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!

“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.

First couple days of school – reflection

This week was a very new experience for me. I am only teaching two classes – my ESL class and my English class for Grade 5; however, I am busier than I was last year. My new role has me walking many kilometers a day and thinking about things on a different level than before. I am mentally exhausted but at the same time, I am excited. I see teachers who are excited about making new lessons and activities to engage their students and fit the competencies handed down from a ministerial order now three years ago.

I also moved into a new house. I don’t love the layout or certain things about it, however, every time I get to add something new, change something or by painting something, I make it my space. One of our teachers was locked out of the school this year and had her students set up her classroom. The students decorated the room and moved things around to make it their classroom. She was so excited to share and express the change in their attitudes and the ownership the students showed. I am so excited to see how this class grows as a learning community, and I am excited to see how this teacher fosters their voice.

This is just one of the examples that I saw this week of things that made me happy to take on this job.  Seeing the circles that teacher were holding with their students, seeing our teachers look for exciting ways to make connections with their students and their curriculum and having the opportunity to talk to our all our teachers, I am excited for this year and very proud to be a part of the growth our school is going through this year.

Getting feedback from your students on your practice as a teacher

I have been meaning to post this for a while but I wasn’t sure how I wanted to summarize my experience for getting feedback on my own practice. I made myself vulnerable to my students. I was worried at first, not what their answers were but if I had missed something that I should have addressed earlier in the year. Alas, other than a student who was having a bad day with their friends, I was impressed with their answers and how much thought went into a lot of the answers.  When I proposed the idea to my students, they were hesitant at first. I explained that to them that it is their chance to give me a report card. They fell in love with the idea. Some took it as an opportunity to complain about things outside of my control, others gave some very valuable feedback. There were also a few “I like grade 5” and “I don’t like writing” type comments but it was great for me to see this range. None of them seemed to care that it was anonymous but I chose to let them say who it was from if they wanted to or if they wanted to talk to me about it. No one wanted to talk to me but a number wrote their name in the box anyways.

The idea came as I was talking to my mom about the course she teaches at the local university, she mentioned her course evaluations and how even though it comes at the end of the year, she loves them. I decided it was time that I gave my students my own course evaluation. I decided to do so digitally because paper is not my friend. The great thing about Google Forms is that it will put the answers into a spreadsheet for you if you want, show all answers to each question, or you can see each individual response. It can be anonymous or you can also require them to be signed in and log their username. I chose anonymous to get some very honest feedback – I was feeling brave.

Here is a link to a copy of the form I used if you’d like to see the questions.

The themes I pulled from their questions didn’t actually surprise me that much because a lot of it are my own personal beliefs about education and how I felt as a student.

The loved the following:

  • Projects (of all sorts)!!! (this came up with very specific examples)
  • Field Trips that related to their learning but also the ones that were just fun!
  • Hands on and building activities
  • Modeling and being allowed to then go and try it
  • Multiple rounds of feedback not only from their teacher but also their peers
  • Having choice in how they showed their knowledge
  • Variety of seating choices in a “soft” classroom.

The would have liked to see:

  • More nature stuff
  • More focus on Skills and Competencies (This one surprised me but made me happy because I wasn’t very explicit with this as I felt I was overwhelming them at times – apparently not so.)
  • More chance to co-create criteria.
  • More mixing of the subjects (cross-curricular projects, YES please!)

Some things they learned about themselves this year:

  • “I learned that every time I try and don’t give up I feel like I want to do it again.”
  • “That working hard will make feel you accomplished something and you will earn something good if you really really worked hard.”
  • “I learned that if i put a lot effort into it and i try to to do good i do good.”
  • “That I am a more you tell me what to do then I will understand better. That is what I figure.”
  • “i usually need music because it helps me concentrate.(better)”
  • “need activity”

What they had to say about me or advice for me for next year:

  • “To always have comfy chairs. But she is not going to be teaching so go teach other teachers. Come to my class!!!”
  • “shes pretty good and knows her stuff”
  • “get a class pet” (sorry, buddy! I’ll get a fish for my office and you can visit)
  • “Make all the work in to projects.”
  • “Music helps people”
  • “This year was really fun. I will miss you Miss.A.”
  • “i wish I could get the same teacher again”
  • “she was tough on me but I need it”
  • “more hugs” (admittedly, I  am not a touchy feely person)
  • “One of the best school years of my life and i learned so much and i had so much fun learning because we had fun activities to help us learn like amazing race and i had an awesome teacher who had things like yoga balls, comfy chairs, couch. thanks”

I am really glad I did this. I was nervous at first but it reallyI’d like to do smaller scale ones each reporting period and at the beginning of the year to really get to know the things my students are thinking so I can make changes along the way.

Would you be willing to let your students give you feedback? How do you think they would feel about your class? Have you ever done so? I’d love to hear!

 

What does learning and teaching look like in your school?

 

This weekend I was faced with the question of what should learning and teaching look like. While this will depend on the context of the school itself, we are given a mandate through our curriculum, the inspiring education document and a ministerial order that drives our teaching practice. We also have our own expectations placed upon us by the union through the teaching knowledges, skills and attributes.

In the grand scheme of things, we want to see kids who are:

  • engaged in meaningful learning,
  • developing skills through their learning and a classroom activities that will support them in their future lives, education, and careers,
  • able to express their knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways,
  • getting a say in their learning,
  • enjoy learning, and
  • wanting to come to school each day

The real question lies in how we get there. I have been fortunate to have been given many opportunities to look at all aspects of education from inclusion to teaching to support and even at resources. It is important that all of these areas work cohesively together and are well supported.

We also need teachers who are willing to be risk takers, allow themselves to be vulnerable and are passionate about student success. You need to love what you do and realize that the kids come first. You need to strive to make yourself uncomfortable because it is my strong belief that innovative learning begins at the end of your comfort zone. You can be a good teacher but it is that burning desire to grown and share. Ones who are willing to ensure that each student has access to what they need to succeed while being included in all that we are doing in class. The ones who see their job as more than a job. How do we get teachers to jump in with both feet?

What does learning and teaching look like in your school? It is what you think it should look like?

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PD reflection: Assessing Competencies

1.  What are you more certain of now after attending this PD?
The importance of ensuring that the competencies are visible and well understood by students. This really made me realize how important inquiry and reflection is for students. It really affirmed my dislike of pre-made resources as a primary mode of instruction instead of using it as a support for students who need that direct instruction and practice to build their skills prior to working on a project.  
2.  What are you less certain of now after attending this PD?
How to make the students understanding of them and how they are using them visible to parents. Should it be in Power School? Should the students be writing reflections that are sent home? Should we be recording/blogging/tweeting? What kind of exciting things can we do to make those connections more visible.
3.  How can you take what you learned at this session to hone your own practice as an elementary teacher?
I would like to continue to use them in the creation of my projects. I would also like to record my students talking about their learning more often. One thing I have committed to is putting the competencies into my project plans/write ups like I do with the outcomes and using them to base my reflection questions around them more explicitly.