Monday, August 15, 2016

What if we treated every day like the first day of school?

Although the students in our district are not officially starting for two more weeks, today was my "first day of school" as I, along with several of my colleagues, begin to work with the new teachers to our district.  And although I do not formally teach students I still found myself struggling to fall asleep last night and rising early this morning in anticipation and excitement.

A few hours ago, a group of diverse, excited, nervous, and anxious new colleagues walked through the door ready to begin their learning journey here. Most of them have taught before. Some of them are brand new to the profession. Some of them will be here next year. Some of them will be elsewhere in new opportunities. 

The first day with new teachers is a whirlwind. The first week with new teachers in our "academy" can be intense. But it also creates an opportunity to forge new relationships and establish our own little culture of support that leads into a job-embedded instructional coaching model. As a teacher myself, I am grateful that we have the opportunity to lead and learn alongside these new colleagues. 

I can't help but find myself wondering around the following questions. 
  • How will our community develop?
  • How will they fit into the community of their school?
  • How will they fit into the community of our district?
  • How will they grow as teachers and leaders?
  • How will they grow as learners?
  • How will they change our community and culture for the better?

In two weeks, our students will walk into their classrooms and into the communities they create. I have no doubt that these teachers will share my nervous excitement.  I hope that between the significant worries over rules and procedures and routines,   that they too will be wondering about community and learning. 

The first days of school are always an exciting time, full of hope and promise. Students are eager to learn, teachers are eager to teach. Everyone is excited for the new opportunities and challenges ahead of them. Optimism and joy seep out of classrooms into the hallways and beyond. The best teachers are the ones who make those feelings last through the holiday season and far past the  testing season.  

What if we treated every day like the first day of school? 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

What if we were passionate about passion?

One of my favorite books of all time is Sir Ken Robinson's "The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything". It is my go-to book when I am in need of inspiration and a reminder of the conditions for learning we need to ensure we create. This book resonates with me as an educator but also personally because of our need as humans to be inspired, to drive towards greatness, to pursue our passions, and to hone our talents as life-long learners.

I fundamentally believe the major failure of public education is that we have consistently and continually told students what to learn and how to learn it without consideration for their own personal talents and passions. For most, the fundamental purpose of schooling is to create productive members of society. And while that is an important goal, it is considerably limiting. It is limiting because the transaction of school is continuously one-sided and the focus is on what we want instead of what is best for one another.  It is also limiting because if we afforded students the latitude to learn as they needed, about what they wanted, and focused on learning about the things they were most passionate about, we would be developing more productive members of society anyway.  This is the same argument about achievement and learning. When we allow achievement to be the measurable goal, we are ignoring the greater potential of learning.  When our students are master learners, we will see measurable growth through just about every metric.

As adults, despite being successful, we often are not afforded the time and space to follow our passions. Our careers, family, and life circumstances become our primary focuses.  And the resentment of not being able to do the things we love may manifest in statements to our kids and students such as "life isn't always about fun and games" or "You can't always do what you want" (Thank you Rolling Stones!)  But what if we changed our message? What if our schools were built around passion? 

What if we were passionate about passion? 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What if we stopped talking about change and embraced it?

Image result for business change quotes

So much of what happens in school and in classrooms revolves around the concept of change. There are those who are frustrated that change isn't happening fast enough. There are those who are upset that it seems to be happening too fast. But these conversations are often just that... conversations. They miss the point. 

I love to be in the ocean. There is a place, just off the shore, where the crashing waves are just loud enough to drown out most of the screams of excitement on the beach. It is the place where the undercurrent pulls us out a little further from the shore than we might be comfortable with. Sometimes it is at this point where the water is just deep enough for us be able to touch our toes, but we are most likely treading water. It is also at this point where we realize that the waves forming beyond us will force us to make a choice. That choice is to either ride that wave in towards the beach  or be completely enveloped by the impending wave. We can try and hold out, avoiding them, but they will continue to grow and they will continue to come. Change, like the wave, can't be controlled, but it can be navigated. It can also completely swallow us up. 

Change is  never easy. It is by its nature, a process of growth and evolution. It is inevitable and unavoidable. Frequently, we pretend that if we ignore change long enough, we can stop it.  But in doing so, we often miss how drastically different the landscape has shifted around us.   Many of our schools and classrooms are dangerously in peril of becoming not just ineffective at preparing the next generation for the world around them, but also becoming completely obsolete. We must decide whether we want to spend our time talking about how much pain change will cause us or whether we want to focus on how beautiful we can make our classrooms and schools for our students. 

What if we stopped talking about change and embraced it?

Sunday, February 28, 2016

What if we designed our learning spaces for learning?

Recently I had the opportunity to spend some time in a showroom focused on school furniture. Along with traditional school furniture, there were many other alternatives that embraced the flexible learning spaces that our students deserve. The showroom had colors, fabrics, multi-use chairs and tables, and utilized wall space as whiteboards through the use of whiteboard paint.  It was hard to not feel inspired by the use of space and design. All I wanted to do was begin to draw on the walls and the many other spaces meant for people to leave their mark.

Ultimately, the conversation led to cost and budgets. They then led to whether we were preparing students for colleges which have not necessarily embraced these types of learning spaces. Conversations also revolved around the need to have spaces for students to take the multitude of state tests and their ridiculous requirements, and lastly, the reality of the structure and limitations of the size of the classrooms that currently exist.

At one point I found myself mumbling under my breath "Why can't we ever, just once, start from the potential of the learning space?"

It would be easy to take each of these factors and toss them out the window as complaints, but they aren't. They are the current reality of many schools and educators which are still structured for the 20th-century factory model of schools.   It can be challenging to envision learning spaces that are flexible, colorful, and design focused when we are stuck in schools that resemble factories both inside and out. And while it is a chicken and egg scenario, the limitations above can sometimes keep educators from taking risks.

Consistently public schools are "stuck" trying to serve higher education through outdated, highly structured, and content driven curriculum, focus on achievement on tests like the SAT and AP, and even instructional strategies such as the lecture. The domino effect implications of higher education expectations consistently shape and limit the learning potential in public schools across the United States. At the same time, public schools rarely have the courage to buck the system and build schools and design classrooms for the instruction, culture, and academics our students deserve.

The furniture discussion is just a microcosm of how preparing students for college and career readiness place ceilings on learning for our students.   It is also the place where we have been attracted to the bells and whistles which lead to wasteful spending instead of thoughtful design. Every classroom with an interactive projector, class sets of laptops and tablets must be a place where learning occurs, right?  It is easy to be distracted by the gigantic interactive tv's that will be obsolete in two years or the computer enabled tables that provide little to no collaborative learning experiences for our students.  We set our sights on things instead or processes, devices instead of learners.

In so many ways, whiteboard walls (or just large whiteboards in general), magnetic walls (better yet, magnetic whiteboards), or lots of corkboards can transform a classroom space with very little waste in expense. The focus should always be on the design process and the learning that occurs, not on the expensive technology or furniture. New furniture is nice and can change the culture and vibe of space, but until we remember that the most important person in the room IS the room, we may never see the kind of learning we hope to see.

While school board, administrator, and teacher perspectives are incredibly important, decisions on furniture, devices, and other resources often leave out the most important stakeholders. As we were driving back from the showroom, our tech director (@kuzojoe) asked the most important question of all: "What kinds of learning spaces do you think our students would want? What kinds of furniture would they like to have? "

What if we asked our learners how they wished to learned? What if we designed our learning spaces for learning?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

What if we valued curiosity?

Along with many awesome things he shared today, George Couros (@gcouros) made the following statement in his #pete2016 keynote:

"If a child leaves our schools less curious than when they started, we have failed." - G. Couros

This might be the greatest condemnation of most schools or school systems.  How many of us can truly claim, let alone quantify, that a majority of our students graduate more curious than when they started as a child?

The dictionary definition is pretty fantastic in that it defines curiosity as a strong desire to know or learn something. I guarantee there are a plethora of  district mission statements out there that use the phrase "life-long learner" and yet do not consider how their  policies, choices, and actions completely drain the curiosity out of their children.   Grading practices, teacher focused instructional practices, and heavy-handed curriculum emphasizing coverage over learning are all examples of things completely in our locus of control  which  remove the love of learning from our students. 

Sadly, the second definition of curiosity is more of the norm in our classrooms and schools. Far too few of us are embracing student driven learning through passion/project/problem based learning.  We continue to complain about the disengaged and distracted learners amongst us while not acknowledging our own culpability in killing the love of learning.  When Will Richardson writes about the nostalgia for school, he is referring to our consistent faith and belief that our own schooling wasn't so bad.  To those who think it wasn't so bad, ask yourself this question: How many times did you get to choose what you wanted to learn, in the ways you could learn best, and show what you learned in the way that was determined by you, the learner? Did any of your schooling reflect the type of learning you do as an adult? Me neither.

Many of us chuckle when we see memes like this:

 Are we still laughing when it says this? 

I believe that our job as educators is to empower our students to be eternally curious. They can't be curious sitting behind a desk. And they certainly can't be curious when we are constantly telling them what to think, do, or say.  

Our classrooms and schools are a direct reflection of what we value.
What if we valued curiosity? 

Monday, February 22, 2016

What if we stopped complaining and started doing?

I had an opportunity to meet and speak with someone whom I have long admired today. George Couros writes and reflectively shares his thoughts on leadership and learning on his blog, through social media  (@gcouros) and in his book  "The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity". What I have often admired about George is that he writes and speaks practically, openly and honestly. He blogs often. He makes time to reflect and he makes time to lead through building relationships.

It's been awhile since I have attended an ed-tech conference for a multitude of reasons, but chief among them is what I have perceived as the increased "self-promotion" of individuals and the exploding capitalism of learning by ed tech companies. Around every corner, there is always a person or product willing to take your money and solve your problems for you. There is also no shortage of people who will showcase how amazing and transformative something is without actually being able to provide evidence of the impact on student learning.   This is also one of the reasons why I have shied away from the use of social media altogether in recent months.

Meeting George face to face actually gave me a sense of guilt and shame because he is one of those people who I believe actually walks the talk. My shame stems from the fact that I often don't make the time to write and reflect. My guilt stems from the fact that I don't participate and share the way I believe we all have an obligation to do. Sadly, I spent most of the early parts of our conversation complaining about lots of things instead of engaging in meaningful conversation.  As I became aware of my overt negativity, we chuckled and George even commented that I should change my twitter handle to @bitchychad. ( I looked it up and no one has used it yet. Maybe we can get it trending.) But in that moment, I also realized how much time and energy I have wasted complaining instead of doing.  Even in a moment such as this, instead of focusing on potential, instead of learning about how to be the change, instead of learning from someone with expertise, I was fixated on sharing my frustrations. I can't say it was one of my prouder moments.

This realization has implications on my perceptions of social media and conferences. When we only see the negative, when we only see the problems, we miss the beauty and the opportunities all around us. I often think of a white sheet of paper with a tiny black dot in the middle of it. How often do we focus on the black dot instead of the vast, white, clean paper ready to be transformed?   How often do we only see the negative in our classrooms, schools, or communities? How much time do we spend focusing on the problems instead of celebrating and working at the opportunities in front of us?

And if I am being truly open and honest, I think it's how many of us waste a lot of our time and energies. We consistently kick the can down the alley: blaming others, blaming our circumstances, and blaming the system.  There is no doubt that there are hurdles to overcome. There is no doubt that there are systems in place that make it challenging. But they aren't impossible circumstances to overcome and the hurdles aren't impossibly high to get over. We have to stop admiring the problems. For some of us, it would mean we might have to admit that we aren't good enough yet. For others, we would have to acknowledge that it is going to take a lot of work to get to where we want to be. And for others still, it would mean looking deeply at why we are avoiding moving forward.

Tomorrow, I am excited that George will keynote #petec2016 and spend some time sharing many of his thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on leading and learning in funny, engaging, and provocative ways. And I will listen, not focused on what can't or won't happen, but by recognizing that there is potential for every student, every teacher, every administrator, every board member, and every parent and community member to do amazing things for our schools and our community.  I hope to get him to sign his book for me, even if he does sign it  "for @bitchychad".

What would we gain if we stopped complaining and just started doing together? 

Friday, October 2, 2015

What if we remembered what it was like to be new?

One of the opportunities we have been afforded in our current roles as instructional coaches is to support new teachers to our district.Our current induction process involves a week long "New Teacher Academy" and then a series of face to face meetings throughout the year. We are also using a district wide LMS to build community between meetings through discussions and sharing.  The make-up of this years group is diverse in experience. We have teachers who are in their first year as a teacher and fresh out of college. We have teachers who are in their second career. We have teachers who are returning to the profession after spending time at home with their family. And we have teachers who have come from other districts in search of new opportunities.

The start of the year can be an extremely difficult and challenging time for a veteran teacher, let alone someone who is trying to establish their role in the culture of a school or district as a newbie. Learning new curriculum, new technology, and building new relationships is challenging. Fitting into an established culture, following through on expectations, and navigating the politics of a school or district is completely overwhelming.  Even under the best circumstances it can lead to many more questions and self doubt than answers and confidence. Many new teachers find support with one another and with grade level or course alike partners and collaborators. Sometimes they are supported by district provided mentors or coaches, and if they are fortunate enough: a building principal willing to invest in them.

A recent meeting with our current crop of new teachers forced some much needed reflection and contemplation. While there were stories of small victories (I finally got logged into this system!) , celebrations of established routines (My kids actually lined up properly after two weeks of practice!!), there were also stories that brought tears and sadness. Sometimes these stories are things we can do little to control. How do we support a teacher when a parent chooses to use Back to School night and social media to openly criticize them despite trying their best.  What can we do differently when students openly mention that they can't wait for the 'regular' teacher to come back?

But what about the things we have control over? Is moaning and groaning about a colleague who pushes into our classroom with a cart to teach, a proper way to treat them just because we can’t use our space for our prep work?  Is it acceptable for us to tell a new teacher in our building that we don't have time to show them where the photocopier is or help them navigate curricular resources? Is it right for us to ignore a new teacher in the faculty room or not say hello in the hallway?  Is it kind or compassionate to openly criticize how a new teacher is running their classroom or teaching?  
We often worry about about our students and the way they treat others. My earliest recollections of school involve learning the golden rule. The truth is that we make our jobs infinitely more difficult because instead of supporting one another it’s much easier to tear each other down. Is it time for us to look in the mirror and acknowledge that sometimes we don't practice what we preach? That sometimes we forget what it is like to be new.

What if we stopped to ask a new teacher in our building to sit with us at lunch? What if we stopped into the classroom of a new teacher and asked how things were going? What if we stopped them in the hallway and asked them if they needed help with anything?  What if we sent a new teacher a note or an email telling them how happy we were to have them in our building? What if we took three seconds out of our day to tell a new teacher that we were excited to learn alongside them? What if we took time each day to remember that  teaching is much more enjoyable when we support one another? What if we committed to 30 minutes a week sharing and collaborating? What if we remembered what it was like to be new?

At the end of our last meeting we asked each member of the group to write down something that they were proud of on a post it note. We asked them to fold it up and put it in their wallet or purse.  And we asked that the next time they felt beaten down, found themselves crying or wanting to quit, that they should get out that note to remind them that there are many things to be proud of. While what I write next wouldn’t fit on a post it note, I do want to share what I am proud of.

So to our new teachers (and new teachers everywhere):

I am proud of you. You wake up every day and come to school with the best of intentions: to help students learn and to grow. You put up with the nonsense and the noise. You put your best foot forward. You work through the tears, the criticism,  the long nights, the loneliness, and the feeling that what you do will never be good enough. You recognize that this profession is not what you expected it to be. You question whether you will make it to December, let alone to the end of the year. You wonder when it will be fun. And yet each day you treat it like it is new again. I am proud of you because you understand grit, perseverance, and problem solving because you know no other way.  I am proud of you because you choose to continue to learn and grow and approach each task as a new opportunity to improve.

It’s ok to recognize the negative, the hurt, and the frustration: but remember this moment. Remember that this is the moment you acknowledged that despite it all, it is completely worth it.  Remember what it feels like to be new. Remember that our students walk into "new" at the start of each year. Remember that next year, there will be colleagues who will be experiencing what it means to be new. Remember that you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps. Remember that it got better (not necessarily easier). Remember that you found the support you needed. Remember that you learned what you needed to because you never stopped trying. Remember that you won over parents and students because of the kindness and compassion you showed them. Remember that you will never be the same teacher you are at this moment.  Remember that despite the heartache and challenge ahead of you each day, what you do is valued by many even though they may not say it or show it nearly enough.  Remember that to each student who walks through your door, you can be their support and their hero. What you do each day makes you my hero. Remember that we are proud of you.