Grains of Salt

For quite a while now I have been a big advocate for teachers using social media. Specifically, I have encouraged the use of Twitter as a way to build strong professional learning networks. I know for me Twitter allowed me to make some very strong professional and personal connections. These connections have been a huge asset in my growth as an educator. Having said that, I feel as though new users and some veteran users of social media need to take things with a grain of salt. The reason I say that is you can't take anything at face value and should keep a skeptical eye out.

For starters, much of what you see on social media is the "best" and is highly biased. People are tweeting and posting about their best lessons, their best classes and their best days. You don't often see the sometimes ugly, messy or painful work we do as educators. If failures or “bad” content is shared, it is done is a way to attempt to garner positive attention or gain pity. In other words, people are not often sharing the days they lose it on a kid or a situation. They're not jumping out to post a vine of the lesson that went horribly wrong. Administrators are sharing great pictures of their schools’ work but fail to mention the irate parent or disgruntled board member they often deal with. This is not to say the negativity needs to be shared but we need to be mindful of this reality. Far too often people see other people's work and feel inadequate. Many teachers feel they cannot measure up to those who are sharing and posting all of these seemingly amazing things on social media. Just remember they're sharing their absolute best from a biased point of view and those individuals likely share the same frustrations and tough times as you.

Another aspect of social media which has become quite popular is the use of absolutes. People are spouting off about how all teachers should 100% do “this” or should never do “that”. I have been told I am a bad teacher if I lecture, use worksheets, assign homework or don’t use Minecraft. Now to be fair, I have shared what could be considered borderline absolutes specifically around the notion of homework. Yet, I fear that the use of absolutes when it comes to just about anything in education is an easy way out. It is far easier to make a blanket statement than engage in critical thinking aimed at understanding the very nuance embedded in the work we do. Outside of avoiding cafeteria food nearing an extended holiday break as freezers are being cleaned out, absolutes should rarely be used.

The final piece that I caution social media users on is the so-called experts telling you how to do your job. There are some incredibly outgoing and in some cases pushy individuals in these social media spaces. They are constantly telling teachers things they should do or should not do. They use passive aggressive tactics or are even out right demeaning of teachers in an effort to get them to do something. Yet a simple click on their biography will illustrate they are not in fact classroom teachers or school administrators themselves. That is not to say we can't learn and grow from those not in a classroom. That is not it at all. I greatly value the insights and opinions of those with a variety of perspectives both in and out of the classroom. However, always be skeptical of somebody telling you how to do your job when they are in fact not doing your job.

I will continue to encourage teachers to use Twitter and other social media sites. I stand behind the notion they are good for building connections while learning and growing in a community. However, I do so with a bit of hesitation and ask that all users, new and old, take it all in with a grain of salt.

I'm Not Resigning

There has been a lot of talk about the viral teacher resignations floating around online. I myself have recently engaged in conversations with fellow teachers who have said they are thinking about resigning or retiring as soon as possible. Even more are the individuals who say they would never recommend their children or their neighbor’s children to go into the teaching profession. 

Many of these people make statements like, “It's not what it used to be”. “Kids have changed”. “Parents don't support our schools”. “There is no funding and Common Core is killing our kids”. The list of reasons to not go into teaching are pretty long and are often the same reasons people leave the classroom. 

The simple act of teaching is often being suffocated by meetings and administrator initiatives. What was once an art and craft has in some places become cold and calculated all the while being driven by data. There is less emotion and more calculation in the profession. In the short 13 years that I've been teaching, I have seen these things. As a result I am asked if I would recommend someone going into the teaching profession. I have thought long and hard about this because I do have reservations. 

Teaching isn't what it used to be. Yet as I thought about it, I realized teaching shouldn't be what it used to be. Society has changed, regardless of if we think that is a good or a bad thing. Kids have changed. Families have changed. So it only seems natural that teaching should change as well. Teachers are being held to a higher standard and held more accountable for every child's education. I'm trying to see why that's a bad thing. Granted, I am not in agreement on how measuring this is being done, but the reality is improvement is a good thing.

As I was reflecting on this notion of resigning or not going into teaching, I received an email. The email was from a student I had in my first two years of teaching. She was nearing graduation in a teacher prep program and had to interview a teacher who had inspired her to become a teacher herself. As I read her comments and reflections, I knew without a doubt that I would recommend anybody to enter our profession. People like to say teachers teach everybody. We teach the future doctors, the future mechanics, the future presidents and the future corporate giants. We teach them all. 

Yet, we don’t teach with the intention of creating future greatness. We simply teach to inspire them to find whatever potential greatness may be hidden inside. If a student is able to find their passion and are inspired to find their life’s work, that is all we can hope for as teachers. Reading the letter from that former student about her aspirations to become an educator removed all doubt about the profession I have chosen. It forced me to reflect on why I chose the profession I did and also feel really good about the impact I had made on that one student. It is in those moments that I know I would recommend a career in education to everyone. 

Actually, I take that back. I don't recommend everyone go into teaching because not everyone can do what we do. Not everyone can inspire, motivate and empower children like we do. Not everyone can shape the course of a community like teachers do. Maybe we should be thanking all of those educators who are resigning and retiring or choosing a different career path.  Just maybe, at the end of the day, people who aren't sure about their choice are probably not the ones we want working with our children anyway. 

Change Won't Happen

Lots of people are talking about the need for change in education. Some people may go so far as to say we need a revolution. ;) Many people think they know the answer about how education needs to change. The ideas and potential fixes range far and wide with each a self proclaimed game changer. Entire school systems are being created around these notions and many of these reforms or shifts are being held in high regard by many within education circles. Yet, nothing has really stuck and created the wholesale shift or change in thinking about how school happens in the US that many argue we need. 

Rather then thinking about what changes need to be made to the system, I am wondering if systemic change is even possible. Can change happen in our schools? Is changing the system of American education at a system level likely to happen anytime soon? Could a strong argument be made that it never will? I am not a pessimist and do see the need for change in so many places in my role as a parent as well as a teacher. What I am suggesting is that change can not happen in any real way if it doesn't start in the classroom.

Stop and think about any of the positive changes that have happened in education in the last decade. Some of these changes vary in impact and scale, yet there is evidence of change. Teachers changing the way grades are used and what homework means for kids. Teachers pushing a maker mindset as well as including innovation and creativity in their classrooms. Or the teachers looking at their instructional practices and utilizing methods such as flipped classroom or project based learning. All of these changes happened within a classroom and were led by classroom teachers. It is when those elements and those ideas get taken out of the classroom and try to be scaled for large systems they often fall apart or lose their effectiveness.

A great example of this is the PLC model as it has played out in many schools. What started as an idea to have teachers collaborate around teaching and learning has turned into busy work and forced agendas. Where teachers were organically discussing best practices and instructional pedagogy, they are now forced to obsess over data and create inauthentic protocols to fulfill administrator expectations. Many other seemingly positive ideas coming out of classrooms are taken and brought “up to scale” and lose their authenticity and ultimately their impact on students. 

When decisions about what is best for kids are being made at the classroom level they more closely reflects what is truly best for kids. When decisions about what's best for kids are made at a system-level either in a district, state or federal level, those decisions are less about what's best for kids and more about what's best for the system. The decisions made at the high level are about efficiency and simplicity rather than individualization or student centered. This is not necessarily a criticism but rather an observation. With this in mind, can change be driven from the "top"?

As a classroom teacher can we wait for our district, state or the DoE in Washington to mandate change? It has been my experience that changes or even full a blown revolution of ideas do not take place in the state houses or the policy rooms in a country. Revolutions are began by the people. As a history teacher I often teach my students about the many revolutions which have taken place throughout history. They begin with the common people. The people on the streets and in the trenches. As teachers, we are those people in the streets of education and the trenches of the school system. 

The revolution of ideas and the movements of change are going to happen in a classroom not a courtroom, state room and likely not even in a school district meeting. As teachers we are responsible for being the advocates of change our students need. Without us, change and reform is just an agenda item for decision makers and a talking point in an election year. 

Best for Kids

You don’t have to spend a great deal of time in a school to hear the phrase, “best for kids” mentioned in a meeting or inservice. This phrase permeates into much of what we do in schools and is often the justification behind a great many decisions. You don’t have to look far into mission statements, visions or school improvement goals to see some iteration of that phrase. Yet, do our actions support the use of this statement? Even when we want to can we ever truly do what is best for all kids? 

First, are we doing the best for all kids when we implement a zero tolerance policy in schools? These policies leave many students out in the cold due to many variables. My own son was victim of this when he was disciplined by an administrator when in kindergarten he used the word “gun” to explain a contraption for catching a Leprechaun. Seriously. Students who are innocent are being punished for the past crimes of the guilty. Suspensions are being handed out  to students bringing knives, matches, etc in to class for legitimate projects all because of zero tolerance. Is this the best we can do for all kids? Can we get rid of zero tolerance and instead engage with situations on a case by case basis and recognize the nuance and context of each individual situation? 

Another idea which is not a popular one to discuss is that of inclusion. On the surface, inclusion makes sense, and as an educator I support the idea of providing all students with the best educational experience as possible given their individual strengths or struggles. However, are we doing what is best for all kids when the needs of one student infringes upon the learning of the other students in the class? For example, when lessons can not be taught or students can not focus due to the actions or support required of one student, are we doing what is best for all kids? Or, when the student being included is essentially being left out of the learning but is in the room purely for the sake of inclusion, is that best for that child? Where do we draw the line?

Is the entire notion of a classroom and general school based curricula best for all kids? Is it entirely possible some kids will not maximize their learning potential in a traditional classroom setting? Many students struggle in classrooms, not because of any academic or cognitive ability, but due to the confines of the classroom itself. Are we being arrogant as educators when we put forth a comprehensive curricula for all kids knowing full well vast amounts of it will have no value to the students when they leave our schools? Can we create flexible learning environments where students can come and go as they need? Additionally, can we create curriculum based on potential future need as well as current student interest? Can the students have a role in deciding what environment as well as what content works best for their learning needs?

Sometimes we as educators get in our own way when it comes to what is truly best for kids. For example, how many times have we stepped back and neglected to support a child or provide the best possible resources because of a parental conflict? When parents disagree with what we as educators know what is best for kids, how can we still push forward and do what is best for the kid? When we know a school rule or outdated district policy is not what is in the best interest for each kid, how do we engage in dialogue with powers that be in order to help support our students? Sometimes doing what’s best for kids is simply being the advocate they need and too often don’t have. 

Best for kids is an easy phrase to roll off the tongue. We as educators often use it to justify our work but often we fall desperately short of putting action behind those words. Sadly, best for kids is often a cop out to justify what is easiest for adults. Rather than a one size fits all attitude, can we really do what is best for kids? Instead can we focus less on what is convenient for the system or easy for the adults and instead shift to what is truly best for the individual student?

The Wrong Data

I have been a teacher in a public school for my entire 13 year teaching career. Over that time I have seen many changes on the education pendulum swing back and forth. One trend, although likely more than a trend, I see creeping or rather blitzkrieging into every aspect of our school in recent years is the use of data. To say schools have become obsessed with data may be an understatement. 

Now I'm not here to say I don't like data. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I believe data is a very valuable tool in schools just as in many aspects of life. As a self proclaimed runner, I am constantly pouring over data from my running. I collect distances, times, elevation and even weather conditions. I have two sons who swim and I often review the data of their times and how they are doing and progressing as swimmers. I realize this may indicate I need a new hobby. :) However, data is very much a part of my daily life and likely of many other people.  

In school it feels as though the most important data we collect is reading and math scores. Yes, I realize there are other data points gathered but these appear to be the headliners in the data driven show. Teachers are told they are good teachers or bad teachers largely based on this data. In some places teachers who don't even teach math or English are being told they have a stake in that reading and math data. Huge amounts of human and fiscal resources are invested in supporting reading and math intervention. Specialists are hired to work with our students who struggle in these two area. We even create additional classes for students to get additional help in reading and math. Often times these new classes come at the expense of an “special” or an enrichment class. When this happens students miss out on other learning opportunities they might excel at in an effort to receive additional support. All of these decisions are driven by the data being collected. 

Again, I'm not opposed to data or even using data to inform decisions. Yet, I wonder if the data we’re collecting and the data that is driving our decisions is the right data. If you walk the halls of many schools across our great country you will see issues and concerns beyond low reading or math scores. You will see students who are unhappy, lonely or sad. You will see students that are hungry, that are not well rested and generally unhealthy. You will also see students who are overweight, unkept or emotionally unstable. When I see these students I wonder about a different kind of data driving our work as educators. 

How are we collecting data on happiness? Are we collecting data on physical and mental health? What sort of decisions are being driven by students’ joy and wellness in our schools? Are we creating intervention plans or pulling resources to support mental health as well as physical health? Is it at the same level as it is with math and reading? How can we obsess over a child's reading scores when they're hungry or struggling with obesity? Why are we worried about whether they will master math standards when they are clearly not well either physically or emotionally? 

In reality, much if not most of the data we are collecting in schools will mean little when kids leave our buildings. Whether or not we got a student to a higher level of reading or a higher level of math computation will have less bearing on their life than if they leave us healthier both in mind and body. Why is it that English teachers are being forced to obsess over intervention plans and supports for struggling readers? Why aren’t the PE teachers and the health teachers or the counselor's creating comprehensive wellness plans, mental health plans, or happiness plans for children who struggle in these areas? Why are these plans not the focus of our conversations and data meetings? The data we use to drive our decisions ultimately reflects what we value and I wonder if our schools are beginning to value the wrong things or at least not valuing enough of the right things.

A Curious Teacher - Part Three

A Curious Teacher - Part Three

I am still unpacking many of the insights and lessons shared in Brian Grazer’s book, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. One of my initial takeaways was around the idea of curiosity not being a sought after or overly valued quality in schools. The other insight gained was about how the notion of “good enough” can by problematic in life but certainly in our work as teachers. My third and potentially finally takeaway for now is around the notion of the Internet and its impact on curiosity. In his book Grazer states the following:

“It was Karl Marx who called religion ‘the opium of the masses.’ He meant that religion was designed to provide enough answers that people stopped asking questions.  
We need to be careful, individually, that the Internet doesn’t anesthetize us instead of inspire us. 
There are two things you can’t find on the Internet - just like there were two things Robert Hooke couldn’t find in the Bible or in the decrees of King Charles I: 
You can’t search for the answer to questions that haven’t been asked yet.  
And you can’t Google a new idea. 
The Internet can only tell us what we already know” (Grazer, 2015).

I find this notion interesting and can’t help but relate to it on a personal level. I think we can all remember being in a argument where we tried to remember the name of an actor in a movie or who won a professional sports’ title. Or we have debated about how a particular historical event actually transpired. Those discussions and debates may not have been incredibly important in the grand scheme of things but the interaction was. Now, when a moment like this comes up, a smart phone comes out and the debate is settled with a few strokes of the finger. Is that to say we don’t value the information at our finger tips? No, but I wonder if we loose some of that discussion and curiosity that often fuels great conversations. For me, conversations are the great catalyst of learning and therefore something I treasure and value above nearly all else.  

Another layer to this is Grazer’s notion of the Internet anesthetizing us as people. There is certainly a level of truth to this when you think about how the use of the Internet often plays out in schools. Often is purely a resource where students go to and then regurgitate information they find. They are not left to wonder and all of their questions are answers in the search bar in Google or Wolfram Alpha. This is where the role of the teacher comes in and how we use questions. 

I have heard many people say, “If a kid can google the answer to your test questions, then your questions are no good.” While I agree with the sentiment of this, I think it is a bit too polarizing and one of those sayings that look better on a poster than in real life. Kids do need content that Google can provide with a quick search. However, more importantly is that students can use that knowledge to ask more questions and think of ideas Google doesn’t have. In many cases the Internet has become the end point to a learning activity and not the starting point. 

How can we ensure the Internet, and technology in general is being used as a way to spark curiosity and lead to more questions and deeper ideas? Can we move past the Internet being the end point of learning and source of consumption and into a space where it pushes learners to deeper thinking and more questions? 

A Curious Teacher - Part Two

Previously, I wrote about my initial reactions to reading Brian Grazer’s book A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. Beyond just the role curiosity played in Brian’s life and work he struck another chord with me when we discussed the phrase “good enough”. This if often a phrase we hear in our line of work as educators, as is likely the case in any occupation. However, Grazer’s approach to that phrase resonated with me: 

“When someone says to me, ‘That’s good enough,’ it never is. It means exactly the opposite. It means the person, or the script, isn’t good enough… 
It’s such an odd expression, that means exactly the opposite of what the words themselves mean. It’s a way of saying, We’re going to settle here. Mediocrity will do just fine” (Grazer, 2015).

He goes on to explain through his curiosity conversations with world leaders, business moguls and other incredibly successful people, many of them have a deep dissatisfaction with “good enough”. If you are going to be successful, being good enough cannot enter your mind or be in your vocabulary. 

How does this relate to the work we do as teachers? Sadly, I fear good enough permeates into the world of education far too much. Standards are good enough for now. These textbooks are good enough based on the choices we have. That lesson was good enough to get the content across for this year. 

Beyond just the teachers and administrators, we see this with students and parents. Students do the bare minimum or what is simply good enough to get a passing grade. In addition, they settle for good enough in their own education and are content with what the school system has provided for them. Parents, too, are guilty of this. Far too few parents push back on schools doing just good enough for their kids. Instead they should be investigating and advocating for the best possible education for their kids. We can all do better. 

I have written before about my fear of mediocrity becoming the norm in our schools and I still see traces of it for sure. There has to be a way we see past good enough and push to be better than that. Being content and settling are partners in crime to good enough and in turn mediocrity. 

Teachers need to push back on being good enough and always look for better, different and more effective ways to do their work. We need to use our curiosity to question and wonder what else can be done and how we can look differently at our work. As teachers we also need to create learning opportunities that take away the option for students to turn in “good enough” level work. Students who are engaged in high interest and high value work rarely settle for mediocrity. As parents we need to be involved and aware of what is going on in our children’s schools and never be afraid to access our curiosity and ask questions. Questions lead to conversations and conversations are the path to learning. 

What are you going to do this year to get past good enough in your school? 

A Curious Teacher - Part One

Not so long ago, I was given a copy of A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life written by Brian Grazer. Now, admittedly this book was not written for educators or with the intent of being considered an education text. However, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but see so many parallels to teaching as well as potential implications for the way we work with children. The very premise of the book is the role curiosity plays in our lives and how simply acknowledging it as an important element of one’s self can lead to a richer and more full life. Specifically, I think Grazer makes a few points in which I think can influence the work of educators. I wish to delve into these ideas here as well as in what I anticipate will be future posts on the topic of curiosity in schools. 

Through Grazer’s life he found curiosity to be a key competent to success and happiness. He describes it in many ways and recognizes it can look different from individual to individual. However, he used his own curiosity to find ways to have what he called curiosity conversations with many people throughout his life. From Fidel Castro and Ron Howard to 50 Cent and Howard Zinn, Grazer has sat down and talked with some of the most influential, powerful, successful and interesting people in the world. His curiosity drove him to seek these individuals out to see what made them “tick” but also to gain insight into the role curiosity plays in our world and how it can manifest in many different ways. 

Again, A Curious Mind is not an education text nor do I think Grazer’s attempt was to influence educators specifically. However, he does take a direct shot at the lack of curiosity in our schools when he shares the following thoughts:

“The classroom should be a vineyard of questions, a place to cultivate them, to learn both how to ask them and how to chase down the answers. Some classrooms are. But in fact, curiosity is often treated with the same regard in school as it was in the Garden of Eden. Especially with the recent proliferation of standardized testing, questions can derail the lockstep framework of the day’s lesson plan; sometimes teachers don’t know the answers themselves. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would hope, but authentic curiosity in a typical seventh-grade classroom isn’t cultivated - because it’s inconvenient and disruptive to the orderly running of the class” (Grazer, 2015).

I reread this section many times and reflected on my experience as both a teacher and a parent. How many times did I push a kid’s question aside because I needed to “get through” the content or the lesson of the day? What have I done to discourage questions born out of curiosity because I didn’t have the time or the knowledge to answer them? Worse still is how my classroom has at times been a place that discourages questions due to the environment or instructional pacing. My own children have come home full of questions that have gone unanswered in their own classrooms. While I don’t blame their teachers, I do wonder if rigid curriculum maps and testing prep regimens are pushing curiosity out and further standardization in. 

There is certainly movement to get kids to use curiosity and guide their learning utilizing that curiosity. This has come in the form of Innovation Days and Genius Hours. Yet, are those enough? Can we say that a child can only be a genius or innovative during one day or one set period of time a week? Maybe we don’t want innovators or geniuses but rather children and adults who are curious and constantly asking questions to make sense of the world around them. Children at young ages are incessantly curious and yet something happens and that feeling erodes over time. Maybe it’s maturity or maybe it is something unintentionally or intentionally done in our schools. How can we foster curiosity in our students so they seek knowledge and understanding rather than simply grades and scores?

Thank You Mr. Smith

This post was originally shared a while back. However, as the end of the school year rolls around I wanted to take time to share again as much of what Mr. Smith does is hugely impactful at the end of the school year.

As a teacher you are lucky if you find yourself teaching in a building with inspirational and influential people. In this area, I feel incredibly fortunate due to the high number of people that would fit this description in my building. However, there is one teacher that stands above the rest for me personally. He has inspired me to write this post that I hope to serve as a thank you to him as well as a learning opportunity for others. I will not use his real name for both personal and professional reasons.

This particular teacher, Mr. Smith, teaches the kids that many others don’t want to, or simply can’t handle. These students are difficult, to put it mildly, and make up the so called “E-D” population which are students with a host of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges. His caseload ranges from year to year and fluctuates in both numbers and intensity of needs and he has been at it for 25+ years. Many of the students that walk through his classroom doors have witnessed and experienced things that most people will never see in a lifetime. Without going into great details, Mr. Smith’s students often are known by the local police departments, hospitals, social workers, and armies of therapists. In any given year his students will come and go due to hospitalizations at treatment centers or problems with the “law”.

Press photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection

What amazes me most about Mr. Smith is that he is like a prize fighter that gets his bell rung nearly every single day and yet keeps getting right back up. I have witnessed kids screaming at him and cussing him out while throwing classroom furniture. Yet, within minutes of these altercations, he is there rebuilding the relationship and providing the love and support these kids so desperately need. It is often a thankless job that largely goes unnoticed by other students and staff, who routinely try to avoid his room for fear of what is happening down in “Room 13”.

I have spoken and written often about my belief in relationships being the key to a successful teacher-student relationship. Much of my feelings and beliefs have come from the dreaded Room 13. When Mr. Smith’s often hair trigger students are having a bad day, he will dance and sing a “Grumpercism” which is one of his many creations to help his students crack a smile and relieve the tension. He will literally do anything for his students who are those that struggle the most with authority and the general institution that is public school. It is very easy to talk about relationship building and supporting kids in a so called “normal” class. However, teachers like Mr. Smith prove it can be done in the most difficult of spaces and takes away any excuses the rest of us might have.

What are you doing to build relationships with your students? Do you connect with the kids that are difficult and often pushed to the side? What about the kids that scream, yell, and throw furniture? Do you build relationships with them as well? What about the students in your building that are in “room 13”, do you take the time to know them, understand them, and have empathy for them?

Lots of educational talking heads keep saying we are “Waiting for Superman”. I am not. I work two doors down from him every day and I along with many other teachers in my building are better because of it. 

Summer Slide

Inevitably conversations will begin to arise in teacher’s lounges across the country about how to avoid the summer slide. Brochures for summer school will be handed out and in some cases summer homework will be assigned. Teachers and parents alike will be worried about their children and students losing their hard earned progress from the soon to be ending school year. The summer slide will be on everyone’s mind and yet our focus may be on the wrong type of summer slide. 

As I walk the halls of school, I am already hearing the whispers and giggles about plans being made for a summer of camps and s'mores or vacations and parties. Kids are counting down the days to freedom and fun with their friends and family. I myself am looking forward to my annual road trip with just me and my sons. It is a time of bonding, fun and memory making that I cherish greatly. Yet, there are many students who are not taking part in these conversations and excitement about the end of the school year approaching. For them, the summer means something completely different. 

Rather than attending camps, some students will be at home caring for younger siblings because their parents are working or absent for other unknown reasons. Others will be forgoing any vacations because their parent(s) are barely able to survive paycheck to paycheck. Still others will be left to their own devices and roam the streets because there are no adults or family members around to care for them. Some of the students in our classes will go home to abusive or unloving homes with no joy or happiness. Even worse are those who don’t have a home at all to go home to. 

For these students, and many others, the countdown to the end of the school year is filled with fear and anxiety. For them, school is the best part of their day and often the bright spot in their life. They cherish every moment they are with their peers and caring teachers. The thought of taking  break from that is heart wrenching for some which often leads to misbehavior and acting out in the final days. 

With this in mind, don’t count down the last days of school. Instead, seek out those kids who you can see struggling to let go and fearing the unknown of summer. Support them and encourage them in anyway you can. Make plans to connect over the summer if even through an email or a postcard. For them the summer slide is not about a dip in reading scores but a drop in access to safety, security and love. 

Take a few minutes this summer and send that postcard or email to let them know you care and are looking forward to seeing them again in the fall. It may just be the thing to get them through their summer slide. 

Teacher Appreciation

Teacher appreciation week is a great week to be a teacher. Lounges are filled with the smell of bagels and donuts supplied by thoughtful parents. Lunches are catered in and appreciative administrators pick up the tab. Students bring in treats and notes of thanks that never fail to bring smiles to teacher’s faces. Family members fill their social media walls with cute posters about how much they love teachers and support their work. It really is a great week and one I always look forward to. Yet, I wonder if there might be a better way to show appreciation for teachers in our country.

Instead of bringing in treats that add to our waistline, how about sending a letter to your state representatives asking for full funding for our schools? While sharing those cute posters about how much you love teachers on Facebook is nice, how about sharing something to raise aware about the absurdity of standardized testing? While I love the Starbucks gift cards as much as the next teacher, I would rather see that money used to fund a project for students on Donors Choose. Instead of the luncheons how about administrators do something to truly show their staff how appreciated they are?

While I love teacher appreciation week, I wonder if we as parents and community members can be doing more. This is not to say teachers are incapable of doing things themselves but they/we need help. Nor are they ungrateful for the gifts and nice comments and notes. Teachers work tirelessly to provide the best possible education for our students but it takes a village. We all need help with moving the needle of change in education to ensure our schools are the best possible learning environments they can be.  

I love my children’s teachers and my gratitude for the work they do will likely never be fully realized by them. Yes, my wife and I sent in treats and gifts. However, I also sent yet another letter to our state representatives asking for our schools to be fully funded and share content to raise awareness about school issues. I am donating to a Donor’s Choose project I believe will impact children in a deserving school. What will you do to show your children’s teachers how much you appreciate them and their work?


Recently in my Language Arts class we watched a TED talk by a young man who was talking about hacked education. At the beginning of his TED talk he was discussing the question kid are always asked which is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Naturally kids will say things such as lawyer, doctor, fireman, policeman or some other occupation. Yet this young man said that the answer to that question should be pretty simple. When asked what you want to be when you grow up the answer should be, “happy”. I find this very interesting and refreshing that this young man answered the question in that way. I would hope anyone regardless of his or her age would have the same answer.

It then got me thinking about the work we do in schools and if we focus too much on college and career readiness and not enough on joy and happiness. We all know the crazy that we are in with testing and standards and all the other nonsense that we deal with as teachers. If I have one more meeting where we discuss the importance of data driven decisions, I just might toss the cookies. As any teacher knows, we don’t have control over much of what policy makers and local administrators demand we do. Many things we just have to get through and deal with as part of the job.

With that being said, we can take the approach of complaining about those things we can’t control or take advantage of those things we can. For starters, we have tremendous control over the activities we do in our class on a daily basis.  We also have nearly complete control over the environment of our class and how kids feel while they are with us. Most importantly, it is within our control how we interact and build relationships with students. With this in mind we truly can help a kid be happy or at least make a significant impact.

I try to think about my own children and how happy and joyful they are when they are at home. When my youngest entered first grade, his teacher asked what our goals for him were for the school year. My wife wanted to put something down about improving his reading and math skills. I convinced her to write on that sheet that our goal for our son was that he left first grade as happy and as excited about school as he was when he entered it. A teacher or a school should never extinguish kids’ joy and happiness about learning and life. Lighting and protecting that spark of joy and happiness should be every teacher’s goal for every student.

I wonder if we do enough to make kids happy or allow them to pursue learning that makes them happy. I am an advocate for choice, autonomy and passion driven learning and yet I am often a slave to the curriculum and the standards. There is only so much a teacher can do and yet many of the small things can help spread that joy and bring happiness to a child. For more kids than we willingly admit, school is the best part of their life. There is often little joy and happiness in their home lives. Yet, while they are with us at school we can do everything in our power to ensure it is a positive and joyful experience.

What are you doing to bring joy and happiness to the students in your school? Seriously…leave a comment and share as we can all use some joyful and happy stories.

Done With It

As a human we get frustrated with things and are often pushed to the point of declaring, “I’m done with it!” For me this often comes when I am trying to fix something around the house. There are only so many times I can electrocute myself trying to fix a ceiling fan before I say “I’m done with it!” and call in a professional. I am sure all of us can relate and think of a time where our frustration led us to tossing in the towel.

However, as teachers we don’t have that luxury when it comes to working with kids. Or at least we shouldn’t. Yet, I have heard teachers say, “I’m done with that kid.” Now, I will freely admit there are kids who have pushed me near my breaking point and tested my limits and patience to the extreme. Yet, I never give in or give up on that kid. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to at times. For sure, there are students for who it would be much easier to write off and be done with than engage and dig in.

It is much easier to say I am done with a kid’s lazy attitude than engage and learn about why they are lazy or disengaged. It would be simpler to say I am done with a kid because their parents are difficult to work with than it would be to work to bridge that gap and foster a relationship. My life would certainly be smoother if I said I am done with a kid who continually fails in school than trying to mentor, teach and guide them. There are literally hundreds and thousands of reasons we should and could say I am done with a particular student. Many of which might be justified and indeed legitimate. Yet, is that the right thing to do?

If we say we are done, it means we give up. If we give up on a kid, we lose and we fail. This is not the kind of failure we celebrate and think of it as a great learning moment. When we say we are done with a child, we have failed as a teacher. No matter what a student does or says, we have to be there. We have to be there for them for the sake of any potential future they might have. In far too many cases, we the teacher, are the only individual in their life who cares about them and wants them to succeed. Regardless of how many times a kid tries to force us to give up on them, we can’t. We must try and persevere and do everything we can to keep at it. When we think we have nothing more to give, we go further and give more. We do this because we never can truly know the impact we will have on their life and if tomorrow will be the day it finally clicks.

Their Moment

Every year in my school we run a 6th grade volleyball intramural. The kids compete with their homeroom classes during a season where their records are tabulated. It is really a fun competition and gets kids excited to compete for their home room teacher and bragging rights. The top 4 teams then play in a final four where the final match is played during the school day in front of the entire grade level. It is one of the highlights of the school year as the kids get really fired up to support one of the teams in the finals. For the kids that play in the final game, it is certainly a big deal to them. It is more so for the team that wins and is recognized in front of all of their peers. They even get a chance to play against the faculty in a fun game of volleyball. I can't help but think that for some of those students it is their moment; the moment where they truly shine. A moment they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Many of our students will never stand as valedictorian or be an all-conference athlete. They will not experience standing ovations during a concert or have their work published in the local paper. Some will, but most will not. However, their “moments” occur as seemingly insignificant events on any given day but stay with them a lifetime. While most of us would not think playing volleyball in front of a gym full of junior high kids is a big deal, for some kids it is an enormous deal.

I am confident that all of us can think back on our school days. Likely we reflect on our moments. Those times where it felt like we were on top of the world and everything was going our way. Some of us have more of those moments than others but I'm sure we can all name one time will the world seemed on our side and we were “IT”. As I think about this and those 6th graders that had their moment in front of their peers at school I wonder how we can help students have those moments.

I've always said that the smallest gesture or insignificant comment can stay with a kid for a lifetime. It is because of this that I'm always intentional and what I say and do around my students. However, I wonder if we can help kids experience a moment; a moment where they stand out and are truly special. Now I don't want that to be confused with the idea of every kid deserves a ribbon or a medal. I truly want every kid to be able to experience that moment or joy and success in a genuine manner. Every kid in our building has a talent or a skill. I just wonder if we do enough to allow those kids the opportunity to have that moment. The moment where all of their peers look to them and celebrate their actions. What are we doing to help kids have their moment?

#PARCC: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

For the past several days my students have endured the new Common Core State Standards aligned PARCC assessments. After administering and proctoring for over 8 hours in three days, I have a few takeaways from this high stakes test which we will do all over again in May. It would be very easy to dissect all of the nuanced problems within the test but I thought I would start with a generic overview of the good, the bad and the ugly. This is in large part due to the fact I am not sure what I can or cannot say about the test for fear of violating the consent form all staff had to sign. :)

The Good

I feel it fair to say the test itself presented little overall difficulty for my students. They seemed to navigate the controls with relative ease and many of them finished with ample time to spare in what I would consider generous testing time frames. Many of the students reported they enjoyed it better than the old “fill in the bubble with a number 2 pencil” tests which were the predecessor. If I had to estimate the average student was able to finish most of the tests in around 20 minutes despite being given anywhere from 60-90 minutes for each test.

The Bad

The bad of the PARCC test is that we are using it all together. Over the course of two tests (Performance Based and End of Year) there is massive loss of instructional time. Depending on your level of technology, the tests are taking schools weeks to administer. For schools testing on devices, students and teachers are unable to use any technology during these time frames due to the test monopolizing their use. What is surprising is we are not using other nationally normed tests which take a fraction of class time to administer and get feedback.

The Ugly

Another ugly of PARCC testing is really not specific to PARCC at all but high stakes testing in general. Schools have pep rallies and send home special instructions for the week of testing. Teachers and administrators reach out to the community and ask for children to be well fed and rested. They even go so far as to outlaw homework to keep the children’s stress or anxiety levels low and therefore prepped for testing. Some will have special parties and treats geared towards keeping kids positive and happy for testing week. What is ugly about this to me, is why are we not doing these things every day? Why do we put extra emphasis on the stress levels and health of a child during testing week? What are we doing to engage with parents and kids to promote positive health for kids regularly? Also, why do we have pep rallies and other gimmicks to attempt to convince kids the tests actually matter?

I realize a world without standardized testing may be as possible as a world of hover boards and flux capacitors. However, what about engaging in conversations about the health of kids more than during testing week? Why not limit the testing time period to the absolute minimum? Let’s be mindful of the amount of instructional timing lost and resources spent due to testing. Is testing the worst thing we have in schools? Not by a long shot. However, we can certainly look at the way in which it is used and make it useful to students and learning rather than companies and politicians.

Classroom Management

When we start the journey of a teacher, nearly all of us had the same goals in mind. We wanted to make a difference in the life of a child. Some of us came into the profession wide-eyed and nervous while others came in with a feeling of confidence or even a slight arrogance. However, all of us at some point were humbled by something we were not quite prepared for. This happens more often than not in our early years as a teacher. We realize the possibility our college course work and teacher preparation program may not have been as thorough as we would have liked or assumed it was. In most cases we attempt to seek advice from those around us by way of our peers and fellow teachers. Yet, a realization often comes over us as we begin to seek that help. Many of the teachers we work with have entrenched views on education where status quo and tradition reign supreme.

There are seven critical areas in which new(er) teachers often struggle. These areas are classroom management, motivation, parents, technology, initiatives, traditions, and professional growth. In addition to new teachers, I often see veteran teachers struggle in these areas due to an outdated or potentially engrained belief system. For example, student motivation and the use of punishment and rewards is a largely unchallenged bastion of schooling within most classrooms. Yet research done by many individuals, including Daniel Pink, would suggest alternate ways in which to look at how we motivate students.

To me one of the most critical elements of a teacher’s job is that of classroom management, which is a topic that I have reflected on and given great thought to.

I still remember when I had my classroom management binder filled out with all of my classroom management strategies and rules for the classroom. I probably brought that into my first interview to show off that I knew I was going to be an expert classroom manager. All of those color-coded tabs with rules, procedures, and everything that could possibly happen in my future classroom. Then I got to the first day of school with thirty, junior high kids in the room and I realized the binder was not worth the paper it had been printed on. I started to realize all the cute little tricks and tips and strategies I learned while in college were not the Golden Ticket to a well-behaved classroom.
 At some point in your career, hopefully it’s sooner rather than later, you realize the fallacy of classroom management methods typically taught to new teachers, many still used by veteran teachers.
 The simple truth is you cannot make a child do something they do not want to do.
 You will have a student who will look you dead in the eye when asked to do something and he will simply say, “No.” You will reply with, “You better or else.” The student will look you back in the eye and answer, “Or else what?” You will then realize there is no “or else” because you can’t force him to do anything. Now this might seem like a shock because, as a new teacher, you would hope that you have some power or authority in the classroom. However, in my experience those teachers who feel they have that authority and power are the ones who struggle the most. The moment you get into a power struggle as the teacher in a classroom, you have already lost. If we don’t need traditional classroom management techniques, then what do we need? How can you as a teacher effectively manage a class of students? (Stumpenhorst, 2015)

Classroom management, along with the other six items, is a critically important topic to reflect on and analyze if a teacher wants to stay relevant and effective. My goal as a teacher is to always look for ways to improve on the work I do every single day with students. Teachers who are reflective about their practice are often the ones who evolve with their students and are better suited to meet the needs of the learners in their rooms. Regardless if you are looking at classroom management and motivation or education traditions and initiatives, the most effective teachers are those willing to take a critical look at their craft with the goal of continual improvement. The dynamic of a classroom and what we know about learners is ever changing. As a result, we need teachers ready to start a revolution of ideas and meet the needs of these learners.

For more insights and content regarding Classroom Management as well as the other 6 critical areas to revolutionize your teaching check out The New Teacher Revolution

Educational Erosion

In my heart I believe every single teacher went into the profession with the intention of changing lives and inspiring kids. I truly believe this because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Yet, every single one of us can name a teacher or two in our building who seem to have lost their desire to do amazing work with kids. On the surface you may think these teachers are “sucky” but I think we are being a bit shortsighted and missing the larger picture when it comes to less effective teachers. It is my belief many teachers are simply experiencing symptoms of educational erosion. Just as cliffs along a coastline erode and shrink, I too think teachers suffer a similar fate. There are many variables, which impact the rate of this erosion.

Water Pressure
Just as cliff sides around the world experience different waves, storms, and tides, teachers have different pressures put on them as well. These pressures come in the form of testing, evaluations, initiatives, administrators, parents, legislation and the laundry list of things, which ultimately stand in the way of teachers doing their jobs. While a teacher may have stood tall on day one of their first year, the job and the stressors eventually erode away the tough exterior.

The number of initiatives, programs, and new responsibilities being placed on teachers is increasing to a monsoon level in some schools. Teachers’ very fabric of being which they started their careers with is being blasted out to sea.

Type of Rock
Cliffs can be comprised of different rocks determining the erosion rate and the same can be said of teachers. Some teachers are emotionally and mentally more prepared to withstand the years of teaching with its onslaught of emotional and physical waves. The reality is, some teachers are built differently and can handle all that is tossed at them. Yet, just as it is with rock, they all have a breaking point.

The hardest rock can withstand the strongest Mother Nature can throw its way. However, over time the rock changes and erodes into something different. The inspired and passionate teacher from day one evolves and erodes in the same manner. When you see a “sucky” teacher, stop and wonder what they have experienced to make them the way they are. While this is in no way supporting poor teachers, it is to say sometimes people have been beaten down so much they can’t stand back up enough to return to that person they were on their first day.

As a trail runner I see places where erosion is being stemmed and even reversed through supports such as walls, barriers or other assistive measures. Teachers need support to survive the waves of standards, assessments, initiatives, meetings and everything else wearing them down. This is not to say teachers are pathetic and can’t handle the rigors of teaching. However, I fear we will have a generation of teachers leave the profession because teaching itself is eroding into purely data management and assessments rather than relationship building and learning as a joyful act. I have yet met a teacher who says they are tired of teaching. Yet, they are tired of everything else asked of them, which ultimately gets in the way of the job of actually teaching.

Administrators who step up for their staff to push back and protect them from the storms of our educational systems are to be commended. They are the ones who can help stem the erosion of our teachers so as not to lose them. In addition, fellow teachers need to be able to support one another and help weather the storms cropping up seemingly more and more regularly.

Just as harbors and bays provide shelter from the storms, teachers too are seeking shelter. In some extreme cases, they seek shelter by simply leaving the profession all together. The feelings of stress overwhelm them to the point of exhaustion and they leave. It can be argued some of these teachers should leave but I argue we are losing the good ones too.

Another shelter teachers are taking is through leaving for positions of less accountability and pressure. Instead of teaching tested subjects they head into the waters of electives and other roles where there is shelter from high expectations in the form of rigid standards or high stakes testing. This is not to say these teachers are hiding from accountability but they need a space where they can interact with kids in a positive way without the pressure and stressors looming over them brought on by over standardization and testing.

The final shelter teachers are taking is holing up and shutting down in their rooms altogether. They ignore the new initiatives and everything new being asked of them. For them it is about survival and getting through the day.

Educational erosion may be a made up idea but the reality is teachers erode over time. Most if not all teachers walk into their first teaching job with the best intentions and a good heart. Yet somewhere along the way the system batters them into a shape or form almost unrecognizable to where they started. We must be better to our teachers, especially our new ones, if want them to withstand the weathering of a career in education. Erosion over time can create smooth and polished masterpieces if it is controlled and nurtured. However, if unprotected it will ravage and destroy all in its path.

Bullies, Trolls and Fakes

As many of you know I am a huge proponent of social media use for educators. The potential positives for teachers and administrators alike are boundless and I know my professional growth has been impacted greatly through my use of social media. I have been able to gain countless resources to pull into my practice as a classroom teacher, which has benefited my students. In addition, I have been exposed to ideas and thoughts influencing the way I think about and perform my duties as a teacher. On top of it all, I have made countless connections with inspiring, friendly, helpful and even humorous individuals around the globe. Every single one of these people has changed the way I look at many aspects of my role as a teacher both from the good and the bad.

However, having said all of that, I feel as though there are pieces to social media many people are aware of but seldom point out when talking about it to new users. In fact, there is a pretty dirty underbelly to social media worth mentioning and being made aware of.

For starters, there are bullies abound in the world and social media is no exception. There will be a time when you will share something and you will be bullied for what you share. It will come in the form of derogatory tweets or negative comments on your post, picture or video. In some cases you may want to write about something culturally, politically or racially charged. Inevitably you will be harassed because you are not ____(fill in blank with a race, gender, other social status)____ and therefore you are not worthy of taking up that banner. On one hand some will ridicule you for bringing the subject up at all while on the other you will be ridiculed because you should have written or talked about it sooner. With some people there will be no winning.

Another thing will be when you share something and someone else will tell you they are already doing it or has previously done it. These trolls will claim your idea is not new and therefore people shouldn’t celebrate your own personal innovation but rather condemn you for not arriving at that idea earlier. They will not be content with your personal discovery or a new idea but rather judgmental you didn’t come up with it sooner or that you are just copying something already being done.

In addition to bullying, you have to watch out for the fake teachers out there trying to put out the persona of perfection. If you follow certain individuals or groups you might think you are inadequate or in no way capable of teaching at the level they do. Every post, tweet or picture is the model of the perfect classroom and the perfect lesson. It is easy to follow them and feel like there are impossible standards to live up to. In many cases I have looked at teacher’s content online and feel as though they are prefect in every single aspect of teaching. It appears as though social media is being used as a way to make others feel bad for not doing all the amazing things other people are doing in their schools or classrooms.

Having said all of that, I still support social media use and encourage teachers to use it as a way to connect themselves to the world. Bullies, trolls and fakes are there but that is life. Ignore, block and move on. Also know they are clearly in the minority. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you believe in and write, tweet, post what you are passionate about. Recognize everyone is at a different place in this wild journey we call education and life. Some are further along than you and will potentially put you down for it. Ignore them and think about those who are at the same place or a different place and will be influenced by you sharing your work. As for the “perfect” teachers out there, recognize it is not all true. Many teachers talk themselves up in social media but also they are not completely honest or at least not fully transparent. It is not popular to share real failures and days where we had a horrible lesson or blew up on a kid. Bottom line, people are only sharing the best of what they have to offer. There is nothing wrong with this but just keep this in mind when reading about those so-called perfect lessons or strategies. Realize it and just keep focusing on making yourself better one day at a time.

Social media can be the key to unlocking great connections for you and your students. However, just be aware of the trolls, bullies and fakes out there. Recognize them and move on to create those meaningful connections that will better you as a teacher and as a person.