Learning from mistakes


Recently, I attended a photography workshop focusing on birds. I was excited to try out my new camera, and I was hoping to catch some great shots of birds at the local nature park. The morning was a huge success for bird sighting. Although we were wandering trails in late August, the weather was gorgeous and afforded many opportunities to see various birds. There were great blue herons, king birds, nuthatches, the lovely yellow bird pictured above and more.  I snapped photo after photo adjusting aperture or shutter speed as I thought necessary. When finally arrive back home to look at the photos on the computer, they were horrible. I was upset at how they turned out. I turned off the computer and contemplated giving away my photography equipment. I lamented the fact that I bought a new camera this summer.  I felt like I was a failure.

After my pity party, I began to reexamine the photos. I realized some of the mistakes that I had made with the camera (shutter speeds too fast pushing the ISO too high causing the pictures to be grainy). Once that I knew why the pictures were not the quality I had hoped for, I knew that I could, given the opportunity, correct those mistakes. I even found a few photos (out of the 100+ that I took) that were at least worthy of publishing on social media.

As I prepare to start a new school year, I take a few lessons from this experience with me.

  1. Reflection is key–If we don’t reflect on what went wrong and/or right, we’ll never understand why it did.
  2. Reflection can lead to deliberate action–once we identify the causes of a problem, we can work to ameliorate those causes (whether it’s camera settings or something in our classrooms).
  3. Don’t give up; we can learn from (and improve because of) the mistakes of life.

So, whenever you feel disappointed, take some time to reflect. Why did things turn out the way they did, and what can you improve next time.  Life is a perpetual beta–we’re always finding and fixings “bugs.”

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Dear First Year Teacher

Dear First Year Teacher,

Welcome to the greatest profession–the one on which all others depend.  (Don’t worry; this letter isn’t going to be filled with catchy quotes and platitudes.)  I write this to you as you are preparing for your first year. I write not as an expert but as a friend and colleague. It has been a few years, but I’ve been there.  (And truthfully, there are times when I still feel like a first-year teacher.)

While this is the greatest profession, it is also a calling that will take everything you have to give (and more). It will take every drop of your strength, every minute of your day, and every corner of your mind. Because you are called to education, because you want to make a difference, and because there are so many needs, you can quickly find yourself drowning because of your desire to save everyone. Hold on to that passion and that drive. Remember it when times get tough and when mandates come from “on high.” Remember why you chose this career path.  However, also set some boundaries. Just as a runner can’t run all the time, you can’t let school consume every second of your life. Save something for yourself, your family, and your friends. Get a hobby, exercise, spend time with others in your life doing things that don’t involve school.

Has anyone told you yet that your first year will be hard? I know this doesn’t mean much right now, but hold on to this letter.  When times get tough (and they will), when you feel like crying (and you will), when you question whether you’ve chosen the right career, pull this letter back out and read it. Take comfort in knowing that we all have those feelings; we all question our calling sometime.  Teaching is a job that is intensely personal and comes from a place deep in our souls.  For that reason, it affects us deeply when things get rough or when we feel that we’ve failed a student in some way. As I look back over the past 17 years of my career, I see times where I’ve felt distraught, wanted to quit, wanted to give up. For passionate teachers, this is normal, and it’s more intense in your first year of teaching. When you feel this way, find a colleague. We won’t have the answers, but we can assure you that you can carry on because we have been there too.

Curriculum and test scores are important. Your administrator is deeply concerned about both. However, what matters most is the connection you make with your students. Think back over your time as a student. Think about the teachers who stood out. I’ll bet that they stick out (for good or bad) based on the relationships (or lack thereof) that they formed with you. You may remember your Calculus teacher, but it’s probably not because they taught you about limits (though they did). You probably remember them more for the way they cultivated a caring classroom filled with respect and empathy.  That’s what your students are going to remember about you as well–did you love every kid in your classroom, and did each kid know that you loved them?

My last piece of advice is to be aware of your surroundings. There may be places in your building where you can get pulled into negativity. Avoid those places. If your staff lunches turn into gripe sessions, eat somewhere else. Eat with the kids, even. Eating with students is a great way to get to know them better. Just as you avoid the negative places, find the positive places. Find those people who lift you up and encourage you. Stick by them. It’s your first year and you’re going to need a lot of encouragement. They’ll provide it. At the same time, you’ll become more like them so that you can encourage struggling teachers later in your career as well.

I’ll leave you with this: Best of luck with your first year in education. We’re glad you’re here.

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Defeat (at the hands of National Boards)

I sit, surrounded by the demands of the National Board certification process, sinking in the despair of defeat, realizing that I don’t measure up. As I’ve done with other experiences in my life, I consider how this experience might relate to students in my classroom, asking myself how this feeling of despair can make me a better teacher.

As a person who has been good at the game of school since I started playing it (when I began kindergarten), I can’t often feel what students feel when they are struggling. I remember trying to help friends with math when I was in high school. I couldn’t understand why the math didn’t just make sense to them. It seemed so logical and easy to me.  Not having to struggle to understand or do well in school made my school experiences rewarding and enjoyable but didn’t prepare me to understand how my students feel when they struggle.

Sitting here before a document of questions that I can’t answer, sucks the life out of me. A lesson on grit or a reminder not to give up won’t help me move forward. The promise of a salary increase (which is much more motivating than a grade) isn’t enough to keep me motivated. Even the thought of having paid nearly $1000 for the process this year isn’t enough to keep me going. My only desire is escape. I turn to writing blog posts, something that I know I can succeed at, to assuage the feelings of inferiority and inadequacy.

If I’m having these feelings about a process that I signed up (and paid) for voluntarily, how much more might these feelings occur in my students who feel like they are forced to play the game of school when they’d rather be doing anything else? When school gets hard and discouraging, how can we help? How can my current experiences help me better help my students?

What I really need, in my present state of discouragement, is for someone to come alongside me and offer support, encouragement, and, perhaps, offer advice on my next step. I don’t need advice on grit, or working harder. I don’t need carrots or sticks to offer motivation. I do need a little empathy and some guidance.  I bet this is what my students need when they are feeling discouraged as well–someone to come alongside and offer a next step or to say, “I’m not giving up on you; I’ll help you succeed at this.” That’s what I’m going to offer this week.

In doing so, maybe I can put these words of Ovid to good use. . .

“Perfer et obdura, dolor hic tibi proderit olim. (Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.)” ~Ovid

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Speaking Up

Whenever I’m in a professional development setting, I try to compare it to my classroom.  Professional development seminars and college courses are practically the only times that teachers are in the position of captive learners.  This kind of reflection happens more often with ineffective professional development meetings where I find myself thinking, “How many times in my classroom do my students feel like I do right now? How could I change that?”  In meetings like that, even if the content of the meeting does not improve my instruction at all, the reflection about the meeting can help me see learning as a learner and make small adjustments in my own classroom.

This post, however, is about experiencing learning and professional meetings as an introvert.  In many new situations and professional meetings where I know few people, I’m content to “sit and get,” absorbing the knowledge presented by the facilitators. Attempts at active learning, ice breakers, etc. make me very uncomfortable.  If I’m at a conference and find that the session I’m headed towards is going to involve a lot of ice breaker activities or similar “get up, move, and work with people you don’t know” I have been known to select another “more intellectual” (i.e. less interactive) session.

However, I have noticed that there two professional sessions where I find it easy to contribute and share my thoughts.  As I reflected on this, I gained some insight that might be useful for my classroom (and yours too).  The first scenario where I’m more likely to share my thoughts and speak up is in a meeting where I’m comfortable.  I’m not talking about the temperature of the room or the quality of the snacks provided, but my comfort level with the people around me.  In meeting at my school, I don’t hesitate to speak up when I have something valuable to add.  I’m comfortable around my colleagues because we have shared experiences that have bonded us together (a benefit of teaching at the same school for over 10 years).  In my classroom, I assume that my students are comfortable with each other because they have “been together since kindergarten.”  While this may be true for a small number of my students, many have moved into our district recently and lack those bond-creating elementary experiences.  Even over the course of the school year, students move into our district and are added to my classes.  If I want all of my students to feel comfortable speaking up (especially the introverted students), then I have to provide community building activities throughout the school year, not just during the first few days of the year.  I don’t think that these activities have to be large, long projects, but we do need to provide students opportunities to learn about and become comfortable with each other.

The second setting in which I’m more likely to speak up is a setting where I feel like I have enough background to make me knowledgeable about the topic at hand. Whenever I’m at a meeting or professional development session about the Next Generation Science Standards, I’m not afraid to speak up because I feel like I have a fairly  thorough grounding in the standards and the vision behind them.  So, how do we create this kind of scenario in the classroom for our students? My thoughts are that we provide students with enough information and common background experiences so that they are confident enough to speak up.  If you’ve been through the Great Books training, you know that they emphasize talking only about the text.  At first, I thought this seemed arbitrary and contrived, but then I realized that it equalizes the playing field and allows all students to become experts regardless of their out-of-class backgrounds.  We need to create similar situations before our class discussions.

As we move toward 2017, let’s think about ways to start the new year making our students feel connected and confident.  When we do, they’ll be more likely to speak up and share their own thoughts.

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Why I Worry

“Josh” was in second grade.  He could have been described as “all boy,” full of life and energy. If you looked closely, you’d also see a loving heart and a deep desire to do the right thing.  Thirty seconds into our conversation one Sunday morning, he had already informed me that he hated his new teacher. As our conversation progressed, I began to understand the source of Josh’s dislike for his teacher–compliance-driven behavior charts.

After a few seconds of our conversation, I quickly realized that Josh was, in fact, trying to do what he thought was right, and it seemed that his teacher was looking at his behaviors instead of his heart. While his heart was in the right place, his behaviors looked like discipline problems.

While this conversation happened last year, I still worry about Josh. I worry that teachers will mistake his big personality for a personality defect and try to move him toward a compliance without respecting for his heart and his personality. I worry that he’ll turn into a sullen child with low self-esteem after spending years in classes where his behavior doesn’t match expectations because his personality is too big.  I worry that he’ll just give up and become a “drone” by the time he reaches middle school.  You know what I mean, that kid who’s merely going through the motions although he hates school and sometimes himself as well.

More than that, though, I worry about the students in my own classroom.  How can I balance their needs for self-expression with the curriculum demands of 7th grade?  How can we coexist in a classroom that honors everyone’s personalities while also learning at high levels?  It is much easier to maintain order and work on “classroom management,” than to have 25 large personalities teetering on the edge of chaos, but sometimes the cost of compliance is too high.  When we teach in ways that don’t value student individuality, their personal interests, and their personalities, we lose the students. They tune out.

For me, I’ve found that it’s about perspective.  If I look at the curriculum, then student behavior and personalities can be road blocks to my instruction–trouble that needs to be stamped out.  However, if I first look at my students, then their personalities become stepping stones that I can use to move us through the curriculum. Behavior issues that come up can be viewed as mistakes rather than deliberate attempts to sabotage the classroom.

I’m not perfect (just ask my students), but I work hard to see them as they are and to honor their personalities. After all, we’re on the same team.

***Disclaimer–Regarding “Josh,” I have only heard one side of this story, but, in reality, it is the student’s perception that matters most. Also, I have used compliance-driven behavior charts in the past.


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How Was School?

“How was school?” What kind of response do we want to hear when others (parents, community members, etc.) ask that question to our students? What we value in the classroom, what sits “front and center,” what we promote, will find its way into our students’ answers.

I am continually disheartened to hear students responses to this question revolve around behavior charts and letter grades. These are the shallowest representations of what we want to be happening in the classroom.  Society has assigned value to the letter grade, and we are creating a culture that values the behavior chart, but what kind of students are we generating if they are excelling only at these two items?

The behavior chart, while well intentioned (I confess, I have used them too), focuses on compliance. It is not the best method to  help students realize the necessity of working together or the benefits of empathy–it focuses solely on meeting the teacher’s expectations–complying with teacher directives.  Disruptive innovators do not exhibit this kind of compliance (think of Martin Luther King, Jr., Steve Jobs, etc.). By creating and valuing a culture of compliance, are we ensuring that there will be no disruptive innovators in our future?

The letter grades, while they do have some value, can be a symbol of “playing the game.” Students determine how to best get the grade they want (turning in the right assignments, earning the right amount of extra credit) without focusing on the learning  behind the grade.

I’m not saying it’s not convenient for teachers to have a room full of these kinds of students. But, what’s the cost? What life skills are we teaching our students in this type of environment?  We aren’t teaching self-motivation and actualization. We’re focusing on compliance and gaming the system. If we’re not careful, these are the values we promote and the students we value.  What does this promise for our future? Investment bankers who comply on the surface with directives, and seek to “game the system.”  Lawyers, doctors, teachers, etc. who seek to do the same.  That’s not a future that I’m looking for. We’ve already seen what some of that can look like, and it’s not pretty or beneficial.

So, what’s the alternative? Can we really throw out that behavior chart? Pernille Ripp says we can. She’s done it.  Check out her blog at http://pernillesripp.com/. Can we move aways from the traditional letter grade?  There are teachers who are doing it.  Look for Mark Barnes or Starr Sackstein. Let’s make this year the best year yet.  When people ask our students this year, “How was school?” let’s make sure their first answer is something about deep learning, moving forward, or finding their passions.

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A Teacher’s Week in the Woods (part 2)

20160607_095451_27481772232_oThis is the second in a series of posts offering a reflection on the week I spent at Brandon Springs Group Camp in Land Between the Lakes with several teachers and people involved with environmental education.  Here are a few more lessons learned.

Walking in a shallow stream calms the soul. After spending some time walking in a shallow stream, quietly looking for crayfish, minnows, and turtles, we began to contemplate how we might bring this stream with us to our own backyards.  Most of us realized that we are not able to create shallow flowing streams in our backyards, but we are able to take advantage of the calming effects of quiet solitude in nature (even within larger cities).  The time that we take to calm our souls helps fuel creativity and increases our quality of life.  As many veteran teachers have often told us, “Practice self-care.” Walking in a shallow stream or spending some quiet time in nature is a great way to care for yourself.

We must remain connected to our collective past. Our fearless leader, Dr. Joe Baust, continually reminded us of the history of the Land Between the Rivers and its transformation to Land Between the Lakes.  What we have today is the result of the sacrifices of those who have come before, and we must recognize and be thankful for that.  This attitude of honor and thanksgiving keeps us from becoming too self-absorbed and arrogant.  Land Between the Lakes is a great recreation area, a place for people to connect with nature, but it was created as the government acquired land, homes, towns, and farms. Seeing the cemeteries spread throughout this area reminds us that this “wilderness” was once home to many people. In our classrooms, we need to work to help students see how they connect to the past. As reflected in my last post, this is best done through story.  Rather than list facts about the area, Dr. Baust connected us with real people and their stories.  We saw their land, and their gravestones–the only thing left to indicate that this area had once been inhabited by people. As we heard their stories, we were connected (and humbled).

Research is best when it arises from a personal connection or perspective. As we explored one of the many cemeteries hidden away in LBL, we created our own questions. We were driven by our own personal desire to find the answers to those questions.  Sure, it would have been easy for those in charge to give us a scavenger hunt asking about the oldest graves, the number of children buried there, the number of graves housed outside the cemetery fence, etc.  By allowing us to ask and answer our own questions, we were able to tackle the questions that had meaning for us. I see two significant connections for our classrooms.  First is the need to create a culture of question-asking.  This is a component of the Next Generation Science Standards, so most science teachers are beginning to think about this. The second connection is just as important and will work to drive the creation of the question-asking culture. The second connection is allowing students time to answer the questions that they ask.  This may require hands-on exploration, interviews, or “old school” research.

This week, may you find time to walk in a shallow stream, connect to the past, and explore your own questions. Then comes the hard part in trying to recreate those experiences for our students.

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