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 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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A Teacher’s Week in the Woods (part 1)

Slide1In early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a week of reflection, rejuvenation, and environmental education at Land Between the Lakes.  About 20 teachers and others involved in environmental education came together to spend time living in community detached from our digital lives. (We were somewhat shocked to realize that there was only one spot in the camp that had any cell service–and it wasn’t good service, at that.) We spent an entire week exploring nature, reconnecting with our artistic selves, and building relationships. The goal was rejuvenation so that we could return to our classrooms in the fall refreshed and ready to make a difference.  Here are a few of the lessons that I learned through this experience.

Knowledge, though important, is fleeting, but relationships last. This week was led by one of my former college professors from Murray State University.  While I’m not sure I can tell you any of the “facts” about education that I learned in his class 15 years ago, I do remember the relationship and the person.  Those memories are one of the reasons that I chose to attend this workshop. As I left the week, I wasn’t focusing on all of the knowledge that I’d learned through the week; I was celebrating the relationships that had been built. The knowledge from the week was important, but the relationships mattered the most. This same idea holds true in our classrooms.  What we teach is important (though students may not remember it past the test), but the relationships we develop are what last.

Ideas take time, and writing requires work.  Part of our workshop involved experienceing nature and place so that we could write. I’ve always sought to be a one-draft writiter. I don’t like revision, and the poems that I draft rarely get a second look from me. As an elementary teacher, that was not how I taught writing, but it was my personal method.  This week provided time to think about ideas and to revise written works. Through that, I realized that ideas take time to develop and often can’t be produced in final form in one quick draft. I realized that the more drafts I make of a poem the more likely I am to find the best version of that poem. Why hadn’t I realized this prior to camp? The answer lies mostly with time. In the life of a teacher, there is little time to sit around reflecting, writing, and revising.  However, in a camp setting, surrounded by nature (and removed from the distractions of cell phones), reflecting and revising were much easier to accomplish. I’m sure that if you take a couple of minutes to reflect on this, you’ll see how it applies to your classroom as well.

People remember stories. One of the highlights of the week was having Bob Valentine from Murray State University entertain us with stories around the campfire. What he taught us was that people remember story. If we can connect the important things we wish to teach to stories, then our students will remember them. I think we probably all learned this somewhere in undergraduate work, but hearing it again (as a story) reminded me of what I might have forgotten.


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The Many Faces of Teacher Leadership

When I was in college, there were a few of my peers whom I really admired.  They always seemed to be comfortable in any social setting.  They could talk to anyone, regardless of whether they had met before.  Their boisterous personalities exuded confidence, fun, and joy.  At that point in my life, I wasn’t familiar with the difference between introverts and extroverts, and I didn’t realize the value that each contributes.  I just wished I was more like these confident, exuberant friends.

Fast forward several years, I have embraced my introvert tendencies.  I have also noticed that I can have those extroverted qualities that I envied in college.  They appear when I’m “in my element” (i.e. around students).  I can be boisterous and welcoming, talking to students who know me and those I’ve never met.  I can cultivate a classroom full of this kind of exuberance.  (Sometimes I even forget to make a space for my introverted students, oops!)

Then there’s the teacher leadership world.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve been introduced to teacher leadership, and, at times, I’ve felt like I’m back in college.  I’ve watched those leaders who are extroverts.  They still exude that confidence and a fun spirit no matter where they are.  They are confident and able to talk with leaders from across the world like they are best friends.  I’m still an introvert, and outside of my familiar surroundings, I’m incredibly nervous.  Initially, my teacher leadership thoughts were summed up by a line from Echosmith, “I wish that I could be like the cool kids.”  They seemed to be connected to everything and they seemed to be making a world of difference.  I assumed that they were the face of teacher leadership, that I had to look like them to be a teacher leader.

How wrong I was.  In this past year and a half, I’ve learned that there are many faces of teacher leadership.  There are the uber-connected teacher leaders like MeMe Ratliff (@MeMe3Rat), Missy Calloway (@Calilypso), and Tricia Shelton (@TdiShelton) who work at an exhausting pace–one that I could never hope to emulate.  Thre are organizers like Jana Bryant (@JanaBryant14) who bring together groups of teacher leaders to leverage their collective power for change. There are teacher leaders who advocate tirelessly for their passion like Heidi Givens (@heidigasl) does for deaf education.  There are teacher leaders who are transforming teaching in their own classroom and leading ripple effects across their schools, districts, and beyond.  Tiffany Gruen is a good example of this (@GruenTiff).  There are policy advocates like Kip Hottman (@KipHottman).  Some teacher leaders see a larger picture and take their leadership to the next level like Brad Clark (@notbradclark) has done with the Hope Street Group.

When I look at this group of teacher leaders (and the many more I’ve left out), I wonder where my place is.  I wonder which of these leaders I’m most similar to.  What I’ve learned is that there is no one face of teacher leadership and that all of our voices are needed to lead education into the future.  Our kids deserve the best, and they’ll only get it when we bring our teaching and leadership skills together to continue moving education forward.  So, I’m carving out my own teacher leadership role that aligns with my strengths. Sometimes it’s a “quiet leadership,” and that’s okay.

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