Influence Does Not Appear Overnight

There is an article out about the mistakes new teachers make.  Read through it last night and I am totally with the author, I’ve made almost every one of them!  And I am glad!

Life is all about process, music has certainly shown me that, and teaching is similar.  Each day is a new opportunity, a new performance, a new coaching gig where the players can be predictable, but often are not.  Building off of what they know and leading them, sometimes it feels like pushing them, into new territory.  Love the process, live in the process, and slowly, the effects will start to show.

My biggest mistakes (so far):

Writing incredibly detailed lesson plans.  This, fortunately, did not last long, and really it cannot.  Depending on what you are teaching, one college-length lesson plan for each day and class is so time-consuming.  That is not to say planning is not important, far from it, they are just far more concise plans.  It was wonderful that my college professors encouraged us to plan out what to say and how to say it, because it is very important when keeping pacing and interest up.  Though after the first month or so, there may be a phrase to stick into the plan and remember, or a short list of points to address, not a screen play.

On the flip side, going to clinics and other professional development opportunities is very helpful when picking up good phrases to use with students.  (A great book to read on the subject is Choice Words by Peter H. Johnston.)  One of my favorites now is when addressing music students missing rests or notes, I ask for a show of hands of who missed it.  Then, when they think they are in trouble, I encouragingly say, “Great!  You heard what happened, so you know how to fix it!” or “Good listening!  Can we try it correctly?”  Mistakes happen, it does us no good to fall away from them feeling awful or wanting to quit.

Never leaving school.  I am still guilty of this and my colleagues have been commenting.  It is difficult to begin sorting through resources, finding resources, deciding what might work, and how to put it all together in a meaningful way.  It does take time, but we also need to live and prioritize.  A fifth grade teacher applauded when she saw me walking out the door at 4:30 yesterday afternoon, I am typically one of the last to leave.  However!  I have learned to limit the amount of time I am working after school.  I will stick around until 4:30-5:00 and then anything after that is practice time.  My music room is a fantastic space to play euphonium; plus, it is wonderfully cathartic.

It’s not a tuba!

Trying to re-invent the wheel.  Entering into the field, particularly after living in the ideal mindset of the college experience, we want to change the world!  Should we do things differently?  Yes.  Do we need to create lessons from scratch every single time?  Absolutely not.  The best thing about finding resources, they are tools.  Tools we can adjust to suit our purpose without developing the whole process ourselves.  How do we become great teachers?  Imitate great teachers and use the supplies they readily hand us.

Now, my successes (so far as I can tell):

There is routine, but also lots of variety.  Although I consider this a bit back-handed since I know I will change the order and how I taught a number of things in the beginning of the year, it is still a success.  I set up many clear routines and procedures that students now do without question.  They know where to go when entering my classroom and what happens if they are or not focused.  When I say certain phrases, everyone understands the expectations and what will happen if they do not meet them.

Where I missed a few spots, a procedure for asking to use the bathroom and consistently letting students know where their overall behavior stands during class.  The classroom teachers have their own bathroom signals I thought I could just work with, and that is okay with kindergarten, but for the other 450, they each seem to have a different signal.  I have a five-star system where they can earn up to five stars in a class.  It was going great until I started focusing on some other aspects and would neglect to build up those stars as a visual.  We’ll fix this next week, but it will not be engrained until late in the school year.  It takes time.

They know me and my classroom as a safe place.  If nothing else went well all year, I would still be doing cartwheels about this success.  The most important and effective management tool, is a safe environment.  Not only management, but it helps when getting to know students.  One of my favorite things is hearing stories about non-school related activities.  When they just start talking, I know that we have a connection and we can work together.  It is more apparent in the upper grades where they are not as trusting.  Although, it is awesome to have a cafeteria full of kindergarteners trying to run up and give you hugs while grabbing lunch.

Looking forward to the rest of the school year.  There will be some rough moments, and each group can be different day-to-day, but having a little more solid footing is helping.  It also helps having more of a life outside of school.

Onwards and upwards!

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Reality Sets In

The last couple months have been less than a positive experience, very eye-opening, however. Looking back I can pick out good things, but in the midst it is easy to be sucked in by negativity.

Often to be disappointed in lack of forethought with a lesson that then did not work well, I was upset with classroom management issues, and found myself dreading going to work. How can that be! Working so hard for years to make a dream a reality and then like a veil being lifted, nothing is as you imagined. Being caught up in those ideals, however farfetched they are, sets us up for a rude awakening. Of course, it does not seem to matter how much you tell yourself it is nonsense or illogical, emotion is what it is. If you find yourself angry hours later because a ten year old said something rude, you might be a teacher (or a parent).

So let’s talk reality. Public education in America is messy. Twists and turns, administration and administration and administration for their administration; paper trails and money trails you never see; testing upon testing to gather data that may not tell much, if anything of how to improve. Frankly, and I have said this many times, the majority of people in this country have no idea what is going on in education. The small window allotted for us as students is barely a hint of the real labyrinth.

In our current situation, the biggest pressure is in testing and data. Data is simple, it shows specific values that we can see and understand. If a school or teacher is not producing adequate results, then the answer must be obvious, right? If the answer is that it is the school’s and teacher’s responsibility to make students remember information for a test, then sure. But where is the student’s responsibility in taking charge of that information, in learning, in working for themselves? That is unmeasurable data and therefore, is left out of the equation. How much time do we have invested in taking “standardized” tests to give us data instead of supporting teachers who can show their own? It is not just the day or weeks of the test.

It would seem that we are left in a strange place; a misty mountain. At the summit are administrators of school districts, state officials, companies developing tests, and the multitude of people who work in and around schools for research. In the valley, there are the students we herd from here to there; take a test here, move to another school for behavior or other assistance there. Then there are the teachers, climbing around the steep mountain in the fog, working with the other teachers around them when they can, trying to lead students to new skills, encourage practice, and manage twenty-plus at once. All the while, administrators take a helicopter to drop in and put a spotlight on fifteen minutes of one class period in two weeks. Then the students are tested and the teachers are evaluated based on that data. Teachers are set up to take the fall, and isn’t it easy to blame the ones we do not know or see?

My two cents on data: Collecting data in class is a valuable tool, it lets you know who understands and who needs more practice. It is still just a tool. It can shed light on what needs improvement, but it does not solve the problem.

With as messy as our system is, it is heartening to meet and work with many awesome teachers and administrators. I am fortunate to have a wonderful administration team in my building. Three people who value our time and do their best to support and help out where they can. What strikes me is how much they all care, the teachers and the administrators in the schools. Putting the education of hundreds of students in the hands of these folks is a great decision that anyone could see if they spent a little time talking to them or their students. It is a shame to think about these people hearing all the blame and pressure from a society that needs to see more of the picture than what is seen on the news.

One last thought. With “teacher effectiveness” rolling out, pay-by-performance already implemented in several places, it is amazing how little say the teachers have. The person spending fifty+ hours a week working and numerous hours thinking, planning, studying how to develop young minds, the one who stays up late worrying about how to reach Emma and Jayden, the one who uses their own paycheck to buy things for the classroom because it is easier than jumping through administrative loops or they do not have a budget, the one who brings in extra coats for students that need them, or any extra thing (A hint, it’s not just one or two teachers in a district, these are the type of people who go into teaching.) They have little control over how they are evaluated.

Could the students teach themselves today?