Taking the personal out of the equation

“My kids did…” “My students made me feel…” “My class has no…” So often we talk for our students and generalize a situation. As teachers, we conjecture an understanding of what happens in our class. We take our observations as empirical evidence. We assume, we justify, we impose our beliefs, we make it personal. We often live on the front lines and in the trenches and unfortunately our times. We are trained to understand development, and knowledge acquisition. We have theories drilled into us as to how kids act, learn. change. Sometimes, it just isn’t what needs to be done. This post I am about to share has been brewing on my mind for quite some time but I never had the courage to share my thoughts until now.

I witnessed an interesting vlog recently on social media. A parent had taken issue with broken toys. She was disappointed with her children’s lack of respect towards the things that have been bought for them. She felt hurt and disrespected as a parent. Her emotions took a hold and she expressed her thoughts and feelings about her discovery of boxes for new toys crushed by little feet and could not be sold for the higher prices she had hoped for, lost pieces of a game, and toys that were no longer functional as they had broken. In the heat of the moment, she felt hurt and she was going to make sure her kids learned a lesson on respect by taking away all these toys that were no longer being used as much as they were previously. No more toys until they could show respect.  It was personal and the hurt was deep inside her.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with her choice to take away the toys and have kids earn them back,  she was living in the moment while her kids were away at day camp. She may change her mind in a few hours, she may be more upset when she goes in their rooms and finds clothes shoved in closets and books under the bed. Her reaction is not the point.

How does this relate to teaching? Based on what I watched and listened to, she never looked at the whole picture. She did not consider the circumstances leading up to the situation. She was busy living in the moment and not looking at things from 30,000 feet. Often as teachers, we become entrenched in what is happening in our classes. We care and give so much of ourselves to our kids, we forget that despite being emotionally invested, we need to sometimes take ourselves out of the equation.

The kid who tells you they hate you because you insisted they use a pencil instead of a pen? It is frustrating and time-consuming. At 30,000ft, their last pencil (that was donated at the beginning of the year) was stolen off their desk and they are embarrassed can’t afford more and don’t want to be picked on for tattling that it was taken.

The kid who is struggling in class and made you a bad teacher because they say you’re not able to help them? It hurts, it makes you feel like a horrible teacher but from 30,000ft, we remember that they have a learning disability and have amazing ideas but struggle to develop them within the contexts of the requirements for the assignment.

The kid who fails your tests yet never asks for help? They moved from another country, are trying to learn a new language, work a job, make friends, and figure out social norms and expectations in school. They are scared because they don’t know what they don’t understand until it is too late and they are scared to ask because they see how busy you are each day.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned is that we cannot take things personally all the time. Kids are going to be kids. They are going to struggle to learn something, get frustrated, break things, lie about things, push boundaries. That is part of growing up. In the heat of the moment, we forget our training and understanding of child development and pedagogy. We focus on how we feel because we know that to be true when we can’t understand what else is going on around us. This is fine to feel that way, but it is how you react. Take the personal out of it. Focus on the facts.  Look at the whole picture.  I highly doubt those kids intentionally set out to break the toys, the students set out to lose the pencil, or not understand and become frustrated.

I thought about why I was writing this post. I realized that so often we take things personally because we care so much. We spend so much of ourselves to see success in our students, we don’t have the opportunity to press pause.  We need to allow ourselves the opportunity to acknowledge our feelings and the situation. We need to align ourselves with the goal and students in a delicate balance.  Most importantly we need to assure our students we care, and assure ourselves that sometimes it is okay to put aside the emotion to focus on the fact. Our emotions our perfectly valid but the best advice I ever received was from a student of mine who had the courage to tell me “I need you to put aside your own feelings about what is happening and focus on a solution that will help us get past this.”

It took away the ‘I’s and the ‘You’s and it because a ‘We’, What can we do together? The goal was simple. We wanted to figure out a solution for the lack of homework completion but I had to get over my own pride of feeling hurt I couldn’t teach my way out of the situation and instead we had to work as a team. We had to be on a level playing field. It was a humbling moment and a difficult pill to swallow as I learned that my fancy piece of paper meant nothing if I couldn’t bring myself down to their level. My pride was hurt, I was upset by the fact I’d find their homework in a crumpled ball at the end of the day instead of being take home. When I put that aside, I realized I cannot change circumstances. I had not considered they would be testing our relationship based on their own reality of no support at home after a 1-hour bus ride where they needed to make their own dinner before being yelled at for using up the last of the milk. When I was called names I wouldn’t dare repeat, it wasn’t personal, it was a defense mechanism to prevent getting hurt from another person giving up on them.

With a bit (okay a lot) of reflection and starting backwards, I’ve learned that once the emotion is out of the picture, a team that included the student can accomplish more than my experience and education ever could. Now that is a hard thing to internalize and put into action for anyone. Still, even with the intentional focus on taking my own feelings as a human being out of the equation, I’m not always successful.

How do you love the kids who make it the hardest to love them? How do you teach the kids who make it the hardest to teach them? How do you balance the emotional and personal investment?

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Advice, reflection, and life as the perpetual new teacher.

Originally this was a reflection on my 3rd year of teaching but it turned into more of the to 5 lessons (okay 6) I’ve learned along the way. As I move into my new role (yet again!) and become a high school teacher, I decided to share my learning and realize that I can still be the new teacher, the mentor, and the creative teacher despite the changes and role I’m in (or going into).

  1. Play the new teacher card! Don’t be afraid to ask for help, make mistakes and try new things. Don’t wait to be the veteran teacher to try cool things because often those teachers learn just as much from the support you seek than what you learn from them. My team last year was a place where I could be creative, and they gave me permission to try new things but were there to help guide me how to develop my ideas in ways that would be successful. I thrived off my team’s collaborative moments. The best part was that we were all still able to tweak things the way we needed it to be because we were all different. Speaking of which, Be honest with yourself. Don’t focus on the things like making your classroom look like a Pinterest pin, trying to perfect your classroom management or stick with things that are tried and true because that’s where you’re comfortable and will help you fill your grade book. I honestly believe that classrooms should be a place to learn and experiment together.
  2. Building on that, stand out by taking risks with your students. You don’t need to wait to innovate! Things aren’t always going to work out, but you will help build your students’ growth mindset because they look to you to model what is acceptable in class. Accept the fact you’re not perfect, but you have the opportunity to grow from it. So do your students. Build your ideas around curriculum, have a solid assessment plan. Even if your ideas don’t work out, you did so with the best intentions and chances are, your students learned more than you. Be flexible and adapt on the fly. My biggest project “fail” turned into the coolest inquiry project because students asked “why?” or “how can I?” so I embraced it and went with it! Just take that risk. F is no longer for failure, it is for FLEXIBILITY. Keep experimenting! You might cry in your car one day because nothing went the way you thought it would, but you’re also going to have those moments where you want to take pictures, brag to your colleagues and principal about how amazing it went. Teaching is exhausting. It is kind of like rocking out in a garage band with a group of budding musicians who learn through doing, experimenting and trust it will work out.
  3. Ask your students! Get their input, embrace their opinions, voices, and feedback! What other job gives you a captive and responsive audience. My students loved to reflect on projects, tell me about their learning, their interests, how I could make something better for next year, or even just that they really wish they could have done this on the computer (that were booked for a week solid). I am a huge fan of conferencing throughout projects and giving feedback to students as they go but also love to share their ideas. Reflections, “writers” workshops, and conferencing support you and your students together. Carving out “me time” with them will build relationships that transcend curriculum and the walls of your classroom. To quote a cliche, “they’ll never remember what you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.”
  4. Your students will make you laugh, they will make you cry, they will break your heart, you will worry about them, care about them and cheer them on but they will be better for it because you cared about them.  Your heat will hurt as much as you feet will hurt, you will rediscover the joy of things like smelly markers and the new rules to “the floor is made of lava” as you connect with your kids. Your students will love you, care about you and drive you up the wall. It is that relationship that will make everything worth it. That relationship also drives teaching. There will always be those kids that you don’t feel you’re connecting with, ones who throw their coat on the ground and refuse to complete their work. Still, they are a person. You aren’t just there to teach a curriculum. You’re their safe place, consistency, their attention they desire. Not every kid is going to be the kid who loves you to pieces, but that one kid who makes you count your blessings and pull your hair is usually the kid you get the most out of. I think of mine in my first 2 years and how much those kids taught me about teaching, myself and the world as a whole. I worry about where they are and what they are doing, even to this day. They taught me the classroom management stuff, and they taught compassion to their peers. Most importantly, they are people with their own story, not a number, letter or percentage.
  5. Find your tribe. Find the people that will build you up when you need it, who will give you a reality check when you need it, and will give you the inspiration you need even if you don’t think you need it. My first year I team taught for the first few months. I had a built-in mentor for teaching, but I needed people to surround me with the things I needed. I found my tribe on Twitter with the #WeirdEd chat on Wednesday nights. I found “master teachers” (I put this term in quotes because these are teachers who don’t claim to have the answers and be masters of their domain but share their advice and experiences to help others grow but also so they can grow) and I read their blogs and books. I participated in EdCamps on my Saturdays to share my ideas. I found the people who made me feel like I could build who I was as a teacher and have people who understood what I was doing and going through. They encouraged me, they validated me, they celebrated my successes. Most importantly, they were right there facing the same things I was. I felt safe. Side note: Students also need to feel safe. Make your classroom a safe space that allows your students to build their community of learners that share and learn together.
  6. Lastly, document everything! Reflect while looking back, celebrate your own successes and share your not so great moments where you learned something new. Blogging, journaling, classroom blogs or twitter, whatever works for you! My students wrote a weekly “This Week at School” letter to their parents, I wrote my own This Week at School (many shared on my blog), but I also tried to reflect and share my own learning on my blog as well. This was my medium of reflection. It also serves as a fantastic tool for interviews, for sharing ideas and connecting with others. Often you forget the little things and the opportunity to look back to your work and growth is invaluable. I am always proud of my kids but most importantly, I can be proud of my own work and ideas this way.

 


Just a few teacher blogs, books, and Twitter chats to inspire:

John Spencer – Not only did he write one of my favourite Read Alouds, he has an inspirational YouTube channel and even inspired some of the things in this post such as your renewed love of smelly markers. He also reminds me that education is a small and connected world. He’s written several books that are well worth the read.

Doug Robertson –  His antics inspired me to take risks, his Twitter chats (#weirdEd) built my confidence, and most importantly, being the weird teacher was now acceptable and cool.  I give his book “He’s the Weird Teacher” to teachers I see who require that bit of a boost and permission to try new things and be “the weird teacher”.

Shauna Pollock – A Disney inspired educator who is just fantastic. As a Canadian, she understands our educational context and is passionate about giving students the tools they need to succeed in the real world. Her book is well worth the read and is well read in my office. She’s even opening her own school!

There are many others and I’ll probably add to this list in a few hours or days – share those who inspire you and I’ll add it to the list!

Lessons from behind the scenes of ESL

ELL students are a unique challenge for many teachers. The older the student, the bigger the challenge it seems. Young students pick up a new language quickly the more they are immersed in the language. As many of their peers are also learning and experimenting with language and meaning, the have the opportunity to practice in a safe and differentiated environment.  When you reach high school, content is key and process is focused. There isn’t time for students to learn a language and curriculum.

The question then becomes how to best support those students. When I first started in my role this year, I searched for the magic solution to support my students and my colleagues. After many frustrations, I realized the answer isn’t so simple.

Key factors to student success seem to be:

  • Instructional organization
    • Not just small class sizes or pullout groups but a multi-faceted and flexible collaborative environment tailored to the different needs of the individuals.
  • Teacher Knowledge
    • Teachers don’t have all the answers but they need to be open to learning and trying new things. They also need to be open to being wrong. Solutions are rarely straight forward and I have yet to see the same strategies work for multiple students.
  • Patience
    • Research shows that students first need to develop the Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills that lead to socialization before they can develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. It is also found that students take 5-7 years to develop these skills and can often appear to be “stuck” in different phases of their development.
  • Relationships
    • Students need to know that you care, that you understand, and they need to know they can trust you. This MUST come before they are willing to take the risk of learning a new language.

So what do we do? Well, there is no magic answer. This year I developed a pyramid of interventions and strategies for my colleagues to help support them with this journey. I offer my colleagues support and mini-workshops on using the benchmarks, and I read – A LOT! Still, I do not have all the answers. The ESL gurus (such as Larry Ferlazzo) are always learning and growing in their practice. In one of his latest posts, he writes “We’ll see for how long it’s effective, but it certainly can’t hurt….”

Patience, always learning, trying new things, and tenacity are my super secret tips I can share with you for now. Context is key and adaptability is a necessity.

How do you support ELL students in your classroom?

Numeracy: a foundation to learning

Lately, I’ve had a chance to reflect on numeracy as I have been sorting my resources from my studies, teaching and classroom support. I strongly believe that numeracy is an encompassing foundation to learning, much like literacy. Numeracy goes beyond the basics of arithmetic and brings in the ability to acquire, manage, create, connect information that allows one to communicate understanding. Numeracy looks at the multi-facets of knowledge: Facts, Concepts, and Procedures. This brings in the skills and competencies that we, as teachers in Alberta, are mandated to instruct.

With the proper resources, creativity, and focus on inquiry, students are given the opportunity to find value in their learning and apply it to their everyday lives. Students are presented with information that needs to be interpreted and used to help them make sense of the world around them. Their need for numeracy skills evolves over time and build throughout their academic careers.

What does numeracy mean to you?

What does it mean to fail?

Lately, I have been asking myself what it means to fail. Have I failed my students if they struggle in class? Have I failed them if they aren’t interested in my class? Have I failed them if they aren’t prepared to deal with the “real world”?

Our school’s philosophy for our students is to “get real world ready, ” but lately I have been asking myself what that means in relation to education and inclusion. So many think your high school diploma is your mark of success. Our success as educators is directly tied to their ability to achieve a standard set by the government.

If that is the measure we are going to choose, then I would like to introduce myself as a failure. I do not have a high school diploma. I am okay with that. I figured out my own path to get into university and did better than if I had been forced to take the class I was missing from my graduation requirements.

Better yet, I was also required to withdraw from university. Yep! I learned a lot from that experience, however. I learned the kinds of classes I was suited to best learn from, how to study, and more importantly when to admit it wasn’t something I was good at. The amount of Ws on my transcript will prove that I am definitely not successful at memorizing theory but when given the opportunity to make something tangible, I excelled.

Fast forward to now. I am not the best teacher in the world, but I’m a great teacher because I am aware of my strengths but more importantly my weaknesses. I can teach my kids how to recognize and build off theirs but there comes the point I am forced to face the fact that despite ability, goal, and strengths of students sometimes as professionals, teachers forget that there are more options than a traditional path to a high school diploma to get them where they need to go.

Real world ready for me involved learning to fail, learning to figure out a solution and most importantly, learning to accept who I am and what I am capable of doing. A lesson I have learned over again this year. I have high expectations of myself. Rarely have I met them this year.

Others may see my achievements this year as success, growth, and perseverance. I see them a stack of “fails” that I have built off of to find a solution that is currently working – maybe not the way I intended when I set my goal/expectation.

I challenge my colleagues to look at a path that works for students, that celebrates them as learners and gives them the tools they need to see success at their own level, not if they can graduate or not. If they find success their own way, let’s build around that. Not 3 years of learning and a piece of paper but a way that gives them the opportunity to become real world ready. Be it more than 3 years, courses and opportunities outside of school, the ability to fail, repeat and learn, or even just the opportunity to say “this isn’t for me, how can I show my knowledge in a way that will prove my understanding?”

“Where’s your teacher?” On the floor with her students!

Teaching both High School and Elementary in the same day opens your eyes to a lot of things. Teaching in your own room and teaching in a room you share with others opens your eyes even more.

My classrooms have always had more of a home-like vibe to them. There are comfy armchairs, couches, pillows and different types of tables. There is a choice for every student. Students quickly figure out what works best for them and become comfortable where they are. The classroom gets split into zones of learning – those working through something hands-on, those working on basic skills, those working with others, and those who just need a bit of quiet or independent space to work. It is a busy place but everyone finds their place.

I personally don’t have a desk. I hated my desk in my office and got rid of it to replace it with a large table and a couch so I can move based on my needs. I also generally end up in walking around the school with my phone or iPad (or sometimes my computer) to find a space that works for me at that time. What this means is my kids and I often end up sitting on the floor, on the couch or sometimes walking around the hall together when I have an EA to supervise the rest of the happenings in the class.

When I had my own homeroom/learning community, my students had slippers they could put on in case they didn’t want to wear shoes. They had blankets they could wrap up in to keep them warm and focused. Sometimes they would sit under tables or on tables (against the wall) to give them a place to focus that suited their needs. I simply met them where they were.

This year my high school kids moved into a room with desks because we needed more space with almost 30 of us. That feeling of comfort and choice is gone. I no longer feel like I have the same connection with them because I am always standing next to their desks.

My elementary kids no longer have any cozy furniture either because my classroom is being shared with another class and we were borrowing our furniture from another teacher. We still have zones in our classroom but we no longer have the same vibe. The learning is more formal. I miss it and they do too. Time to get back at least a little bit of comfort in the room.

Finding my way

A lot has changed for me this year. I used to blog to sort my thoughts out, to share my ideas, to use this space for documenting my professional growth. This year, I don’t feel the same as I used to.

I am no longer the new teacher. I am no longer inexperienced. Most importantly, I am in a very different role.  That doesn’t mean that my need to sort out my thoughts or documenting my personal growth isn’t the same anymore, it has just shifted to a new form. I see my growth through the work I accomplish. I sort out my thoughts through conversation with staff members I would never have sought out previously.  Most importantly, the majority of my day revolves around confidential information so I don’t have the luxury of necessarily publishing all of my thoughts.

As I shift my perspective and look back, this is still a very valuable tool for myself, however, it has simply become less visible to the public the growth I make.