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!

The Un-Classroom – Leaving the Formal Setting Behind

Recently I had a chance to really reflect on my  physical classroom and the learning that happens in my classroom. Everything I like about how things are run in the classroom are the things that aren’t “mine” or aren’t a “classroom”. This will likely be the last time this blog post that I refer to it as “my classroom”

The class itself is a group of students, each with a different story, home, journey, and path.  Each one faces a different challenge: be it academic, social, family, and/or systemic. The thing that they all have in common is that they all have the ability to learn and be successful – they just need the tools and supports to do so. For me, the most important aspect is to know that it is my job as the teacher of the room to ensure that this is possible.

When I walked into the  classroom this summer to set up, the room was very traditional and structured as a classroom. There is a whiteboard, chalkboard, SMARTboard, shelves and cupboards, a TV and VCR, a supply closet. There was a teacher’s desk and a file cabinet as well. It was a stuffy and sterile room. This was the first thing that had to go.  I have a strong belief that individual desks create barriers in learning and force students into their own spaces. My first goal was to create a warm and welcoming space that would be conducive to creating and sustaining a community of learners with ties to their community and world. Through out the year, the desks have gone along with many of the chairs and in has come various tables different sizes, shapes and heights, pillows, a couch, comfortable lounge chairs, yoga balls, wobble stools,  and a yoga mat. Each student has choice in what will open it up for what will help them learn.  I have a student desk in the corner by the SMART board for my laptop dock and document camera – though I often squish onto the couch with the students to work alongside with them if they haven’t pulled me into a learning circle they have created on the floor. The students move the furniture around to support their needs as they learn.

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A recent classroom arrangement of the students to facilitate a Socratic Circle on a new classroom schedule

That is just the physical classroom. To quote a student describing our class to our deputy superintendent, “Our class isn’t run the way a normal class is. We do things differently around here”. That is quite true. Paper helps guide the general direction of our learning but our curiosity, exploration and passions ultimately drive our learning forward.  We look for ways to makes sense of what we are learning and why we are learning it. The point is to have an educational journey that meets the individual needs of everyone. One of the things I have tried to pass on to my students is the importance of growth based on reflection, feedback from our community and refinement of skills. We share responsibility for our learning by making the learning student-centered and striving for a deeper understanding of the knowledge and skills we are learning.

Many students come to school each day and this is their safe place to be. The lives of the students reflect the impact of their reality. The students live with and through mental health challenges, poverty, social exclusion, amongst many other challenges. They may not have supportive families, positive support systems or stable living environments to give them the same opportunities as others may have but each student who comes into the classroom has made the choice to be there that day. My job is to help them gain the skills, knowledge and values that will allow them to find success and thrive in our society.

As I wrote the last paragraph, I realize how important it is to have a well rounded and focused support team in place to give these students the greatest chance at success. I am also reminded that despite the fact I am teaching grade 5, these students face increasing challenges as their reality begins to solidify around them. A formal learning environment is not what students need. Students need to see value in themselves before they can see value in their learning. That is what my goal is – to educate the whole child and give them the best support system to allow them to develop the skills and knowledge they require.

In someways, there will always be a degree of formality that is expected of myself and our class – we are in the school system after all. However, if I can minimize the formality and give students the opportunity to show their knowledge, understanding and value of what they are learning in their own way while ensuring they are physically, emotional and mentally safe and comfortable – that is my goal.

 

Knowing your students is more important than knowing the curriculum

The other day I noticed that many of my students were just not having a great day or there had been a few things that were not going well for them for one reason or another. In my pocket was my chalk marker so knowing it would come off the tables and desks, I decided to bring a little cheer to a few of my students by writing a note to them. That soon turned to the whole class after hitting those students who really could use a little extra love and attention.

While they worked, I would pop by their spot and leave a few words. Instantly the mood of the classroom changed. The kids were excited to see what I would write for them. It made them extremely happy. When a few were rubbed off by accident, they were heartbroken. This evening I went and fixed them up and managed to finish the few I didn’t have a chance to finish since I had to stop and get back to teaching the next lesson after snack break.

Something I didn’t think would really be noticed or that would make some of the kids roll their eyes turned into something huge and meaningful for each of the students. It touched my heart to see how happy they were by something so simple.

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Relationships in Education

Lately I have been looking at our curriculum and thinking about the curriculum redesign. This curriculum has barely changed since I was the age of my students. It was outdated at that time and very little has done to bring it to the point that it reflects the relevant skills required of our students today. It is focused on facts that are easily found by a quick google search or can be taught through a youtube video. The rate that our students consume content and media leaves the focus on skills and understanding to the side. A timely tweet from George Couros, our district principal, left me thinking about how inquiry and relationships in the classroom has changed the tone of our learning.

So much of the growth and learning in our classroom has come from the fact we trust each other and have built a community of learning, growth and support. We have laid the foundation for us to develop skills and developed a culture of fearless feedback. The relationships we have forged and work to maintain are the ones that move our learning forward. In order to learn, the students must be happy and healthy first. This comes in many ways but for a lot of students, they are with me for the most important hours of their day. It is my job to facilitate their growth as citizens in our society.

My job is not to teach content but create experiences and facilitate opportunities for them. I am there to serve their social-emotional needs as much as I am there to fulfill their educational needs. What’s best for kids needs to be the focus of my decisions as I grow as practitioner. My job is not a job so much as a dedication to making the world a better place for kids.

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