More Tools: Edutopia Stikes Again

Last week when I shared some tools for teaching students who are hard to reach I said that I wanted to focus on things that could be of practical use to you in the current setting.  This week I want to share a great piece that I came across titled 7 High-Impact, Evidence-Based Tips for Online Teaching.  I’d encourage you to have a look at this list and pick one to focus on for the week.  If you feel like more than one could be helpful to you, feel free to dig in and keep going but I’m strongly recommending starting with one!  Have a look at the full article here.  Each of the tips comes with an explanation and some practical tools to help you accomplish the specific advice.  To get you started these are the seven tips included:

  1. Your virtual classroom is a real learning space – keep it organized
  2. Chunk your lessons into smaller, digestible pieces
  3. The best online teachers solicit lots of feedback
  4. Annotate and interject to scaffold learning
  5. Frequent, low stakes quizzes are easy to do, and highly effective
  6. Fight the isolation of remote learning by connecting with your students
  7. Take care of yourself

I know that you are doing some of these things already.  For many of you this list may just be a good reminder to refocus your attention to some of the things that you already know to be important.  I also know that some of us are at the point of saying, “I’m doing all that I can, I don’t need more things to worry about!”  If that’s the case, then by all means don’t worry about any of this.  Thanks for reading anyway 🙂

Thank you to everyone for all that you do for our students!!!

P.S. – One bonus tool for anyone looking to make a virtual word wall for your students.  This video is super helpful at demonstrating how to create your own virtual word wall and this link (@MrsParkShine is a great follow on Twitter!) will take you to a template (File, Make a Copy) that will save you lots of time on the front end!!

Reaching the Hard to Teach During Remote Learning

Last week I met with a team focused on supporting students of concern, especially those who have been hard to teach during remote learning.  This past weekend, I was introduced to a recently published book by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie called The Distance Learning Playbook (yeah, they didn’t waste any time getting that published!)  While I was looking through the book there was a particular section that caught my attention, probably because it’s been on my mind ever since that meeting last week – Reaching the Hard to Teach.

The authors suggest a couple pretty low-effort strategies that could really jump start the process of engaging some of those students who’ve been hardest to reach (for whatever reason) during remote learning.  Mind you, in this instance we’re talking about those students who are showing up but aren’t engaging much beyond that.  (For those who aren’t showing up, please be in touch with your grade-level counselor and social worker for support.)  Essentially, the authors suggest making a deliberate effort to shift the dynamic with those hard to reach students.  

I’m attaching two charts, from the book, that will help you think intentionally about those students who have been hard to reach.  The first is a chart to track specific behaviors, it could help engage those students and (hopefully) shift that dynamic.  The authors noted, “Many of these behaviors seem to come naturally, at least when it comes to those students with whom we have a positive relationship.  But it takes deliberate action to disrupt established communication patterns that are avoidant in nature” (Douglas et. al., 2021, p. 57).  It would be very worth the time and effort to print this chart and use it for at least four or five days, tracking interactions with those students who you’ve found it hard to reach during remote learning.  

After you’ve collected this data, for at least a week or so, take some time to reflect on both the data and any possible changes that you’ve noticed in the interactions with those students you’ve targeted.  You can use the second attachment to help you reflect on this data; these three questions will help guide your thinking.  Please note, this is not a cure-all and may challenge your thinking.  If you’re unsure, remember, no one has to know you’ve gone through this process.  You can do this completely on your own and don’t have to share it with anyone, so what do you have to lose?  (I’d love to hear from you if you do try it, especially if you feel like it was beneficial!!)

I’m particularly fond of this strategy because I’ve done something similar in the past.  As a new assistant principal I found myself at odds with a small handful of kids.  Some would call them troublemakers (I likely did at the time) but others (hopefully me today) would see them as kids who required a little more effort from me.  Luckily, I had an amazing mentor who challenged me to focus on my relationship with these students.  He encouraged me to look for opportunities to engage with them when they weren’t in trouble; positive interactions or even just neutral interactions went a long way.  By doing this I was able to restore some of the broken relationships that I’d had with these students.  This has been a strategy I’ve employed throughout my career as an administrator, working hard to build a relationship with those students who I will likely encounter most often for negative reasons.  I believe, actually, that it has decreased the amount of times I’ve seen them for negative reasons because it shifted our potential dynamic before it even happened!

I’m pretty confident that every teacher in the world who is participating in this remote learning experiment could benefit from partaking in this exercise.  I don’t think it will take you much time but it will require a small amount of focus and dedication.  In the end, I think it will pay off on some level with those students who you choose to focus on…it’s certainly worth a try!!

Note:  If you’re keen to buy the book you can get it a bit cheaper off their website (linked above) but I got it on Amazon and it came within 24 hours!

Thank You!

I wanted to take this chance to step back and celebrate the amazing start to the year that we’ve had so far.  We’re five weeks into something that no one would’ve ever imagined at this time last year and, despite all of the challenges, you’re making learning possible for all of our students on a daily basis!  

Every day has been inspirational as I’ve had the opportunity to watch, listen, and work alongside one of the most dedicated buildings full of teachers I’ve ever seen!!  The passion, energy, and dedication you’ve brought to the challenge before you has been out of this world.  You’ve taken a square peg and you’ve fit it into a round hole, over and over again.  Our students couldn’t be luckier than to have such amazing teachers as yourselves!!

As we continue along this journey, I am confident that our students will continue to benefit from all of your dedication and passion.  The Remote World may not be an optimal learning environment but when I visit rooms (virtual or in-person) and see whole classes engaged in conversations and excited to learn, it shows how impactful all you’ve done really has been!  Thank you for everything you do to make learning as exciting and engaging has possible during this crazy time!!!

Resources for Improving Your Remote Presence

Eight years ago when I first started sharing philosophical tidbits with my staff at Shanghai Community International School as the Middle School Assistant Principal, it was mostly me sharing interesting articles I had read, videos I’d seen, and occasionally some of my own thoughts.  Over time I’ve grown more comfortable sharing my own thoughts and found a bit more of my own voice in writing.  However, from time to time, I like to “go old school” and share some quality articles/blog posts that I consider good/relevant resources.

So without further ado, here are three that I’ve seen on Edutopia recently.  I don’t agree with everything on Edutopia but there are lots of great contributors who have wonderful ideas to share.  These three all seem very relevant to some of the conversations I’ve been having around the building and in meetings lately.  Enjoy 🙂

6 Strategies for Successful Distance Learning

Teachers can create an environment in which both they and their students feel empowered for remote teaching and learning.

How to Choose Words That Motivate Students During Online Learning

Framing assignments in student-centric rather than teacher-centric ways can encourage engagement and persistence in learning.

5 Research-Backed Tips to Improve Your Online Teaching Presence

As the physical distance increases between you and your students, so can the psychological and emotional space. Here are some tips that can help.

Please note that, occasionally in some of my posts I will link to external sites.  It is important to understand that, while I’m providing these links for convenience and for informational purposes, they do not constitute my endorsement or my approval of any of the products, services, or opinions of the organization, site, or authors.  Additionally, I bear no responsibility for the accuracy, legality, or content of the external site or for that of subsequent links.

Time is Valuable, So is Feedback

We’re three weeks into the 2020-2021 school year and with all we’ve had to do to ensure a successful start to what could be dubbed The Great Remote Learning Experiment, it feels like we’ve been going for three months straight!  I can’t even begin to explain the level of absolute awe that I have for the high degree of work that I’ve seen in the Gifford community, it’s astonishing!!  The amount of time, energy, and effort that has gone into the beginning of this school year is unparalleled by any school year before.  As a teaching community you’ve continuously gone above and beyond to meet the needs of our students.  I’m beyond thankful and I know that the vast majority of our students and their families feel the same way!!

At the beginning of this school year I said three things that I continue to believe as true but are, perhaps, more important than ever in this moment.  First off, I said that this school year was going to feel like your first year as a teacher in a lot of ways.  I think for many of us that has held true.  If you need a reminder of the advice you gave yourselves back before the year started, have a look here.  Secondly, I believe in the power of teamwork.  Many of you have found your teams to be the most important resource available.  That can and should continue to be the case, working together you can lighten the load for everyone and enhance the work that you do for your students.  Finally, I believe in the value of time, which is really what I want to address today.

From the outset I said I’m going to work hard to protect and honor your time. I’ve worked to free up as much time as possible for you to meet with your teams and plan your lessons.  I’ve worked to streamline my communication to reduce redundancy and wasted time.  However, there have been areas where I could’ve been better and thanks to feedback I’ve received along the way I believe I’ve made steps to improve in some of those areas.  All of that being said I know I still have work to do, to not only protect your time, but in other ways too.

In order to continue growing as a leader I am always seeking feedback.  Either informally, or in this case formally, I strive to understand how I can better serve you and our students.  So, in order to better understand your needs I would like to ask you to answer this anonymous and short survey (see below) to provide me with feedback.  *One quick note about this being anonymous: there will be an optional space to write notes and if you leave me a very specific comment that requires follow up, then I strongly recommend you add your name so I know who to help!

Everything I’ve seen this school year has me very excited to continue learning and growing alongside each and everyone of you.  I appreciate your feedback thus far and look forward to hearing more!!

What do we want all students to know and be able to do?

Last week I mentioned that I would be in class this weekend for my PhD program. In one of those classes I had an experience that really hit home when I started thinking about how we deliver lessons to our students.  Throughout the weekend I had two different classes, one of those is being taught by an experienced professor who was added as the result of a teacher change very recently.  She was open and honest with us about that fact and acknowledged that the slides, information, and assignments she was using came from the previous teachers of this course.  While she is experienced, transparent, and very well-intentioned, it was disappointingly obvious that she wasn’t well-prepared to engage us as learners this past weekend.  

As I reflected on this disappointment, I began to think about our students and how they are experiencing learning.  I’m thankful to know that so many of you are going above and beyond to adapt, modify, or altogether replace some of the “stock” lessons that are provided to you by whichever curriculum tools you are drawing on.  The worst thing we can do for our students is to regularly assume that they fit into whatever box the developer of that curriculum tool had in mind when they created it!  

You know your students, or at least you’re getting to know them, and as professionals you have the opportunity to ensure that their needs are being met on a regular basis.  I’m not suggesting that you (or my professor) should go back and completely rewrite curriculum.  However, it is crucial that as educators we remain mindful of the fact that our students are not all the same.  Your class isn’t the same as a class in another state, city, or even RUSD school.  In all reality, your class isn’t even the same as the one nextdoor to you.  So, whether you’re planning, teaching, or reflecting on a lesson, it is important to remember that you have the professional privilege (responsibility even) to adapt, adjust, and modify as needed. 

I believe that as educators we must be deeply familiar with the four critical questions made popular by Rick DuFour:

  1. What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know if they learn it?
  3. How will we respond when some students do not learn?
  4. How will we extend the learning for students who are already proficient?

When you can honestly answer these four questions in a clear and detailed fashion, then you will know you’ve gotten to the point of truly knowing and understanding the best way to reach your students.  Unfortunately, it was painfully obvious throughout the course of my weekend of classes that our professor wasn’t even able to answer question number one.  No matter how experienced, well-intentioned, and transparent she was with us, she was still essentially a substitute teacher reading slides.  

We have to start with question number one.  If we can’t clearly articulate what we want all students to know and be able to do then we are just wasting time.  As you meet with your teams to plan and prepare your lessons, start with question number one.  Every lesson should have an objective, it should be tied to a standard (Superhero!), and you should have a plan for how you’re going to ensure that the objective is reached in each and every lesson.

Now, with all of that being said, everyone is going to have a bad day or a bad lesson (that’s totally fine!!)  Unfortunately for me, my professor had a bad lesson that lasted all weekend and one weekend is about 25% of our instructional time for the semester…yikes!  Give yourself permission to take risks, try new things, have lessons that don’t work out, and make mistakes.  Work with your teams, seek support from coaches, APs, me, and others.  Work smarter, not harder!  Above all, start with question one! 

Assuming Positive Intent

You did it!  You made it through the first week of remote learning and survived!  I couldn’t be more impressed with the sheer persistence, determination, and patience of our staff as a whole.  Through technical issues, confused students (and parents), and tremendous amounts of trepidation about this new format for learning, we made it through!  Overall we’ve received praise and celebrations from our community.  I spoke to one person who has been working with three students at home who said, “We’re just so thankful, I can’t even imagine how much work this is for the teachers!”  So for all the squeaky wheels that you heard from last week, please know that there are a lot more people who are thankful and supportive of all that you’re doing to help our students be successful!!

Remember a couple weeks ago when I asked you to share your advice for your first-year teacher-self?  A lot of you said things like, “One day at a time”, “Don’t give up, you’ve got this”, and “It’s okay not to know”.  All of those bits of advice are perhaps even more crucial as we continue into the second week of the school year, have a look back if you need some inspiration.  As the initial adrenaline rush starts to wane and we begin to settle into a new routine, I wanted to share my advice that I would give myself as a first year teacher…I realized that I asked you to share but I didn’t share mine 🙂

The advice I would offer myself is something I learned well into my career and it’s something that I fall back on constantly, both in my professional life and outside of school.  “Assume positive intent”, was the advice given to me by my mentor when I first became an administrator.  When he first told me this I was skeptical, which is why he taught me this lesson in the first place!  See, I was so “good” at looking at everything “critically” that I became skeptical about everyone and everything.

I started off this school year by asking you to think positively.  One of the best strategies I know for helping to do that is to assume positive intent.  I find that when I approach a difficult situation or conversation by remembering that the other side is just as well intentioned as I am, I have more patience and am better able to empathize with their perspective. On the other hand, if I forget to assume positive intent, then I have a hard time listening critically and I often get too upset to have a calm conversation.  By assuming positive intent, I know that I am going into a conversation with an open mind and an open heart.  Being willing to give the other side the benefit of the doubt allows me to better understand their perspective and, eventually, reach a common understanding about how we can move forward together. 

I had to remember to assume positive intent a lot last week.  Every time I got an email or phone call from an angry parent it would’ve been very easy to get defensive, be angry that they’re not appreciating all the hard work we’re putting in, or just write them off as a constant complainer.  However, doing that wouldn’t have been fair to that parent.  Every complaint is rooted in that parent’s desire to see what they believe to be the best for their child.  They are advocating for their child, wanting the best for them.  It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, these parents want what is best for their children!! (Note: Just because they have positive intentions for their child doesn’t mean they are right about the methods or arguments they’re making…but remembering that they are advocating for their child usually helps me stay calm!)

By assuming positive intent in any conversation, you are giving the other side the respect that you want them to be giving you.  There are, of course, people who don’t always have positive intentions but those occasions are so rare that we have to realize they are the exception rather than the rule.  By starting with a default of “positive intent” we will get a lot further in our conversations as well as our mental health!  

Whether it is a conversation with a parent, a colleague, or a stranger, assume positive intent and you’ll be off to a good start.  

Advice to a First Year Teacher

Last week we got started off on a positive note, diving into professional learning and preparing for the upcoming school year with our teams and colleagues.  When we came together (at a safe distance) to start off our time together as a building team, I asked you to think about your first year as a teacher.  For many of us that was some time ago, for others it is this year!  I wanted you to draw back to that feeling of being a first year teacher and remember all that came with it.  I also wanted you to see how far you’ve come and take a minute to think about, not only the reason you became an educator in the first place but, why you have remained in education through all the ups and downs.  

I shared Taylor Mali performing one of his poems, What Teachers Make, as it is one of the memories I have from my first year as a teacher.  That message helped remind me, throughout my early years as an educator, about why I became a teacher.  It was my coaching background that led me to a career as an educator but it was the impact I was able to make on kids’ lives that kept me going each and every day, no matter who the kids were or where I worked.

In many ways this year, the 2020-2021 school year, is going to feel like the first year teaching for most, if not all, of us.  What we are about to attempt has never been attempted on such a wide scale before.  Yet, despite the challenges that we’ve already experienced and those still to come, everyone brought a positive attitude and approach to the beginning of the year.  I asked you to think about the advice you would give yourself as a first year teacher because I wanted you to remember that advice and keep it fresh in your mind as we start this school year.  Below, I’ve documented all of the wisdom shared by our staff from last week, please have a look and be inspired.  There is A LOT of great advice here…

You won’t do this alone, use your team and help your team!

One day at a time.

Never give up being the teacher who makes a difference in the life of a child.  Be the inspiration for them to become the best people they can be.  Always remember to be kind – especially to yourself!

Never give up and do your best at everything you do.They’re just as nervous on the first day as you.  

Don’t be afraid to have fun!

Continue to apply all you know and continue to help others.  Your teammates become more than teammates, they become your friends, your family at school.

Take it day by day.  Don’t stress if your plans don’t get done.

Every day is a new day…heck, every lesson is a new day!

It’s okay not to know.

Be patient, slow down.  Show the kids you can laugh at yourself.

Above anything else, connect with kids…all the rest will come.

Build relationships, do crazy stuff, the more hands on the better.  Take it one day at a time.  You got this!

Self care helps to balance out the work life.

Learn how to be flexible and as long as you’re doing this for the kids everything will work itself out.

Become besties with the secretaries, engineers, and food service.

You can do great things with literally nothing.  Your creative self will thrive and you will make a difference.

It starts out tough and there are times you will cry.  You will learn and students will know you made a difference for them.  They will even request to have you for their children.

Remain calm, everything happens for a reason and things always work out for the best (even if it seems like it’s the end of the world).

You don’t have all the answers and that’s okay, you’ll figure it out anyway!

You will make it happen.  Don’t stress too much about the details.

Your hardest days will be some of your best days for your students!  Never give up on them, they see you and appreciate you no matter how they treat you.

Never give up!

Be flexible, lean on those around you, be proud for making it.  Never forget why you wanted to teach!

Plan more than you think you will need.

It will be hard and you may cry tears of frustration but more happy tears, hang in there.

It’s overwhelming, but you can do it.  Take little steps at a time.

Never, ever, give up and push through those hard times.  Also, always make sure your colleagues are okay, because they need you as much as you need them!

Be patient and build relationships.

Help your students become independent learners, they won’t always have you to motivate them and support them.

Relax! Making connections is the most important thing, everything else will eventually fall into place!

Ask questions.  You won’t be successful unless you do.

I am better at teaching than I think I am and I really am making a difference, even though I might not seem that way at the time.  Relax, breathe, trust, and keep going.

Be kinder to yourself.

Ask questions, work with your team, and do your best – it’s good enough.

Wear comfortable shoes.  The weirder, the better.

Don’t take on too much right away.  Get comfortable with the school and the kids first.

It is okay for things not to look the way you think they should look.  Build a community with your teaching peers.

Take one day at a time!  Sometimes you will feel that you aren’t getting through, but you are!

Your students appreciate you even when they don’t show it.

Close your door and do what’s best for your kids, only listen to the positive people.

Don’t sweat the small things, be consistent, and find enjoyment in what you do every single day.

It’s okay to not get through all the lessons, it’s not about how many lessons you taught, it’s about how the kids feel when in your class.

The excitement and the no-boundaries attitude will ebb and flow.  Embrace the suck at each phase and continue to work to grow the voices of your students.

For every hard moment, there will be a hundred great ones.  The students that are the most challenging are the ones that need you the most.  Above all else, trust in yourself to do what is right by your kids.

Join a math education organization…the people there will help soooooo much.

You were right.  Being a teacher is what you are and always will be.  You will help children belong and feel loved.

YOU can DO this!!  It’s O.K.!! Keep going!  And…donuts help the cause!

Stay positive and keep looking forward!  You are making a difference!

You got this!  Remember they are just as nervous as you!  Be silly and fun because that’s what they will remember.

Try new things!

Have fun with it…don’t try to be perfect…relax…give kids time to speak each day about what they did or what’s new in their lives!

When you get overwhelmed remember you don’t have to do everything all at one time.  Focus on one or two things at a time. Stay positive!

Breathe.  Build strong relationships with family and you will see greater success than you could ever imagine.

Don’t be so hard on yourself! Breathe! Everything will be okay.  You are not a bad teacher!

It will get better, each year will be different, and it will have ups and downs just like life.

Take a deep breath.  Fake it til you make it.

Breathe…

Be patient.

Find your Marigold.

You will care more and love more than you thought you would or could but that’s okay…you have to.  They are worth it!

You are going to learn a LOT!

Be real. Honor your mistakes and grow from them. Don’t be afraid to lean on those around you.

Education will take a while to return to “normal” but be patient and understand that all good things take time.

Hang in there, ask for help, it gets better!

Don’t be shy about seeking help!

Reach out to parents to support right away.

Trust yourself, ask for help, and know the kids appreciate you, even when they don’t show it.

You can do this! I know it will be tough but at the end of the day it will so be worth it!

Don’t give up; even on the most difficult days.  Always ask for help.

Tomorrow is a fresh day and the kids do not know if your lesson failed.

Breathe. Ask for help. Do the work in the beginning and it will pay off later on.  Be patient.  It will get tough at times.  Never give up!!  You are making a difference.

Hang in there, things will be rough but know you are tough and will get through it.

Remain calm, build relationships first, don’t ever give up on ‘that’ student.

It won’t always be that hard.

It’ll all work out.

You will get better at this.

Be patient with yourself and with the children. We all have different home lives and learn differently.  Embrace those differences and make the best of every day.

Focus on the needs of your students and families first.  When they see you are here to support them, they will in turn support you and your job will be that much easier.

Don’t ever give up.  The kids that are the hardest on you, need the most love.

Take time to stop and enjoy the moments that matter.  Allow yourself to take praise and acknowledge that you work hard and you do your best!

Stay calm and focus on making relationships with the students.

Starting Off on a Positive Note

Ever since January I’ve been keeping a close eye on this whole pandemic craziness.  As you likely know by now, I lived and worked overseas for 10 years.  During that time I spent three years in Italy and four years in China, coincidentally two of the hardest hit countries early on in the Covid-19 outbreak.  Additionally, during my time overseas I built a pretty wide-spanning network of colleagues and friends who also worked in international schools.  I share all of that to help give context to the idea of why I’ve been watching this so closely for so long.

A couple months ago, before Gifford and before our baby was born (back when I had time to do things like this), I got in touch with one of my most trusted international friends to talk about how her school handled re-entry.  My friend works in Munich, Germany at a very good international school.  At the end of last spring, the pandemic had subsided enough in Germany that their school decided to bring students back to the building for the last few weeks of the school year.  That is what we talked a lot about when we connected via FaceTime this summer, what it was like coming back.

My friend had three pieces of advice that she said were the keys to successfully coming back to school.  I’m going to share the first two with you briefly but then go a little deeper into the third because I see it as the most important for our current context.  

First off, and forgive me if you’ve heard this before, people need to wear their masks correctly at all times while maintaining physical distance from others. Second, you’ve heard this one too, wash your hands.  For a successful re-entry, we need to have a safe re-entry!  These two pieces of advice can’t be stressed enough but the third piece of advice was the one that has had me thinking ever since.

While the first two pieces of advice are easy to accomplish with little effort, this third piece takes a concerted effort and won’t come naturally for some.  Normally, at the beginning of the school year this isn’t something I would feel the need to share as everyone is typically very excited for a fresh start, new students, and an organized classroom.  However, with all of the craziness, it’s easy to get caught up sometimes.

Her third piece of advice: Always, always, maintain a positive attitude…especially for our students!  It would be a lot easier to just join the crowd, voice your displeasures, and sound off about how terrible everything is right now, right?  Well, yes it would be easier, a lot easier.  In fact, it’s a lot of people’s natural tendency to start with the negative. However, it’s significantly harder to move from a negative mindset to a positive one…so why not start at the positive in the first place?!

I’m, generally speaking, a pretty positive person.  However, during this pandemic, I’ve found that it is really easy to slip from a positive perspective to complaining and being negative very quickly.  I recently went back and watched one of my favorite TedTalks.  It’s not the most popular TEdTalk in history (it does have over 5m views though) but I think it is really valuable and I come back to it occasionally because I love the message and strategies she shares (especially in the last few minutes).  I find this video valuable for helping me center myself and start in a positive mindset each day, I’m sharing it with you today because I hope you’ll find it valuable too.  The more positive we remain as a community the further we will go together! (I like how her husband holds her accountable, perhaps this is something you can do with your teammates as needed.)

Alison Ledgerwood shared her research and one “simple trick to improve positive thinking” in her TedTalk at UC Davis. If you can find 10 minutes today, definitely watch this.  If you don’t have 10 minutes, try watching it at 1.5x speed and it will only take you 7 minutes or so 🙂 It’s WELL worth your time, I promise.  We can all use a reminder of the importance of positivity and it doesn’t come easily, as Alison reminds us “you have to work to see the upside!”

Oh, and keep smiling, even under your mask…people can still tell!!! 

Education MUST Lead the Way

I wish we were in person to have this conversation because that’s what it really needs to be, a conversation. Written-word is difficult in these circumstances because the words that I write may be interpreted differently when they are read versus if I said them out loud. Additionally, in person you’d be able to question, challenge, and engage with me in real time…in writing that can’t happen. Also, this could get a little long…

Regardless, I’m going to muster the courage to share my thoughts in writing with you because I believe it is important that we engage in conversation one way or another.  I hope my writing today will inspire you to think more, learn more, have more conversations, and possibly push your thinking forward. This is my current thinking…

As an educator I’ve believed in the need for a revolution in education for a long time now. Generally speaking, the way we teach and approach education is antiquated. Any “new” initiatives are largely old educational philosophies repackaged with updated technology and, essentially, perpetuate a cyclical educational system that has largely failed us over and over again. 

A personal example of that cycle: I joined Teach For America (TFA) 15 years ago. TFA was founded in 1990, 30 years ago, with the intention of helping to close the achievement gap in America. To be fair to my next statement, TFA was never going to be THE answer to the achievement gap, I know that. According to TFA’s website, “with nearly 62,000 alumni and corps members in over 50 regions around the country, our network now includes more than 15,000 alumni teachers; 4,700 school principals, assistant principals, and deans; more than 500 school system leaders; over 1000 policy and advocacy leaders; nearly 300 elected leaders; and more than 250 social entrepreneurs.” Despite this immense impact and hundreds of millions of dollars spent by TFA alone (not to mention all the other initiatives) over the last 30 years, the achievement gap has not significantly improved at all.

That example may seem disheartening, and it should be in many ways. Personally, I make myself feel a little better by looking back at the data from my two years as a TFA corps member and recognizing that I did help my students “catch up” a bit during the time that they were in my classroom. However, no matter how much I pat myself on the back and make myself feel better, nothing has changed systemically…and that is a big problem. So I go back now to the idea of a revolution in education…what have we (as educators) done over the last 30+ years to really improve what we’re doing? What have we done to address the problems in education on a large scale?

I know educators care and we certainly work hard, I don’t know if there is a harder working profession out there! It’s almost impossible to care more than we care about our students and their success. Yet here we are, 30 years later with no progress…what do we do?

I know what many of you are thinking…it’s not our fault, we’re doing all that we can!!  Well, maybe you’re right, kind of.  I’ve been down that road, I’ve thought that way and passed the blame to society. Guess what, society passes it right back and here we sit; no change, no progress, no matter how much we want to think otherwise.  Everyone is to blame, society, governmental systems, educational systems, and, well, pretty much everyone except the students!

So what a perfect time in our nation’s history to step back and rethink it all. The whole system. Covid-19 is changing the way education thinks about itself, forced reflection and possibly (hopefully!) some revolutionary change in the ways that we approach the inequity in our educational system. Beyond education though we’re having another conversation about the way things need to change in our society, let’s combine them all!

Many of the failings of the educational system can be traced back to the systemic racism in America. We need to face this racism head on and start addressing it at the core. I believe that the educational system is one of the pieces of that core (poverty and historical racism are two other major parts). As a society we need to find ways to address all three of these pieces through having conversations, listening to each other, learning from one another, demanding change from our elected officials, voting for change, and participating wherever we can have an impact. I don’t have all the answers and there are certainly a lot more ways to address societal change but I’m mostly focused on the educational changes right now.

As educators, our voice is loudest in the educational system. Don’t get me wrong, we still have a major role to play in the other areas, but it is in education where we can have the biggest impact. I could go on for pages and pages but I’m going to try to wrap this up with some challenges for you as educators:

  1. Learn about racism: Learn about the history of race in this country. Learn about how your race impacts your life. Learn about how other races are impacted by their race. Learn about how your race impacts other races. Learn about the role of race in the classroom. Learn about the drivers of the systemic racism that corrupts our current society. Here is a wonderful place to start if you’re not sure where to begin (Don’t get overwhelmed, pick something manageable and start there, digest that, then come back for more. Also, despite the title…anyone can learn from the information on this page!!)
  2. Use what you’ve learned: Your voice grows as you become educated and informed. You may not always have the right answer but it’s not always about the answers…ask questions, lots of them!  Question your elected officials, question your public school system, and most of all question yourself. Ask your government what they are doing to combat systemic racism in your city/state/country, ask your school board what they are doing to make your school district equally accessible for ALL students, ask yourself all of these questions and more!
  3. Have conversations: This should probably be first on the list but I think people feel more comfortable having conversations after a while (those other things can start immediately). Start by talking about racism with your family and friends. Talk with people you trust and who know you. Be open, let down your guard, and be honest. Share your thoughts, listen to theirs, and keep an open mind – be ready to change your beliefs and opinions. Changing your opinions doesn’t mean you’re weak or stupid, or that you were wrong before and that you’re right now…it only means that you’ve changed your mind, it’s okay to do that!
  4. Expand your conversational circle: The vast majority of us, no matter who we are, have friends and family who have very similar lives and experiences to ours. So, while having those conversations close to home is a good starting point, eventually (and it’s okay if this takes a while) the best way to learn more is to expand your circle and have conversations out of your comfort zone. Key note here: These MUST be conversations – honest, authentic, open-minded conversations – if you don’t feel like you’re ready for that, then please don’t take this step yet! 

Lastly, thank you. Thank you to everyone who has read my messages and commented, shared resources with me, or had a conversation in the hallway or on Twitter. All of the positive feedback and encouragement continues to provide me with the motivation and courage to put my thoughts and beliefs “out there”. 

If you’ve appreciated, even slightly, my thoughts throughout the year(s), then please take this final message of the school year to heart and really dedicate yourself to helping make the changes necessary to improve this country (world). We, despite all of the craziness, are lucky to live in the country that we do and enjoy the many freedoms that we enjoy. While it has become evident that some enjoy those freedoms much more than others, there are many countries in the world where no one enjoys such freedoms as we do. Now is the time we can come together and make sure ALL people in this country enjoy ALL of our freedoms equally!!