Lessons From the Fairway

I’ve been playing golf for a long time, but since I starting teaching I’ve had the school year and the golf season.  By only playing golf in the summers it has remained separate in my brain from teaching, very compartmentalized.  However, for the first time I’ve actually started to blend the two together and recently I realized that golf and teaching are actually very similar challenges.  

If you’ve never played golf, don’t worry, I’ll do my best to keep the technical golf-speak out of the conversation.  Teacher-speak, as a fair warning, I’ll have a hard time avoiding! 

Golf separates itself from most other sports by being, at the same time, one of the most frustrating and enjoyable games in the world.  One day you’ll absolutely love every second of the game and the next you’ll swear that you’ll never play again.  In fact, those sentiments frequently occur multiple times within the same round of golf.  Whether it’s day-by-day or lesson-by-lesson, teaching is also full of ups and downs.  Just as in golf, with teaching we know that even on the worst days, during the worst lessons, there will always be something that reminds you of why you love what you’re doing with your students.  In golf there’s always that really good shot, even on your worst day, that excites you to the point that you want to go through it all again.  Even on your longest day at school, what is it that excites you and gives you the energy to do it all again?

While anyone can play, golf isn’t easy and it takes a lot of time and energy to be good.  Think back to your first year(s) of teaching and imagine how much you’ve improved since those early days.  It takes time, making mistakes (lots of them), practice, coaching, and dedication to become a good teacher.  The same is true of golf.  Hours and hours of practice to develop just the right plan for your swing, costly mistakes that ruin an otherwise great round, and your patience being tested by the same annoying bad shot over and over again.  Does any of that sound familiar to you as a teacher?  Unit and lesson plans, taking risks and trying new teaching strategies (some work, others don’t), and students who do the same things no matter how many times you ask them not to.  Every golfer has areas of growth, even the #1 ranked player in the world isn’t perfect on the course…I encouraged you to reflect on your practice last week, have you identified your target area(s) of growth?

In golf it’s important to know yourself and where your strengths lie.  Occasionally it is important, or even necessary, to try new things.  You might decide to try a new putting grip, new golf clubs, or even a new mental approach.  Sometimes these things work and end up becoming an important part of your overall game.  However, it’s important to know your major strengths and remain focused on maximizing those parts of your game; trying too many new things will lead to a loss of focus and wasted energy.  The same is true in teaching.  Over the years we’ve all developed skills and strategies that work for us in the planning process and in the classroom.  In order to keep growing we need to be open to trying new ideas but it’s important to know our strongest skills and ensure that they are being maximized.  Just as it’s important to reflect and identify areas for growth, the same is true for your strengths – identify your strengths and utilize them to maximum benefit.  

Whether you’re on the golf course or in the classroom you’re on an amazing roller coaster ride.  You’ll scream and shout, you’ll laugh and cry, but at the end of it all you’ll pull into the station and (most likely, hopefully) want to ride again.  By pinpointing what, exactly, it is that excites you about teaching, you’ll tap into a source of energy that will get you through the low points and give you the drive and determination to push forward.  Identifying areas for growth will provide you with the opportunity to continue growing as a professional and allow you to feel the impact that even the smallest changes can have on your students’ learning.  Through it all, riding the tide of your strengths as a teacher will carry you, and your students, to great success despite the inevitable ups and downs you’ll experience.  

We may not beat Jack Nicklaus or Annika Sorenstam on the golf course and people probably won’t confuse any of us with Anne Sullivan or Ron Clark in the classroom but there’s no reason that we can’t move a little bit closer each day.  To be the best we have to aspire to grow and improve, we have to practice and reflect, and we have to enjoy the ride.  Take a few moments today to think about the three points above and see if you can’t answer these questions:

What excites me about teaching?

What is one, high-leverage, area of growth for my teaching?

What are my strengths as a teacher and how do I use them to drive my teaching?

 

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Watching Your Documentary

A little over a year ago Netflix released a documentary telling the stories of people in Scooba, a small town in the southern state of Mississippi, USA.  The main characters are the players, coaches, and staff of the Football (American style) team at East Mississippi Community College.  The players at this community college are young men who usually, for one reason or another, were rejected or kicked-off of powerhouse university teams.  This small town, with it’s community college, has gained relevance as the home of what has come to be known as ‘Last Chance University’.  A place for young men who’ve made mistakes off the field, to possibly earn another shot at stardom by cleaning their slate and starting fresh.  Sports have always played a huge role in my life and I draw many lessons from my experiences as a player, coach, referee, and fan.  So as I binge-watched my way through Season One, I was learning a lot and praying for a Season Two.

Season Two of Last Chance U was recently released and started off with audio of a preacher in front of a congregation, sharing a story about Coach Buddy Stephens of East Mississippi Community College (aka Last Chance U).  Viewers of Season One know him as a fiery, foul-mouthed football coach whose team ended their season in the most unfortunate of ways (you’ll have to watch for details, no spoilers here!)  Now, as Season Two begins, Coach Buddy has watched Season One of the documentary and, as the preacher tells us, “As he watched himself on that screen, he didn’t like what he saw.  Can you imagine if a documentary was made about your life?  And they followed you, the good, and the bad, and the ugly?”

The preacher was heading in a more existential direction with his sermon than I’m going to go in here but his main point really hit home with me.  What would we see if we could watch ourselves, filmed and edited from an outsider’s perspective, and would we like what we saw?  Now, before we get too deep into this thought exercise, I’d like to narrow our focus a little more.  Instead of trying to imagine your whole life, start with your professional life.  What would a documentary based on your life as an educator reveal to both you and the world?  

I believe that most of us are like Coach Buddy, in that we would look at a documentary about our life and see areas for growth.  However, unlike the now (in)famous Junior College football coach, we are probably not going to have the luxury/burden of Netflix deciding to make a documentary about our professional lives.  This means that, in order to get that outside, ‘documentarian’, perspective on our educational story we’ll need assistance from someone other than a Netflix camera crew.  

As educators we’re lucky, we’re surrounded by others who are just as keen to learn and grow as we are.  We’ve got colleagues who know and understand our craft, able to provide feedback, conversation, and strategies for growth.  Similarly, we’ve got students who see, hear, and evaluate much of what we do professionally.  The resources to produce our own documentary script are there and, while we’re not being filmed 24-7, we are certainly being watched.  In this way we are more lucky that Coach Buddy, we don’t need a documentary to provide us feedback.  

Where the challenge lies for us as educators, in an insulated community, is facing the reality of needing to grow and finding the proper motivation to do so.  Coach Buddy didn’t have much of a choice, the whole world was watching the same documentary as him.  He realized that without changes, the same mistakes were going to keep repeating themselves for the whole world to see.  In education, just as in sports, mistakes can cost you dearly and if we want to improve we need to acknowledge those areas where growth is needed.  While parallels can certainly be drawn between sports and education, we’re not playing a game when we enter the classroom each day, the results mean much more to our students than a simple W or L.  

I’d like to ask that you’re actively reflecting on your practice as educators.  If you’re a returning teacher you’ve worked with our Performance Appraisal Rubric (PAR) in the past and have a starting point for setting some goals for this year.  If you’re new to the school, think back to your past practice and begin to identify areas where you know you can grow, areas that will positively impact our students’ learning.  We will begin to officially document goals and move to reflection together in the coming weeks.  While there won’t be any Netflix camera crews, there will be ups and downs, wins and losses, and without a doubt – a lot of learning and growth.

 

Learning to Serve

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, Louisiana in the southern United States.  As infrastructure failed and flooding ensued, it devastated the city.  Many people were extremely hard hit, losing everything to the floods.  12 years later and New Orleans still shows signs of the damage done during that storm.  In the days after Hurricane Katrina buses started bringing people from New Orleans to Houston, Texas, most with only the shirts on their backs.  With nothing to return to in New Orleans, more than 100,000 people settled in Houston and began to slowly rebuild their lives.  Now, exactly 12 years later, for those New Orleanians who remained in Houston, history has repeated itself in the form of the worst storm to ever make landfall in the United States of America.   

Hurricane Harvey has finally moved away from Houston after more than a week of dumping over 50 inches (almost 1.3 meters) of rain on the fourth largest city in America.  Houston, a city built to manage flash flooding from sudden thunderstorms, was no match for a storm that brought one year’s worth of rain in less than a week.  The city is devastated and will take years, maybe even decades to fully recover.  

I’ve watched from afar as the city that I called home for three years has literally weathered the worst storm of all time and I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness.  Being on the other side of the world as friends and former students feared for their safety has been extremely difficult.  And now, as the recovery efforts begin, the sense of helplessness continues.  We’ve donated money to the American Red Cross but can’t escape the feeling that we could be doing more if we were actually on the ground in Houston.

A few years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, I was part of a school trip that took over 100 sixth graders to the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, from Houston, to donate a week of our time and energy to help continue the recovery efforts.  Over the years I’ve wondered if those students were able to experience the feelings that come from authentic altruism or if they were just there because they had to be.  I’ve had faith that there was at least some level of positive impact but could never really confirm what, if anything, they learned from that trip.  Until now…

Never have I been so happy that I’ve stayed in touch with former students as I have over the last week.  I’ve been bombarded with photos, videos, and stories of those very same students as they’ve rushed to the George Bush Convention Center (a makeshift refugee center in Houston), joined their church groups, or just come together to support their neighbors who’ve suffered tragedy from Hurricane Harvey.  Of course, there are many other factors that led to their altruism but I no longer have any doubt in my mind that those students learned a lot during our trip to New Orleans.  Teaching our young people about the importance of giving their time and energy to serve those less fortunate couldn’t be more crucial in our quest to develop the future leaders of our world.  

With only a couple more weeks before we head off for our Education Outside the Classroom (EOTC) trips I want to urge everyone to remember how important these experiences are to the process of developing compassionate leaders for the next generations.  Our responsibility lies beyond the textbooks.  Whether during their time at our school, in university, or beyond, our students will be faced with opportunities to help others.  How they approach those opportunities is yet to be determined and, hopefully, will be heavily influenced by the positive experiences we can provide them through things like our EOTC week.  We, luckily, don’t have hurricane victims to help during our EOTC week but the importance of giving back and helping others shouldn’t be overlooked just because we haven’t experienced a natural disaster.  What we can do to help others during these trips may be less significant than the lessons that we can share with our students as we join them for these experiences.  Remember, they’re always listening and learning, what we are saying and modeling will be noticed.  We may never know it or we may see their growth ten years from now, but it will matter!

Side note: If you’re involved with any great community projects or groups I’d love to hear about them, as life finally starts to feel routine here in Surabaya I’d like to get involved in helping the community.  

 

Shining Bright: Inspiring, Guiding, and Mentoring Future Stars

Happy Monday everyone!!!

It’s been four weeks since the kids arrived at school and I couldn’t be more impressed.  We have a school full of kind, motivated, and hardworking young men and women.  The OSIS Yule Ball was a wonderful showcase for some of the amazing students we are so lucky to teach.  The organization, communication, and foresight required to successfully put together a 200 person event is incredible.  OSIS members shined bright on Saturday night as did a few of their peers who performed on stage, sharing their talents as musicians and dancers.  However, it is important to note that while some of our students were shining bright there were others who were lingering on the fringes watching and hoping to one day achieve similar success.  Another great thing about our school (and all schools for that matter) is that we have a wide range of kids; from those who’ve found their passions to those who’ve never looked for their own.  A beautiful thing about being an educator is that, no matter what students’ talents or skills may be today, we have the opportunity to help them find their chance to, one day, shine brightly.

As I was lucky enough to see this weekend, some of our students already shine brightly in certain areas, you know who they are.  They receive the attention from their peers, teachers, and the community.  They are praised for their skills and talents, yet they (probably) still desire to grow and improve.  But what could these students possibly need?  They need mentoring.  How many stories are there of the student who was talented and adored in high school only to flame out and “go no where”?  Too many.  These students need mentors who can show them how to continue growing while also pursuing other passions, creating a diverse skill set to draw upon in the future.   While these students most certainly aren’t making anyone hit the panic button they are still in need of support and attention.  Skills and talent don’t grow in a vacuum, hard work and guidance are essential for anyone to succeed.  If these students’ stars are going to continue to shine, they’ll need support and mentoring to keep the flames of passion burning.

While some of our students have already identified areas of ‘brightness’ there are many who’ve just only discovered their area(s) of passion.  These students need more than just mentoring, they’ve chipped off the tip of the iceberg but have a long way to go to understand the depth of opportunity ahead.  To have found something to be passionate about at such a young age is an awesome thing; with the time and energy to devote to a passion there is no limit to the potential for greatness.  However, as we all know, young minds can wander and stray from their paths.  As educators we can help guide students along the journey toward their goals.  We can help students grow their skills and talents in a focused manner as they pursue their passions.  These students may not need motivational speeches, but rather guidance and coaching in order to make their stars shine brightly.  This group, largest in number amongst our students, is on the right track and are fun to work with as they pursue and further explore their new found passions in an effort to, one day, shine brightly themselves.

Every student has that ‘brightness’ inside of them, the ability to shine in something (or many things).  While many of our students have already discovered their ‘brightness’ and have begun to shine in certain areas, others still appear to be searching.  What about, however, those who have never searched for their passions, have given up searching, or are convinced that they have no ‘brightness’?  They need inspiration, they need someone to believe in them, or they might just need the right opportunity to come along.  We can be all of those things for our students.  We can light those fires, we can show them we believe in them and we can open doors to opportunity.  Our job as educators includes a mighty dose of motivational speaker/inspirational leader.  When students enter our classrooms they are there, not only to learn, but also to be inspired – help our students to find that inspiration.

Academically, all of our students need us in a variety of ways, we differentiate the classroom to meet the needs of all learners.  The exact same thing is true of their social-emotional needs.  If our students aren’t motivated and inspired, then their ability to learn is limited – there is a ceiling.  Getting to know your students, showing them you care, and sharing how much you value learning are all ways to help motivate and inspire your students.  If they can’t see the passion inside of you they’ll never see it inside of themselves.  Let your passions shine bright, then light the path of inspiration for our students stopping along the way to guide and mentor those who’ve already joined you on the journey.

 

A few great motivational speakers worth watching:

Rita F. Pierson:  Every Kid Needs a Champion (Straight from a teacher’s heart)

Nick Vujicic (He’s got a lot of awesome videos and an amazing heart)

Matt Foley (for a good laugh)

Modeling Our Learning

A few years ago our staff completed a Strengths Finder course and it was revealed that more than 80% of our teachers had the “Learner” profile in their top five strengths.  Not a surprise at all, considering the profession we’ve chosen.  I imagine that, despite being a small sample size, this group was representative of teachers across the world.  We’re learners, through and through.  It’s something we’re passionate about and, even if it’s not one of our top five strengths, it’s something we’re good at and enjoy.  

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking back to induction week and the challenge I put forth to lead our students, not only by teaching them academics, but also by positively modeling the behaviors we consider important.  I wish so badly that there was a way for our entire High School student body to have seen how hard their teachers were working to LEARN on Friday and Saturday.   Being learners, we understand the value of opening our minds to new ideas, but how do we model this behavior for our students?  

Too many students see learning as a school activity, something they’ll be “done” with once they graduate.  It’s one thing to tell our students that being a “lifelong learner” is important but wouldn’t that message be more effective if we could show them that we actually believe it?

One of the easiest ways to demonstrate our “learner” strength to our students is by sharing our learning experiences with them.  Whether it’s learning Bahasa Indonesia, studying for an IELTS assessment, taking golf lessons, or learning a new instrument, we’re all learning new things all the time.  If one of those doesn’t remind you of something you’re learning, then think no further than what you learned over the last few days in our MYP/DP workshops at school.  By discussing what we’re learning with our students we model for them the idea of being a lifelong learner as well as demonstrating our value for education in general.  

Recently I’ve become very skilled at saying, “Saya perlu belajar Bahasa Indonesia.”  I may not be making much progress but I’m working on it.  Students may occasionally laugh at me but they see me trying to learn Bahasa.  I constantly let them know how jealous I am of their bi/tri-lingual abilities (many of them have no idea how lucky they are to be learning in such a dynamic place as Sekolah Ciputra).   It’s one thing for me to tell them that learning languages is cool but it’s another thing altogether to show them that I really believe what I’m saying by showing them I’m working to learn Bahasa myself.  Talking the talk is one thing, but walking the walk shows you mean it.

So, as we come off a wonderful weekend of learning, think about how you can share this experience with your students.  Ask them about their 3-day weekend and let them know what you were doing while they were sleeping in and eating ice cream.  Let them know how important it is for you, as a teacher, to keep learning by sharing with them.  As the year goes on, look for more chances to share your learning with the kids.  You’re learning, you know it and I know it…let your students know it too!  

 

They Don’t Care How Much You Know

Amy has a saying she learned from her mother long ago that I just love, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Putting in the effort to learn your students names is a good starting point but after a couple weeks the assumption would be that you’ve achieved (or you’re at least close to achieving) that goal.  Take a minute then, to think back to your days as a student, who was your favorite teacher?  Who was the best teacher in the school?  Now ask yourself ‘why?’

I’m willing to bet that your favorite teacher and/or the teacher you remember as the “best teacher” earned that place in your mind, not because they knew the content better than anyone else, but because they were a teacher who you knew cared about you as a person.  Very often the teachers who are the most effective at helping their students learn are those who show their students that they are valued and important as people, both in and out of the classroom.  

Show your students you care and they’ll work harder for you.  This seems obvious, right?  Yet, how much time and effort do you spend establishing that relationship with your students versus teaching them content material?  Now, granted, you don’t have loads of time laying around to just chat with your students but without finding a way to show them how much you care, they’ll never care how much you know.  

A few ways that I’ve found to be helpful for showing students you care:

  1. Relate to them:  Wow, this gets harder and harder each year.  I met a student this week named “Tiffany” and I started singing, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Deep Blue Something.  Now, I know that not everyone knows that song and maybe not everyone knows the movie either.  However, it was a reminder that this is the Bieber Generation…and they’re not far from being too young for him as well.  Each year we come back to work as teachers we’re a year older but the kids are still the same age.  It takes more and more effort to relate to our students each year.  Talk to them, listen to them, and learn from them.
  2. Learn about their life outside of school:  A big word of caution here, don’t take this to mean you should be prying into personal matters.  Mostly what I’m talking about here is stuff like: what they did on the weekend, where they traveled over the summer, and what they’re listening to on their headphones.  As you build a relationship with students they may share more personal information with you, if you’re ever unsure whether something is too personal, talk to your counselors or principals.  
  3. Be real:  On Friday a high school girl asked me, “why would anyone get married?”  She, obviously, knew that I was recently married and was truly curious about the tenant of marriage and what the attractions were for so many people.  It might be a little deeper question than the average teenager would ask but I felt like if she had the courage to ask me that question, then she certainly deserved an honest answer.  Students can tell when you’re selling them a bunch of fluff, so as long as the truth doesn’t cross any ethical barriers you should be open with them.  Again, a qualifier – just because you’re being honest doesn’t mean you have to reveal everything about yourself.  Authentic is one thing, unfiltered is another.  
  4. Create opportunities:  As I continue to learn 650 names and try to show students that I care beyond just their names, I’ve got to find time.  Before/after school, break, and lunch are all prime times to talk to kids outside of the classroom.  I try not to stay too long, moving from group to group, learning bits and pieces as I go.  If you’re on duty (or even if you’re not) this is a great chance to talk to some students outside of the usual classroom context.  Also, take advantage of the few minutes of transition time to briefly check-in with one or two of the students who arrive early to your class, you’ll be amazed at what you can learn in just 30 seconds.  
  5. Get involved:  As an educator many of the strongest bonds I’ve created with students have come as the result of coaching sports.  Whether coaching, leading an After-School Activity, or simply going to watch a game or activity, there is possibly no better way to show your students that you care than getting involved.  

There are lots of ways to show our students that we care.  Over the years, as educators we’ve all learned tips and tricks to connect with our students and engage them as learners.  Whatever works best for you is what you should use.  The strategies I’ve discussed above are things that work for me and, if you haven’t tried them, might be useful tools for you as well.  Please take the time over the next few weeks to really start building those relationships with your students, the time and effort now will pay off all year long.

It’s already the beginning of week three and I couldn’t be more excited for a Monday!!  We’ve got a wonderful group of colleagues and truly awesome students, a perfect combination for a great school.  Enjoy the week and Happy Monday 🙂

What’s Your Name Again?

I’ve done it before.  72 kids, 120 kids, 300 kids…but there I was standing in front of 650 kids, telling them that I vow to learn each and every one of their names…eeek!  What would possess somebody to endeavor to do such a ridiculous thing, let alone say it out loud?!?  

Throughout the week as people watched me struggle to remember names learned just 30 seconds earlier, smack myself in the head, and once in awhile actually remember a name, I’ve been asked about my strategy for remembering so many names.  Well, I don’t have just one.  The reality is that I’ve got about five or six that I’m using at any given time.  Let me see if I can articulate those for you:

  1. Use It or Lose It:  It’s true of anything in life, if we don’t use a skill it fades and is eventually lost.  The same is true with learning names.  The kids I met on Monday who I didn’t see the rest of the week; almost no chance I’ve remembered their name this long.  There are, however, a bunch of kids who’ve helped train me by continuously asking “Do you remember my name?”  To be honest, I probably didn’t know it the first or second time but those kids who continue to ask are now well ingrained in my heads.  They are in the small group that I’ll still know after a weekend away.  Use it or lose it.

  2. Repetition:  This is very similar to the first one but is more about the actual moment of learning, it is basically burning the memory of their name into my head.  I’m not sure it works that well, kind of like Rote Memorization, but I generally say a kid’s name over and over in my head (and sometimes out loud) as I’m trying to make a connection somewhere in my brain.

  3. Connect the Dots:  Speaking of making connections – aside from #1, this is probably the most important for long term memory making.  Our brains are like Velcro, memories and new information seek out a connection to stick to.  If there is nothing for those names to latch onto they just bounce around for a few seconds and fall right out.  I start with physical features, if there is something distinctive I can connect to that is always best…hair cuts, new glasses, and everyone wearing the same uniform are total enemies of this strategy!  Connecting their name to popular culture, a person I’ve known in the past, or just something silly all help maintain the connection longer.  Basically, for the long term recall, making a connection to a more permanent memory helps cement the new memory much faster and longer.

  4. Visualization:  I find that this one is very helpful for short-term memory.  Often times when I’m trying to recall a name I’ll ask the kids where I learned their name.  This helps me draw back to the initial creation of the memory and rummage around until something springs up.  If they were sitting with friends at lunch, in Math class, or I met them on Orientation Day, these are all opportunities for me to flash back to recall their name.  An aside here, there are certainly places that are not conducive to learning names – I’ve realized that in the morning or afternoon as kids are coming and going in a steady stream I can’t recall much of anything.  So, if I’ve stopped into your room to meet a few kids, thank you – I’ll appreciate being able to visualize your room later while trying to think of a name 🙂

  5. Context:  This is generally a good tool for helping me remember names in the long term and something I’d recommend for teachers learning names in their classes.  If I have the time I will engage a kid in a longer conversation, asking about their summer, their favorite class, or if they have brothers or sisters.  If I can place them in a certain context later on then I’ll have an easier time recalling their name.  Anything unique that I can learn about a student will greatly increase the odds of remembering their name.  This strategy is tough for me because often I don’t have a couple minutes with every kid, this is why break and lunch are great for learning names!!

  6. Spelling Champion:  Never mind that I lost the spelling bee on the word “phlegm” in 6th grade (who would think there is a ‘g’ in there?!?)  I’m often very good at processing auditory information but I find that when learning new names I benefit from having kids spell their name (especially the names that are “new” to me) while I phantom write them on my hand with my finger.  The process of hearing, doing, and saying is a good combination.  Also, there are a lot of kids who have “common” names that are spelled differently than I’m used to; this unique quality helps me remember as well.  

At the end of the day, no matter what strategies I use it comes down to effort, determination, and perseverance.  It’s not easy, it will take a long time, and I’ve already made so many mistakes it’s embarrassing.  However, it’s important to me so I will continue to push on and, someday I hope, I will get there.

As the beginning of the year washes over us and we move into the next phases of the school year, it’s important to keep in mind that we’ll have ups and downs, highs and lows. Whether it’s remembering names, planning lessons, or trying out new strategies in class, take a risk and don’t be afraid of a challenge.