Counting Sheep at #ELC2017BKK

I’ve got a super comfortable bed in a beautiful hotel room, no one to steal the sheets, and amazing blackout curtains.  Yet, I’ve been up counting sheep because I haven’t been able to sleep for the last few nights while here in Bangkok.  What gives?

It’s this conference.  The ideas.  The conversations.  The opportunities to share stories.  

My mind is racing…revved up and ready to go.

From the word ‘go’ this has been an opportunity to challenge beliefs and encourage thought.  Starting with the three challenges laid down by Peter Dalglish (Climate Change, Nuclear Proliferation, and Epidemic Viruses) was a super impactful way to get the conference started off with a bang!  Things haven’t slowed down one bit since that first morning.  

So what’s been keeping me awake these past few nights?  Well, here are just a few of the provocations that have been racing through my mind:

  1. How do I define learning?
  2. What is my school doing to create ‘nimble learners’ and educate for the unknown?
  3. What needs to be done to ensure that all children are safe at my campus?  (Shout out to @chris_akin for sharing all the work he’s done with Child Protection.)
  4. What ‘clarity’ am I creating out of the ‘confusion’ as a leader in my school?
  5. How can we adapt the programs/courses/pathways in our school to better meet the interests of our students while maintaining (and perhaps even increasing) a rigorous curriculum?

Beyond those five BIG questions lie hundreds smaller, but no less important, thoughts.  The trouble though, is that we’re all here for four or five days to challenge our thinking and have our minds opened to new possibilities, but what are we going to do about it?  When we get back to school on Monday the reality will strike.  School didn’t stop while we were away, things piled up that will require our attention, and it will be exhausting getting ‘back on track’.  So, when will there be time or energy enough to implement anything we learned during #ELC2017BKK?

The answer has to be, ‘I’ll make the time.’  If we’re being educationally responsible leaders, then there is just no way that we can go back to our schools and let all of these great ideas and strategies fall by the side of the road.  So, whether it means cutting something or reprioritizing your schedule, you have to make time and find a way to lead change at your school.  You don’t have to do it ALL, or even most of it.  Coming here and learning, like we’ve all been so fortunate to do, means that you now have the moral imperative to address important things in your school, all with the goal of improving student learning!  

So what questions have been keeping you awake these past few nights?

What are you going to do about them?

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Students Aren’t Robots

Students aren’t robots, in fact they’re exactly the opposite – they’re humans.

Not only are they humans, they are teenage humans.  Hormone filled, emotional, impressionable teenagers…eeek!  There couldn’t be anything less predictable wandering our halls than 600+ teens.  Nothing could be more different from a predictable and programmable robot than a teenage human being.

This is why, recently, I’ve asked our Year Level Managers to start scheduling parent meetings with all of our students (and their parents) who’ve shown a pattern of arriving late to school.  See, up until now, we’ve sent each student the same exact “agreement” letter once they’ve reached a certain amount of ‘late to school’ infractions.  The problem, once again, is that our students aren’t robots.

If our students were robots then ‘agreements’, lessons, and consequences that were exactly the same for each student would work perfectly for all of them.  It would be glorious, we’d find the perfect lesson and consequence that helped all students arrive to school on time and our problem would be solved.  However, as I’ve mentioned, our students aren’t robots.

So, back to the meetings…my theory (that our students aren’t robots) proved to be true right out of the gates.  The first set of meetings were all completely different situations.  The first student was having a hard time arriving to school on time because she would wake up and look at social media on her phone for such a long time that she ended up leaving the house late every day.  The next student just couldn’t get out of bed because he was staying up until two or three in the morning each night.  The third student was doing everything right but her older sister was so slow in the morning that she ended up being late herself too often.  How effective is the same ‘agreement’ letter for these three kids and can you really apply any fair consequence to all three students?  

Our rationally developed and 95% effective Behavior Expectation System just wasn’t doing the trick for that remaining 5% of our students.  The reason it didn’t work for everyone…well, I think you’ve figured it out by now, ‘our students aren’t robots’.  We needed a touch of the human side to get involved in the process and, from what we’ve seen so far, it was very necessary.

I’m sharing this today because I want to encourage you to work on responding to the individual needs of our students more appropriately.  Sometimes it seems more efficient for the entire class to go through the same lesson, lab, or assessment but is that actually the most effective way of learning for each student?  Being ‘late to school’ is no different from trying to learn academics in the grand sense that our students all have different stories.  One student may learn very differently than their peers.  Most students, in fact, don’t learn the same way as those sitting next to them…they are humans.  

Our students aren’t robots.  I know that’s obvious but I think the exaggeration of the point allows us to realize that, sometimes, we operate as though they are very much the same person.  Even if we could take away the crazy swings that hormones cause in our students we’d still be faced with 600+ individual and unique human beings.  Perhaps 95% of students fit the molds we’ve created, but what are we doing in our classrooms, with our Behavior Expectation System, and every other aspect of education to make sure that all 100% of our students are receiving the best education possible?

Seeing Ourselves as Models

It’s hard to believe that we’re already in the second week of the second term, this year is flying by at a breakneck pace.  However, before it gets too far ahead of us I wanted to slow down and come back to something that I really believe to be the most important thing we can do as educators…model.

I’ve written about modeling our life as ‘learners’ for our students before but this goes beyond that, this is bigger, and is easier to forget.  At the beginning of the year, before we hit full stride, it’s easier to keep the small things in mind.  Modeling for our students, as important as it is, often seems like one of those small things.  It’s something that is easily overlooked as the year goes on.  We see our students’ true colors and they get to see ours…what are they seeing?

Recently I discovered Jennifer Gonzalez and her amazing website, The Cult of Pedagogy.  If you have some time it’s most definitely worth a look, she’s got great stuff to share about education.  I also began following her on Twitter, and over the weekend she shared one of her past blog posts.  As I read it, I realized that it was perfect timing for this piece at our school.  It came as a wonderful reminder to me and I believe you’ll find it as a great reminder as well.  

The post is titled, Lessons in Personhood: 10 Ways to Truly Lead in Your Classroom, and it is outstanding.  In fact, you should stop right now and read that post.

Jennifer’s 10 lessons are as follows but you’ll have to read the post to get the details…if you haven’t already read it, you should really do it now…

  1. Lead with imperfection.
  2. Lead with assertiveness.
  3. Lead with relationships.
  4. Lead with language.
  5. Lead with self-control.
  6. Lead with manners.
  7. Lead with quality.
  8. Lead with humor.
  9. Lead with enthusiasm.
  10. Lead with humility.

Over the last 12 weeks I’d like to think that I’ve done my best to lead in this way but I will continue being mindful of these 10 “Lessons in Personhood”.  Similarly, I hope that you take these lessons to heart and stop to think for a minute about what it is that you’re modeling for our students.  These lessons go beyond education, management, or business.  These truly are lessons for how to be a better person.

Week 12, hard to believe…enjoy it 🙂

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?

 

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)