Relationships and Adaptability: Tools of the Revolution

Last week we enjoyed videos and performances by our Year 12 students as we got ready to send them off to their next chapter.  As I watched those videos and thought about the high school experience through the eyes of a Year 12 student, I tried to figure out what they felt like they learned in their time here.  I’m sure if you asked them formally they would mention things like Physics or English but those certainly aren’t the things they focused on in their videos.

Relationships.  Without a doubt, relationships were the main focus of each of the six videos shared by the Year 12 students.  They celebrated the strong bonds formed over the last few years. They recognized the ups and downs, rejoicing in the unity of their particular cohorts. The power and strength of those bonds built through hard work and resilience demonstrates just how important it is for the success of students to have strong social-emotional skills.  

Our counselors have recently done a lot of work to help incorporate some of these skills into the every day curriculum.  That work is an essential part of our school’s mission but also to the what we’re trying to accomplish academically. Students who “demonstrate integrity, respect and empathy toward others” and “respond with confidence and reason to an ever changing world” aren’t created by studying a textbook, doing lab experiments or writing research papers.  These skills lie deep within the social-emotional lessons that our students need to learn. Kudos to the work our counselors have done recently to integrate more of these skills and lessons into the curriculum, there is still more to do though and the work must continue.

The other thing that came through in the Year 12 videos, albeit more implicitly, is the idea of being adaptable.  Many of those stories start off highlighting the nervousness of being put into a new cohort, working with different people and being completely out of their comfort zones.  Over time, however, as they learned to adapt and find their place within their new classes, these Year 12s showed an incredible ability to adapt and make the best of the situation.  I see this as more than being resilient. Resilience, while very important, means bouncing back from difficulties and continuing on. What I saw in our kids was more than that, not only did they bounce back but they adapted as needed to continue forward…a very big step!  

As teachers, we can learn a lot from these students.  It’s important to remember just how crucial it is for us to build relationships with our students, who are constantly changing and growing.  Additionally so with our colleagues, developing a program that meets the needs of a diverse range of learners doesn’t happen in isolation, building strong relationships with colleagues creates a positive work environment.  I frequently stress the importance of positive relationships (I would argue they’re the most important thing in a school) and it was interesting to see our Year 12s focus on their importance as well.

Generally speaking, younger people are less set in their ways and more adaptable than their more experienced (older) counterparts.  As we learn, grow and gain experience in the world, it is important to remember the we must remain flexible in our thinking. Being able to adapt is the hallmark of a successful educator.  We are in a professional field that is entering the early days of a revolution, more than 100 years of doing the same thing has proven insufficient for success in education. We, as the leaders of that change, must adapt and grow to ensure the success of our students.  

We’ve got a little over two weeks left and we’ll be doing a lot of celebrating and reflecting during that time.  Take a few minutes every now and again to think about all that our students have learned over the last year. Additionally, think about how we can adapt to improve the learning process for them next year and beyond.  It’s an exciting time to be an educator, the revolution is coming, what will be your role in the process?

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The Art of the Mistake

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.  They’ve been big and they’ve been small.  Usually, in hindsight they’re really no big deal at all.  Sometimes when they happen, however, they have such an impact that they’ll never be forgotten.  We’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

Part of me wants to stop there…we’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

However, mistakes can’t just stop with the mere acknowledgement that they’ve been made.  The beautiful part of mistakes is what comes after: learning, empathy, growth.  As educators we see our fair share of mistakes made on a regular basis.  I’ve grown fond of telling students that we expect them to make mistakes and that it’s their job (with our help) to learn from them, that’s why they’re in school.

Sometimes the mistakes our students make are minor, like a computational error on a math problem, other times they’re much bigger.  However, at the end of the day the ultimate goal is still the same; they should be learning from their mistakes.  This, the learning, is the crucial part of the puzzle.  How do we ensure that the learning they take away from their mistakes is the ‘right’ learning and how do we make sure that they’ve actually learned that lesson?

In truth, the answer to that question is simply, ‘we can’t.’  For the same reason that we are prone to making mistakes, we can’t guarantee anything else in the equation – we’re all human.  This, the fact that we’re all human, is something that I believe we forget all too often when dealing with other people’s mistakes.  It’s very easy to climb up into our ivory towers and pass judgement upon other people’s mistakes, even easier when those people are teenagers who make lots of mistakes!  However, if the true goal is to help someone learn from their mistake then we have to step back and remember – we’re all human.

Now, to be sure, just because we’re all human doesn’t mean that mistakes should be allowed to go unaddressed.  Actually, it’s just the opposite, mistakes need to be identified and learning should take place.  It’s this process of identifying mistakes, acknowledging them, and going through the process of learning that is at the heart of our job.  At the end of the day, how we treat mistakes made by our students is the legacy that we’ll leave as educators.  

Herein lies, perhaps, the biggest challenge we face each and every day.  How do we deal with mistakes made by our students?  We can be too relaxed, we can be too strict, or we can be somewhere in between.  It’s a Goldilocks paradox of sorts, we’re looking for that sweet spot right in the middle, that ‘just right’ territory.  There is no right answer here, and sometimes we’re going to make our own mistakes when dealing with other people’s mistakes.  However, if we can step back and acknowledge the fact that we all make mistakes and that they are a normal part of life, then just maybe we can get a little closer to that ‘just right’ place where we can all learn from our mistakes.  

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.  They’ve been big and they’ve been small.  Usually, in hindsight they’re really no big deal at all.  Sometimes when they happen, however, they have such an impact that they’ll never be forgotten.  We’ve all made our share of mistakes.  

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – John Powell

“Many times what we perceive as an error or failure is actually a gift. And eventually we find that lessons learned from that discouraging experience prove to be of great worth.” – Richelle E. Goodrich

“You will only fail to learn if you do not learn from failing.” – Stella Adler

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” – Neil Gaiman

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde

“All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes.” – Winston Churchill

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

 

A Cinderella Story for Every Student

cinderella-bracketAs I mentioned a couple weeks ago, it’s March Madness and I can’t get enough of it!!  Last night while I was watching eight straight hours of basketball 🙂 I was contemplating how these games related to my day-to-day life.  I think inspiration hit as the second 12 seed of the night upset a 5 seed, in double overtime none the less.  The Trojans of small University of Arkansas-Little Rock upset a Big Ten team (Purdue) and they did it in an impressive fashion…one that got me thinking about some of our students and how we reach them.

There are a few different types of teams in the NCAA tournament and they all approach their situation differently.  Their coaches approach the games differently based on the team they have fielded in a particular year.  The fans have different attitudes about the team based on the relative strength of the players and how well they work together, as do their opponents.  The approach for each player, team and coach is situational.  It varies from season to season and game to game, it can even vary from minute to minute in certain games.  The same is true about our students and how we approach their education, flexibility is key.

A lot of people might call the Trojans or any other low-seeded team a “Cinderella story” or the “underdogs”.  However, the fact of the matter is that all of the teams in these tournaments are capable of winning any given game at any given time.  I won’t argue the fact that odds are long for some of these teams to be successful in some of these situations (for example a 16 seed has never, in the history of the NCAA tournament beaten a 1 seed).  However, just because the odds are long doesn’t mean that these teams don’t show up and try to win the game…THAT has never happened, the 16 seeds always show up for the game and they always give 100%.

The players/teams step on the floor and work to be successful, except for when they don’t.  It’s true, sometimes players/teams aren’t totally focused and their effort isn’t at the level necessary for success.  When this happens the coach needs to get involved.  Depending on the coach and situation, this can look very different – from screaming and hollering to quiet and calm words of encouragement.  The coach is responsible for their team’s performance and when they’re not living up to expectations the coach needs to get involved.

Coaches for the low seeds more often than not need to build confidence in a team that doesn’t necessarily have a realistic shot at winning the championship.  However, what kind of coach would they be if they just showed up and said, “Well, we’re going to lose, so have fun and take it easy tonight…don’t work too hard!”  Even with a team that faces long odds, coaches show up with a well thought out game plan, in game strategy, and motivational speeches ready to prepare their team for a shot at success.  The game changes for coaches who have better teams, or rather teams who face better odds.  It’s a different perspective but the same goals apply, lead your team to success.

Last night was a perfect example of the success achievable by an “underdog” who has a good plan, works hard, and never gives up.  Arkansas-Little Rock was a heavy betting underdog before the game but it didn’t take long for Trojan fans to start believing their team could possibly win that game.  They fought, tooth and nail, for a full 40 minutes (a full regulation game) and made a crazy hard shot to tie the game and head to overtime.  There was no let-down in the extra period, and in fact, they continued to play hard into the second overtime period of the game.  Eventually their hard work and patience wore down a much more (on paper) talented team and the 12 seeded Trojans upset a 5 seed.  It’s become a classic story in NCAA tournament history, the 12 seed beating the 5 seed, it happens every year.  These hard working teams who are considered underdogs by many come out on top and achieve the success many thought was impossible…we’ve got these students too, a lot of them.  Kids who face long odds but are willing to work (sometimes with proper motivation) to achieve the success that many believe they will never reach.  What kind of game plans, strategies, and motivational tactics are needed to help these students reach success?

Then you have the “favorites”, the top level achievers who’ve been successful all year and have reached the tournament with lots of praise coming at them from all levels.  They should win it all, they should be the ones setting the pace, outscoring every other team and just plain embarrassing the lesser teams.  However, as is so often the case, it doesn’t always go to plan.  The top seeds lose to teams they probably “shouldn’t” lose to.  They come out flat, they aren’t motivated, and they let opportunities pass them by.  Is it a lack of preparation?  Are their coaches overlooking the current opponent?  Are the players overlooking the opponent?  I’m sure there are lots of reasons why the “favorites” don’t always succeed.  Malcolm Gladwell will tell you that sometimes they get stuck in their routines and don’t adapt to the situation, they’re not flexible.  The classic “David and Goliath” situation happens all too often.  Overconfidence, unwillingness to adapt, sitting back in the comfort zone, and ego all play a part.  We have these students too…how do we ensure that they don’t fall into these traps?  

What can we do to make sure that EVERY student is working as hard as the “underdog” and ends with their own personal “Cinderella story”?  We’ve got every one of these students, in every class we teach.  The “favorites” who are (perhaps) overconfident, the middle seeds who see a chance but know that hard work is needed, and the “underdogs” who may believe they are doomed to fail.  How can we bring the mindsets of all of these different types of teams/students together?  What’s the magic recipe that gets every kid to have the confidence of the “favorite”, the work ethic of the middle seed, and the will and determination to overcome like the “underdog”?  

We’re the coaches…it’s our task to identify the skills of our players and bring out the best in each and every one of them to help them achieve the success that they deserve.  It’s March Madness year round for educators and frankly, I love it!  

One of the most famous and inspiring coaches of all time, Jim Valvano said it best, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up!”  Watch his extremely famous speech at the ESPY Awards here, awesome stuff.

Thanks for being the best “coach” possible for our students!!

What 6th Graders Know, That We (Adults) Have Forgotten

This past week I spent four days with the 6th graders on their “Week Without Walls” trip.  Being outdoors, in the fresh air and away from the day-to-day rhythm that life naturally falls into gave me a great chance to step back and think about a lot of things.  While most of my time was occupied by 30 11-year olds, I also had the chance to be inspired on a number of occasions by these dynamic pre-teens.

Believe it or not, one of the most inspiring moments of the trip came thanks to some good old fashioned 6th grade dramatics.  In brief, a couple kids were “in a fight”, there was a misunderstanding that had blown out of proportion because each side felt they were right.  After a long mediation session each of these young adults was able to see the other’s perspective.  They resolved, for the future, to better communicate and seek to find a resolution before reaching such elevated levels of conflict.  At the end of the day this interaction could’ve been any two 6th graders, anywhere in the world…there was nothing particularly special about the interaction.  However, it seemed special at the time and it got me thinking…

Why is it so easy for our students (the younger ones in particular) to forgive and forget?  How do they so easily move on from such interactions?  After thinking about this and watching with a more focused eye, I think I saw some hints as to what might be the real secret – it comes down to their relationships and their flexibility.

One fact is simple, they’re malleable.  These young minds are fully aware that they, in fact, don’t know everything.  They can step back and admit that they were wrong or that they could’ve handled a situation better and they grow from it, they truly are reflective creatures (even if that doesn’t always seem to be the case!)  I often wonder, as we go along the road to adulthood, does this skill fade…do we become the “old dog” who can’t “learn new tricks”?  Or does our Mindset change as we age and, supposedly, grow wiser?

They’re empathetic as well.  It’s one thing to be malleable, but if you can’t see the other side then how can you grow?  It hit me like a ton of bricks how empathy just oozes out of these kids.  As adults I expect that many of these kids will brush off such “childish” issues in the future, but right now they have a superhuman ability to truly feel the emotions of their friends (and even sometimes their combatants).  This can prove difficult when ten kids are reacting to one friend’s pain/heartache/perceived injustice, but when it comes to conflict resolution this empathy is a true superpower!

Most importantly, however, these 6th graders know each other and they know each other well.  They’ve built relationships consistently for a long time (some of them for years).  Some are better friends and have more positive relationships than others but there is a certain level of understanding that exists amongst all of these kids.  They know each other’s secrets and they know each other’s buttons (and how to push them!)  As 6th graders, these kids are in the beginning stages of learning to interact successfully with their peers provided all of these new-found interpersonal insights.  For some it has opened doors, they’ve built their friend circle and are enjoying the fruits of such understandings.  The relationships they’ve built can withstand misunderstandings and “fights”.  These kids can fully engage in a disagreement, resolve the issues and go back to being best friends within minutes…it truly is a superpower.

As educators, and people in general, I believe that we have a lot to learn from these young minds.  While watching and learning from these mini-adults I realized I needed to work harder myself.  It dawned on me that I didn’t know these kids as well as some groups of kids I’ve worked with in the past.  I was forced to consider how this could impact my interactions with them.  Had I built up enough of a positive relationship with each of these kids?  Enough to withstand a difficult conversation and still come away with a mutual level of respect?  Since so many of my student interactions tend to be related to behavior or academic discipline I grew concerned.  Luckily I’ve been down this road and I feel confident in my ability to build relationships…I jumped right in and began connecting with students – it turned out to be the best part of my week!

How have you worked to connect with your students?  Have you built the level of relationship that is strong enough to withstand those difficult moments and come out the other side strong?

Take a step back and think about the relationships you’ve built…could they be strengthened?  I know I’ll be working hard to (re)connect with students over the coming weeks, especially those with whom my connections are weakest.  Building the positive couldn’t be more important and it’s never too late to jump in!

“Feedforward” not back!

Making the transition to a new teacher feedback tool, while slow and often cumbersome, is an exciting process.  As a new member of this community I have no previous experience with teacher feedback at Academia Cotopaxi.  However, over the last couple years I’ve made the supervision and evaluation process a professional focus of mine.  It’s an incredibly powerful tool for improving student learning and the conversations that come from frequent classroom visits and follow up conversations are, honestly, one of my favorite parts of my job.

As a former Language Arts teacher, I often equate the process of teacher supervision to helping students with the writing process.  Being the outside observer, there is only so much one can do to push the process forward.  Just as I was never the one doing the actual writing, I can’t dictate where the classroom (or story) goes.  The goal of the supervision process is much the same as guiding a writer; through observations and conversations we hope to lead a teacher through a reflective process that allows them to grow and improve as a teacher…leading to an overall better story of success in the classroom.

At the end of the day the process of reflecting and growing as a teacher shouldn’t really be any more work than normal.  Through reflective conversations we hope to help teachers think about their classroom and the teaching process on a deeper level by providing ‘outside’ observations and feedback.  Similar to how you might guide a writer through the reflective process of revising a piece of writing, the aim of teacher supervision is to take something that is already well developed and help move it to the next level.  We’re all working every day to grow and be better at what we do, having someone along to help with the reflective process shouldn’t create more work but rather ensure that the process of reflecting is an even more valuable use of your time.

We’re currently at the beginning stages of the reflective process (as far as our school year is concerned) and have been asked to self-assess and set some goals for professional growth.  I recently read a fantastic blog post about the concept of “feedforward” as opposed to the over-used “feedback”.  The concept is simple, instead of focusing on the past, look forward instead.  The concept of feedforward is rooted in the idea that growth should be driven not by the supervisor looking from the top down but rather from our own goals and desire to improve.  In the context of “feedforward” the goal setting process becomes even more important, as the goal(s) you choose will have a direct correlation to your growth throughout the school year.  Have a look at this fantastic post, it’s not too long and written with educators in mind (it’s from edutopia.com)  As you go through the self-assessment and goal setting process please keep the idea of “feedforward” in your mind; the power of growth comes from within.  

This great quote from the blog post says it all (and sounds very similar to what we hope to see with students in the classrooms):

“Feedforward means that teachers are not simply empty vessels waiting to be filled, but change agents waiting to be launched.”

Good luck and happy reflecting 🙂

It’s Who We “Be”, Not What We “Do”

Talking with our students often brings my mind back to things that are important but for one reason or another I’ve lost focus of.  The other day I was reminded that if we aren’t living up to the standards expected of us we won’t be tolerated and the same goes for our students.  However, and here’s the really challenging part of all of this, we have to do it ALL the time!  It was that conversation with a student the other day that opened my eyes to something that I think is really important…it’s not who we “be” in the good times but who we “be” in the face of adversity.  Can we “be” the person we want to “be” when faced with people we don’t respect, like, or have patience for?

Our best can only be measured by our worst.

I had a great conversation with one student in particular the other day.  He is a ‘frequent flyer’ in my office and we were speaking about why he was there on this particular day.  He started off with “I didn’t DO anything!”  Which is how our kids think 99% of the time  – they think about what they “do”.  I, however, didn’t want to hear about what he did or didn’t do.  Rather, I wanted to know who he was “being” instead of what he was “doing”.  It took him a minute to go along with my questions but eventually he explained that “when he is my age” he wanted to “be nice, respectful and kind”.  He acknowledged that he was not “being” any of those things during class that day.  I asked him if he thought he’d just wake up one day and “be nice, respectful and kind” which really made him stop and think.  As we continued to talk he mentioned that he was very upset with a few classmates because they weren’t “being” very nice and this is why he was “being” mean and rude.

This is it, this is the point where we need to meet our kids beliefs head on and help them grow.  They need to understand that who we “be” isn’t something that we flip on and off and find excuses to “be nice, respectful and kind” sometimes and “be” a jerk other times.  We can’t “be” the person that we strive to “be” only in good times and resort to some lesser version of ourselves when we encounter people we don’t respect.  In fact, it’s for these people that we need to “be” even better, to rise up instead of come down to their level.  If we don’t change that in ourselves first and then guide our kids to this understanding through modeling, conversations, and consistent reflections, then we can’t expect to see them become the kind of adults who we and they want to “be”.

This change can’t happen over night but as I’ve written before it starts with us and who we “be” for our kids, as their role-models we have a HUGE responsibility to always “be” awesome!!

What Are You (Not) Saying to Your Students?

By now we are all well aware of the essential role that feedback plays in education.  We create tremendous opportunities for our students to both give and receive feedback which allows them to improve their learning and drive them toward success.  The feedback we give our students is extremely valuable in their development as middle school students and budding academics.  However, this is formal academic feedback I’m talking about.  What about the informal feedback your students are receiving from you throughout the day?

Our students are receiving feedback from you whether you intend it or not.  Maybe you laughed at their joke as they walked into class…feedback (my teacher finds me funny).  Perhaps you compliment their new shoes or haircut…feedback (my teacher notices me AND thinks I have style, yay!)  Consider the other side of the coin.  Feedback (my teacher thinks I’m stupid)…the teacher only calls on a couple kids for the ‘hard’ questions.  Feedback (my teacher doesn’t notice me)…the teacher focuses on the “loud” kids.

What feedback are you sending without even thinking about it?

As I’ve been moving around the school this last week I’ve tried to think about the potential feedback that our students are receiving from the (un)intentional messages we are sending.  Some are AMAZING, some leave room for growth.

Some of the positive feedback kids are receiving that may or may not be intentional includes:

  • My teacher really likes this class and group of kids.
  • My teacher has high expectations for all students.
  • My teacher knows me and cares about who I am outside of school.
  • My teacher values SSR and enjoys reading!
  • My teacher enjoys working at SCIS.
  • My teacher is happy 🙂

All of these things are impressions that can be implied from the way that we engage with their students.  I’d like you to think about how a teacher may be sending the above messages.

Take a few minutes to think about the feedback your students are receiving from you.  What are the positive messages?  Is it possible that you are unintentionally sending any negative feedback?

I think you’re all amazing educators and wonderful people.  We all work very hard and as I’ve mentioned before, we’re all at least 90% awesome 🙂  I believe strongly in looking in the mirror and working to grow each and every day.  Thank you for all that you do for our students and our community.  We have an amazing middle school and we get better each day!!