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.