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!

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Strength based learning.

Recently I posted about teaching from my identity and learning about who I was as a teacher. My focus this year has been on my students and building them up as learners. This is only possible by encouraging my students to use the skills and strengths to their advantage. I am passionate about encouraging educators to embrace the power of a strength-based philosophy in their practice. While it is extremely important to help students recognize and develop their strengths, it is also important for students to recognize the strengths of others.

I’d like to clarify that strength based education is not about being the best at something. Chris Wejr writes about this in his post 10 Ways to Determine the Strengths of Our Students.

“An important activity is for students to understand that each and every one of them has strengths.  These can come in the form of activities (ex. dance, hockey, math, etc) and in the form of character strengths. It is also important to share what these strengths could look like in each student; strengths are not something that a student needs to be the best at but more about personal skills, qualities, traits and virtues that students have developed”.

When I look at my students, I realize that we did not get to where we are by accident. We started slowly by getting to know who we were and what our stories were. I believe strongly that storytelling is the best way to connect. Together, the grade 5 team of teachers developed an inquiry to learn about our identities. We explored how our families came to Canada and/or how our family’s history has shaped who we are by where we live. We got to know ourselves and each other. One of my students shared with me that in his culture adults don’t ask each other about their jobs rather where they are from. It’s how they break the ice. He said it’s more interesting because it can open up some personal things about a person, but not something so personal it’s awkward. It’s lets you equate someone more with their life as opposed to their job.

As we learned more about our families, we also learned more about ourselves. We learned about the things we love and enjoy. We also learned our our families and experiences help influence those things. This caused me to shift from thinking I was there to teach curriculum to starting to believe that as a teacher my job was to facilitate learning experiences that students could find their strengths as well as develop their skills and abilities at the same time as their passions. I started to find ways to tie curriculum into the things they enjoyed.

Over the year so far, one of the things we discovered we had in common is that we all enjoyed hands-on activities and building or making in a variety of ways. We have started to bring that into science. For example, we are working on weather. I put out the challenge of trying to measure the wind speed and direction. This led to the idea of building our own wind machines. Using the inquiry process we are going to build a machine using recycled materials to measure the direction of the wind. The students are co-creating criteria for their machines this week and it is awesome to see the two science classes I teach take their own spins on the project. The students are so engaged in the whole process but also are trying to find out what roles they will play in their group’s work based on what they know they can each do well. They want each other to succeed.

Strength based learning goes hand in hand with the growth mindset. It is about learning from your mistakes, taking risks and having the confidence in yourself. Relationships are key. Start small and build each day. It can be as little as a 15 minute conversation with each of your students. I’ve learned that creating a community is the most important part. The time we spend coming together makes the world of difference. We are excited about the work we do and take pride in our learning. We want to share. We have realized that together we are stronger than apart.