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!  

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They Don’t Care How Much You Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons From the Basketball Court

I’m totally fired up today and I can’t calm myself down.  See, the JV girls basketball team that I’m coaching got their first win of the year this morning!!  We played a team we’ve lost to 3 times already (most recently, last night!) and we played an outstanding game.  However, the biggest reason I’m so excited and pumped up isn’t even the win, it’s the amazing amount of growth these girls have shown since the beginning of the season (only 2 months ago).  With very limited practice time (we only had 8 practices of about 35-40 minutes each) these girls have gone from clueless to starting to understand some serious basketball concepts, it’s been awesome to watch!

As I’ve watched their growth I’ve thought a lot about all the connections to the classroom and teaching and learning.  I want to share a few of the things that I’ve slowly come to understand in more depth as I’ve grown as a coach and educator.  

  1. Rule Number One:  Ask any of my JV girls to tell you about “Rule Number One” for our team and there will be no hesitation, “Have fun!”  Even though they are choosing to participate on the basketball team, I have to make sure that the experience is positive for them.  As a measure of whether I’ve achieved that or not, I consider the fact that I started the year with 15 girls and finished the year with 15.  No one has quit, for any reason and despite being 0-8 before today (it’s not easy losing all the time!).  Applying the concept of “Rule Number One” to a classroom, imagine that your kids aren’t always choosing your class and therefore may not be super excited about showing up every day.  Essentially the opposite situation I faced this season AND they may not be very good at your subject.  So, what do you do?  How do you ensure that those students who may not want to be there and/or aren’t very “good” at your subject still have a positive experience in your class?  In my mind, which might be obvious based on “Rule Number One”, creating a positive experience for your students is easily the most important thing you can do as an educator.  
  2. You might have to “change the message”:  Many years ago, when I was just starting to help my father coach my sister’s basketball team I had my very first coaching epiphany.  My dad was yelling some direction or another at the girls but it wasn’t getting through, they weren’t doing what he wanted.  He turned to me and said, “Why don’t they do to what I’m telling them to do?”  Immediately, and completely out of nowhere, I answered, “Maybe you have to change your message.”  I remember it like it was yesterday, he stopped and looked at me considering what I had said.  The light when on in his head and I realized I might have hit on something.  See, the problem wasn’t that the girls weren’t listening, they just didn’t understand what he was asking them to do.  From that day on, both my father and I began to simplify our basketball vocabulary/jargon to better fit our audience.  The same thing happens in all of our classes, especially with the vast ELL population we face each day.  Are your students struggling with a task, directions, or other verbal feedback?  Perhaps you need to step back and “change the message”.  My basketball vocabulary this year was very, very basic BUT my girls learned a ton because they could understand it and I didn’t have to keep repeating things.  What about in your classroom?
  3. Focus on the growth, not the result:  Look, up until this morning we were (as we say) “oh-for”…meaning we hadn’t won, we were 0-8.  However, as I touched on above, my girls were engaged and came ready to work hard every time they could.  Why?  I believe that the answer is in the growth, they could see it and who isn’t excited when they can see themselves improving?!?  Demonstrating growth isn’t always easy, I totally get that, and some of my girls didn’t grow nearly as quickly as the others, but that’s okay.  What is important is that they can see growth and feel success, even if the scoreboard (or test) doesn’t show it at the end.  After each game I make sure to bring the team together and highlight our growth and success, celebrating even after a loss 🙂  Maybe we played better defense today, or we scored more than our average.  Perhaps we executed (even once) on a play we had learned the day before.  Even today, after we won, I brought them together to celebrate the positive things we accomplished (other than the obvious one point victory!)  How do your students see, feel, or demonstrate growth in your classroom?  And how do you (and them) stop and celebrate that growth?  When we feel like we’re accomplishing something (growth) we are more likely to engage even deeper.  Growing is fun, it helps Rule Number One!  
  4. Baby steps work, perfection doesn’t:  My practices this year were very limited, as I mentioned earlier.  There was no way in the world that I was going to “fix” every “problem” that I saw on the court.  In fact, there wasn’t even a realistic chance that I would get to many of these “problems” at all.  For this group, it was about basics…and I mean basics!  One of the best parts about having so many beginner basketball players was that we had a lot to work on, never a dull moment.  However, I had to be careful, I couldn’t over do it with the coaching.  Our minds (especially those of our students) can’t handle too much input at once.  If I tried to coach every aspect of basketball that these girls needed to improve they would’ve overloaded and shut down in minutes.  So, we needed to grow with baby steps and couldn’t worry about perfection.  Mistakes were okay, they were celebrated and learned from.  If we aimed for perfection the perspective of growth would’ve been lost and frustration would’ve quickly set in.  The same is true in your classroom as well.  Perhaps you have one or two students who can realistically strive toward perfection but for the vast majority, growth and even slow growth, should be the focus and celebration.  This is a mindset though, the teacher needs to live this mindset and make sure the kids buy in.  
  5. Passion is essential, positive passion changes the game:  This one is simple.  If you asked my girls if I was living Rule Number One or if I was passionate about basketball, I think (actually I know) that there would be no doubt about the answer.  I tell the girls all the time how much fun I’m having and I’m not lying.  They can see it in my face, they can hear it in my voice but most importantly I tell them.  Sometimes we assume too much, we think our kids are getting a message when we aren’t explicitly stating it.  Tell them.  Say it out loud and let them know how much you care about your subject or why it’s important.  Passion is contagious and when you have a positive classroom (discussed above) your students will feed off the energy and buy-in to your passion.  

So, we’re 1-8 now.  We got a win.  It feels great and we’ll ride that emotion into the next game and the last two after that.  We may not win any of these last three games but it won’t matter.  If we end up 1-11 these girls won’t care and neither will I.  It’s not the final result, it’s the journey.  We’ve celebrated growth, we’ve focused on improving our skills (but not too many at a time), and, most importantly, we’ve had fun!  I’m confident that these girls will all be excited to play basketball next season, some of them on the varsity.  They’ll have a positive attitude about working hard and growing.  Best of all, I’m confident that they’ll do all of this without me there to coach/encourage them.  After all, it’s not about me, it’s about the lasting memories and positive attitude that these girls will walk away from this season cherishing.

Note:  As I was writing this, one of my players came in and said “I’m going to draw, I need to get my creative energy out” and I realized how writing this post had calmed and focused me too.  I’m ready for game two of the tournament and a great long weekend when we’re finished, I hope you all have/had a fantastic weekend yourselves…only a few more weeks left, enjoy it while it lasts 🙂

Igniting Passion Through Coaching

It’s been a few years since I’ve had the chance to coach a basketball game, almost five years in fact.  I can’t tell you how much I missed it!!  I’ve been a starter, a bench warmer, a referee, an assistant coach, a head coach, and a fan…I’ve even been the score book and score clock person!  As much as I love all those other roles in basketball there really is nothing like coaching.

How often do you find a class full of students who aren’t very good (relatively) at the skill/subject at hand, yet desperately want to get better and can have a lot of fun going through that process?  As an educator, whether teacher or coach, there is just nothing like the awesome energy that is created in this scenario…especially when, as the educator, the subject is something that you’re very passionate about yourself.

In my family there are three kids, me and my two younger sisters, and we all became educators despite the fact that neither of our parents are educators themselves.  People often ask us how this happened and the best I can figure is that our father (and sometimes our mother) coached all of us in basketball from the first day we tried to dribble until our playing careers ended.  It was his passion for helping create, not basketball players, but well rounded young adults who happened to play basketball that really rings true with me today.  The energy was always positive, kids were always learning (not always basketball), and everyone was having fun!

Thinking about what makes a successful learning environment in schools, it’s no wonder my father was such a successful basketball coach.  He built positive relationships that combined with an engaging and exciting learning environment.   It’s really no different than the culture we’re trying to create within our own classrooms.  I know the context is different but the general concepts are still the same:  Provide a warm and welcoming environment, engage your learners, build passion for the subject (not always required), and make learning fun.

Coaching and teaching are really the same thing, especially when you think about coaching practice.  It can get boring and requires extra planning and effort to be engaging for my players.  It is especially difficult when it comes to fundamental skills that, in order to really improve, require repetitive practice.  However, some how, when it comes to sport practice coaches often find engaging ways to get kids practicing skills…games based on the skill, relay races using the skill, incorporating them into warm up exercises, or creating stations to break up the monotony of the practice.  No coach would ever give their players a worksheet to practice basketball.  Similarly, no coach would tell his players to be quiet and go dribble by yourself for 15 minutes.  Basketball is a team game, players learn and grow together…what if we approached each class the same way, as a team game?

I could go on and on about basketball and coaching but what I really want to leave you with today is the idea that teaching in the classroom doesn’t have to follow a certain (boring) pattern.  Many of you are coaches yourselves, or directors of plays or music, or mentors to after school activities, or members of teams and clubs yourselves.  Think about those experiences, what is it that makes those things so engaging and fun for you?  They are your passions, just like teaching.  Our passions excite us and sharing them is a joy, does your classroom feel the same way?

Leave the Locker Room Smell but Bring the Coaching

I often think of the start of my teaching career as the first time I stepped into a classroom full of kids, or perhaps on the first day of PD, or maybe even at the beginning of my teacher training.  However, a piece I read recently got me thinking that perhaps I had started my teaching career much sooner than I had even realized.

Craig Owens is an associate professor in the English department at Drake University and openly admits that he is “no sports enthusiast.”  Which makes his commentary piece even more interesting.  See, he was asked to be an “honorary coach” at one of the university’s home basketball games and he noticed something.  He realized that the interactions in the locker room (between players and coaches; players and players; coaches and coaches) were almost exactly the sort of engagement that teachers strive for (or should strive for) in the classroom.  Despite having a self-proclaimed “robust (classroom), with participants reliably raising their hands to answer questions or offer insights.”  Owens noticed something in that locker room that he felt was missing from his classes, authentic learning.

This got me thinking, back to when I started out as a youth basketball coach during my sophomore year of high school.  Okay, it wasn’t college level hoops (I got to that later!) but I had to wonder if that was where this all started for me.  Then I started thinking about us as a staff and all the coaches, dive instructors, directors, and conductors we have as part of this awesome team.  Now, my challenge for you…think about how your classroom can look more like the locker room, if you’re not a coach then go and watch some high school practices or talk with your colleagues who have paced the sidelines.  Some of the greatest coaches have been successful because they were also great teachers.  I think it’s time to start thinking of teachers as coaches and not just the other way around…that’s my two cents, what do you think?