, I bounced between phone calls with him and The Healing Place.  He was not aware that I called The Healing Place, he simply thought I was dealing with my young daughter.  When I finally told him what I had done, he went silent.  The silence went on for much longer than I was comfortable.  Finally, he said, “I never expected this.  Thanks for not quitting on me even though I am not your student anymore.”  I reminded him that he will always be my student and I worked with him to make some next steps and contingency plans.  As of now, we are waiting to hear back on a bed for him. Audibly holding back tears, Paul simply said thank you and hung up the phone.

Though this happened a week ago, I have been restless.  I can’t shake my despair. But I am also reminded of a simple fact.

Every moment matters.

I knew that Paul liked me and continued to do so past graduation.  What I didn’t grasp last week was that he truly respected me.  It was I he reached out to for help. Not his girlfriend or parents.  And while I didn’t ask why that was the case, I suspect it is because I always pushed him and never gave up on him, even on his worst days.  He saw, and continues to see, me as someone who wouldn’t quit on him.

So this summer, amongst my pool visits and gym workouts, and amongst the quality time with my daughter and wife, I will be changing my professional focus.  I want to learn more about the warning signs of future “failure” in school-aged youth.  I know many of the academic indicators, but I would like to know more beyond that.  I plan on rereading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne.  I also plan on reaching out to valued members of my professional learning network.

I am unsure what I will learn.  However, when we are in the classroom and are tired and exasperated, it is up to us to make sure the students know we care.  We may know it, but they need to see it. They need to see it because, let’s be honest, they’re watching.

I recognize this post is mostly reflective, and the lesson I relearned because of Paul is not a novel one.  All teachers know that our actions and relationships matter.  Sometimes, we just need someone to remind us.  I, unfortunately, had to be reminded by Paul.  And while the reminder was a painful one, I remain optimistic because Paul is a man with a brilliant future.  He simply hasn’t arrived, yet.

If you have any good resources, please leave them below in the comments or with the contact form.  I am counting on you, and I will pay it forward in kind with those around me.  There are too many Paul’s in the world.

 

Five Simple Steps to Prepare for Next School Year

The school year is almost over.  With state testing approaching, we are more focused than ever.  And while the next school year seems blissfully far away, now is the time to begin thinking about who and what you want to be.  So in that spirit, I wanted to share some wisdom I have been gifted over the years.  Without further ado, I present to you my five-step list of ways to prepare for the next school year.

Step 1: Process Your Emotions

Many of us will feel joy with the year ending.  And while we don’t want to admit it, not having to see certain students ever again does make us feel a little giddy.  Others of us will feel excited about the future. The teaching profession allows us to reinvent ourselves from year to year, and that can be invigorating.  Yet, others of us will mourn.  Whether it’s because we had an amazing year of professional growth or that we had a class that moved us, often we are struck with a sense of loss after each school year. Whatever emotion you have, ask yourself why you are feeling it.  Is it an emotion you want to feel again?  Is it something you want to change?  Whatever the answer, allow it to guide you as you begin planning for next year.

These emotions are telling you something about yourself as a person and a professional. While the emotions are fresh and raw, analyze them.  If harnessed, these emotions can make us better at our jobs.

Step 2: Create a Summer Growth Goal

Once you have processed your emotions, use them as a guide to your summer learning. If we are required to make a growth goal for our students for the school year, why shouldn’t we make a growth goal for ourselves in the summer? Whether it is to read professional literature, to attend high-quality professional development, or to spend time designing amazing units, make some goals.  The one thing I cannot stress enough is to be intentional.  Teachers often try to “knock out” their summer professional development for the school year.  While liberating, it is not what is best for the students.  It limits us, so think about how to create “Teacher 2.0.”  Give yourself deadlines and product ideas.  Think about who or what can support you in your endeavors.  Think through every detail so as to make sure that you have a proper plan to follow for the coming weeks.

Once you have a vision for “Teacher 2.0,” give yourself deadlines and product ideas.  Think about who or what can support you in your endeavors.  Think through every detail so as to make sure that you have a proper plan to follow for the coming weeks.

Step 3: Put Everything Away

Next, find time for you.  While society at large sees teachers as having a two-month vacation where nothing happens, they don’t understand that great teachers give all of themselves every day.  It is exhausting.  Where you can, put everything into a literal or metaphorical box for another day.  Your job will be there waiting, and the kids aren’t going anywhere.  If you do not, however, recharge your body, mind, and spirit, you won’t be effective come the fall.

It is imperative to spend some time growing as a human.  Spend time doing the things you love to do.  We often sacrifice our personal loves and hobbies as we pursue avenues to best help our students.  Make sure to also spend time reconnecting with those around you that you value.  For example, I am fortunate that I come from a family of educators, as well as being married to an educator.  Because of this, if I am cranky or fall off the map, they understand.  However, most teachers do not have this luxury.  If your loved ones and friends have stood by you from the fall to the spring, use your time off to bond with them again.  I know my own child has often been the victim of my distraction, so the summer is a great time to give her 100% of me.

Whatever you do, ensure you take time away from the job.  Trust me, it’s waiting for you whether you pay attention to it or not.

Step 4: Implement Your Summer Growth Plan

Now that you are feeling refreshed, find that corner you threw your plan in and drag it out.  Check off anything you may have already accomplished and reevaluate.  Does the plan still fit who and what you are and want to be?  If so, move forward.  If not, redraft. Whatever you do, avoid the trap of “easy attainment.”  There is a significant difference between quality professional development and sit-and-get professional development. There is an enormous gap between the “newest and best movement in education” book and the researched, powerful book.

This trap is avoidable.  Be proactive and seek out the highest quality materials and people.  Expand your professional learning network.  Meet new people.  Go out of town if you can.  Reach out to whoever can help you to grow.  And, most importantly, don’t be afraid to struggle and face cognitive dissonance.  When you fall into the trap of easy attainment, it is more difficult to grow because you seek professional development that fits your existing schema.  While the pressures of school are off you, use this time to be as challenged as you can.

Step 5: Gear Up and Prepare

Summer is wonderful as we are the masters of our own fate.  The routines we set from day to day are the ones that we value and that bring us the most happiness.  As the summer vacation closes, practice two mental routines that will help you through the trying times.  If you have spent time getting your knowledge base ready for work, spend some time getting your head straight, too.  Read and live by two ideas: living in the four rooms and living by The Four Agreements.

Living in the four rooms, if practiced intentionally, ensures that we are holistically prepared to deal with mental and physical taxation that the school year can bring. Practice, while you can, being emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally fit.  Come up with systems that will allow you to monitor yourself and then practice them. Come the school year, this routine will push you through the hard stretches and ensure that you are good to yourself and others.

The other thing you can do is to live by The Four Agreements.  The book, written by Don Miguel Ruiz, expounds on the practice of maintaining some sanity in the hardest of moments.  The link provided is not the book, but it is a great synopsis and commentary on the mindset. Too often are we faced with people or moments that make us question our worth or actions during the school year.  And while careful reflection is healthy, it can lead to self-loathing.  The Four Agreements, when practiced and intentionally lived, gives a perspective that can mean the difference between sanity and frustration.

Bonus Step: Celebrate

This year is closing, and even on your worst day, you still made a positive contribution.  Testing is upon us, but take the time to acknowledge at least one celebratory moment every day.  The students are anxious, and frankly so are we. Be the rock they need and deserve.  Above all, honor yourself.  Celebrate the positives that exist in your classroom, your school, or your world.

Keep breathing, folks.  It is almost over.  And while the work is never done, this final push can be the most rewarding stretch, yet.  Celebrate every day.

Backwards Design: Moving from Theory to Metacognition

While observing classes today, I saw an interaction that made me reflect.  While the teacher was giving a mini-lesson, a student raised her hand and asked the one question that all teachers hate if they are not prepared.  The student asked, “Why are we learning this?”

Context

“I do not fear truth. I welcome it. But I wish all of my facts to be in their proper context.” -Gordon B. Hinckley

It is often hard for us to convey our passions to the students in a way that encourages them to buy in. I was often the student who wondered why are we learning what we were. It is a difficult question to answer, yet it is our responsibility to set the context for the lesson for the students. In my classroom, it was often hard to explain to a child why learning how to find a theme would be important to their lives.  As a person who loves literature, I find the answer easy.  The themes of what we read are reflected in our world.  But what if a child doesn’t love to read?  What if they don’t care about the critical thinking skills that come with learning theme?  What if a child just does not care about school?

If teaching is an art and a science, these difficult questions are often addressed through the science of teaching.  Teachers, when taught the science of teaching, are instructed in a process called backwards design.  Teachers are taught to plan with the end in mind and then plan backwards to ensure that students learn all the prerequisite skills along the way.  The science of teaching is both procedural and psychological.  We are taught researched methodologies and processes.  These skills, when present, are a key indicator of an effective teacher.  That being said, is a student more likely to understand the why of learning because the teacher went through the backwards design process?  The jury is out on that one.

From an art lens, truly remarkable educators excel in their ability to make connections with each and every student.  If a student asks why she is learning something, artful teachers can often convince the student to press on, even if the teacher cannot actually answer why the student needs to learn the material.  I have seen it done time and time again; the teacher inflicts some kind of jedi mind trick where the student doesn’t get an answer as to why she is learning something, but she still feels compelled to continue to work.  Is this good enough?  If I don’t answer the student’s question but they continue to work, that can be a win.  But is it what is best for kids?  Again, the jury is out.

If the jury continues to be out, maybe teachers need to ask a question: What if we asked the students a question to help bridge the gap between our knowledge and their desires to understand our knowledge?  We will never be able to get every student to buy in, but what if we got them to see the roadmap?  What if we asked them the question, “Would you like me to show you where we are going?”  I recognize that this is not a new idea, but could it lift the instructional veil just enough so that students could see what their life holds in the future?

From Theory to Practice

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”  -Benjamin Franklin

As teachers, it is our responsibility to involve our students in their learning.  For them to have that chance at involvement, they need the veil to be lifted.  Teachers need to show them the map.  If teachers go through the arduous process of backwards design, why would they not show the kids the process so that they may be more involved?  If the kids knew the map, they could help plot their own course.  They could begin the process of metacognition.

Screenshot 2017-03-09 at 9.35.43 AM

When I plan, I start with the end in mind, but that is not new.  What I do, however, is separate my instructional points from my assessment points.  Then, I show the kids a map like one to the left.  Their version is often riddled with checkboxes for self-assessment and lines where students can answer metacognitive prompts that I have developed (and begged, borrowed, and stole).  I will often reference the document through my class so that kids know where they should be, where they are, and what they must do to be successful. And if I am asked and I cannot provide a real world reason, this map helps explain the educational path to the student.  I have had many students satisfied once they understood the map and was asked to apply the map in a variety of ways.  In other words, a student is not just being given our lessons from a thoughtful planning session, but rather they are given ownership of their progress to their destination.

How Will You Open the Veil?

“The good life is a process, not a state of being…” -Carl Rogers

All of this is to say, teaching is hard.  But if we are working harder than the students, we are doing it wrong.  To help lighten our load, consider putting as much as you can back on the students.  My small way of doing it is not my backwards design process, but rather how I use it with my students.  How will you make the roadmap clear for your kids?  What pitstops will you build in?  What tourist sites will you visit to enrich their understanding of their trip?  How will you ensure that your students remember your hard work for years to come?  Please add your ideas in the comments and feel free to reach out to me with how you do things!

Let’s Build the Joyous Culture Because #OurStudentsDeserveIt

Finally I get the chance to sit back in front of my computer.  The warm weather has broken for now.  The sun is out, and everyone in the house is asleep but me.  The breeze comes in through the windows and the air smells sweet.  And while I could be doing anything, all I can think about is school.  It has been an up and down ride for me as the school year began, but this week, it all started to come together.  Why?  Because this week, I actually got to teach kids.

Part of my job description this year is to work as an interventionist.  I take small groups of students through the day to catch them up while not falling behind on new content.  It is a differentiation opportunity/nightmare that delights/terrifies me.  And though there was a  myriad of emotions I felt as these students stepped through my door for the first time, one shone through.  Happiness.  Excitement.  Passion.  Okay, three emotions.  I loved being among (literally among them; I tend to sit on the floor) the kids as theme and characterization and conflict began to click together.  Light bulb moments.  I delighted in acknowledging their frustrations as things didn’t make sense and sitting down with them to help them sift through their confusion.  I was even gitty when my one period which is comprised of more than half of students with ADHD came through the door.  I love my resource role at my school, but I had forgotten how much I love being in the classroom.  Look at my student in the picture.  Before Friday, she had never annotated before (so she says).  Look at how much she had done, and it was all right!

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Student annotations.  She had never done this before.  Look at how much she did!

The purpose of this piece, though, is not to just share my joy this week.  What keeps me in front of my computer as opposed to outside on this beautiful day is that there are those around me at work who do not feel this joy every day.

Here’s the thing.  My school is a hard school, and the kids will often push even veterans to the edge.  As part of my responsibilities at the school, I am to support teachers and mentor them through their struggles.  I can walk into any classroom and identify ten celebrations and ten areas for improvement.  I can find systems problems in the blink of an eye, and I can think of way on way to differentiate a lesson.  I can give management advice and tip on how to give feedback.

What I cannot figure out is how to help these teachers I support find joy in the job as opposed to obligation to the job.  Mind you, it is not all of them, or even most of them.  But they exist.  They may not publicly say it, but you can see it.  If there isn’t joy in the struggles and successes, the students suffer because lessons become about compliance to the standards and not innovation or creativity.  Students suffer because the teachers cannot feign excitement for the most boring of lessons that we sometimes have to do.  I mean, I hate poetry, but I can be the most excited person in the room for some Robert Frost if I have to.

So what do we do?  We all know teachers like this.  They may come in smiling every day and say good morning as if nothing is wrong, but we know, even if they do not, that their identity is not teacher.  It is a professional with a clientele.  And the difference between the two may be subtle, but earth shattering.  How do we build an identity of passion, excitement, and innovative spirit in teachers who do not feel it, yet?

This is one of those gray areas.  It has nothing to do with policy, and a teacher can be successful on paper if there isn’t an inherent joy.  Yet, even without being about policy or success on paper, our kids deserve the best us every day.  And I want every one I work with to feel the passion and excitement I feel when I am with students.  So, world, hit me.  Our students deserve it, and I want to build the joyous culture.  How do we do it?

This Untraveled Road: The Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow

It is that time again.  Teachers nationwide are going back to school.  Cue the obligatory Facebook comments.

Let’s be honest, the beginning of the year is equally exciting and terrifying.  The staggering potential that exists is countered by an equally stunning potential for failure.  And yes, while the future is always uncertain at the beginning of the year, I find this year to be a source of incredible inspiration.  We have so many new teachers and young teachers.  This could be overwhelming, but I look at it differently.  I see it as a chance to create the next wave of teacher leaders.  I see a future where someone I mentor no longer needs me.  In turn, they help the next person who needs them.  To demonstrate how inspired I am, I would like to pull lyrics from my summer anthem “Untraveled Road” by Thousand Foot Krutch.

We Can Create Our Reality

Hold on for a second, if words can be weapons
Then what I say can effect it, they’re not just words on a record
And I can choose to respect it.

In my specific circumstance, I am joining the staff of a brand new school.  Mostly new staff.  New administration.  New routines, new systems, new ideologies.  New egos, new interpersonal dynamics, new stressors.  And to add on to all of these potential stumbling blocks, the eyes of the district, media, and news are on us.  To this I say simply this:

What an opportunity.  

I know this for a fact.  If words can be weapons, then what we say can effect great change. As educators, our greatest opportunity is to effect some positive change every day.  Our words are weapons, and if we respect that power, what amazing things can happen.  Every single teacher has the chance to move students.  Talk about teacher leadership!  Every class every day and for every student.  If every single person has the chance to create the world they want to see, if we give our actions and words respect and power, great things are bound to happen.

The challenge is creating that unified vision.  Yet, to emphasize the point again, teachers who step up and live the message and the dream can create positive leadership by being an example to those who are struggling.  This is evident in two axioms I live my life by:

  1. Perception is reality
  2. The reality you put into the universe comes back as truth

The next wave of leaders can create positive school experiences through simply believing and walking the walk.  As any year begins, morale can be a struggle.  It doesn’t have to be. Among everything else that needs to be done at the beginning of the year, this is a “simple” step to achieve great things early on.

Vision Is Not Enough

‘Cause one voice is enough to make sleeping giants wake up,
To make armies put their hands up and watch whole nations stand up
It’s one belief, one spark, one faith…

It is not enough to simply say out loud what you want to happen, you got to make it happen!  For people outside of the teaching profession, this seems like an obvious sentiment.  Outside education, when protocols are set, it is a reasonable expectation that the protocols will be easily followed. In our world, however, this is often easier said than done.  When my students show up tomorrow, some will be carrying such baggage that school will be the place they either fear or love, despise or need.  I can put my vision out there, and that reality will start to form with my word, but the classroom can be a war.  As was said to me, teachers can lose a battle from this day to that, but they cannot lose the war. Failure is not an option.

If I, as a general on the front lines of the future, use my voice and actions to inspire my fellow educators, our united front may buckle, but we will never break.  As a teacher leader, I need my trusted comrades to stand strong with me.  If I, and other positive forces, can make the silent educational giants stand up, our nation (our school), will stand up.  We have to be of one faith.  My role is not just teacher, but also support.  I need to be a leader who makes others leaders.  Eventually, my job can become easier.  My leadership, and the leadership around me, is a force multiplier; it is an exponential growth of expertise, pedagogy, and leadership.  I believe wholeheartedly that the future of education rests in the grassroots movement.  My local front line is lineally connected to the front lines in the policy world.  If leaders are grown, they create an unstoppable army. More importantly, if leaders are grown, the kids will be bettered.

The Future Is Bright

Then with what we have we can own it, we’ll just plant the seed and keep growin’ it…We only got one shot, so let’s make it count…Before we depart, let’s leave a mark ‘cause light shines brighter in the dark…We walk, where no one wants to go, on this untraveled road.

I will leave with this.  My optimism knows no bounds this year.  Not just for my school, but for the future of my district.  I am surrounded by so many people who can go out in the future and create greatness.  I, along with those who support me, have a huge task; we need to plant the seeds of the educational future.  And yes, in some ways we only have one shot.  But if this chance is cultivated, if we make it count, the future is a place of incredible brightness.  Like the phoenix, my school, like so many others, starts its emergence from the ashes this year.  I am so excited to be part of this.  I am so excited to learn from others, to help others grow, and watch our kids make incredible leaps forward.

Yes, the educational world is dark in so many ways. There is a lot of discord out there.  But when a light shines in the dark, it is all the brighter.  Beyond all else, I know this:

We, all of us in education, walk where no one wants to go.

The future is an uncertain, untraveled road.  But I walk it boldly and confidently knowing that those who surround me have a chance to engage in amazing work for themselves, our school, and as always, our students.  I cannot wait to share the incredible stories that come from the truly amazing people who surround me.