Reflection as a Tool

The end of the year is a busy time and there is certainly no shortage of things to do.  So, I’m not going to ask you to do anything new right now! However, I want to encourage you to take some time for the most important tool for professional growth that is available to you…reflection.  

Reflecting on our professional life is what allows us to grow as educators.  I realize that most people don’t think they have time to sit down each and every day to reflect on their work, but it certainly would be valuable if you did!  Taking time to reflect about a particular lesson or unit allows for immediate and relevant feedback. In many cases you won’t teach that lesson or unit again for a whole year, what specific information will you be able to remember a year from now?  Taking the time to stop and reflect will cement the ideas you’ve had about how to improve your lesson or unit.

“Hey Bret, that’s a great idea and all but we’ve only got one week of school left, right?”  Exactly, and that’s why I’m mentioning this now. Reflecting takes time and it is something that, if not scheduled, will be hard to commit adequate time to.  So, make a plan now and commit to setting aside 10 minutes at the end of each day or during a prep period. This time will not be wasted, I promise. You’ll begin to see the payoff very quickly.  Taking time to stop and reflect will help you to grow as a teacher and improve the learning experience for your students.

I strongly recommend taking the time to reflect after each lesson and making those notes for yourself to look back on in the future.

Some things you might reflect on after a lesson:

  • What went well with that lesson?  
  • What could be improved?
  • Did the kids have any feedback about today’s lesson (the content:  i.e. it was really hard, really easy, etc)?
  • Did you try a new strategy or activity today?  How did it go? What can you do better next time?
  • Were my students engaged throughout the lesson?  If not, where did I lose them? What can be done to prevent that next time?

As you go through the process of reflecting on a daily basis you’ll improve and it will become second nature.  When it comes time to teach those lessons again you should start with your reflection notes and then look at the lesson with those thoughts fresh in your mind.  Going through this process not only helps you to grow in the future but you’ll immediately begin to grow as some of the reflections will be ideas you can implement in your very next lesson.  

Plan the time to reflect and hold it as sacrosanct, don’t give it up for anything!  I promise, you’ll be glad you did!!!

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?

Refocusing on Students

Last week I said that I was going to start sharing interesting articles, blogs and other resources to help you think about how you can grow as a teacher.  This week I want to give you some things to ponder related to the topic “Refocusing on Students”. Aren’t the students what it’s all about?

Most of the articles that I plan to share are things that I’ve linked and saved as I scroll through Twitter, coming back to them later because they’re usually so long. SO…with that in mind, I’m only including two longer articles for those who are interested but I’ve also included some great tweets that are aimed to get the juices flowing. 

So, without further ado…There is a lot of good stuff here to inspire any educator!!

Is it ALL about student engagement?

How do students learn?

Classroom culture is essential…

How can my classroom be more rigorous?

If half your students fail….

Every child has a story

 

How could the way you interact with your students and manage your classroom be improved?  Here are 10 great ideas to begin working on immediately.

 

A great piece about how focusing on the strengths (instead of weaknesses) of an English Language Learner can help them grow

What Happens When Teachers Grow?

I like to argue (let’s call it “debate”) and I like to learn.  Recently I was thinking about how I’ve grown and changed as an educator throughout my career and, thanks to the things I’ve learned along the way, realized that if time-travel was real then I would be able to have some very intense arguments with myself!  

There are topics in education that I’ve changed my opinion on, a full 180 degrees.  In other cases I’ve slightly modified and shifted my views based on things I’ve learned and experienced.  Also, along with my ever-evolving educational philosophies, there are a certain segment of my beliefs that have been strengthened by things I’ve learned.  Throughout my educational career I’ve taken the time to sit down and, literally, rewrite my educational philosophy five different times. It’s very interesting (to me anyway!) to see how my views have shifted over the years.  

I’m sure, if you’ve been teaching for more than a couple years, that you’re able to see changes in your own educational beliefs as well, they’re completely normal and (I would argue) expected.  As educators we are surely life-long learners; when we learn, we change. How has your educational philosophy changed throughout your career? This question should take some time for you to answer.  If you haven’t been sitting down to think about this regularly over the years, then you may not even be aware of how much your opinions have changed. Take some time to think about it…

Beyond nudging you to think about your educational philosophy and how it’s changed (a great practice in and of itself) I want to encourage you to think about why you’ve changed as well.  I can trace most of the changes in my educational philosophy to four different things (in alphabetical order): 

  1. Colleagues:  I’ve been lucky enough to work with some really wonderful educators tracing all the way back to my teacher training program.  Keeping an open mind, watching and listening, and having philosophical conversations with my colleagues has allowed me to constantly learn and adapt my educational practice over time.
  2. Experiences:  Living and traveling internationally has given me the chance to see many different views on all sorts of topics.  Not only have I seen education through many different lenses but I’ve also had the chance to learn about how cultural expectations, languages, and religious and political views can impact a person’s philosophy on education and life.  
  3. Further Education:  Whether masters courses, educational workshops, conferences, online courses, or in-school PD opportunities, I never pass up a chance to learn from someone new.  The experiences of others can be just as valuable as our own. By putting myself in a position to network and learn from others I know I’ve been able to grow considerably.
  4. Reading/Listening:  Teachers and educators have taken the internet by storm.  Between the amount of educational books available to be read (or listened to) on digital devices, the volumes of educational blogs, oodles of podcasts and information on social media platforms such as Twitter, there is literally too much to read and/or listen to.  Digging in and finding interesting and thought provoking educational material isn’t even difficult now days…honestly, if you’re not doing this yet, this should be the first thing you look to do! (Listening to educational podcasts would also be a GREAT way to improve English language skills!!)

From a great article I read a while ago called, Why The Best Teachers Change Their Minds:

“The best teachers change their mind because things themselves change. 21st century learning is, above all else, diverse, interdependent, and formless. Technology, culture, academic standards, assessment forms, and the cost–and format–of higher education all evolve endlessly.”

Of the four different things that have helped me grow so much as an educator the easiest and quickest way to have my thinking challenged is the last one, reading and listening online.  With that in mind I want to start sharing some interesting articles and blogs I’ve read recently. I’ll start this week with an Earth Day inspired set of great articles and videos.  I’m hoping that by having a look at some of the things I share over the next few weeks you’ll be inspired to dig a little deeper and find a way to improve your practice even more 🙂

 

Preparing Students for an Unknown Future

I hope everyone had a chance to rest, relax and sharpen the saw a bit over the holiday.  We’re back for the final stretch of the year, it’s going to fly by!

During the holiday Amy and I traveled to Shanghai to visit friends and see how the city has changed since we left there almost three years ago.  Shanghai has been a land of opportunity for a long time now, especially over the last 15-20 years. As such, new restaurants, stores and other entrepreneurial opportunities have popped up quickly.  While we were visiting I had the chance to talk to a few of my friends who’ve been able to take advantage of this hotbed of opportunity and it got me thinking about our school mission and how we’re preparing our students for a booming world economy.

I don’t know the secret combination of all the ingredients but I think I’ve figured out the recipe for success that so many of these young entrepreneurs have followed.  It starts with an idea, or many ideas, targeted on an identified problem or void in a community. From there it takes time, effort (lots of effort), planning, organization, and what many of the people I‘ve spoken with called ‘good luck’.  I, however, believe that the ‘good luck’ factor isn’t truly named at all, we should be calling this last bit ‘preparedness’. And here is where I believe that we, as a school, come into the equation.

See, we’re the ones preparing these students.  We’re preparing them for the unknown, for the future that is still (at best) a foggy and murky idea of what their lives could possibly hold.  So how do we do that? Are good lesson plans, homework and final exams the answer? What about service learning, interdisciplinary units and Education Outside The Classroom?  What happens if we integrate ATLs, technology and TOK links into all of these things? Do any of the combinations from above prepare our students for the future?

Therein lies the biggest question – what future are we trying to prepare our students to meet successfully?  Are we content with preparing them for university? Should we be preparing them for life beyond university? What if our students don’t attend university, will they be successful?

My nudge to you this week, as we prepare for the final quarter of the year, is to start considering some of these questions.  As part of the three year Strategic Plan currently under development we are thinking about a lot of these questions and what the implications of their answers could mean for how we prepare students.  Take some time to contemplate these questions and debate them with your colleagues. I’d love to hear from you or be a part of any of these conversations, it’s fascinating stuff and there are certainly no ‘right’ answers!

 

Future Ready Schools

What if school didn’t look like this?

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I know what you’re saying, my classroom doesn’t always look like that.  Maybe it never looks like that.

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Chairs, technology, walls…”school”.

If you asked most people (teachers, students, non-education people) what they expect a classroom to include they would have a pretty common list:  teacher, students, desks/tables, board (smart or otherwise), books, computers. And, if you really pressed them to list absolutely everything…walls! 

This, however, is where the problem lies – these constructs of a classroom and/or school are old, they are antiquated, they date back beyond my grandparents.  What else that we rely on so heavily today is done/made the same way it was 100 years ago? 50 years ago? 20? Think about it, look around you, what is one relevant thing that is the same as it was 20 years ago?  Computer? Phone? Books? The clothes you’re wearing? Nope…everything has changed – except education!

Every industry is working to improve their product; working to make them more cost-effective, make them more user friendly, make them more green, improve functionality or performance.  Yet education, by and large, remains the same.

How are we, educators who are meant to be preparing our students for the future, supposed to do justice to a process that prepares kids for a future that includes so many unknowns?  

The answer is breaking away from the deep-seated rituals that have become school.  We must offer students the chance to truly engage with their learning, get their hands dirty, and live a life of active (not passive!) learning.

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What is this was a “classroom”…everyday??

But how?  

Well, that is for each school to figure out on their own.  How are they going to commit to being a school for the future?  It will take courage, it will take forward thinking and it will take lots of time and effort.  The results, however, will easily outweigh everything. If we keep doing things the same way, we’re going to keep getting the same results.  If we’re preparing for a dynamic future, we need a dynamic present – flexible, engaging, adaptable and inspiring…

Take a look at these schools and see how they’ve already begun to challenge the construct of school and the classroom.  These are all forward thinking schools (listed here from closest to traditional to least traditional, according to me)…they’re all awesome and all have room to improve.  However, what they have in common is that they are all schools for the future!!

Perhaps your school isn’t ready or able to make such a leap forward right now, that is fine.  However, what are you doing to create a dynamic educational experience that prepares students for the future?

I was tempted to explain these programs in brief but was concerned that an oversimplification of these wonderful programs just wouldn’t be fair.  So, I’m STRONGLY encouraging you to have a look at these programs (or at least a couple) and evaluate them yourself.

Carpe Diem School in various locations

Western Academy of Beijing – Capstone Program in Beijing, China

Roosevelt Innovation Academy in Lima, Peru

Summit Public Schools San Francisco, California

Green School in Bali, Indonesia

High Tech High in various locations

Khan Lab School in Mountain View, California

NOMAD in San Francisco, California

Think Global School in…well…nowhere and everywhere at the same time (if you look at one of these, this is it!!)

 

My Why

A couple of weeks ago I challenged you to stop and think about your “why”.  I encouraged you to think about why you teach, why you do what you do.  I wanted to lay that challenge out without giving “answers” or examples.  My hope was that you would take some time to watch the wonderful Simon Sinek video and stop to go through the exercise I suggested.  

This week I want to share the results I came up with as I went through this process.  One thing I want to add before I share my results is that I believe that these are ever-changing results.  I know that when I started teaching, this list would’ve been very different from today. Even just a few years ago these answers would’ve been extremely varied.  I’m confident that as I learn more and grow as an educator, my reasons “why” will change as well. There are no right answers and no wrong answers…

Why I’m an educator:

I hope that everyone in the world can achieve a curiosity and passion for learning; this is how the world will be made a better place.

There’s nothing better than the moment a child realizes they “can do it”, discovering capabilities and finding never before seen confidence is beautiful.

I hope that I can inspire students to be nice and work hard; these two qualities have never failed anyone.

I absolutely love helping someone who feels hopeless or unable; showing them that they “can” or even that they “might be able to” is amazing.

By influencing young people I hope to help the next generation to be better off than mine or any that came before. 

How I educate:

I focus on the whole-child; often times looking straight past the classroom and academics to “who the student is inside”.

I am unrelenting in holding students to high standards.

I face challenges with courage, daring to say things people don’t necessarily want to hear when necessary.

I listen, contemplate and evaluate new ideas, opinions and information.

I hold myself accountable to high standards and continuously re-evaluate my values and goals.

I work to establish positive relationships, learn about the people around me and use this knowledge to help people reach high levels of success.

I challenge the status quo.

What I teach:

I teach social-emotional skills.

I teach passion and courage.

I teach curiosity and persistence.

I teach kindness.

I teach courage.

I encourage all of this in others.

 

There you have it, my reasons “why” as of today.  These may change and some may be missing but at the end of the day, going through this process has centered my focus back to “why I do” instead of “how/what” I do.

I hope you’ve given this a try already but if you haven’t please do so!

Starting With ‘Why?’

For the last few weeks our students have been my inspiration for my Nudges, even more specifically I’ve focused on our Year 10 students of late.  They’ve done some inspiring work recently with their Personal Projects and shown a strong passion for learning.  This week, however, I want to ask you to turn the mirror on yourself and think about your ‘why’.

If, for just one more moment, we think about those Year 10 students and ask “why did they put so much time and effort into their Personal Projects” we’re going to come back with a lot of different reasons as to ‘why’.  Maybe they are passionate about the topic and loved investigating, maybe it was because they wanted a good mark, or perhaps it was to impress their teachers or their parents. Surely each and every one of those kids, at the end of the day, has their own ‘why’.

So, back to you, what’s your ‘why’?  Why do you come in each and every day and give everything you have to working with (pre-)teenagers?  I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, by friends, family or even strangers.  What was your answer to them?

There’s a wonderful TedTalk by Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker and marketing consultant.  My Nudge today is has two parts.  Part One:  Take about 18 minutes to stop and listen to this TedTalk (you can add Indonesian subtitles if you feel like that will help).

Now that you’ve watched that TedTalk I want to encourage you to take some time to contemplate the second portion of this week’s Nudge.  Take a piece of paper and draw those three circles:  Why, How and What.  Start with your ‘Why’.  Make a list of all the ‘whys’ that you teach.  Why do you teach?  Then, move out to the next ring and answer the question, “How do I teach?”  From there continue on to the “What do I teach?”  Be sure to start with the Why and end with the What.

If you really take your time and are honest with yourself throughout this process I think that you’ll come to some interesting conclusions.  Next week I’ll be writing about our Year 10 Work Experience Week but in two weeks’ time I’ll share my results from when I went through this practice with myself.  It’s a great time of the year for reflection, we’re asking our kids to do it and we should too…enjoy 🙂

 

5 Characteristics of Phenomenal Educators

The other day I was talking to a good friend of mine, also a principal, about the recruiting process and what we look for in teachers as we go through the many CVs and interviews.  While we both agreed that there is no magic formula for finding excellent teachers, we did settle on a few characteristics that we look for while we’re going through the search process.  I wanted to share those with you today because I believe it’s good to take time to stop and think about ourselves from a more holistic perspective, which I’m encouraging you to do.  

  1. They are a “striver”.  I used to use the term ‘hustler’ but was never happy with that for various reasons.  However, when I imagine a teacher who is always giving their best effort to grow, improve, and help their kids succeed I get this image of a teacher who is constantly working hard and doing anything possible to get better.  A teacher who is consistently putting forth effort to improve and be better for their students is a striver, and someone I would want to hire!  (I took the term ‘striver’ from a book by Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  Here is a cool piece that explains the idea of ‘striver’ vs ‘natural’ in a musical context.)
  2. They have balance.  It’s one thing to be a striver but it’s a total other thing to be someone who works themselves into the ground.  There is a saying that I learned from a mentor of mine that goes, “If you’re solely committed to an institution, you should be.”  The idea is, making work your only focus is completely insane.  Education is a non-stop pursuit and if you dedicated every minute of your life to it for the rest of your days, it still wouldn’t be perfect.  We need to know where to draw the line and find the balance in our lives so that we are able to work hard for our students, day in and day out, while still living our own lives beyond the walls of the school.
  3. They are positive.  This one is hard to see on a CV but it certainly shines through in an interview.  No one wants to work with people who are constantly finding problems, complaining, and bringing the overall culture of a school down.  Positivity goes a long way in any business but I believe it goes even further in a school community.  Kids are naturally positive people, why should adults be any different?
  4. They are diverse.  People demonstrate diversity in a lot of different ways.  Having a wide variety of experiences, teaching a variety of subjects and/or grade levels, supporting various extracurriculars, and showing your range as an educator, are all great ways to stand out.  People with diverse experiences tend to have more open minds about challenges and opportunities that may arise unexpectedly.  This kind of flexibility is invaluable, especially in international schools!  
  5. They love working with kids.  Again, this is tough to see on a CV but completely obvious when it comes to interviews.  Educators who love working with kids show it as soon as they start talking about their jobs.  Their eyes light up as they tell stories of their students and their energy immediately increases.  Teachers who truly love working with kids, while seemingly common, are much harder to find than most people would think.  

There are many more attributes displayed by great teachers but when I meet someone who displays these particular characteristics in a truly authentic way it is clear that I’ve found an absolute diamond in the rough.  

Take a moment today to consider yourself from a different perspective.  Try to step back and ‘zoom out’ a bit.  How do you view yourself as an educator?

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.