Time To Change The Rules

As the debate over education in the United States wages on, educators, parents, students and administrators continue to receive mixed messages about best practices for today’s youth and the schools they inhabit. In the wake of NCLB, and the new Common Core Standards, the rules of education are constantly changing. With incentives for schools aptly named “Race to the Top”, it is no wonder that education can sometimes feel like a competition. And in order for educators and schools to stay in the game, they must fight hard.

Walk in to most classrooms in America today and you will find teachers working extremely hard to make connections and engage students. You will see teachers trying to motivate children in ways like never before. Educators are indeed fighting hard. But take a closer look at the students. For it is here where you should see the hardest work being done. Teachers should not be working harder than the children in their charge. Yet, in many classrooms across America, it is in fact the teacher who expends most of the energy.

Rigor

To best understand the reason for this uneven balance, we must take a look at rigor in our classrooms. Rigor is best defined as instruction, schoolwork, learning experiences, and educational expectations that are academically, intellectually, and personally challenging. In order to expose students to rigor, teachers need to impart knowledge and concepts that are complex so that students question and think critically and deeply about the subject matter. In this way students acquire skills that can then be applied in educational and real world contexts. Also, content that is rigorous must be equitable – that is every student, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, or English proficiency should be held to the same academic standards. Rigorous curriculum must not be confused with difficult curriculum. Lessons that are simply “hard” may result in disengagement, and frustration, whereas rigorous learning experiences motivate and give students a sense of accomplishment as they overcome a learning challenge. Rigor exists to help students learn to think, to work hard, and to fail, because it is in this failure that students learn about persistence, consequences and grit. In short, rigor prepares students for real life.

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If the goal of education is to prepare students for real life, why then are most teachers finding it difficult to incorporate rigorous curriculum on a daily basis? Why instead are teachers working harder than students?

Let’s Start With Two…

Reason #1: Educators in the US are required to spend endless hours preparing students for standardized tests year after year. Children across the country are becoming very skilled at test taking, while real learning, rigor, is being compromised. Motivation and engagement are difficult to achieve during test prep instruction. Very little outside the box thinking coincides with standardized test preparation. The result – disengaged students, and exhausted teachers fighting relentlessly to motivate and keep  learners on task.

Reason #2: Teachers today are required to provide their districts with evidence of student academic growth. Unfortunately the evidence is not always used to measure student growth, but rather to gauge teacher competency. Hence, for today’s teachers, much is riding on student outcomes. This means that teachers spend much of their time pre and post testing students throughout the year. And in order to achieve substantial growth, educators often end up teaching to a test just to “prove” that students are making progress. However, the gains students make are not necessarily gains that will prepare them for the future workforce they will soon inhabit. Instead of instilling students with the ability to problem solve, collaborate, and create (rigor), teachers are working extremely hard to ensure that the students in their charge do well on post tests.  So teachers create study guides. Said study guides often have actual test questions and answers. After all, data matters. Numbers “prove” growth do they not? But what is the cost when grades become the priority, not the process of learning? Why should the process(rigor) matter when that cannot be quantified in a grade book? Thus little or no critical thinking is required of students. They have very little ownership of the learning and how it relates to the real world. And should a student perform poorly, teachers are often guilted into giving second chances. After all, student growth is tied to teacher performance.  The result – tired teachers, and bored students.

How can this kind of education be considered a fair playing field? Where other countries like Finland and Korea understand that rigor is a prerequisite for success in life, children in America are being given a very different message. Here students learn that preparing for high stakes testing continues to be a priority. They erroneously believe that being fed information and spitting it back on a quiz or test equates to rigor. This kind of education is definitely not fair to anyone. Yes, teachers today are fighting very hard to stay in the game, however it is high time for the rules to change.  The time to put students on that playing field seems long overdue.

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How To Be An Intentional Listener

As teachers we are constantly seeking to be heard. Heard by students, colleagues, administrators, and parents. After all, ours is a professional where the role of the listener often determines our success as facilitators of the knowledge we hope to impart. And if our goal is to engage and be heard, then should it not also be our duty to understand what it truly means to be a good listener?

Listening Defined

Listening can simply be defined as the act of hearing or paying attention.  But the art of listening goes beyond this simple definition. For listening truly is an art. And in order to get good at this art, most of us need practice before we get it right. More importantly however, we need to practice being intentional listeners.

Stephen R. Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) suggested that “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. Simply put, most people have their own agendas, and therefore are not intentionally listening. Instead they often “listen” with the sole purpose of answering back. If you have ever been on the receiving end of one of these conversations, you have felt devalued. Not heard. Most of us can harken back to a time during our schooling where we faced a teacher who put his/her own agenda at the forefront of every interaction. Chances are that experience was less than satisfying.These kinds of conversations often result in very destructive relationships if left unchecked. When someone’s words are left unheard, self-doubt permeates that relationship every time there is an exchange.

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On the flip side of this, when someone feels truly listened to, a healthy, safe environment is created. When we are heard, we feel valued and respected. For at the heart of every interaction is the desire to be fully heard. As educators, we must strive to create these safe environments by being intentional listeners. To offer anything less cheats the children in our care.

Two Critical Facets That Ensure Intentional Listening:

  • Set aside your own agenda
  • Always keep in mind that the person standing in front of you is more important than the issue you are discussing

Always try to hold on tight to the notion that you musn’t allow your own agenda to get in the way of what another is trying to communicate. This is easier said than done, especially for those type A personalities who need control and enjoy being the voice of reason. It will take lots of practice for these kinds of personalities to fully embrace the art of intentional listening, because they often seem to think that their agenda is the only agenda. Or the only agenda that matters. Set aside your own agenda. Be present and hear what another person has to say without letting your needs interfere. Practice this often.

Finally, always keep in mind that it is the relationships in your life that matter most, not the issues that you might grapple over. Never let an issue lead you so far astray that you forget about the friend, parent, colleague, or student standing before you. Building relationships is crucial. And one of the best ways to develop relationships is to be a good listener. Imagine the potential in our classrooms, boardrooms, and our lives if we practiced the art of listening – intently.