Today I am taking a step forward

There are people, events, memories that come up from time to time that influence us in ways we cannot anticipate.  Then again, it is up to us to be influenced and aware the impact our environment has on us.

Today I am taking a step forward.  Met a teacher who has been at this longer than I have, watched him work with a group of students and just had a great energy in everything he was doing.  Positive, passionate, patient, persistent, even in a short while really made me remember what it is I am striving to become.  How do I inspire reflection or motivation or energy in others?  Who is it that I want to be?

In his closing remarks, he stated, “If you get anything from me, I want it to be that passion and energy can do so much.”  Moving with a purpose in mind, being driven to create or refine, to solve, we need to ask ourselves what it is we are doing each day.  Envision who it is you want to be, what kind of person, and direct your day-to-day decisions toward these visions.  Reflect on the ways you accomplished a goal and how each step in the process came as a result of a purposeful thought, however minute.

Redirecting my thoughts, what kind of person do I want to be in order to become the kind of teacher I want to be?  The best teachers I know could be described as caring, persistent, lifelong learners, and genuine people.  It is a step by step process every day.  Live in the process, love the process, grow through the process.  Then take a look back every once in a while to see how far you have come.  I truly love the analogy of climbing a mountain or a long trail, not because it is ‘uphill’ or difficult as it could be, but that there are various paths to take and choices to make.  Some are switchbacks that gradually take you up, others could dip down for a short breather, and sometimes you just trudge straight up towards the false summit (because the journey does not end when we reach a goal).  On any of these trails, there are moments to look back and see what led to where we are, to appreciate the culminating impact of each small step.

Coming back to what we leave our students with, how do we pass on a concept like a love of music, perseverance and discipline, or passion in everything we do?  Teachers and administrators set the tone, yet it is up to the student to ‘buy in’ and achieve.  In pondering the many ways we create an atmosphere in our classrooms and schools, it takes me back to small steps.  A vision of students supportive of one another in a creative environment improving instrument techniques who feel confident in sharing those creations with many others.  Alright, if that is the vision, where do we begin?  I do not have a recipe, yet each decision I make will be directed by this overarching idea.

Now, to nail down my lofty philosophical babbling a bit with real-world applications.  There are certain traits that I can and will incorporate more right away in my teaching.  Early on, one of my mentors probed me about a particular student who was frustrating to work with.  She said that the students who frustrate us the most are often the students we will learn the most from, find out why they are frustrating.  We do not choose who walks into our classrooms yet we are there to teach them.  As I type, there are several kids on my mind who need something else from me in order to be successful in the environment I am establishing.  Another way to articulate this, I care about everyone who comes in and I am working to show that in what I do.  If I could really make clear one thing, it would be that the energy put towards a student signifies a belief in their potential.  I may email a parent to check on missing assignments, pull them aside during a passing period to ask how their football game went, bother the kid who is always late to change when they go to their locker, arrange a song for the group to play because some of them have been learning it by ear.  Teachers go out of their way for their students all the time, striving to lead students to their potential.  However, at the end of the day, it is up to the student to absorb and use the information or concepts we present.  We will still do our best to show them how.

Long post short, today I am taking a step forward.  Every step leads somewhere, hopefully the ones today are taking me towards that image I’m aiming for, it feels like a good philosophy for now.

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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?

What is the goal?

A third grader had a meltdown in one of my classes this week.  I looked over while everyone was working quietly in groups to see her crying in a corner, then was immediately notified by about four others that “She’s crying!”

There are so many pieces in the teacher’s job description.  Kids are developing, they have lives that impact what happens while they are in school.  We push and push to have data to show what they are learning, how much progress they have made in math or reading, awards for doing the best on tests, and test and test and test.  When are we giving them time to be kids?  What is the goal for teachers?  Administration?  A school district?

After sending the ‘reporters’ back to work, I went over and asked what was wrong.  No response.  I prodded again and said it would be okay to sit out, breathe, and collect herself.  Then the story came flooding out.  I was not able to make out every piece, but the gist was that her mom was just deployed somewhere else and a few of her friends were poking fun at her while she was already feeling bad about that.  Gave her a hug, told her it was okay to feel bad, let her know she could sit for a bit if she wanted, but she hopped right back in with her group and participated the rest of class.

As we grow into adulthood, a big realization is that we are all simply wandering, trying to understand and find our place in the world.  Just like developing young minds, we have a regular struggle in determining who we are, what we intend, and then, in turn, what we decide to do in varying circumstances.  So sitting in class, doling out lessons that are hopefully engaging and meaningful, when a student is having a difficult time, I have a split second to decide a course of action.  I have to remember my goal.

A little later in the day I stopped by the counselor’s office to talk about what happened with the third grader.  I asked if she had been in to see either the military counselor or the regular counselor.  Nope.  Apparently she seemed just fine at recess, too.  The next day, when I was out for recess duty, she came up and hugged me while talking about some silly game she was playing with her friends.  She was there and then gone in a moment to go play.  Maybe all she needed was someone to listen, or a place to talk.  In any case, I feel I met my goal that day.

How do you measure the impact of moments like these?  Where is the data on emotional development?  It has been nearly three months since I started this position and already I can count numerous moments like this.  My fear is that collectively, we are turning the students, the people involved in education into numbers and statistics.  Who has the most teacher turnover, what school has the highest math scores, give more money to the schools doing well on the next big test.  Yes, statistics can tell us many things, but those numbers cannot show the people involved, whether or not a student had breakfast that day, if a parent went to jail, if the teacher used the same language as a test to teach a concept, and often whether or not a student can actually perform the skill they are answering a multiple choice question about.

What do we miss when the focus is on numbers and results?  Is the goal to build citizens or scores?  One will eventually beget the other, but not the other way around.

Nurture is All Around

Standing outside with a little stop sign in front of the school twice a week, I keep the traffic from running down our young students using the crosswalk.  Inevitably though, during my twenty minute extra job, there are vehicles parked in areas not designated as parking spaces.  We have a drop off area, a bus area, and a fairly large parking lot that fills for big events, but never the morning routine.  Despite this thought out design, parents continue to park on those dashed areas between handicap spaces and at the end of the rows of spaces, blocking an area often used to walk safely over to the crosswalk.  After several conversations, I have resorted to placing cones in two of the closer areas so students and parents can walk to the crosswalk without venturing into traffic.

I see your goal is to be known as “that guy.”

These moments bring to mind a clear thought.  The social experiment, the nurturing experience that is the education system does not end at the students or the buildings.  The phrase “It takes a village” speaks volumes to the impact an environment has on the development of our next generations.  Those parents ignoring basic rules to keep us safe and the actions taken by other individuals while kids observe affects their perception of the world.  The teacher who sends a student to the office for continuous disruptive behavior only to have their decision second-guessed or reversed has an influence.  Children staying up late at night or watching shows and games with ideas they could easily misunderstand, has an affect.  Schools disintegrating programs for creative pursuits in favor of more math or reading classes to deal with pressure to perform on tests that will determine their funding.  The factors add up, positive or negative, they add up.  Then what about the high school who has the largest football program that supports its members playing in the marching band?  Or schools like Montessori that encourage exploration as an essential skill, what impact do they have?  KIPP charter schools, an inner city effort set up like a boarding school.  Parents who actively push their children to complete assignments and support the efforts of the teacher.  In the end, we are molded by our experiences, good or bad.  The biggest skill we can learn is to be aware that our actions impact the world, however small.  Our actions can change the world.

As a student, as a parent, or as one of the few working in a school, we have been molded by our experiences amidst the education system.  With either immense frustration or fond memories, or daily stories of student activity, we talk and talk about education.  Since our primary experience with education is as a student, there are so many sides of the issue that are simply lost having not been exposed.  Teachers and anyone working directly with students are at the forefront.

Averaging around a 23:1 student to teacher ratio at my school, it is far different from what one would anticipate.  Each student is tracked regularly for performance in specific areas while trying to attain the data to attract grants, recognition, and “better” students and teachers.  It is a funny process rarely recognized for the complexities and variables but is quickly criticized for anyone slipping through.  True, it is difficult to objectively measure effectiveness without some statistical data, however, I do question the push for more means of proving knowledge while taking away time for instruction.  Flipping the focus of education from students to numbers.  What is the impact of that?

What of those “elective” courses like art, P.E., music, woodworking, cooking, sewing?  What skills are we missing by pushing these experiences aside?  In public elementary schools, there are usually just a few that students are rotated through; art, P.E., music, and library.  So in essence, each of those teachers are expected to work with and individually track every student of every grade level in the school.  That includes for me, preparing two hundred of them for an exam that will determine my pay grade within an instruction window of 45 minutes once a week, occasionally twice.  Hmm, I wonder how effective that is, yet that is the expectation and becoming the norm.  Five hundred fifty students to one teacher.

Perhaps this seems a lengthy complaint.  Not so.  I really do enjoy seeing the variety of development stages, working to meet those needs.  It is a unique experience and a position with a great deal of responsibility.  I aim to fill each of those 45 minutes with as much as I can.  This is more a public statement to shed light on a bit of those inner workings we were never truly aware of as a student or often as a parent.  A little empathy can go a long way to understanding the next step toward the effective, positive education of our youth.

Choose the impact you want to make in the world because you have an influence in the lives of others.  And maybe stop parking in places that impede those around you 😛

Anticipation

Three days until school begins.  It’s going to be a wild ride!

Reading articles about first year teachers and what they experience, this is the anticipation stage.  Preparation, lesson planning and replanning, staff meetings, classroom setup, and so many binders of information to read.  The amount of logistical pieces that go into preparing for school as a teacher is staggering.  Not only that, but the list grows daily as new information from veteran teachers and administration is discussed.  Did you set up the voicemail system?  Did you find out how many copies you are allowed to make?  When do you have meetings?  Have you read through the district curriculum?

And we’re starting school when??

Much of the education for teachers prior to graduating and licensure is focused on content and developing a teaching philosophy.  My classmates and I talked regularly about what area of music we wanted to teach and what age group.  Did we believe marching band could develop solid musicians and the effectiveness of Orff or Kodaly methodology beyond general music.  It was a great atmosphere and we had numerous opportunities to observe teachers out in the trenches.  I believe that was the most beneficial aspect of my education (teaching side anyway), actually seeing teachers in action.  That is where we are finally exposed to classroom management, pacing, transitions, and organization skills.

Content is able to be learned when procedures and management are effective.  Substitute teaching was a fabulous experience.  Every day was a new day to practice management skills.  When students feel secure in their environment, knowing the expectations and consequences, both positive and negative, everyone can accomplish more.  Obviously having engaging lesson plans makes a big difference, but even the best lessons are no substitute for strong management.  The beginning of a school year is where those procedures are introduced and demonstrated.  It has to be from the first moment consistent, fair, and quick.  It will take weeks to establish, particularly since I see each group just once or twice a week, but will become easier to work with as the year continues.

Meeting the other teachers and staff of the school is also super important.  It’s a community and being able to work with these folks from the beginning will make life easier when issues arise.  As a new person in the building, I want to be flexible with extra duties or expectations thrown my way.  The principal’s secretary, building engineer, building secretary, and paraprofessionals are some of the most important people to know (and perhaps bring chocolate to).  Then, be ready because “your time” during a school day is still part of a contracted time that will probably be used for other things that cannot be anticipated.  Parents, detention, other teachers, administrators will be calling.  They all know where your classroom is, too.  (And let’s not mention the assessments and evaluations I’ll be experiencing.)

So with all that in mind, I head into the first week of school with hope, lots of excitement, and anxiety.  The second stage of a first year teacher, survival.  Let’s see how far I make it before this happens!!  Hah!

Happy teaching!

Time to Move

Boxes are packed and stacked, ready to go.  It is just about time to move into my new place in a new area to start my new career.  The feeling is altogether surreal; knowing that this was what I set out for six years ago.  I am entirely too analytical about these life moments.

In any case, there are so many things to do before school begins in just over a week and a half!  As a new teacher navigating the trenches, I am finding that the more I find out, the more questions I have.  At this point, I almost just want school to start so I can figure out my bearings, meet the students, and have a solid view of what it is I am preparing for.  Substitute teaching really helped to move past a fear of walking into an unknown situation and being prepared, but this is so much more.  How do you develop a curriculum based on hundreds of students you have never met?  Where do you begin?  This is what I hope to keep in mind as the school year begins:

Procedures.  My plan, and the countless teachers I have heard from is to focus on classroom routines, behavior expectations, and logistics until everyone is comfortable.  The first week of classes and into the second, is now set.  The specials have a four day rotation, each group needs to know and understand how the class will run, and have a bit of fun along the way, it is music after all!  For elementary students, this will mean repeating how we enter the classroom, where we sit, how we sit, how/if we ask to leave the room or move from our seat.  What are the discipline procedures?  What are the rewards systems?  Students are the most comfortable when they know what to expect.  When developing our procedures, I must be prepared to consistently exhibit and enforce every aspect to a T.  That is not to say a rule or routine never change.  There has to be flexibility, and if something is ineffective, inefficient, or disruptive, there will be changes.

Flexibility.  Looking forward, I should stretch!  There are going to be many new situations and students I have never worked with before.  And we have to be ready to face those moments and solve those problems!  Accommodations for various needs, changes in the lessons on the fly, making use of teachable moments.

Perhaps that is what really drew me to teaching, the problem solving.  I love math and puzzles, anything to challenge the brain to bend in different ways.  This is a much grander scale with a classroom full variables that can change drastically in seconds.  Social science at its finest.  How far down the rabbit hole?

Forgiving.  I know that I need to prepare myself for some bumbling around along the way.  We will never be perfect, but we can be resilient!  If a lesson goes astray, move on.  Reflect later why it did not work, learn from it, and grow.  This is a learning environment and we will learn!  Forgive the blunders, use them as an opportunity to bounce forward.

Attitude.  A teacher’s perception of a task has a great deal of impact on the “buy in” of the students.  Take pride in the details of transitions, setup of the class, organization of the board.  Create a positive energy where they will thrive and feel supported.  Take to heart that each action has a consequence, and try to make them positive.  Remember your favorite teachers and classes, why were they your favorite?

Reflection.  This is vital to improvement.  Have some appreciation for where you have been, what worked, what did not.  Keep track of great ideas and bad ones, too.  Encourage students to do the same as this promotes ownership and critical thinking skills.  I will be keeping a journal each day as well as updating here each week.  Work through the problems, savor the successes as we go!

This is a process with many steps, or rather a collection of hundreds of little projects and people.  So even though countless others have walked this path, our stride is unique and the journey is our own to enjoy.