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.

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.

 

5 Ways to Stay Alive Until Summer

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

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

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

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

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 🙂

Dear Teacher, Thank You!

It’s Teacher Day in Ecuador.  I wrote a personal ‘thank you’ letter to one of my High School English teachers and sent it to him in honor of this day, a couple years late but better than never I hope!  I wrote another letter as well.  I wrote to you on behalf of your students.  You all deserve to receive a letter like this, perhaps you have or you will in the future but you deserve one today as well.

Thank you!

 

Good Afternoon,

I am writing to you today to say something that I, perhaps, have never said to you or any other teacher before…thank you!!  

You see, I know that I don’t usually show it and I rarely (if ever) actually say it, but I really appreciate all that you do for me and my classmates.  To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I see much of that now or really appreciate it in the moment.  However, I know 100% for sure that I will realize how much I appreciate you and your efforts some time in the future.  It may be when I finally ace that assessment, perhaps it’s in a few years when I’m in college looking back at my High School experience, or it could be in 20 years when I’m in my mid-30s and reflecting back on my life so far.  Whenever it is, I will realize it and I will appreciate all that you do (have done) for me.

I know that when I go home at night and do (or don’t do) my homework, you are putting in more time preparing to help me be successful.  I realize that teachers go home at night and grade papers, correct tests, write comments, and agonize over their students.  I know that when you lose your temper in class that it’s not because you don’t like me but rather because you care so much about me and my success that you’ve invested a lot of your time, effort, and emotions into me and my classmates.  Thank you for all that you do to make my success such a priority, it means a lot to me (or it will someday in the future!!)

Do you remember the other day, when I came to your class and you smiled and asked me about my weekend?  That was awesome, I had a great weekend and really wanted to tell someone about it.  I really enjoy connecting with my teachers, it helps me learn.  Someone shared a quote with me once about the relationship between teachers and students, “Students don’t care what a teacher knows until they know that their teacher cares.”  Well, I know that you care about me and that is why I am invested in your class…thank you for caring!  

We’ve got a holiday coming up and I don’t plan on thinking about school too much.  I hope you are able to do the same, take some time away and relax.  It’s hard work being a teacher, I can see that from all that you do for me.  I’ve heard the jokes about teachers and all the vacation time, they’re not funny.  I know that the time and effort you put in is just as much as anyone else in any other job, because you care about my success and want the best for me.  During this next holiday I hope that you spend time with your family, travel, read a book, or do anything else that helps you to relax and recharge.  We don’t have much longer in this school year and I know that together we will finish strong.

Thank you again and please remember that even if I don’t show it or say it now, I will certainly (some day) appreciate all that you do for me.  You’re an outstanding person and an even better teacher, I’m lucky to have you in my life!  

Thank you,

Your student

A Week of Tweets from my View of Academia Cotopaxi

Usually I write about something I’ve seen or heard around school over the course of the last week…or at least something inspires an idea that I end up writing about.  This week I wanted to share some of the things I’ve seen and heard around school in a different way.  I realize that many of you don’t get the chance to go around and see all the different things happening in our school each day.  So, here are a collection of my Tweets from this week that share some of the awesome stuff happening at Academia Cotopaxi this week, starting with snow-capped Pichincha on Monday morning – enjoy!

PS – It may take a minute for all these Tweets to load here…be patient 🙂

Wow, that all happened in one week around here!  I certainly enjoyed visiting classrooms and seeing all of the awesome stuff that is happening at AC, it’s a wonderful place for our kids!  Thank you all for everything that you do to make it a great educational experience for everyone 🙂