Moving From Windows to Mirrors

If you’re looking out the window for the answers, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Instead, look in the mirror.

The most important work we do as educators is helping our students learn and grow.  However, in order for us to be better for our students and continue to help support their growth we need to make sure that we are giving ourselves the best chance to learn and grow along the way.  When we think about our students’ learning and the challenges we face helping them grow, it is easy to blame outside factors when things aren’t going the right way. Maybe it’s the parents, a lack of effort by the students, a background of trauma, or even a full moon.  Any of these reasons are convenient excuses, and they may well play a factor, but we should look at ourselves first.  

Back in December I wrote about reflection and suggested taking the time to think about the past calendar year and allow yourself the time to identify goals for 2020.  I hope you went through that process and have gotten yourself off to a good start in the new year, this would be a great time to stop and check-in with those goals and make adjustments as needed!  

As we begin the second semester of the school year we’ve come to another natural time for reflection.  When you look back at the first semester and consider the challenges you’ve overcome and those that you continue to face, try to identify the main obstacles.  Our natural tendency as human beings is to look outward, through the window, at external causes and blame those obstacles for the challenges we face. However, what if we started by looking in the mirror and examining how we could improve?  

I strive to improve myself each day, in at least some small way.  Without taking the time to look in the mirror and reflect I would never be able to meet that goal.  I have bigger, long-term goals as well as more bite-sized, short-term goals that help me stay focused on the present while keeping an eye on the future.  This, however, isn’t easy work. I frequently rely on mentors, colleagues, friends, and family to help me achieve my goals. Sometimes I seek specific advice from these people but many times I just need someone to hold the mirror for me, so to speak, and give me honest feedback.  Going through the process of reflecting, learning, and growing is not easy but the opportunity to be better every day is something that energizes me and makes all of the challenge worth it in the end.  

We’re at the mid-year point here at school.  Whether you are being formally observed this school year or not I want you all to know that I’m more than happy to help hold the mirror up for you as you go through this reflection process, please don’t hesitate to ask!!

Showing Gratitude, Feeling Good

Last week I mentioned that we were relatively lucky to have such good custodians and support both during the day and after school.  I suggested that it is important to let them know how much we appreciate their efforts. I’ve been thinking about that message since I wrote it; it’s important that we let everyone, not just the custodians, know how much we appreciate them!

The power of gratitude shouldn’t be underestimated.  Whether you’re the recipient or the person showing gratitude, the effects are undeniable.  In either case you feel better about yourself and you become, overall, more positive in your life.  There’s a lot of awesome research happening around the power of gratitude and it shows, time and time again, that showing gratitude is one of the healthiest things we can do!  

The Greater Good Science Center, out of UC Berkeley, is a definite go-to for me when it comes to social-emotional or mental health conversations.  One article that I love was written almost ten years ago but is still supported by today’s research. I like this article because the author shares some of the physical, psychological, and social benefits of showing gratitude.  I’ll keep it short this week because I want to encourage you to take a look at this article (and watch the embedded videos if you have time) and then consider ways that you can incorporate more gratitude into your life. 

Make Your Layups: Why some feedback just isn’t effective

Do you ever, when you’re not at school, catch yourself still in school mode?  Maybe you’ve told a kid who was running in Target to slow down or you’ve used your teacher look with complete strangers at a restaurant.  It happens, we have a hard time shutting it off. This weekend I caught myself slipping into school mode and thinking about the level of feedback I was witnessing.

When I was in high school I started working as a basketball referee to make money.  I’ve always enjoyed basketball as a player and coach. Now that I’m too out of shape and too busy for those parts of the game, I stay connected by periodically reffing a few games.  This past weekend I worked four games of sixth grade girls basketball and found myself doing mini observations of the coaches, mostly about their feedback styles.  

At this level of basketball there is still a wide range of skill levels on the court at the same time, some players have clearly been playing and practicing for a long time and others have obviously just begun playing this year.  Being around basketball for so long I often feel like I’ve seen everything, but observing the coaches of these sixth grade teams through the lens of an educator proved very interesting.

Coaches who focus on their team and giving them feedback about their goals (versus yelling at me, the referee, the whole game) often see their teams improve tremendously over the course of a season and find success in the win column.  There are other coaches, however, who seem to be giving great feedback but not winning many games or seeing much improvement. This weekend I realized where the disconnect was most likely happening for one of these coaches.

I started to listen more carefully to one particular coach’s feedback for his team, it was full of the typical basketball jargon but when I really paid attention to his feedback I realized that it was focused on the wrong things.  Saying to someone “make your layups” or “stop dribbling the ball off your foot” doesn’t help them improve. In fact, this level of feedback probably hurts their growth by increasing their frustration level. They know the desired result, they are supposed to make the baskets and dribbling the ball off their foot is bad (duh!), telling them to do those things doesn’t help them improve at all. By focusing on the process instead of the result, the player can actually use the feedback to improve their skill set.  The quality of feedback provided is the true differentiator between successful feedback and wasted feedback.

As I drove home, I started thinking about how my coaching observations connected to the work we do every day with our kids.  The way that we give feedback and the quality of that feedback matter, a lot. Focusing on growth and helping students figure out what comes next in their learning process is a very important piece of helping them find success.  In the short term, not every student is at the same level, so they shouldn’t all have the same end goal. Each student is different and many will achieve their long term goals by following different paths. Providing students with quality feedback allows them to see their next steps clearly as you guide them through their learning.   Improving the ways that we give feedback as teachers is crucial to the growth and success of our students.  

Guiding our students in the learning process requires constant feedback and since we’re giving it so often we should always be thinking about how we can make it as effective as possible.  Solution Tree has a great “White Paper” about this subject that is a quick, easy read and can even serve as a sort of checklist for anyone thinking about giving effective feedback to their students.  Have a look here, it does a much better job than I’ll ever be able to do of explaining feedback, it’s importance, and how to ensure your feedback is effective.  


“Playing School” Turned Christmas Into a Nightmare

Over the holidays, my wife and I traveled to see her family in Dallas where we enjoyed warm weather and lots of fun outdoor activities.  As much as I was able to relax and step back from school for a bit, it was Christmas morning when my mind was sent racing. Our nieces have been hoping for American Girl Dolls for quite some time now, so when they opened them on Christmas you can be sure that they were playing with them immediately!  After the excitement of gift opening faded and all the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I had the chance to sit back and watch as the girls began to play school with their new dolls.

Our nieces are nine and seven and attend a school that is rather similar to ours here at KTEC, a close-knit, community charter school with a STEM focus.  I had been talking to them earlier in the week about their teachers and their favorite parts of school (recess always ranks number one!) and they shared that they loved their teachers and really enjoyed reading and science, so I was a little surprised when, after a while, they started playing Math Class with the dolls. 

You may know that my wife is a high school math teacher and I was always passionate about math growing up as well, so while I was surprised it was a pleasant surprise to see them playing Math Class.  It started out as many math classes do, with the turning-in of homework. Then, “the teacher” started quizzing “the class” on math facts. They started out easy enough and “the teacher” was awarding extra recess to everyone who got them right, what a deal?!  However, things took a turn for the worse when the questions got tougher. As soon as “the class” started getting questions wrong recess was taken away and everyone had to do more worksheets…yikes!! Talk about being surprised, this beautiful morning had just turned into a nightmare for Uncle Bret!! 

I immediately went and found my sister-in-law and grilled her about this school, I mean what was going on around there?!?!  She assured me this was nowhere near the reality at their school, one they’ve been attending since kindergarten. She did, however, shed some light on the situation.  Our nieces, who are typically good students who work hard at school, absolutely loathe math. They feel constantly under attack by math homework, multiplication tables, and memorizing math facts.  It is a battle at home and anxiety mounts every time tests come around. My sister-in-law, who is also a teacher, expressed her concerns that math was going to be the thing that made her daughters start dreading going to school.

So, as I said, my mind started racing!  It started with, what can we do to help more students like math (in particular girls)? I then got to the point of, what are we doing to ensure that all of our students are having a positive experience in school, no matter their strengths or weaknesses?  School isn’t always going to be easy for everyone and I don’t think it should be, there is an appropriate level of challenge that all students should face. However, when I think about a class of 20-25 students, I wonder how many kids are being appropriately challenged all day long.  Are there students who are struggling to the point of anxiety all day or even part of the day? What about the other side, do we have students who aren’t challenged enough and thus bored throughout the day?  Like I said, my mind was racing!

As we return and continue planning for second semester, I’d like to ask you to work with your teams to think further about appropriate challenge and what we’re doing to ensure that all of our students are being met at their optimal level.  We talk often about those students who need extra support to meet expectations but what about those other kids, the ones who regularly meet or exceed expectations? How can they be appropriately challenged?

I know it is never easy when there are so many different kids at so many different levels, especially when we tend to get so focused on meeting expectations and standardized testing.  If you’d like to continue this conversation in person, I’d love to hear people’s thoughts and suggestions!!

Inspired by Elf Jr.

Watching our students perform Elf Jr. last week was exciting and inspirational.  Some of the students who were performing are outgoing and confident, it isn’t much of a surprise that they are excelling in the theatre.  However, seeing other students who are usually quiet, lacking self-confidence, or struggling academically get on stage and reveal a completely different side of themselves is a great reminder that there’s more to our students than what we see in the classroom!  

I often joke that I grew up in a gym.  If I wasn’t playing sports, I was watching, reffing, or coaching.  My life revolved around sports for many of my most formative years.  While I learned a lot of important life lessons from my experiences in sports and have no regrets about how I grew up, I would change one thing if I could go back in time.  I would get involved in the Arts, heavily involved. I think I would have a hard time convincing my young self to listen to that advice but knowing everything I know now, I’d work very hard to find a way to talk myself into it!

Providing our students with opportunities to think critically, solve problems creatively, and find success in areas beyond the classroom, are just some of the many benefits of Arts education, no matter where or when we provide it.  Unfortunately, Arts education is often infrequent or relegated to after school times due to the school-day focus on “core” academic classes. That’s not to say that the Arts and core classes are in competition with each other, in fact it should really be the opposite and they should be working together as much as possible.  In addition to the aforementioned benefits, there’s lots of research that shows that students involved in the Arts have more success in their core academic areas than students who aren’t. The importance of the Arts can’t be overlooked!

If you didn’t get a chance to see Elf Jr. this past weekend I think you’ll get a chance this week when our students see it.  While you’re watching, let yourself be inspired by our young thespians and keep in mind how important the Arts can be for our students.  Then, at your next collaborative time, take a few minutes to talk with your team about how you/we can incorporate more Arts into our programs – it will benefit our students in all areas.

Enjoy the show!!

Facing Change: What’s Your Approach

On Friday our 8th grade students took a big step in their journey toward high school.  They joined Lincoln Middle School 8th graders for presentations from the various Choice Schools they will have the option of applying to, for enrollment next school year.  This is usually the time in their journey when a number of students begin facing a certain amount of anxiety. It’s not high school that is necessarily the scary part (although I’m sure it is intimidating for many) but the inevitable change that is staring them in the face.  Change itself is hard and many of our students have been at KTEC for a long time, many of them their entire school career, this transition won’t be easy!

I can’t say I’ve ever met someone who finds change easy.  It rarely feels good leaving the known for the unknown. Change can be big or small, quick or slow, expected or out of the blue.  No matter how it happens, change is difficult. I was reminded of this recently when I read the book Who Moved My Cheese?: An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life.  This wonderfully simple book is full of great lessons on change that helped me clarify my thinking on change and how to approach it in a rational way.

This book takes a concept (change) that is a challenge for many people and, through a short story, offers a user-friendly guide to successfully navigating the maze of change.  Like any good book, this one was adapted into a movie (the book is better, as usual!) that can be seen here if you’ve got 11 minutes.  While the short movie gives you the general message of the story I think reading the book was a better experience because it gave me the time to pause and reflect as I went along.  The story includes seven important lessons. I’d like to share those lessons with you today but need to offer a little context first.

In the story, the main characters live in a maze.  They eat Cheese, which symbolizes anything we think we need in order to be happy.  For the mice in the story, Cheese was cheese. However, for us humans, Cheese could be anything from a rewarding job to a happy family or being a homeowner, anything that we think we might need to be happy.  As the story plays out and the characters learn important lessons, one character writes the lessons on the wall of the maze – the literal ‘handwriting on the wall’. Here are the seven big lessons from the story:

  1. Change happens (The Cheese will keep moving)
  2. Anticipate change (Get ready for the Cheese to move)
  3. Monitor change (Smell the Cheese often so you know when it is getting old)
  4. Adapt to change quickly (The quicker you let go of old Cheese, the sooner you can enjoy new Cheese)
  5. Change (Move with the Cheese)
  6. Enjoy change (Savor the adventure and enjoy the taste of new Cheese)
  7. Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again (The Cheese will continue to move)

(Johnson, S., 2002, p. 74)

As our 8th graders begin to think about change in their life, it’s a great time for us to reflect on how we deal with change in our lives.  I’d like to encourage you to contemplate how you manage change in your life, both your personal life and your professional life. Feel free to start by watching the movie from above.  Better yet, if you’d like to borrow this book I have a copy in my office that I’d be more than happy to share (it’s super short, less than 100 pages and like size 18 font!)

Change is difficult for everyone.  Acknowledging that is the first step.  From there we must recognize how we currently face the challenges that change brings, then we are able to adapt and grow from there.  I talked last week about reflecting and thinking about growth, thinking about change is a great tool for doing just that!!  

Here’s the book if you’re interested:

Johnson, S. (2002). Who moved my cheese?: An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life. New York: Putnam.


Tis the Season…For Reflection

I’ve been at KTEC for one month now,  in some ways it feels like only yesterday when I started but in other ways it feels like I’ve been here for years!  The past four weeks have been a wonderful experience and I’ve learned a lot in a very short time, with much more to go.  I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting throughout this process and will continue to do so moving forward. I appreciate all of the feedback I’ve received from you as a staff, whether written or through conversations we’ve had in person.  Please keep the feedback coming, it helps me grow and I love it!

Usually I write about reflection in the beginning of January, after New Year’s, when everyone seems to be reflecting back on the past year and setting goals for the next 365 days (366 in 2020!)  However, I’ve realized that waiting until January is too late. If we are going to truly stop and reflect in an authentic way, it will take time. Reflection isn’t as easy as looking at yourself in the mirror one time and then walking away, reflection is a process.

I would like to challenge you to take the next few weeks to stop, multiple times, and reflect back on the beginning of this school year.  To really do this effectively I would recommend setting aside about 15 minutes, twice a week for the next three weeks. Use that time to make notes for yourself about the good and the bad, think about what could have led to those specific moments/days, and then plan for future successes.  Here is how I would recommend going through that process.

Session One:  Create a list of your biggest successes this school year.  Include notes about very positive school days, lessons, and student/parent/colleague interactions.

Session Two:  Create a list of moments that stick out to you as less than ideal. Consider risks that you took but didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, lessons that flopped, and student/parent/colleague interactions that could’ve gone better.

Session Three:  Focus on the “why” of list one.  Why did those positive moments happen?  Why was your role essential in creating that positive experience?  Why was this moment so positive?

Session Four:  Focus on the “why” of list two.  Why didn’t that moment/day go as you’d planned?  Why will it be different the next time? Why is it important to try this again?

Session Five:  Using list one and the associated “whys”, think about how you can create additional positive experiences like those you’ve listed.  Create a list of successes for the future, be specific and make notes about how and when you’ll ensure these occur.

Session Six:  Using list two and the associated “whys”, develop a plan to try these again and improve on them and/or develop a plan to avoid these pitfalls in the future.  Be specific, focus on what you can do to create success.

The process of reflection is essential in all that we do.  By taking 30 minutes over the course of each of the next three weeks to think back on the start of the school year and plan for success in the future, you will give yourself a road map for returning in January.  One of the biggest reasons that people regularly fail at meeting their New Year’s Resolutions is because they don’t properly reflect and give time to developing a plan for success. Give yourself that time, develop your goals through an honest reflective process, and make all 366 days of 2020 amazing!!