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 🙂

 

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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.  

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.

Students Aren’t Robots

Students aren’t robots, in fact they’re exactly the opposite – they’re humans.

Not only are they humans, they are teenage humans.  Hormone filled, emotional, impressionable teenagers…eeek!  There couldn’t be anything less predictable wandering our halls than 600+ teens.  Nothing could be more different from a predictable and programmable robot than a teenage human being.

This is why, recently, I’ve asked our Year Level Managers to start scheduling parent meetings with all of our students (and their parents) who’ve shown a pattern of arriving late to school.  See, up until now, we’ve sent each student the same exact “agreement” letter once they’ve reached a certain amount of ‘late to school’ infractions.  The problem, once again, is that our students aren’t robots.

If our students were robots then ‘agreements’, lessons, and consequences that were exactly the same for each student would work perfectly for all of them.  It would be glorious, we’d find the perfect lesson and consequence that helped all students arrive to school on time and our problem would be solved.  However, as I’ve mentioned, our students aren’t robots.

So, back to the meetings…my theory (that our students aren’t robots) proved to be true right out of the gates.  The first set of meetings were all completely different situations.  The first student was having a hard time arriving to school on time because she would wake up and look at social media on her phone for such a long time that she ended up leaving the house late every day.  The next student just couldn’t get out of bed because he was staying up until two or three in the morning each night.  The third student was doing everything right but her older sister was so slow in the morning that she ended up being late herself too often.  How effective is the same ‘agreement’ letter for these three kids and can you really apply any fair consequence to all three students?  

Our rationally developed and 95% effective Behavior Expectation System just wasn’t doing the trick for that remaining 5% of our students.  The reason it didn’t work for everyone…well, I think you’ve figured it out by now, ‘our students aren’t robots’.  We needed a touch of the human side to get involved in the process and, from what we’ve seen so far, it was very necessary.

I’m sharing this today because I want to encourage you to work on responding to the individual needs of our students more appropriately.  Sometimes it seems more efficient for the entire class to go through the same lesson, lab, or assessment but is that actually the most effective way of learning for each student?  Being ‘late to school’ is no different from trying to learn academics in the grand sense that our students all have different stories.  One student may learn very differently than their peers.  Most students, in fact, don’t learn the same way as those sitting next to them…they are humans.  

Our students aren’t robots.  I know that’s obvious but I think the exaggeration of the point allows us to realize that, sometimes, we operate as though they are very much the same person.  Even if we could take away the crazy swings that hormones cause in our students we’d still be faced with 600+ individual and unique human beings.  Perhaps 95% of students fit the molds we’ve created, but what are we doing in our classrooms, with our Behavior Expectation System, and every other aspect of education to make sure that all 100% of our students are receiving the best education possible?

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 🙂