Embrace Some Discomfort

Amy and I watched a new show recently, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman.  The first episode had a guest who, believe it or not, needed no introduction…Barack Obama.  It was a great interview and, whatever your political leanings, is worth watching.  One of the many topics discussed by Letterman and Obama is something I’d like to think about in our context as educators, “Nothing right in this world occurs without, at least, some discomfort.”

As educators we have our comfort zones, they are our safe little bubbles that we use to help us stay confident in the classroom.  I’m going to ask you today to take a step out of yours, and be a little uncomfortable.  I’ve got four things I’d like to ask that we all commit to doing for the rest of the year, they are things we can start today and will immediately improve the learning environment for our students.  Some of you may already be doing the some of these things but the I think, on some level, these will apply to everyone…

  1. Get a basket/box/container or something else and require that students put their phones into it before the class starts (unless you have a specific reason they need it that day.)  For our students, and all of us in fact, our handphones and other devices are distractions.  They vibrate when we get a message, they ding when we have a new Instragram follower and they overtake our concentration.  99% of the time our students don’t need a handphone in class…get the basket and have them put their phones in before the lesson begins.
  2. Make kids close their computers until they absolutely need them open.  If we remove the handphone distraction but allow students to keep their laptops open, we’ve accomplished nothing.  There is very little our kids can’t do from their computers that they can from their phones.  You’ll be amazed by the increased level of concentration from your students once you’ve removed these two distractions.  (Tip:  If you want their concentration back once they’ve opened their computers…have them close them again!)
  3. Don’t allow students to listen to music while they work.  This will come with some controversy, especially from the older students, and will put many of us out of our comfort zones.  There is a lot of research that proves that multitasking doesn’t work, it makes people worse at all of the things they’re trying to do in comparison to focusing on one task.  Here is one small study that is a good example…basically, if you want your kids to learn at an optimal level, take the headphones out of the equation. (Note:  In Arts classes, this step may be skipped…music tends to increase creativity and can be helpful for artists at work.)
  4. Now that we’ve eliminated a lot of the major distractions, get up and engage your students!  If students are using their computers, get up and move around the room so you can see their screens frequently.  Kids will still find ways to be distracted despite our best intentions.  If students are working, that is your time to be checking their work, discussing with them, and monitoring their progress.  

At the end of the day, some of these challenges will be easier for some than others but they are all sound educational practices that will improve the learning environment for our students.  As the quote above mentions, “Nothing right in this world occurs without, at least, some discomfort.”  These four things will cause some discomfort for you and the students but at the end of the day, they’re all things that are “right” for education.  

Teaching Strategy CPR

Last week I was fortunate enough to participate in First Aide training and refresh my skills in CPR and basic immediate care.  As I waited to take my final practical assessment I pondered how important knowing these skills, as basic as they may seem, could help me professionally.  Aside from the obvious fact that I could now be at least somewhat helpful in a real emergency, I realized that CPR doesn’t always have to be taken literally to be helpful.

I think we’ve all done it, we’ve learned about a new teaching strategy, tried it out on an unsuspecting class, and…nothing…it died on the table.  More often than not, in cases like this, we move on and forget about the new strategy.  Either it failed so miserably that we were scared to try again or perhaps, it was too much effort to try another time.  We’ve all been there, I’m sure of it.  So, think back, what was the most recent new strategy you tried and abandoned?  Let’s breathe some life back into it…

The first thing we learned about helping to save someone is that we should never put ourselves in danger in order to do so.  So, if this strategy isn’t the right one, if it’s too big and will only weigh you down, then leave it and find another one.  Next, once you’ve settled on a safe strategy for saving, you need to call for help.  This isn’t something anyone wants you to do alone.  Talk with your department head, a colleague you trust, or an SLT member.  Get some advice, share ideas and develop a strong plan for breathing life back into this strategy.

CPR is a process, it takes effort and care.  So too will reviving this strategy.  As you consider trying this strategy again think about the right time to implement it.  Perhaps you’ve got a class that is more flexible and open to new ways of learning, that would be a good place to start.  If not, consider the right lesson to implement this strategy.  Review sessions are always a good time to try new things and get creative.  Whenever you decide to make the jump and try this strategy again, go in knowing that it is part of a process, one that may include multiple steps.  

One thing that became apparent during CPR training and holds true to trying out a new strategy in class is that they both take a lot of courage.  To jump in and try to save someone’s life takes a special amount of courage that, to be perfectly honest, I wonder if I’ll have should the moment ever arise.  Trying a new strategy, while not on the same level, also takes courage.  The difference, however, is that you can control the situation with a new strategy and go in confident that you’re prepared.  So, find that strategy that died on the table, work to breathe new life into it, and confidently know that you’re becoming a better educator as you do so.

New Year, Same Goals

Happy New Year!!!

I always get a small laugh out of the fact that for most educators this isn’t really a “new year”, as that generally happens around July or August.  However, it’s actually kind of cool because we end up getting two “new years” when most people only get one.  This isn’t the time of year when books are fresh, lockers are empty, and names are new, but that doesn’t mean we have to be completely left out of the fun of the New Year celebrations.

While this is a typical time of year to set personal goals for the calendar year, I like to think about January as a time to step back and revisit my professional goals.  If you’re anything like me, then your personal New Year’s Resolution from 2017 was out the door by February, or March at the latest, and was never revisited.  I hope the same isn’t true about the goals you set for this school year.  However, in the event that they’ve managed to slip from the front of your mind, this is the perfect time to stop and revisit those goals.
One of the biggest challenges with meeting a big, longer term goal is that often times we set those goals and forget all about them as we get caught up in the craziness of our day-to-day tasks.  I’m hoping that today I can nudge you a little closer toward making sure those goals get met this school year.

So, first things first…dig up those goals.  Where are they?  What are they?  Remind yourself exactly what it was you set out to achieve in terms of professional growth this school year.

Next, why did you set those goals?  Remind yourself of the “why” behind those goals.  What was it that motivated you to choose those goals in the first place?

Now, has anything changed?  Do these goals need to be updated in any way?  Perhaps you’re not sure and this is something you’d like to talk to your faculty head or SLT member about, do it!

Once you’ve reaffirmed your goals there’s something else I want to recommend to help you keep these a little closer to the heart of your efforts for the remainder of this school year.  As with any long-term goal, setting smaller short-term checkpoints will help you to achieve the big long-term plan.  Take some time to envision what meeting your goal will look like at the end of the school year.  How will you know you’ve gotten there?  What will we be able to look at that says, ‘yes, I’ve done it!’?  Now…take that vision and break it down into smaller checkpoints along the way from today to the end of this year.  What will success toward your goal look like in April?  March?  February?  The end of January?
It’s a “new year” for everyone else but we’re already halfway through our year.  It’s been an amazing first half and the second will surely fly by at a breakneck pace.  So, take a few moments this week to sit back and revisit your goals.  Think about how you’ll be able to ensure meeting those goals by the end of the year and find those checkpoints.

Once again, Happy New Year!!!

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

 

Planning for Misunderstanding

Over the three day weekend Amy and I flew up to Jakarta to stay with some friends of ours.  Getting from the airport to their house required a ride with a Grab driver who, seemingly, was very helpful and polite.  However, the next morning I received a phone call from a Grab representative inquiring about some extra charges that the driver had added onto our fare (I paid with credit card.)  I was very impressed that this huge company was being proactive about something they could’ve easily just missed or decided to ignore.  It became clear to me that they’ve spent time anticipating potential problems or trouble areas for their clients and can now respond proactively when situations arise.

Recently I’ve been listening to a really interesting podcast by Craig Barton, a Math teacher in the UK.  On the last episode I heard, he interviewed former teacher and author of Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov.  During their conversation they discussed the idea of planning for misunderstanding, as I was reflecting on my interactions with the Grab representative I realized that this was a very similar situation – Grab had planned for my misunderstanding.

While we’re planning units and lessons for our students it’s important that we take the time to stop and think through their potential misunderstandings before we teach the lesson.  By taking the time to process the material from our students’ perspective we are able to proactively trouble shoot the challenges our students may face as learners.  By anticipating potential problems we move from being responsive teachers to proactive facilitators of learning, a huge step forward on behalf of our students.  

Over the next two weeks you’ll be very busy writing comments, marking assessments, and providing quality feedback to your students.  However, when it comes time to think about those first units of semester two, take some time to plan for misunderstandings.  Grab had the foresight to realize that extra charges added onto a ride need a little investigation and dedicated time and effort to ensure that my experience was the best it could be.  What can you do as an educator to make the experience of learning in your classroom the best it can possibly be for your students?  

Planning for misunderstandings might just be the most effective strategy you can use to help your students, take the time to do this before teaching a lesson.

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.

Seeing Ourselves as Models

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 12, hard to believe…enjoy it 🙂