5 Characteristics of Phenomenal Educators

The other day I was talking to a good friend of mine, also a principal, about the recruiting process and what we look for in teachers as we go through the many CVs and interviews.  While we both agreed that there is no magic formula for finding excellent teachers, we did settle on a few characteristics that we look for while we’re going through the search process.  I wanted to share those with you today because I believe it’s good to take time to stop and think about ourselves from a more holistic perspective, which I’m encouraging you to do.  

  1. They are a “striver”.  I used to use the term ‘hustler’ but was never happy with that for various reasons.  However, when I imagine a teacher who is always giving their best effort to grow, improve, and help their kids succeed I get this image of a teacher who is constantly working hard and doing anything possible to get better.  A teacher who is consistently putting forth effort to improve and be better for their students is a striver, and someone I would want to hire!  (I took the term ‘striver’ from a book by Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  Here is a cool piece that explains the idea of ‘striver’ vs ‘natural’ in a musical context.)
  2. They have balance.  It’s one thing to be a striver but it’s a total other thing to be someone who works themselves into the ground.  There is a saying that I learned from a mentor of mine that goes, “If you’re solely committed to an institution, you should be.”  The idea is, making work your only focus is completely insane.  Education is a non-stop pursuit and if you dedicated every minute of your life to it for the rest of your days, it still wouldn’t be perfect.  We need to know where to draw the line and find the balance in our lives so that we are able to work hard for our students, day in and day out, while still living our own lives beyond the walls of the school.
  3. They are positive.  This one is hard to see on a CV but it certainly shines through in an interview.  No one wants to work with people who are constantly finding problems, complaining, and bringing the overall culture of a school down.  Positivity goes a long way in any business but I believe it goes even further in a school community.  Kids are naturally positive people, why should adults be any different?
  4. They are diverse.  People demonstrate diversity in a lot of different ways.  Having a wide variety of experiences, teaching a variety of subjects and/or grade levels, supporting various extracurriculars, and showing your range as an educator, are all great ways to stand out.  People with diverse experiences tend to have more open minds about challenges and opportunities that may arise unexpectedly.  This kind of flexibility is invaluable, especially in international schools!  
  5. They love working with kids.  Again, this is tough to see on a CV but completely obvious when it comes to interviews.  Educators who love working with kids show it as soon as they start talking about their jobs.  Their eyes light up as they tell stories of their students and their energy immediately increases.  Teachers who truly love working with kids, while seemingly common, are much harder to find than most people would think.  

There are many more attributes displayed by great teachers but when I meet someone who displays these particular characteristics in a truly authentic way it is clear that I’ve found an absolute diamond in the rough.  

Take a moment today to consider yourself from a different perspective.  Try to step back and ‘zoom out’ a bit.  How do you view yourself as an educator?

Pursuing Passions

Last week we started our Pathways conversations with our Year 10 students.  At the beginning of this process, which will ultimately lead to their decision about whether to take Full IBDP, DP Courses, or SBDP, they are still wide-eyed and confused.  As Year 10 students, these kids are only 15 or 16 years old and many of them haven’t figured out what they’re going to do over the weekend, let alone what career path they want to follow.  Yet, as they begin to consider their Pathway for Year 11 and 12, they are being asked to simultaneously consider their field of study for university and what career they would like to pursue…yikes!

Personally, this is crazy to me!  I told these kids and their parents a little about myself as an introduction to this conversation:  When I was their age I knew I was going to be an architect, 100%.  Then, by the time I finished Year 11, I really had it figured out, I was going to be an accountant.  In fact, I was almost three years into my accounting degree when I realized I wanted to be an educator.  How could I have been so wrong and what changed for me to make such a huge jump?

I didn’t know it when I made the decision to walk into the College of Education at my university but that day, for the first time ever, I was pursuing my passion.  I can see it now in hindsight but at the time if you would’ve asked me why I was there, I would’ve had no answer for you.  I was there, however, because I was passionate about coaching.  I had begun coaching younger kids in basketball when I was in High School and had continued through university.  It was something I enjoyed and was something more than just a summer job.  It was, without even knowing it, my passion.  

I’m sharing this today because I want to ask you to do two things:

First off, take the time to step back and reflect about why you got into teaching in the first place.  I saw a great Twitter post the other day, “Said no teacher ever…’I became a teacher for the money and fame’.”  I’m guessing that money and fame weren’t your motivations, so what were your reasons?  Why are you an educator today?  

Secondly, I’m begging you, please, to take some time and share how you identified your passion(s) with your students.  Perhaps you knew when you were 15 years old, or perhaps you were more like me and had an epiphany later in life.  Whatever the case may be, take a few minutes and share that story with your kids.  Explain to them why you’re telling them this story, let them know that this process isn’t always easy and that at 15 it’s okay not to know their whole life plan.  

If you ask me, we’re lucky, we’re the wise ones who identified the passion for teaching in ourselves and were lucky enough to choose the greatest profession ever 🙂  Share that story with your students, and while you’re at it, share it with each other!  

Begin Sharpening Your Saw

I decided to write next week’s “Nudge” a little early.  Since we won’t be here Monday I think you’ll see why I chose to write today.

This is a crazy time of year.  There are tons of things going on and we’ve been working hard for these first 14 weeks of the semester, with only a few left to go.  We’re all tired, stressed, and run down.  Sickness is becoming more common for staff and students.  

This three-day weekend couldn’t be more needed than it is right now.

The late Stephen Covey, perhaps most famous for his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, was a huge proponent of “Sharpening the Saw”.  Basically, the idea is that if you are working to cut down a tree with a dull saw, then you’re not going to get very far.  The same is true of us as educators.  If you’re run down, unbalanced, and not well, then you’re not able to be your best for our students.  

“Sharpening the Saw” isn’t something that can happen over night, or even a three-day weekend, but it is a process of finding balance in your life.  Physically (working out, sleeping well, eating well), Mentally (growing as a professional and personally), and Spiritually (finding time to connect to what is important in your spiritual life)…these are all essential parts of “sharpening the saw”.  By finding the time to do the work you need to do to be best for our kids, while also finding the time to be balanced in these other areas allows you to maintain a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.

Take this three-day weekend to recharge a bit, get some rest and find the time for the things that make you happy.  Maybe that is sleeping in and eating ice cream like I always say to our students or perhaps it means checking things off your “to-do list”.   No matter if it’s one of those or something else, take the time to relax and enjoy this weekend.  Look at this weekend as a starting point for establishing that balanced lifestyle but also as a chance to recharge your batteries in preparation for the final push to Semester Break.

Sleep, rest, relax, and recharge…you deserve it!

 

5 Ways to Stay Alive Until Summer

We’re almost there, summer.  You can see it on the calendar, you’ve started making travel arrangements, and your classes are nearing the end of the syllabus!  Also, if you’re anything like most of us, you’re tired right now and hanging on the edge.  We all understand and totally get it, summer is coming and it will be gloriously refreshing and help us all recharge.  However, we’ve still got a few weeks left – how do we find the energy to get to the end?  

I read a couple great blog posts the other day that inspired my post this week, I like some of the ideas and will share those here along with a few of my own.

  1. Stay planned and organized:  The end of the school year is always crazy because there are a million things happening around school.  If you have kids of your own you’re juggling their end of year schedules too!  Similarly, if you’re moving away there are countless numbers of things that need to get done before the end of the year.  How do you do it all without the stress wearing you down?  Get organized.  Not only does this help relieve stress but the feeling of achievement as you cross things off your to-do list will give you the much needed boost of dopamine.  You’ll feel better and in turn be more motivated to keep moving forward 🙂
  2. Take some time to reflect:  The school year has been wild and crazy, and busy!  And if you’re struggling with staying organized (see #1) you probably haven’t taken much time to do this yet this school year.  I know you’re busy but hear me out – taking time to reflect on your successes this school year can help you relive the positive experiences and boost your serotonin.  Serotonin is a natural antidepressant and a chemical in our body produced to help us feel good and positive!  On a similar note, if you’d rather help make someone else’s day, write them a note to show your gratitude…it will make both of you feel better!
  3. Take a chance to breathe and find work/life balance:  This might be the hardest thing to do as we try to squeeze in every last bit this school year.  However, it may be the most important thing we can do for ourselves.  Taking a walk, going for a run, doing some yoga, seeing a movie, or reading a book are all possible ways you might step away from the craziness of everyday life.  Whether it’s 30 minutes before or after work, or an afternoon on a Saturday, take some time for yourself to unwind and relax.  I just looked back and realized that I wrote about this very same idea almost exactly one year ago – it’s that time of year!  
  4. The First Five:  It’s okay to stop and give a few minutes of your class time over to talking with your students about non-academic stuff (gasp!)  Yes, it is, really…give it a try!  I’ve written about the importance of positive relationships with our students and that doesn’t stop.  Keep the lines of communication open with your students by showing that you still care about them, even with the craziness of the end of the year upon you.  Not only will your students feel better but so will you, the connection helps everyone feel like there is more than just content, content, content.  
  5. Face the FOMO:  It’s the end of the year.  There will be parties, gatherings, group outings, and all sorts of social events.  Just like I tell new teachers at the beginning of the year – you don’t have to do everything, in fact skipping some things is healthy!  FOMO or “fear of missing out” is real…no one wants to be the only person to miss the party and they certainly don’t want to be sitting at home thinking that everyone else if having fun without them!  However, sometimes that’s okay, in fact it’s more than okay.  Taking a night off and missing a social event is a healthy choice, especially when you know there are a million things getting squeezed into the last few days of the school year.  We’ll never be able to do everything and we have to be okay with that, knowing that our lives are full of wonderful experiences and missing this one won’t ruin our lives!  

The school year is winding down quickly and so is my time here at AC and in Ecuador.  In fact, I just counted and there are only 43 days left.  I’ve got four trips planned, a hike up Pichincha, International Festival, my birthday, 29 school days, countless parties, and waaaay too many things on my to-do list.  Perhaps I wrote this post more for myself than anyone!!  It’s that time of year, be good to yourself and be good for each other!!

We’re All Counselors: Helping Our Students Navigate Their Way in a Wild World

Our kids/students need us (adults) more than ever right now.  I don’t just mean right now, as in this instant, but rather right now as in “this day and age”.  I’m not here to be a Chicken Little and tell you that the sky is falling but, because the digital age is well upon us, our kids are exposed to any and everything that becomes popular…anywhere!  While that can be a good thing, it is often scary and potentially dangerous.  Our kids need us, they need adults they can trust, talk to, and learn from…we have to be available for them, to listen and to provide guidance.

This isn’t new, it’s been going forever but the realities of what our kids see/hear/experience online each and every day are frightening, it’s not what we grew up with!  A few years back a frightening story came out of my hometown about two middle school age girls who tried to stab their best friend to death because they had been following an online character called Slenderman, it was crazy!  Guess what – HBO optioned it for a documentary.  This happened, literally, blocks away from where I grew up.  Where I ran, rode my bike, and stayed out until the street lights came on…then went back out after dinner for more fun!  The closest we came to this sort of thing was sneaking bootlegged scary movies (which were hard to come by!) into the basement at sleepovers.  Now this sort of thing is everywhere and our kids are gobbling it up!  

Recently I have seen a few more examples of the realities of what our students are facing on social media and on TV/Netflix.  Most popular right now, the television show “Th1rteen R3asons Why”  (based on the 2007 book of the same name by Jay Asher) has taken the young-adult world by storm, it is being watched by most of our high school students and a large amount of middle schoolers.  I haven’t seen this myself but Amy is watching it and has engaged me in some pretty deep conversations about the realities of what our kids are facing each day as teens.  According to Wikipedia, “the show revolve(s) around a student who kills herself after a series of culminating failures, brought on by select individuals within their school.”  There has been a lot written recently about this show.  Headspace (the same Australian group who produced the wonderful Mindfulness app I’ve used) has shown concern that people who have been exposed to the show may be at an increased risk or danger level because of it.  Like I said before, I’m not here to be Chicken Little but we most certainly need to work hard to understand all of the risk factors our students are being exposed to on a regular basis.  13 Reasons Why is just one example of what’s out there for our kids, it’s TV and fictional but no doubt gives our students ideas or reasons to further consider thoughts they’ve already had.  If they have no one to turn to for answers, conversations, or help then we’re not doing our job – we teach more than the content in the textbook!

Since I haven’t seen 13 Reasons Why myself I can hardly pass judgement on the show (or the book) but I am most certainly concerned that lines that have previously been respected are now being crossed.  In this show, the moment when the main character takes her own life has been shown and narrated in detail.  This sort of thing has previously been (unofficially) recognized as off limits for TV or movies but no longer does that seem to be the case.  What is yet to come is anyone’s guess but it will most surely be further away from this previously uncrossed line.  Even scarier than the prospects of what highly publicized media companies will produce next is the reality of what is spreading around the internet unsanctioned and unchecked, this is the part of the internet where our students live.

As I was planning and beginning to write this post it came to my attention that the newest topic of discussion for many of our middle schoolers is the “Blue Whale Challenge”.  I’ve done a little research (granted not all of the websites are the most reliable) but they all say the same thing, the Blue Whale Challenge (it goes by other names as well) is a “suicide game”.  Talk about scary!  It has taken hold in Russia and parts of Europe where people are extremely worried about the potential effects for teens and others who may be looking for an outlet or even a chance to “fit in”.  The fact that this conversation has spread to our community is extremely concerning but, as you can tell from my previous tone, not entirely surprising.  It’s out there, it’s on the internet and it’s popular with their age group – it’s going to find a way into their world one way or another.  Eeek.

So what do we do?  What is our role?  It’s a scary proposition for sure, especially for those of us who aren’t trained counselors, psychologists, or mental health advisors.  However, we still have a role.  We have to be good for our students, we need to build positive relationships with them so they know they have people to talk to.  School should be the safest (physically and mentally) place for our students.  They should know who they can turn to and feel comfortable approaching anyone.  It’s not our role to initiate discussions with them about 13 Reasons Why or the Blue Whale Challenge but it is our job to watch and listen for signs.  Kids cry out for help in many ways to many different people.  If you see these cries, or even suspect that you’ve seen one, then share it with someone.  Our counselors are amazing and we’re very lucky to have a school psychologist.  They are resources for us just as much as they are for the kids, don’t be afraid to approach them.  We’re on the front lines, we know these kids better than anyone (sometimes even better than their parents) and more than anything we care about these kids and would be devastated to see anything happen to them!

This is my cry for help, it’s me asking you to be the best for kids every single day in every possible way.  I know it’s not easy and it may not be realistic for us to be our best all the time but whatever we can give to these kids without sapping ourselves of our own physical and emotional health, that’s what we should be giving…please.

Fine Arts Rock!

Coming on the heels of an awesome Fine Arts Festival I couldn’t help but writing about all the amazing benefits of including the Arts in a curriculum.  Over the years Arts programs have ebbed and flowed as budgets and priorities have shifted.  I’m very happy and proud to be part of a school that gives the Arts equal footing with all the other subjects we offer.  We require our students to take music up through 8th grade and for middle school and high school students we offer Drama, Visual Arts, Graphic Design, and coming next year, Dance.  The range of opportunities in the Arts for a school of our size is beyond impressive and it couldn’t be better for our students!

There is a lot of research that supports the fact that we’re not only giving our students chances to explore their interests in the Arts but we’re also giving them a leg up in other academic classes.  One meta-analysis of more than 60 different studies shows that students who work in the Arts “do a better job of mastering reading, writing and math than those who focus solely on academics.”  While the Arts are not a panacea, the connections and benefits of being exposed to the Arts shouldn’t be doubted.  Improved social-emotional skills from Drama, cognitive improvements from music, improved communication and creativity from Dance, and organization and reasoning skills from Visual Arts are just a few of the many benefits of an Arts curriculum.  While I’m confident that our students would be successful without the Arts, there is no doubt in my mind that because of our robust Arts program our students are even more well prepared for the rigors of life beyond our walls!  

Our Middle School teachers, along with a number of Elementary, High School, and community members have stepped up to ensure that the Fine Arts Festival was a HUGE success.  Our Middle School students will, no doubt, benefit from the Arts program at Academia Cotopaxi but this Fine Arts Festival did a brilliant job of bringing the entire community together around the Arts.  Splitting my time between the High School and Middle School I often notice the fact that our students lose touch with the Arts as they continue into High School.  Considering that it’s been found that “Arts students” consistently outscore “non-Arts students” on the SAT in study after study, perhaps reconsidering how we make the Arts available to our High School students is worth some time and effort.  While the correlation is undeniable and we can’t be sure of causation, the facts should make us stop and think!  Making sure that all of our students enjoy the benefits of such an amazing program for as long as possible will be crucial to their continued success.

Beyond the classroom, the benefits of an Arts program continue to be seen.  Decreased rates of disciplinary action, higher attendance rates, and increased graduation rates were recorded in this extensive study done in the United States.  Walking around during our Fine Arts Festival and enjoying all of the amazing workshops and practice sessions, it is clear that our students are gaining even more from this experience than could have been imagined.  From “The Science of Art” to “Tapestry” and “Mosaic” workshops, our students have taken pride in the work they’ve accomplished during their exploratory sessions.  Capturing the curiosity that lies within all of our students is essential to their success, there is no doubt in my mind that the Fine Arts Festival has done exactly that!  

A HUGE thank you goes to the Arts department for organizing such a tremendous Fine Arts Festival.  I’ve been involved in similar events over the last six years and I can say, without a doubt, that this has easily been the most well coordinated, engaging, and successful Fine Arts Festival that I’ve ever seen!

Thank you again to the Arts Team!!!!

Mindfulness: Headspace’s “Take 10” (Taken!)

I’ve made it through Headspace’s “Take 10”.  It was a 10 part series of 10 minute mindfulness meditation sessions.  I couldn’t have been happier that I chose this series to start my mindfulness journey.  However, I’m moving on from Headspace for the time being to try some other mindfulness apps.  One reason I’ve decided to try other apps is that Headspace gives you the “Take 10” series for free and then requires you to sign up for a (fairly costly) membership.  This, in and of itself, isn’t a problem except that you need to pay per month or per year, not based on how much you use the app.  So, if you know you’re going to use it every day I suppose it’s a good deal, otherwise it may not be worth it.  The other reason I’m moving on (for now) is because I want to try some other apps that were recommended to me.  It’s only fair that for this investigation into mindfulness that I do at least a cursory check of the options available to me.  Beforehand, I want to reflect on my Headspace experience while it is still fresh in my mind.

As I mentioned, Headspace was a great place to start.  It was impressive in the way that it introduced me to the basics of mindfulness and meditation all while getting me started in the process.  Over the course of the 10 days there were a few short animated videos that helped to further explain some of the concepts behind what was being done in the meditation sessions.  I thoroughly enjoyed these videos and strongly believe that without them I wouldn’t have become as excited about mindfulness as I currently am.  On top of getting started with the meditations, I learned a few things:

  1. Training the mind through meditation isn’t about stopping thoughts or eliminating feelings during the exercise.  It’s about allowing yourself to have thoughts and feelings, acknowledging them (but not judging them) and letting them pass.  This allows us to view things with a perspective that we may not have had before.  Doing this allows us to reach a place of being more calm.  Occasionally during meditation exercises we’ll lose focus and run away with a thought, which is fine, we just need to return to that calm place of perspective and continue letting thoughts pass.  For a (perhaps) clearer way of thinking about this, check out this video.
  2. More effort doesn’t always mean more results.  The perfect example here is falling asleep…we can’t force it, and if we do, it usually makes it even harder to fall asleep!  Training the mind through meditation is very similar, once you stop trying it is possible.  There is a very good example about taming a wild horse in this video.  We need to do things slowly while training the mind through meditation.  Getting past the feeling of trying to get somewhere is important.  It takes time, enjoy the ride!
  3. The “Blue Sky” always exists, it doesn’t go anywhere.  The metaphor is of your blank, calm mind being a clear blue sky.  Sometimes our mind gets so cloudy with thoughts (good and bad) that we lose sight of that “Blue Sky”.  However, it is always there above those clouds just as our clear, sane mind is still there beyond all those thoughts and distractions.  The “Blue Sky” is always there.
  4. Acceptance.  We often talk about being accepting of others but what about ourselves?  The idea that we need to accept what is in our mind, in order to see what is in our mind is very interesting.  The analogy here is a pond, if we go chasing after everything in the pond we will muddy the waters and won’t be able to see anything.  Our mind works the same way, we can’t chase every thought or idea.  Allowing the waters to remain calm allows us to see everything that is in our mind, even the things we might not want to see!  However, even though we may not like everything we see, it is important to see it all and acknowledge it without judgement…during meditation we must withhold judgement of ourselves!!  

I have to admit that on Day One I found it extremely difficult to concentrate and focus on both the voice leading the meditation as well as actually achieving a sense of calm and relaxation.  However, as the days went on, both I and the sessions improved.  I improved my skills for relaxing and endurance (10 minutes is a long time when you’re just starting!)  The sessions improved because a) they were somewhat repetitive which meant I already knew what to expect and b) the narrator didn’t talk as much as the sessions went on.  This second point was probably the most important thing because, while his voice isn’t irritating, I can’t stand when I’m looking for quiet and someone keeps talking.  Understanding that you’re learning throughout this process is essential, I needed a teacher/guide!  

By the fifth or sixth session I was really into the groove.  In fact, one night I wasn’t falling asleep as quickly as I wanted so I put the session I had listened to that morning on my phone.  No exaggeration, I was asleep before the 10 minutes were over!  I knew then that I was really getting the hang of this, I was able to let my mind relax, turn off, and fall asleep.  The understandings I shared above, no doubt, played a huge part in me learning how to do this!

After day nine I started becoming frustrated, mostly with the fact that Headspace was making me pony up a bunch of money if I wanted to continue, this is good stuff!  However, after day 10 I’m happy that I made it through the whole “Take 10” and I’m also happy to try some new things in the name of research…but I think I’ll be back to Headspace soon enough.

I previewed a bunch of other apps and finally settled on one that I’m going to take for my next test drive.  I guess this is a lot like buying a car, you want to know it’s a quality car and that you feel comfortable inside it before you commit!  I’m one session into my next ‘test drive’ and look forward to seeing where it will take me.  More to come but I can say with confidence, that if you’re looking to try out mindfulness then you should try the Headspace app.  Go through the “Take 10” sessions and see what you think, I’d love to hear!!