It's About the People

School districts, states and even the Federal Department of Education have rolled out initiative after initiative after initiative in schools. These initiatives come with programs, protocols, procedures and all have intentions of improving student learning at some level. Many of them are conceived with the best intentions in mind. The creators of any one of these programs or plans were interested at some level in making school better for kids. You can define "better for kids" in a lot of different ways. We want to make schools safer. We want to allow more collaborative work for teachers. We want to increase student test scores. We want to prepare kids for college and career. We want a great many things for our students and teachers and we put in place many plans and initiatives to attempt to do this.  In schools we have a plan or a procedure for just about anything we think can and will happen. On paper many of them look really good.

However, a vast majority of them fall apart or are not effective in the manner in which they were intended. The simple reason behind this is often not a fault with the plan or the program but rather the people involved. I have spent countless hours of my career being professionally developed or trained on any one of these new programs or initiatives. Yet many of them fail to reach their intended results when it comes back to a building level because of the people actually responsible for the follow through and execution. At the end of the day there are some people that just don't have any interest in following the plan or getting on board.

You can look at Common Core as a contemporary example of this notion playing out in schools. Many districts have gone through curriculum review and are implementing new Common Core aligned units of study. Yet, even with new standards and new curricula, there are still teachers refusing to change or incapable of changing. They are holding on to their old ways and refusing to adapt or change for the sake of the students. Much of the failure I have seen with the new standards has little to do with the standards but rather with the individuals attempting to implement them. From PLCs and special education to BYOD and flipped classrooms, there is a program or initiative for everything and they depend on the people involved to make them succeed. It doesn't matter how good a plan is if you have the wrong people.

I wonder if we shifted our energy and resources away from programs and initiatives and into hiring and inspiring the right people we might be better off. How can we get to a place where we are constantly improving the level of teaching and learning through ensuring the right people are in our buildings rather than trying to change those who are already there and resistant to change? If we want to look at impacting students it is the people not the programs that will do that. Programs are important. Procedures are needed. Protocols must be in place. However, none of them are worth the paper they are written on if you don't have the right people in place to do the work

They Are Watching

Whether we like it or not, kids are always watching.

As a parent, kids are always watching what we do and say. Same can be said about teachers and our daily interaction with students. This is an immense responsibility; one I have been reflecting greatly on lately in both my role as parent and teacher. I think this video, which has been around for a while now, is a great clip to get adults thinking about the impact they have on the children in their lives.

I consider myself a keen observer, or possibly an awkward stalker, of adults in the various settings I find myself in. It is no surprise when I witness kids acting in the manner in which they observe adults acting or struggling to make sense of adult behaviors.

I notice when parents are on a sideline or a bleacher yelling obscenities at other athletes, coaches or officials. I am never surprised when I see their child mimicking the same behavior. Youth sports has sadly become a place of one-up-man-ship and poor sportsmanship at a deeply troubling level. Kids observe parents in a horribly negative context and make evaluations on future actions as well as about right and wrong.

I am aware of the parents who verbally abuse their child in the stands at a swim practice and then watch that same child show verbal aggression to their peers. It is no secret, when kids are the receivers of harsh verbal attacks they are more likely to use the same tactics in their social interactions. In addition, by-standing children observe this behavior and begin to evaluate as well.

I sit and watch kids doing homework with their parents and hear the parents tell them they can’t help because they always thought [fill in subject] was stupid and hard. Then the same kid will refuse to do the work and hold a preconceived grudge in that class. I often ask parents to lie to their kids when it comes to specific subjects they might not like. Kids feed off what we tell them and if we choose to “bash” a particular academic pursuit we have given them a blank check to write it off as well.

Kids watch adults eat unhealthily or choose not to exercise. While this may seem judgmental or harsh, kids look to adults in their lives as role models and health is a big part of this. I run every single day and my sons see exercise as a valuable part of living and have taken to running with me as well. If I want my boys to be healthy, I need to model that in my life choices be it physical activity or food choices. Teachers are no different in the ways in which they influence students and their choices about health and all that entails. When a student is told they need to lose weight and make healthier decisions by an overweight adult sucking down their 3rd McDonald’s Coke of the morning, should they listen?

As adults, we have children in our lives, either our own kids or our students who look to us. Even when we don’t want them to or don’t think they are, kids are watching and listening. What are they hearing and what are they seeing? 

Edu-All Star

Last night I had the opportunity to be a guest on the Edu-All Stars podcast with Chris Kesler and Todd Nesloney. It was a great conversation and the work these guys are doing to share the EduWins amongst our ranks is tremendous. I encourage you to take a look at their site and the massive collection of genius they have put together in that space.

Pushing Back

Are we pushing back enough?

Lately I've been pondering this question on a lot of different levels. For starters, as a teacher there are a lot of things that we do or have done to us that we don't question or push back against. To be clear I don't think of pushing back as being insubordinate or unprofessional. What I mean is, do we question and look for clarification or seek answers as to why we are doing something? Or, do we take things at face value and simply follow orders? If we are given a directive from an administrator that we do not feel is in the best interest of our students, do we push back on behalf of those students? I feel as though a great many teachers fear the consequences of pushing back. They fear it will be a mark on their evaluation or possibly lead to disciplinary action. Yet if we fail to push back, who is going to be there to make sure the students are taken care of? Who better understands the needs of the children in the classroom than the teacher who works with them daily?

On the other side of things I often hear of administrators who don't push back either. There push back looks a little bit different in that they are pushing back at their staff. I have seen several examples of staff unwilling or uninterested in frankly doing their job as teachers or working to improve themselves as professionals. They are mediocre and are doing their work in the same manner in which they have for 20 or more years. What I often fail to see is administrators pushing back against these teachers and challenging them to improve for the sake of their students. I have even heard the comments, “Well that is the way they have always done it. I'm not going to change them at this point in their career.” That is essentially a white flag and a blank check for that teacher to continue operating in a mediocre fashion.

Another element to this is teachers pushing back within their own teacher ranks. This is not to saw we are bashing our own kind but are we pushing back and challenging our colleagues or do we tolerate mediocrity when we encounter it? In situations where a fellow teacher is doing something you know to be wrong or is simply not being a team player, how are you approaching it? Do you step away and decide not to get involved or do you say something and try to push them into a positive direction? If we are not pushing our fellow teachers or are willing to be pushed ourselves, are we doing all students a disservice?

When it comes to the role of a parent I far too often see a failure to push back. As a parent myself, I spent a lot of time around other parents. My sons are swimmers and soccer players and I often find myself in a bleacher or on the sideline talking to other parents. Very often these conversations revolve around Ugg Boots or idle neighborhood gossip. However, these conversations also revolve around school and what is happening with their kids. I have lost track of the number of times a parent has complained to me about something that has happened in school with their child. They ask me for advice since they know I am a teacher. Nearly every single time a story such as this is shared I ask them if they have ever pushed back. Have they ever called the teacher and asked a question about why something took place. I asked them if they have sought clarification or understanding or even a justification about what is happening in the classroom. A vast majority of these parents all answer the same. No. There is a fear holding them back. They don't want to be viewed as “that” parent or have their actions or words taken out on their child.

Myself as a parent, I have held back on speaking up against things at times because I didn't want it held against my child. As a parent and a teacher we often have to walk a fine line. The fear that parents feel is real because we have all seen teachers who hold the actions of a parent against a child, as wrong as that is. Yet, I go back to the idea that if as a parent I don't push back nothing will ever change. If there's something happening to my child that I don't agree with, chances are that is happening to other children and has been happening to other children. I feel as though we as parents have an obligation to speak up not only for my child but also for every child whose parents are afraid of speaking up.

Yes, there's a way to push back professionally and in a civic manner and I realize not everyone pushes back in this manner. Sometimes the push back comes in the form of ranting, raving and the occasion swearing. Despite this, we as teachers, parents, administrators and everyone in between need to not only be open to push back but also do some more pushing ourselves. If fear is holding us back, what do we lose due to that inaction? More importantly what are our children and students losing because of our fears? 

Intellectual Safety

           Recently I had the opportunity to visit Kailua High School on the island or Oahu. My good friend Dr. Chad Miller is the Philosopher in Residence at the school. Chad, in his role with the University of Hawaii, trains teachers on how to use a program called Philosophy for Children within content area classes. I was fortunate enough to take part in what is called a philosophical inquiry in a history class. Simply put, although the process is not simple, it is a framework for allowing kids to delve deeper into reading and specifically their thinking through philosophical inquiry. There were a number of takeaways from my time in this class that I will continue to unpack for days to come. However, one aspect of the conversation with these high school students struck a specific chord with me.  
The particular philosophical inquiry I participated in was a reflection on their community of learners. Specifically, they were discussing the idea of intellectual safety within their community, which was defined as their class. To be clear, the idea of intellectual safety is when students feel safe to share their thoughts openly and freely. I would venture to believe most teachers consider their classroom to be a positive community for learners and that intellectual safety is present. However, as I sat and listen to these high school students talk about their community, I begin to question my own classroom community.
For starters, I’ve never had an open and honest conversation with my students about the community within my classroom. Never have we sat down and discussed as a group how we treat each other as people or as thinkers within our classroom community. Some might think this is a wasted effort on the part of the teacher and doesn’t impact the learning within the classroom. With the amount of content and curriculum to cover, how in the world do we have time to have classroom discussions or inquiry into how we are functioning as a community?
Yet, as I sat and listened to these students talk, I couldn't help but sense the gravity of that conversation. In terms of intellectual safety, the students shared openly about how they felt they could operate and share within their community. It was very clear to me as an outside observer that intellectual safety was something taken very seriously by the students and by their teachers. Back to this notion of intellectual safety, I must point out the comments that one of the students shared.
One young lady openly talked about how she felt safe to share in this particular community or classroom. However, she was very clear to point out that when she leaves this community she goes back into what she described as a box. Meaning she will go to another class being in this box and not share and not feel intellectually safe. It wasn't because anybody said anything or did anything to her in another class but simply the idea of intellectual safety was not a focus. Other students shared similar insights into acting or behaving differently in different classrooms. One of the students pointed out every student has thoughts but not all feel intellectually safe enough to share those thoughts openly.

Now I understand the teachers all have different styles and approaches to teaching. As a result students may act differently in different classrooms. In spite of that, should we tolerate a student feeling like they are in a box and are not intellectually safe to share in the classroom? It really made me think back to the students I've had that are very reserved and quiet in my class. Often we just push them aside and assume they are shy kids and they are forgotten about. Although it might very well be possible they do not feel intellectually safe with in my classroom. How can we ensure no student feels “in a box” within our classrooms? For me, I know this will be a focus of mine as I move forward with this school year and work intentionally to create a classroom environment supportive of intellectual safety.

Write Until You Puke

This school year my district, as many across the country are, is in full adoption and implementation of the new Common Core Standards for ELA. We have taken a very systematic approach of breaking down the standards and fitting them into the context of our school district. The groups of teachers involved in this process are to be commended for the tireless work done to prepare for this year. Specifically, we have really overhauled our writing curriculum and how we teach writing to our students. Without going into much detail, we essentially have a writing program based on the new standards. This program breaks down the standards and has mini lessons, assessments and a whole host of resources for instructing students in the process of writing. To say it is intense would be an understatement and yet I recognize that everybody is implementing common core standards a little bit differently.

One of the things that I am already seeing in this new school year is my students are doing a whole lot more reading and writing. This is especially true in the area of informational literature. This is largely due to the new standards along with the level of intensity in content needing to be taught. Most people think this is a good thing and to an extent I agree. I am supremely confident my students will walk out of my classroom better readers and writers then when they walked in. Due to the sheer amount of reading and writing we are doing with our students there is little doubt this will happen.

However, I fear they will also learn to hate reading and writing when they walk out of my classroom. The level of intense instruction and sheer weight of the content standards is overwhelming to many teachers and surely is to students. We are being flooded with reading and writing on a level I have yet seen before. There are many sports analogies of young athletes pushed too hard and burn out and end up developing a hatred for the sport. I hope I am wrong, but I fear we might be doing the same thing to reading and writing in our new Common Core aligned classrooms. I hope at the end of the year I look back at this post and laugh, as my students will have made gains while still keeping a passion for reading and writing. Yet at this point in time I remain skeptical we might be pushing too hard and too fast.

As a parent, I realize the balance of pushing my kids while keeping their passions alive. If you have a child being pushed too hard by a parent, it is pretty standard they will often grow to resent whatever you are pushing them towards primarily due to the pressure applied by an adult. Is learning any different? I worry we are focused so much on pushing kids forward we are losing the balance and burning kids out. Can we find a middle ground where kids will progress with their learning while not hating learning in the process?

Because I Said So

Because I said so.

As a parent I will admit I have used this explanation for things I have asked my sons to do. It is the catchall phrase meaning, “don’t ask me why and just do what I told you to do.” The other day in class I was speaking with my students about an activity we were working on in. One of the students questioned me and asked why we would be doing it. I explained how the particular activity connected to a learning target as well as a skill that would help them throughout the year and beyond. The student was taken back a little and told me that he expected me to say, “Because I said so.”

This took me back a little and I asked the student why he would think I would say that. His reply was teachers always say that or some version of it when questioned about an activity or lesson. I went off script for the remainder of the class and discussed with students how wrong a phrase like that is. I impressed upon them to always ask me why we do anything in class. I am more than happy to explain why we do anything as well as the thought process behind my decisions to do it.

In addition to the classroom activities I create, I also share with students those things we are required to do. For example, district assessments, standardized testing, character programs, and the whole host of other things teachers are required to do with students. While I am not selling anyone out, I am certainly honest with my students about why we do these things and how they are used. Yes, there are times when I have to tell them we are doing this because someone told us we had to so let’s work together and get past it.

As a teacher, if you can’t explain why we are doing something, then should you be doing it? Kids have the right to understand why they are being asked to do things in school and we have the obligation to explain that to them.

You Never Know

As another school year draws to a close I always like to look back and reflect on the year. For me this was an especially difficult and trying to school year. The students that I worked with although rewarding, were often challenging and testing me in many ways I had not been tested before. However, as I sit here I ask myself and wonder if I did enough. Did I do enough to help these kids be better then they were when they walked in my room in the fall?

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a good friend who said you can't help every kid so why do you try to help all of them. The reality is he is correct. If I look at the hundred or so students I teach every year, I can't help each and every single one. Some of the students I will not be able to connect with or help in any sort of significant way. Some of these kids come in with so much baggage and learned behavior from home environments or ingrained home cultures, that I don't stand a chance. If I'm being an optimist, I might say half of my kids are better off than they were when they walked in my room in the fall. But as I told my friend I don't know which half that's going to be or which have it is even after the school year is over.

I will never truly know the impact I have on a kid. That is why we as teachers can never give up on a kid. Or in this case, give up on a group of kids like a class that may be difficult or challenging. The time we invest is never wasted because we never know which kid it's going to help. In some cases we will never truly know our impact and it's because of that unknown that we have to do our best and try our hardest for every kid. If we give up on a kid or give up on a group, we don't know which ones we could have helped. As I told my friend, we have to try to help them all because we don't know which one it will click for.

As the school your draws to a close I made sure to reach out to each and every one of my students. I told them either verbally or in writing, in some cases, how much that meant to me. I thanked them for working and learning with me this year. I also set for some goals for them personally and academically and told them I will be checking up on them as they move into next year. While I may never know the impact I had the group of students I had this year, I feel like I gave everything I had and I hope it was enough for at least some of them.