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.

Help for the Weary

When you walk into a classroom today you expect to see students engaged in the learning process. You hope to see a teacher so excited about his/her content, that the energy flows directly to the learners. Sadly, when you walk into most public classrooms today, what you see will make you weary. Try as she may to create a classroom of engaged learners, the teacher of today often feels so overworked and overburdened, that little energy is left to give to the students. And sadly, this environment leaves both teacher and students feeling disengaged and yes, weary.

Admittedly, the learners of today are far different from the learners of say, just ten years ago. Technology has dramatically changed the education landscape, and the way that teachers need to approach this profession. Some would argue that technology is the root of the problem in today’s classrooms. Some would say that tech/social media is the very reason that teachers must work harder to keep students engaged. But blaming technology for all of the woes associated with education would be erroneous. In fact, technology has helped teachers to engage and connect students in ways that textbooks and old teaching methods do not. Technology has changed the very manner in which an educator disseminates knowledge. No longer should teachers lecture while students sit idly as passive learners. Technology allows the teacher to be more of a coach. A mentor who guides students as they connect, engage, problem solve, and think critically about the world around them. Through the use of technology, students can develop 21st century skills which will serve them well for the global world that they will soon enter. Technology is not the root of the evils that lurk in public schools today.

Why then do most public school teachers feel overworked? Why are teachers working harder than the students who sit in their charge? Why are so many educators working in places where creativity and engagement are not the norm? Why are so many teachers feeling so weary?

Here are the 6 top reasons why:

  1.  Emphasis on standardized testing
  2.  Little or no teacher planning time
  3.  Little or no resources that align with standards/ Common Core
  4.  Lack of leaders/coaches/guidance – teachers are expected to “do it all”
  5.  Interruptions
  6.  Regulated expectations to teach more curriculum (get it all covered) with less mastery of skills

There needs to be a paradigm shift, and soon. A shift toward helping all teachers do what they do best, and that is, to teach. Educators spend more time on the following tasks than they do actually teaching:

  1. prepping students for high stakes tests (which is not teaching)
  2. planning lessons that align with standards
  3. finding resources that align with said standards
  4. teaching themselves new skills because districts have neither funds or resources
  5. fitting in more content over the course of a year despite mastery of skills
  6. taking courses required by policymakers (who never step foot in a classroom)

These are the reasons that many teachers today are feeling so overworked and weary. Teachers are being required to do the work of many, resulting in adequate teaching at best. It’s not for lack of trying. Educators give everything they have for the sake of their students. It really is time that teachers are recognized for the extreme efforts they make to do their job- if only they could just do their job. The tragic consequences for schools across America are at stake should things continue to spiral as they have. Skilled, dedicated, creative teachers will leave this profession. Not because they no longer love teaching, but rather because they are no longer allowed to do what they love.

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The Here and Now

Can’t quite put my finger on it, but for some reason the feel of summer vacation hasn’t fully kicked in for me yet. I’ll never be a late sleeper, so yes I’m still waking at my usual time, but this comes as no surprise. In fact, there is something quite wonderful about waking up early and knowing you don’t have to get up if you don’t want to. Alas, it isn’t my morning mental alarm clock that fuels this feeling. The weather has been absolutely perfect in my neck of the woods ever since the school year ended. It’s exactly what this summergirl prefers…sunny and hot. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that right about now I’m defrosted and in my element. I am a summer girl through and through. And yet, something still feels amiss…

I have been able to exercise much more frequently/consistently now that my days are free. I am spending more time  with my daughters and my husband. And yet, that summer spirit eludes me…

The garden that my father so generously planted in my back yard is lush and flourishing, where last year’s harvest left much to be desired. It brings me great peace and pride to reap the fruits of our labor. And yet…

As I reflect on this piece, I’m admittedly embarrassed. It seems that much of my precious summer time is being wasted. Perhaps instead of worrying about the number of remaining free days, I should just be grateful for each one. Live each day in the moment, instead of looking at the days ahead. Start fully embracing today, and stop thinking about the time when it will come to an end.  I truly am grateful for the place I’m at- I just needed reminding.

The End?

In a mere seven days my colleagues and I will close our classroom doors one final time as we head off for summer vacation. Most teachers are exhausted at this time of the year, and will do very little school thinking in the upcoming weeks. Like my colleagues, I look to the summer as a time to reflect and recharge. However, unlike my colleagues I have spent the past few months developing my PLN in order to find like minded educators who support 21st century learning. Through various edchats, I have had the fortune of conversing with so many truly inspiring professionals who have been nothing but supportive of me. I know many can attest to the fact that the BEST professional development is found on Twitter. I am so grateful to everyone who has shared their ideas, methods, and expertise with me.

However, with all that I have gleaned comes a feeling of unrest. While I know that most of my colleagues are winding down, I feel as though I’m just getting started. Starting on a new adventure as I reflect on this past year and think about all the changes that I want to implement in the upcoming school year. Two books sit by my bedside ready to help me dissect the best ways to implement Genius Hour. My ticket to EdCampBoston in July sits next to these books. Numerous tech platforms / apps await my perusal. Multiple edchats will beckon me – even on Saturday mornings.

So, yes I have seven days left of this current school year. However, for the first time in my career as an educator, this ending feels like a beginning…

Step Out or Step Up

Lately I’ve been on a soul searching quest to follow my passion. This crusade has forced me to answer some challenging questions. And just when I think I have things figured out, something comes along to alter my thinking. For some time now I’ve felt that remaining in my current work situation will only serve to disappoint and keep me from fulfilling myself creatively. Leaving my current school district has been something that I have thought about for quite some time. In fact, leaving the teaching profession altogether has been something I have been struggling with for months.

Yesterday in church, my pastor’s message challenged this thinking. He spoke about leadership and one’s courage to lead in the face of adversity. He asked us to think about what it takes to remain where we are, and to lead from where we are. He asked how close we come to our vision before we run in fear because we are afraid.

It does take courage and strength to lead, to bring about change. It takes risk. Leadership begs the question -am I qualified enough?

This in turn forced me to ask these same questions of myself. If I so desperately want change in my district, why am I not fighting for it?Many of the leaders that I have come to respect through social media have advised me to be that one voice of change. My response has been to laugh and look for an external fix. Perhaps I should be looking inward. Is my desire to leave based on fear? Do I lack bravery? Can I step up even when I am afraid?

Yesterday’s message is weighing heavy on my mind. How many ordinary people are willing to change things right where they are? How many ordinary people are willing to be brave? How many ideas are dying all the time that could change the world, because people are not ready to step up?

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Passion – Friend or Foe

I’ve recently been told by two close friends that they believe me to be passionate about my role as a teacher. In both instances the word passionate caught me off guard. Friends who know me have come to understand the frustration I have felt for many years as a teacher. They have witnessed my heart ache, sleepless nights, tears, anxiety, and fits of anger over a job that at times consumes me. Passionate people are often quick to feel anger (check), have difficulty letting go of problems (check), and always wear emotions on their sleeve (check). I am a slave to all of these traits. I am a lot like my dad in that way. Defined this way, being passionate doesn’t sound that endearing.

This morning I decided to do a little research on the word passion. Here is what I discerned. “Passion (from the Latin verb patī meaning to suffer) is a term applied to a very strong feeling about a person or thing. Passion is an intense emotion compelling, enthusiasm, or desire for anything”.
Passionate people are focused, expressive, independent thinkers, learners, and risk takers. But perhaps the best description I found was this excerpt written by Sima Ballinger in her post about passionate people. She writes “Passion creates excellence when mediocrity will do. Passion makes you laugh, when you feel like crying. Passion makes you open your mouth and proclaim something, when a whisper will do. Passion allows you to sit still, when you feel like walking away. Passion will cause you to break a record, when finishing the race will do. Passion will make you stay up all night long, when you want to sleep. Passion will cause you to love, when you would rather hate.”

Knowing that people regard me this way revealed an important lesson. I was forced to reflect differently about the way I see myself, and the way others perceive me. If by passionate my friends see me as speaking out about what’s wrong in education (when a whisper will do), then yes I am guilty. If I lose many nights of sleep worrying about my job, my students and my school,( when I’d rather be sleeping), then yes I am guilty. If I strive for excellence by honing my craft to make learning fresh each year (when tried and true methods will do), then yes I am guilty. If my friends want to define me as passionate, I’ll take it. For when you are surrounded by something you truly love and care about, you can’t hide it, your passion comes through.