Upgrading Our Practice

Recently Amy and I had the chance to stay in a nice hotel for a night and were excited for a wonderful room, atmosphere, and a glorious night’s sleep.  Unfortunately we were awoken bright and early by the sounds of hammers, saws, and drills working on a renovation project in a nearby section of the hotel.  As I lie awake, frustrated with this early wake-up call, I began thinking about how this connected in some way to my life.

I soon recognized that this renovation was very similar to what we’re trying to do as educators. See, just like in a school, this hotel couldn’t shut itself down for a year while it did upgrades to the whole building all at the same time.  Instead, they chose to improve small sections, one at a time, over the course of a longer period.  Similarly, as educators we can’t just close the door to our classroom, forget about the kids, and work on improving.

The kids keep coming, day after day, for an entire school year.  So, if we want to improve as educators, it is a simple fact that we’re going to have to do just as this hotel and upgrade as we go along.  The hotel had chosen a small focus area to improve while continuing to run the rest of the hotel as usual.  As educators there is always something to improve and, in fact, there are usually many things to improve.  However, with limited time and energy due to the fact that students need the vast majority of our attention, the best thing for us to do is choose one small area and focus on upgrading that skill set.

If you’re anything like me when I was in the classroom, you can see multiple target areas for growth in your own practice.  However, you can’t tackle all of those areas at once, it’s time to focus in and choose one specific thing to work on for the short-term.  Perhaps, for you, this small focus area has to do with your use of formative assessment, classroom management strategies, or curriculum planning.  Maybe it is questioning strategies, creating more engaging lessons, or including opportunities for student reflection.  Whatever you decide as your area of focus, set all those other areas of growth aside for the time being and focus on that one specific skill set.

As we come to the end of the first semester I want to encourage you to be reflective about how the first half of the year has gone.  Examine your practice as a teacher and work to identify one area of growth for the second semester.  Remember, you can’t renovate the whole hotel all at once, pick an area of focus and stick with it.  Work to improve in this one area.  When you see the growth you’re looking for, then you can move on to another area of focus, one at a time, slowly upgrading your practice.

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Measuring Success

Last week I attended the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Bangkok.  I joined sessions about developing strong leadership teams, teacher supervision and evaluation, child protection, school accreditation, and more.  Unfortunately, some of these sessions were less helpful than others, leaving a lot to be desired.  I spoke with a few of those presenters after their sessions and asked them how they thought their session went.  Interestingly enough, no one I spoke to really felt confident that their session went well, yet they couldn’t be sure one way or another.  It got me thinking…

While all of the sessions I attended were very different from one another they all had one thing in common – none of them asked for feedback in order to see how successful they had been.  To be fair, the presenters may have had another method for determining the level of success of their sessions.  However, I have to wonder whether the presenters and facilitators I worked with ever measured, or even determined, any indicators of success.

I’m sharing this story today, not because I want to bash the presenters at EARCOS but rather because I want to provoke your thinking about your classes.  How do you know whether a lesson, unit, or assessment was successful?  

Each lesson has an objective, a goal for what the students should be able to do or learn by the end of the lesson.  So, at the end of the lesson how do you know if the objective has been met?  Are you collecting data that provides evidence of student learning?  Perhaps, like many of the presenters I spoke to after their sessions, you’re not always 100% sure how successful a lesson has been.

I want to nudge you to think about how you’re able to know whether a lesson has been successful.  We will be discussing this further with Faculty Heads this week and I’m going to ask them to continue the conversations with department teams.  Please take some time to think about how you determine a lesson’s success as well as brainstorming other ways that you could possibly use to measure success in the classroom.

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?

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.

 

Modeling Our Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Embracing Summer

It seems like a long time ago that I started writing this blog, five years and 146 posts ago.  Thinking about that makes me start thinking back to all that has happened over those five years.  Two different schools, traveling to all sorts of countries, lots of professional and personal experiences that have changed me (mostly for the better), and throughout all of that a constant reflective process that I’ve learned and practiced through the writing of this blog.  I’ve written before about why this blog is important to me and why I think others should try, if I haven’t convinced you yet…maybe now is the time!  Perhaps over the summer you’ll sit down and give it a shot.

Hopefully everyone managed to stay alive (literally and figuratively) and we’re now about to embark on a wonderful summer!  For each of us that will look a little differently.  Normally my summers are a time for me to reflect, read, write, and attend a PD or two but this summer will be different.  For Amy and I it will be a short and busy time.  After leaving Ecuador we’ve got just three weeks until our wedding (YAY!) and then only four more days until we head off toward Indonesia!  There’ll be lots of planning, visiting with family, and racing around getting everything ready for a wedding and relocation.  Then it’ll be the new school year before we know it!  

Even though my summer will be crazy (and I’m sure many of yours will be too), I want to offer a few summer time options for those who haven’t already ironed out every single minute of their holiday.  I’m not advocating for any one idea over another but I think any successful summer will include at least one of these five things.

My recommendations for the summer:

1. Hit the beach, mountains, trails, parks, ocean, lake, or whatever you can find outdoors!

Get outside and enjoy the fresh air (I’m hoping you can get away from a polluted city for this one).  Spend a few days camping next to a river with no wifi or mobile phone access, unplug and enjoy Mother Nature at her finest.  Give yourself some time to just enjoy all that nature has to offer without the hustle and bustle of the ‘outside world’.  If camping isn’t your thing then take a walk, go for a bike ride, or just sit and enjoy a park…but do it often.  Take a road trip, see a new place, and get out of the city-life for a while.  All of these things will help rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit!

2.  Establish a PLN: If you haven’t done this already, now is your time.  Don’t be afraid to start small.  Right around the same time I started this blog, about 5 years ago, I started on Twitter and slowly began to see the value of building an online/digital Professional Learning Network.  Some of you have experienced my PLN first hand, connecting across the globe to celebrate awesome activities, meet new colleagues, or even just find a new idea.  Start out by having a look at a past blog post I wrote about building a PLN (it’s short) and then create a Twitter account.  Once you have one (or if you already do) send me a tweet (@The1sWhoDo) and ask who you should follow…I’m happy to start recommending people immediately.  From there…follow along and get a feel for Twitter, summer is a perfect time to do so!  

3.  Take care of yourself.

Remember that New Year’s Resolution…yeah, I know the feeling…I was too stressed and too cold in the rainy season to really get anything productive going.  It’s too cold and wet to get out of the house and do anything!  I wanted a nice warm meal full of comfort food and some wine on the couch at the end of those days, not an exercise class and salad!!  However, now the sun is shining and we can sleep past 6AM!  So track down your trainers and get moving…10,000 steps (the standard FitBit goal) a day is a lot easier to manage in the summer when there are no papers to grade or meetings to attend.  Cook some homemade meals for your friends and family who still have to work through the summer, enjoy a nice dinner together and help them relieve some stress too.  The summer is your time to take care of yourself and feel great!

4. Read, read, read!

If you’re like me you might feel like summer is the perfect time to squeeze in some of that professional reading you’ve promised yourself you’d do.  That’s fine but don’t skip the reading for pleasure too!!  (I’ve got five books on my Kindle just waiting for me)  Whether you’ve got a book waiting or not, you might also consider reading some of the books that are hot with our kids right now.  This article is a great one and lists five young adult books that adults would also enjoy.  I’ve read a few on this list (Book Thief is awesome!) and agree that knowing what our kids are into is a great way to connect and relate to our school age kids.  If you’re thinking that professional reading might be in the works for the beach then have a look at this article, some great tips there too.  The old saying of “don’t mix work with pleasure” goes out the door here…when it comes to summer reading, mix away!

5. Reconnect at your own risk!

It goes without saying that living overseas requires a long time away from friends and family who are back ‘home’ or elsewhere.  However, if you’re like me it only takes a week or so at ‘home’ before you feel like it’s time for a break!  There are a lot of family and friends who want to spend as much time with you as possible and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the attention.  In a sense it’s almost like teaching…there’s only one of you but there’s a seemingly endless number of people who want/need your time and energy.  Be sure to take some “Me Time” this summer and don’t let yourself get run down while trying to connect with everyone.  I often joke at the end of summer that “I need to get back to work so I can relax!”  It’s easy to feel that way, especially if you’re bouncing from couch to guest room all summer.  Enjoy the time with family and friends but be sure to enjoy some time alone as well.

 

Enjoy the last week with our kids, it’s going to be a wildly emotional ride for many of them (and us!!)  Hang in there and enjoy the laughs and memories and embrace the inevitable tears.  Everyone has made a lot of strong connections here in the AC community and it will be tough to part ways, no matter how long you’ve been here.  Say what you need to say to those you’ve grown close with, trade contact info, and be confident that you’ll connect again soon!