Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What Makes YOU the Best Teacher in the World?

I was visiting a school the other day to work with a group of teachers during their planning period. As the Team Leader was taking her class of second graders to Specials, she and I introduced ourselves in the hallway. One particularly astute seven-year-old took note of this interaction and as she passed me, she gave me her most rousing endorsement of the teacher. Imagine the following being said by the most earnest of faces, one with a mouth full of newly-grown adult teeth and wide eyes:
She's the best teacher in the WORLD. She's a MAGIC teacher. She used to be a CLOWN!
That's an exact quote; I loved it so much I put it in my phone so I wouldn't forget it. I mentioned it to the teacher when she got back to the room, and she smiled and kind of shrugged it off, admitting shyly that yes, she does know a few magic tricks.  And of course it made me wonder... What is it that makes kids think, "My teacher is the best teacher in the world"?

The fact that the teacher knows magic and at one point worked as a clown does give her some unique skills to use in a class (what child WOULDN'T remember and love a magic trick where the U.S. flag came out whole after a bunch of torn pieces of red, white and blue paper went into a container?). But I think the real "magic" there is the teacher sharing a part of her life with her students and allowing them to see a side of her that might not be readily apparent in normal classroom business. And any teacher, clown or not, can do that by telling a story. Find a story that you can weave into the course of whatever curricular content you're delivering today, and I will bet you that your students will get hooked in by that story, even if the content doesn't wow them at first.

Depending on the age of your students and your own yarn-spinning ability, you might tell stories that make your students say:
He goes to the GROCERY STORE!
She used to be a ROLLER SKATER!
She once walked in a PROTEST MARCH!
She went to FRANCE when she was in college!
 Not all of us are lucky enough to be able to put "clown" on our resume. And yes, you still have to teach content and document student progress and do that RtI stuff. But each of us has something in our non-teaching lives that might capture the imagination of our students in the midst of all those other classroom responsibilities. You never know what it will be about your life that makes students think you're the best teacher in the world. Find that teachable moment. Stop and tell your students a story about something that you have done, or how you felt about it, or what means something to you. And take the time to listen to your students; learn what means something to them. These kinds of exchanges will have a powerful effect on your classroom climate, and you never know how your stories might cause your students to wonder.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Seven Skills Teachers Need, Too

I recently ran across Edudemic's synopsis of seven skills that all students will need for future success. Dr. Tony Wagner identifies a "global achievement gap" that these seven skills might go a long way toward narrowing.

It occurred to me that students aren't the only ones who need these skills. Teachers, principals, and district administrators also need to exercise these essential skills in their daily work, and each is a hallmark of good leadership. Today I am wondering what our schools might look like if more educators demonstrated and cultivated these skills in a very conscious, proactive way.

Critical thinking and problem-solving.  Whether it's trying to help a student remember where he might have put his homework or library book or strategizing how to best help a new student master a particular skill, I would wager that most classroom teachers could hold their own against  any other professional in any field in the area of day-to-day problem-solving. We need to explicitly name these problem-solving strategies every day and show students, other teachers, and members of the community, by our example, what kinds of critical thinking skills we employ on a daily basis.

Collaboration across networks and leading by influence. What could this look like? Curriculum coordinators would always look for the connections to other curricular areas to strengthen and solidify cognitive connections and student learning in all areas. Teachers would actively seek collaborative partnerships with teachers in other grades, other schools, and other districts. Technology-savvy teachers would encourage the "technology timid" teachers in their buildings to try new things. The Instructional Technology department would collaborate with curriculum coordinators, principals, and teachers to better understand what their needs are and provide appropriate technology solutions. All of these connections would require listening to each other and being able to understand the needs and expectations of other stakeholders. Listening is a crucial leadership skill.

Agility and adaptability.  Ask any technology trainer about agility and adaptability, and I'd wager they would tell you a story about a gigantic tech fail where they had to improvise in front of a large audience. (See this post, for example.) But agility and adaptability should be skills that we use not only when in crisis mode. Thinking flexibly and adapting easily to the changes that come at us should be hallmarks of the way a district or department or school functions. This requires some strategic planning and an active commitment to disentangling from a "that's the way we've always done it" mentality.

Initiative and entrepreneurialism. Does your school or district encourage initiative, or are your attempts at showing initiative subtly or expressly thwarted? You may be lucky to have an administration that encourages your innovation, or you may be under the thumb of someone who feels he or she has to call all the shots. Bureaucracy can really get in the way of trying to show initiative. But you can try. Dare to be the one who voices the new idea, steps out of your comfort zone, or tries a different approach to solving a problem. Your small steps toward a new way of thinking could lead to something big.

Effective oral and written communication. Even teachers can mix their modifiers & metaphors, misspell a word, or get in a hurry and neglect to proofread something they dashed off on an email. But I cringe when I get an email from a teacher with an unnecessary apostrophe in a plural or a misuse of the word "too." We are educators, people. This one should NOT be difficult for us. We should show 'em all how it's done.

Accessing and analyzing information. Google has made us all a little lazy; when was the last time you ventured farther than just the top items on the first page of your search results? This is a great place to show our leadership skills. Don't repost that suspicious story going around on Facebook before you check it out (try www.snopes.com, as a good starting point for verifying urban legends). Actively seek out alternative viewpoints to issues, controversial or not. Be a little more open-minded to others' opinions. And always verify your sources. Model these skills actively so that students and teachers have an example of what analyzing information actually looks like.

Curiosity and imagination. Admit it, we can all get in a rut. When you do the same thing day in and day out, it's hard to step into a state of considering how it might be done differently or better.What if we all spent more time imagining how things could be instead of the way they are now? What if we were more curious about how other school districts or even other countries educate their students?  Ask yourself questions like "What if..." "How could we..." "How do other schools make this work..." Dare to wonder about things. I know I do.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tech Failure and Teacher Grace

We had a lot of tech training last week during back-to-school inservice.  Actually what I should say is we TRIED to have a lot of tech training. Sometimes technology Just. Won't. Cooperate. Last week was one of those weeks. [Cue scary horror movie music.] I will spare you the gory details; it was frustrating, humiliating, and demoralizing. But our experience could have been much worse. What made it bearable was the response of the vast majority of the teachers we were attempting to train. Oh my yes, there were some grumblers in the bunch, but overwhelmingly, this is what I was reminded of last week:

Teachers are kind; they know that rough patches happen and encourage you when they do. Numerous teachers gave us an encouraging word or a smile when they left the disaster area training. We heard encouragement along the lines of, "Don't worry!" "These things happen!" "We know you were doing everything you could think to try!"

Teachers aren't the kind of people who are quick to blame. Fault-finding doesn't help. Teachers tend to focus on finding solutions, not griping about the problem.

Teachers roll with the punches and are very flexible. Most teachers just sort of shrugged their shoulders and went on to the next thing on their to-do list.

Teachers are polite. Oh, we know that sometimes you didn't hear an instruction because you were back there checking your email; you sometimes multi-task and get OFF task  And yes, teachers can be a very chatty bunch when you're trying to get their attention. But to our faces, there was very little eye-rolling, except in sympathy.

Teachers are empathetic. Most teachers could imagine how we felt because they might have had a similar experience in front of a group of students (and if they had, it was almost certainly during an observation/evaluation). Their responses were tempered by that empathy.

In short, if I  had to experience a [cue scary horror movie music again] Tech Failure of Gargantuan Proportions, I can't think of a nicer bunch of people to have in the audience. Thank you for your grace, and we'll get those bugs worked out soon, I promise. Have a great year, everyone!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

My Progress as a YSL (Yoga as a Second Language) Student

I'm hanging in there with the hot yoga thing. I don't love it, and I'm not usually happy about showing up at the class. But this afternoon was my 10th class, the last of the recommended number the studio says you should do before you really make up your mind about it.

Here's what I have observed so far. I am still stiff and awkward. (There is one pose that is called "Awkward Pose." That always makes me laugh because to me they are ALL awkward.) There are two or three poses that I am light years away from being able to do at all, let alone well. But several of the poses are a *tiny* bit easier now than they were a couple of weeks ago. I have more stamina and can do at least some awkward approximation of almost all the poses. I can make it through almost the whole class without feeling like I'm going to throw up. Last night marked the first class where I was able to just pretty much walk out the door at the end without having to sit and rest in the lobby for 10 or 15 minutes after class. And I think I have a lot more energy when I'm not in class.

And of course I find myself wondering how my experiences in yoga class compare to my life in the education world, so here goes.

Every body is different. Duh. The class is really challenging and everyone approaches the challenge with their own bodies. Although it is really hard to pay attention to anyone else, because I'm just so focused on not falling over, I have noticed out of the corner of my eye that poses that are relatively easy for me (relatively)  may be those that another person doesn't even attempt because they are hard for her. But that other person might be able to have pretzel-like flexibility on a pose that is massively difficult for me. This difference in flexibility might have to do with physiology or experiences or past injuries. Limitations, for whatever reason, exist. But each of us can still work with our own limitations and get better. Despite the common "curriculum" we all have to follow, some of us are going to excel in one area but not be nearly as graceful in others. The point is that each of us tries, and each of us gets incrementally better over time in at least some of the postures.

My tiny improvements are what motivate me to come back and to keep trying. The people at the front of the room are there because they've been at it awhile, and it gives those of us who are newer some role models to look to when we're not sure how to do something,  I do not look anything like those people at the front of the room. I would like to say that I don't look anything like those people at the front of the room yet, but that is a qualifier I'm not sure is necessary. I'm not convinced I will ever look like them. But I am getting some satisfaction out of the improvement that I can see in myself. It is motivating when, after just a couple of weeks, I can see a noticeable difference in my flexibility, stamina, and balance - even if those differences are not so noticeable to others. Kids might need your help in recognizing their own progress, but it's learning something new and getting better at something that is often way more motivating than a sticker or a grade.

I want My Teacher, and I don't like substitute teachers. I've been to ten classes and in five of them, I've had the same teacher. This teacher now seems to remember my name and knows that I have a hamstring problem, and she has twice - just twice - given me some individual feedback during a class. She's also given feedback to others in the class, by name. She is now the one that I refer to My Teacher. Maybe even My Favorite Teacher. You have to understand that these classes are identical. We go through 26 poses, in order, and it's clear that all the teachers have to memorize some kind of script, because even the way they all describe each of the poses is word-for-word the same. So you would think that the classes would be identical as well. But there is just something about having that special teacher there, the one who knows you and who knows what your particular strengths & challenges are. Even the tiniest hint of a relationship can matter.

Education 101, I guess: everybody is different, success is motivating, and relationships can make a huge difference. Namaste.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Reflections on New Teacher Technology Training

Every year in our district, like probably every other district in the country, new teachers have to attend a series of inservice classes, some of them at their campus, some in their curricular areas, and some with us in Technology. It's always a challenge for us to figure out how to best train the new teachers, because they won't have their own computer logins for a couple more days. When they can't log in,  it makes it close to impossible to show them our network! We've used a variety of methods in the past, none of which has worked terribly well.

This year we decided to use our TSP (technology super powers) to update our training model, and I have to say, I feel really good about how things went. We created a Google site based on our district's annual theme, with six different modules that teachers worked through on their own. One of my colleagues made a terrific "Scavenger Hunt" worksheet to go along with the Google site, and teachers had to fill in the blanks with pertinent information. We used the thinglink website (my current favorite web tool!) to create some great interactive graphics to show teachers images of things on the network that they couldn't see "in real life" without their network logins. We were also able to create some video tutorials using Screencast-o-matic.

I liked this model a lot and I think it worked well for us. Usually the new teachers are so overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information, their ears are practically bleeding by the end of the last day of training. In this year's model, we gave them a smaller amount of necessary technology information and mixed up the format from one module to the next. The questions on the scavenger hunt were very easy ones so teachers left feeling successful. They have pertinent information written down and a web address to refer back to when they finally do get their logins and can't remember what we said.

The highlight of my day was when one clearly tech-savvy new teacher said, "I came from ##### school district, and they like to promote themselves as being on the cutting edge of technology, but you guys are WAY ahead of them! I've just texted several friends to tell them about your training and that they should move here!" SCORE!

I'm wondering today what other districts do for New Teacher technology training. What problems have you encountered (with logins or otherwise), and how have you solved them? What have been your biggest successes? I hope to hear from you!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Following up on Digital Citizenship Training

I've spent the past couple of days working with principals to strategize on how they can be effective campus leaders in the area of Digital Citizenship. These were two very rewarding days! We have a fabulous set of principals in my district, and they engaged in some wonderful discussion about how to get their teachers, parents, and students on board with a culture of positive norms. Many thanks to Nancy Willard and her wonderful web site Embrace Civility in the Digital Age for the information she has assembled and to Common Sense Media for their outstanding materials.

We started each session discussing the Digital Citizenship Survival Kit, and how principals might use those props in a staff meeting or with students.  Principals then had the opportunity to learn about different resources including the Common Sense Media site at various grade levels, Common Sense's Digital Passport, the Google/YouTube Digital Citizenship Curriculum, and this great guide to teaching students about their digital footprint. They then taught the other class members what they had learned. Before they left, I asked them to make a commitment to carry out a specific objective, and I got great responses! From including Digital Citizenship in their School Improvement Plan to creating campus PLCs and incorporating DC lessons into Advisory or Homeroom classes - I am PUMPED!

We talked about how highways used to be strewn with litter, until an education campaign turned people's attitudes around; now it is completely socially unacceptable to just hurl trash out the window as you're driving along. Same with seat belts - how many of us remember riding along on the back dashboard of our parents' cars, until education and public awareness (and the law) made seat belts mandatory? Now we all buckle up without really thinking about it. ATT's "It Can Wait" campaign will undoubtedly have a very positive effect, in time, on reducing accidents caused by texting and driving. I'm convinced that we adults can have a similar positive impact on students' online behaviors by working to establish, with the active participation of our students, the positive "Cyber Savvy" norms at each school that will allow our kids get to get online safely, manage their digital reputations, understand the indefinite shelf life of a text or tweet, and respond appropriately to cyberbullying.

Sounds like a daunting task, but with the outstanding leaders I worked with yesterday and today, I believe we'll soon be turning out some equally outstanding digital citizens.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Intro to Yoga

Like many people who grew up to be teachers, I was a good student in school. Things came easily to me, I had friends, and I loved pleasing my teachers so I didn't get in trouble. I looked forward to going to school and to getting the affirmation of a good grade. In short, school was easy for me.

By contrast, the yoga class I started several days ago is decidedly NOT. I signed up for a month of Bikram yoga at a reduced rate, and I'm trying to do the recommended 10-classes-in-10-days. If I don't die first. The room is heated to an uncomfortable 100+ degrees, and I am drowning in sweat before we ever get to the first pose. The poses were designed by someone with some real misanthropic tendencies, and the instructors have been cruel taskmasters. I got in trouble for talking because I didn't understand the No Talking rule. They don't know my name, and apparently their job is not to ensure that my self-esteem emerges from the class intact. Things are not, so far, coming easily to me, to put it in the most positive of terms.

The yoga teachers talk us through the poses, and we listen to what they have to say and do the poses based on what we hear and what we see the other class members doing. At certain points during each class, the teacher (very randomly, it seems, but perhaps there is some method to it) goes over to crack the outside door a few minutes. A rush of air coming in from the outside! A refreshing 100-degree breeze! How welcome! Thank you, kind teacher! And then, just as abruptly, she closes the door, also for reasons I can't quite discern. I don't understand the punishment. What exactly is the custom in this place, and is there anything I personally can do to increase the teacher's door-opening behavior? I want to know the secret to success here. Mostly I muddle along, trying to make sense of the teacher's words. I mimic the actions of the other class participants, and hope that things will get better over time.

Not unlike many of your students, I guess, or the teachers that I sometimes see for technology training. Most of them, like me, probably WANT to do what is expected of them. But for whatever reason, they can't quite make their bodies cooperate, at least not at first. How will you push your students this year to do more than they believe they can, without making them sweat too much?
Wishing you unexpected cool breezes, incremental success, and abundant flexibility. Namaste.