Our classrooms and lessons don’t look the same as they did 20 years ago. 10 years ago. Even five years ago.
Or at least they shouldn’t.
Think of all the tools potentially available in a teacher’s toolbox that weren't around just a few years ago, resources and strategies that enable teachers to better engage students, promote collaboration, differentiate instruction, communicate with parents, and increase learning (both for the student and teacher/administrator).
iPads. ChromeBooks. Google Docs. Desmos. Khan Academy. Thinking Maps, Kagan Strategies. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Twitter chats. Pinterest. Teachers Pay Teachers. Remind text messaging. ClassDojo.
Research, our own personal experience, and common sense tell us the traditional model of education isn’t what’s best for students. We’ve learned that the teacher should no longer solely be the “sage on the stage,” but rather the “guide on the side,” facilitating learning. Students sitting quietly in rows listening to the teacher do all the talking doesn’t necessarily equal learning. Students must be engaged in critical thinking, allowed opportunities for discourse, encouraged to ask questions, and allowed to create in order to demonstrate their learning.
We as educators must be willing to embrace change, for through change comes growth.
Last week, Alice Keeler tweeted the statement below, the inspiration for this blog post.
I think we would all agree that the answer to this question would be a resounding, “No!”
So for me, this tweets begs the question -- would we accept this mindset in education?
Would we accept it from our child’s teacher?
Do we accept it from ourselves?
There is always more to learn, always ways to get better at what we do. Equating experience with having the “teaching thing” or “admin thing” all figured out is not a recipe for excellence. We cannot say to ourselves, “I’ve been doing this a long time. I know what I’m doing, and my students do well. There’s no need for me to change or try something new.”
So back to the tax analogy. Your accountant chooses not to take advantage of new tax laws and deductions to get you a bigger refund. When you question his practice, he responds, “I got you a refund. What more do you want?”
Uh...a bigger refund!
Why would we be satisfied with a $2,000 refund when our accountant could have gotten us, say, $5,000 by incorporating new resources or strategies into his practice? We wouldn’t. Then how can we be satisfied with the idea that our students learned at a “$2,000 level” when they could have learned so much more if we had incorporated new resources and strategies into our practice?
We are our students’ accountants, and we are tasked to get them the biggest “refund” possible.
It’s been said the biggest obstacle to becoming great is being good. Are we satisfied with seeing good progress from our students, or are we willing to learn to be better, to do whatever it takes to see great progress? We must. Our accountants do it. Our doctors do it. Our mechanics do it. And so must we.
Sharing. It’s something we’ve all been taught to do from the earliest years of our lives. Share your toys with your friends. Share the crayons at preschool. Share the backseat of the car with your brother. But then we move into adulthood and things change. Too often we get tunnel vision, consumed with our own day-to-day tasks, forgetting the power of sharing.
Last March at the annual CUE conference, I attended an excellent session on LiveBinders. At the conclusion of the session, I felt compelled to do a better job of sharing resources with the educators with whom I work. So, when I returned to school the following Monday, I resolved to begin sending to my staff a series of emails I called Tuesday’s Tech Tips. Since March, I have been sending short emails to teachers containing brief technology tips or suggestions. The tips are typically basic in nature and have included things like keyboard shortcuts, how to take a screenshot, and app/resource suggestions like Jing, Dropbox, and Remind101. I realize many of those who receive these tips are already aware of what I’m sharing, but I also know that not every teacher possesses the same level of proficiency in the use of technology. Bottom line, just because I know how to do something with technology doesn’t mean everybody else does. The response from teachers has been very positive, and sending out these tips has given teachers an opportunity to share back some tips of they’re own. It hasn’t been a one-way street, as I’ve learned a bunch from my staff in the process of sending out my tips.
I've previously written about the importance of collaboration (see my post "Paying It Forward"), but I believe this is a topic worthy of repeated discussion. My challenge to readers is this – if you’re not already doing so, start sharing with your staff. No matter who you are or what your position, you have something to share. It may be a lesson plan with a grade-level colleague. It may be an instructional strategy you’ve found to be particularly effective. It may be a tech tip of your own. Whatever you’ve found to work well for you, share it, for as a poster in my classroom used to read, "TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More."
Dying on the Hill
Ever felt like you're the only one or one of only a few trying to enforce a rule? You've been told students need to behave a certain way, you do your best to be consistent in holding them accountable, but those around you seem to "let things go?" It's frustrating. That feeling of "I can't do this alone" sets in. You think it’s impossible, like standing knee-deep in the ocean, hands stretched toward the horizon, trying to stop the tide.
I've asked myself why this happens. Why do teachers "let things go?" Why is there often a lack of consistency in enforcing rules? I think there are several reasons, but one can be summed up in the comment I've often heard -- "It's not worth the fight. I'm not going to die on that hill."
Here's my take on that mindset. First of all, it is worth the fight. Anything in the best interest of the kids we serve is always worth the effort.
Secondly, who said you have to die? If you're the only soldier fighting on the hill, yeah, chances are, you're going to die. But if everyone fights on the hill, no one has to die. If you're the only one trying to enforce a rule, the only one trying to change the culture of your work place, you're in for a tough fight. But what if others came alongside and fought with you? What if you had an army? Imagine what you could accomplish by working together.
Finally, some things are worth fighting for, and if necessary, metaphorically dying for. There are times in life, in your career, when you may feel like you're the only one who is fighting. There may be times when you feel alone, like you're the only one enforcing the rule. If this is the case, I encourage you -- don't give up! When my students had a difficult time following directions, being responsible, or behaving appropriately, and I had to constantly remind and redirect them, I would often say, "Class, it would be much easier for me to stop holding you accountable. But that wouldn't be what's best for you."
Sometimes you have to fight, because that fight is what's best for kids. But you don't have to fight alone.
Fill the Glass
How are students in our classrooms like a glass of iced tea? Kind of an odd question, but read on to find out.
Before becoming a teacher, I, like many other college students, paid my bills with money earned waiting tables in a restaurant. For over five years, I served up turkey pot pies, Caesar salads, and apple pie a la mode to hungry customers at Marie Callender’s. Though I didn’t know it at the time, some of the training I received during those five years would serve as an excellent illustration of effective teaching. Restaurant training leading to good teaching? Let me explain.
When I first got my job as a server, I was taught that each server in the restaurant was responsible for a particular number of tables and customers seated at those tables. Nothing unique there. This is standard practice at all restaurants. But one thing the managers of Marie Callender’s emphasized was that servers should work as a team. Yes, each server was supposed to pay particular attention to his/her assigned tables, but I was taught (and reminded of time and time again) that when walking the floor of the restaurant, I was to keep an eye open for customers in need of assistance, regardless of whether or not they were seated in my section. For example, if I had a free moment and walked by a table where a customer needed her iced tea refilled, I should refill it. Makes sense. Not the most novel idea in the world, but stop and think about it for a moment. How often does this happen to you when you dine out? In my experience, not very often. You don’t have to have waited tables to know what I’m talking about. How many times have you been in a restaurant, needed a refill or something from the kitchen, but your server was nowhere to be found? We’ve all been there. Frustrating, huh? And how many times have you, while waiting for your server to return to your table, seen other servers pass by or stand idle against a wall, completely ignoring your empty glass that’s begging for a refill? If you’re like me, this happens all the time. Why? Because most of these servers have tunnel vision, focusing only on their assigned tables. Unfortunately, the servers who pass us by in the restaurant probably are thinking If iced tea needs refilled on Table 21, that’s not my problem, because I’m only responsible for Tables 16-20.
So here’s the question – Are we treating students like empty iced tea glasses? Are we passing them by, thinking That’s not my student, the same way servers pass by customers thinking That’s not my table? It’s easy for teachers to focus solely on the students in their classroom and on the subjects they teach, just as servers focus solely on their assigned tables. But is this what’s best for students and their learning? I think we’d all agree that restaurants offer better service to their customers when their employees serve not only their tables but are open and willing to assist anyone in need, regardless of where they’re seated. What if educators adopted this mindset?
I’m an administrator at a middle school, so I’ll use that educational setting as an example. What if science teachers stopped looking at their students as strictly science students, but as reading students as well? After all, there’s plenty of reading involved in science. What if a social studies teacher, while delivering content about the American Revolution, worked individually with a student who struggles with comprehension? What if a PE teacher came alongside a student and said, “Hey, I hear you’ve been working really hard in Language Arts class and did well on your last test. Keep up the great work!” Nurturing the affective domain of students is just as important as delivering the ABC’s and 123’s. How much more would students learn, and since we live in a world of high-stakes testing, how much better would they perform on the English Language Arts section of the state test if they had six teachers helping them with reading rather than just one?
The bottom line is this – they’re all our students. Returning to the restaurant analogy, if the glass needs refilled, fill it. Remember, the important thing is not who fills the glass (teaching), but that the glass gets filled (learning).
I recently had the opportunity to attend a Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) conference led by Rick and Becky DuFour. If you are not familiar with the DuFour’s work with PLCs and ever get a chance to hear them speak, take advantage of that opportunity. The information you take away will change the way you teach (plus, they are extremely entertaining speakers).
It would be impossible to share all the amazing information presented by the DuFours, but one thing struck me more than anything else during the two-day conference – there is no shame in teachers admitting that they can’t do it all by themselves, or perhaps better said, it’s okay to admit that someone else in the building may do something better than you can. Everyone has teaching strengths and everyone has areas that, though they may not be considered weaknesses, are not as strong as those around them.
Let me give you an example from my teaching career. When I taught 5th grade, I taught with a man named Bryan, someone who was stellar at teaching writing. In discussing common writing assessments and sharing student samples with each other, I was consistently amazed at what he could get his students to produce. By comparison, my students’ writing was not nearly as descriptive. While I didn’t consider myself a bad writing teacher, it was obvious Bryan was better. The proof, writing samples from both our students, was right there in front of me. I was faced with a choice – go back to my classroom and try to hide the fact that my teaching methods were not as effective as they could be, or swallow my pride and learn from my friend. So I went to him and asked, “How are you getting your kids to write like that? What exactly are you doing?” And to Bryan’s credit, he shared with me his expertise. He didn’t think to himself, Wait, if I share my strategies, my secret will be out and I’ll no longer be the best. No, he realized that teaching is not about hoarding a “secret formula” so that his test scores would be superior to mine. He understood that our job was to work together to reach all of our students, not simply the ones on our individual class rosters.
One of my favorite concepts regarding teamwork comes from an excellent book called High Five! The Magic of Working Together by Ken Blanchard, Sheldon Bowles, Don Carew, and Eunice Parisi-Carew. In it, the authors beautifully illustrate this concept regarding teamwork – collective skill transcends individual skills. It is more important to build the skill level of the team than it is to have a group of skilled individuals who work by themselves. When teachers share their skills with the rest of their team, the entire team benefits. Then, if a highly skilled teacher leaves to go to a different school, the team can still function at a high level because the shared skill does not leave with the teacher.
I think a real-life example of this concept is currently playing out in the National Football League. Peyton Manning, the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, has not played this season due to injury. Manning is one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, a future Hall-of-Famer. Yet as I write this post, the Colts have a record of 0-10. For the past decade, the Colts have been consistent Super Bowl contenders, but with the loss of one highly skilled player, they have not been able to win a single game. Now, while this is not a perfect example, since Manning’s skill as a quarterback cannot be fully taught or shared with his teammates, I think it illustrates the point that if a team is only as good as one of its members, how good a team is it?
We all have strengths. I encourage you to share them with those around you.
Note: For any Colts fans out there, please know that I’m not trying to bash your team or kick them while they’re down. After all, I’m a fan of the San Diego Chargers, and we’ve all seen how bad they’ve been this season.
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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