Wednesday, May 29, 2013

In Appreciation of Teachers....

I was recently asked what message I would share with a cohort of pre-service educators who were about to begin their work in the teaching profession.  My answer was that students will work hardest and learn best from people who they like and who they trust. Focus now on understanding that it's not how expert you are in your content, or how creative your lesson planning is, or how fair and balanced your assessments are, even though I know those are the things that you are concerned about getting right at the moment. You'll want to look professional, but don't forget to be personal.  

Ultimately, it's the relationships that matter, not the content.  I have always believed that the five minutes you spend with a student before or after class talking about something important to them will be remembered long after the hour you spent with them diagramming a sentence or going over polynomials is long forgotten. 

That became an even more evident to me over the last month.

May is Teacher Appreciation Month, and during each school day, my principal Mr. Podraza and I selected a student at random and asked which teacher they appreciate(d) most at EGHS. "Who made the biggest difference to you, and why?" We used each response to let teachers know that they were selected by a student and included any comments that those students made through the EGHS "You Matter" Form.

The comments said a lot about what matters to kids and what provides the best teaching and learning opportunities and environments.  To date: these are the responses from our students elaborating on what was important to them:

... although they are "not the best (subject) student" they have had you for three years and your classroom environment, lessons and the warmth, caring and understanding that you show your students makes them more confident and feel good even when they struggle.

...the personal interest and understanding that you showed them made a big difference. You helped them with "everything, even Sr. Project" and they would not have made it without you.  

...the personal knowledge and understanding that you show everyone makes a big difference in their experience here. You always know when they need help, are having a bad day or need to catch up and you always demonstrate personal caring and offer help and solutions to make things better. This student literally shined and glowed when she spoke about you and the impact that you had on her. was a "really difficult" decision because she had so many great teachers over the years, but she picked you because you not only are "a great teacher, but a person that you can really talk to as well.".

..."I was really horrible at (subject) and really thought I couldn't do it, but (teacher) always took the time after school to work with me one on one and then I really did get it and felt so much better. He's a great guy and teacher" was a "really difficult" decision because she had five teachers over the years who she would say were deserving, but she picked you because you "made me work harder than any teacher I ever had- and made me WANT to work hard for her. She knows that you love and care about your students and that she could talk to you about anything. She said that she was one of three juniors in AP last year and the three weeks left after the senior exited were the best time of her EGHS career because she got to work even more closely with you then and show you how much she wanted to work because you were her teacher".

...she's fun and she is really nice. She really cares about us and how we do in school." 

...because (course) was my favorite course that I have had since Freshman year.  He took a personal interest in me and become a mentor as well as a teacher and because of him I have had opportunities to do some things that I would otherwise not have and they changed my life. I think of (teacher) not only as a great teacher but as a friend."  

... a lot of kids have a hard time with (subject), but she is a really good teacher and she does a great job of explaining things. She really cares about how we do in school, and she's really organized and she helps us stay organized." 

"He is a great teacher, but he is also like a coach and an advisor. You can talk to him about things, and you can tell he really listens and cares". was a "really hard" decision because she had so many great teachers, but she picked you because you not only are "a great teacher, but you really get to know your students as people too. You understand that there are more important things than conjugating verbs correctly and you help them in so many other ways because you care about everyone in your classes." 

..."He makes you feel that you can open up to him.  He makes you feel very comfortable. He really listens to everyone".

..."He really gets to know you. He personalizes so much that afterwards you feel you can go to him with any issue and he will be able to help you".  

..."I had him as a freshman and again this year, and I am really happy because he helped me evolve as a writer- to take risks-and I really developed. I appreciate being able to talk to him inside and outside of the classroom.  he's a great teacher and person."

... because he's really an inspiring teacher, and he cares about his students a lot. When I was sick he was so understanding and checked up on me and made sure I was doing well in and out of school."
"He saw through my apathy in his class and recognized that I had the potential to be a good writer and he was able to draw that out of me. Now, because of him, writing is something that I love to do and I will always appreciate that."

...because she really gets to know you on a personal as well as a student/teacher level. She's a really interesting person and has such great stories.  I think of her as a friend."

"He has a really fun, loose classroom, but he demands your respect and that you respect others at the same time.  That's really cool. He creates an atmosphere where all kids can learn, and I learned best in his class because I looked forward to it every day."

"I'm not the greatest student but she never gives up on me. She is always willing to help me. She really cares about her students. She is just a great person".

"He is a really difficult teacher, but he spends so much time giving you specific feedback, you can't help but get better if you  pay attention. You can also tell that he spends so much time actually reading your work because the feedback is so specific, it makes you feel that what you do is important. He also remembers what you write because he will bring it up when he talks to you inside and outside of class".  

... he really gets to know your students in and out of class and you teach them important skills that they can use now, but also for the rest of your life.

"He's very relatable and approachable.  Really nice, cool guy.  More than just a teacher and authority figure.  He's rare.".  

"I appreciate him for his interest and passion for what he teaches.  He's also a funny guy, I love his class ". 

"She does things like writing a personalized note to every student in our class because she cares about us as individuals, and it made her stand out as someone who really cares, it makes a big difference when a teacher cares about you.". 

"He's the sweetest person and everyone loves him.  He makes you want to work hard for him. I wish he taught a more more subjects because I would work so hard and learn so much better from someone like him.  He tells us about his life and his kids and its alwas clear that he cares about us in a real way." 

..."you are not easy, but you make everyone work really hard.  You demand it of them in a caring way because you know that they can do better. Your class is really interesting and fun because of the atmosphere that you create for everyone to be comfortable and take risks."

"she has done so much for me and for a lot of people, I am definitely not the only one who would pick her." 

"I was never very good in (subject), but I got a lot better with her because I really love her teaching style, she's direct and strict and I like her attitude and demeanor. She doesn't allow any foolishness.".  

 "I was getting all "F's" and she worked really hard with me and motivated me to get over the hump and I did, she saved me from wasting a whole year." 

"you were both his teacher and coach, and you made him love working hard for you.  He said that he never really worked hard before in class or in a sport, but you made it what he wanted to do and he got better in both because of you."  

"you really care about every kid in the room individually and it matters to you that they do their best.  You also will take as much time as anyone needs during or after school to help them with anything.  It's obvious how much everyone means to you."  

"He's very realistic about challenging your skill level and he has such a great classroom environment. Also, he was a great advisor and really likes to get to know his kids"

"He does a great job of teaching you life skills as well as classroom skills. He's a great listener and tries to help with whatever you need advice on."

"'s so obvious that she cares about her kids. I had her for 2 second semester classes and she took an interest in everything we were doing, even things not in her class.  Like Sr. Project, she was happy to look at our proposals and all the work we had to do and helped make it better even though she's not the Coordinator and she really didn't have to care about it.  But she does, and it's clear when you have her."

"...he's an AWESOME teacher, and it's so subtle, you don't even realize that you're learning something in there because it's not like work and then you take a test and it's like... wow... I did learn a lot. It's really cool."

"He makes class interesting and I always look forward to going there. He's a really nice guy and he takes an interest in what students do in and out of class."

"I was new here this year and he really was welcoming and so nice to me. He made it easy. He's also a funny guy, I love talking to him and his class ".  

" really care about every kid in the room individually and it matters to you that they do their best.  You also will take as much time as anyone needs during or after school to help them with anything.  It's obvious how much everyone means to you."  

The talents, skills and traits of our best teachers are not measured by any standardized test. They have nothing to do with content knowledge or the effective use of technology, they aren't affected by time constraints or budgets or professional development, but they might be the most important things that you can do in your classroom to promote teaching and learning.

The reality is that if you can't convince kids that you care about them, that they can trust you, that they are safe taking risks in your classroom, and that failing is an important part of learning and that it's OK, then none of that other stuff matters.  

In my opinion, great teachers focus on connections, caring, and kindness and then think about creating their engaging lesson plans, with or without the incorporation of technology, they find opportunities to constantly formatively assess the classroom for understanding and use that to drive instruction and then provide regular feedback to kids on their progress. 

Those are the kinds of teachers who not only deliver content, but changes lives.

You really do matter in the lives of kids. Isn't that ultimately what it's all about?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

As a Student, I Thought Grades Were Stupid; I Was Right

In this age of educational "accountability," more pressure than ever has been put on teachers, schools and now students to show continuous improvement in the Common Core subjects that have been determined to be vital to our nation's future competitiveness. For that reason, understanding what a student knows and is able to do, and the progress that they are making in meeting those important skills and competencies, is vital. So why are do we give students grades?

One reason for grading students is to be able to label them on the basis of their academic performance and then sort them into various categories in order to, theoretically, better educate them. Of course, "tracking" of students or segregating them into "ability" levels has a long and storied history of being ineffective for the "lower end" students.  Mountains of research have shown this archaic practice does more harm than good for everyone but the "elite" students. Grades, in general, are a relic of 19th century schools designed to sort out the factory workers from the various different levels of white collar opportunities at those same factories. The inherent problem with this practice is that the process of sorting and grading is often incompatible with the goal of having students learn. 

People learn best while doing so cooperatively and in groups, whether these groups are in a conference room or meet virtually, as they do in "chats" on Twitter or groups on Google+. Our individual knowledge, experiences and viewpoints benefit others in the learning conversation, as does helping one another. However, concerns over how to give individuals credit and appropriate grades for their individual contributions often get in the way of true student collaborative efforts.

In today's global workplaces people work cooperatively, sometimes in various parts of the world, to solve problems. But grades force individuals to compete with one another, not cooperate. Schools are virtually the only place on earth where people are forced to learn and work competitively rather than cooperatively with peers. 

Learning in order to take a test in order to earn a grade is not learning, it's compliance and competitive memorization. How many of those tests, quizzes and exams that you received "A" grades on in school could you take now and pass?  Where else but in education do you fail at something important or partially obtain success and then simply move on to the next task, ignoring the fact that you are leaving your prior lack of progress behind? Why "learn" something just so you can take a test and then empty it from your head and move on to another pile of information that will be flushed from your brain's RAM the moment that the test is over? All of this in the name of GPA or class rank or some other trophy that rewards the students who are experts and effective temporary memorization? And what if you aren't one of those students? What if self confidence or competition isn't your thing? What if it's the start of the 3rd quarter and your grade has already mathematically eliminated you from passing for the year? What's the point?

But competition is good, you say. Doesn't competition better prepare our kids for a global marketplace? A marketplace where, we are often told by education "reformers," that we are falling behind?  Tell me about one environment where people work and get performance evaluations that say you are an 83 to the company, or a B for the year. What does that even mean? Let's not even get into the fact that a number or letter grade has been shown to be so ridiculously subjective, arbitrary and lacking in inter-rater reliability that any grade is pretty much worthless. I could (and may) write another whole post about how grades often get subterfuged by add ons like homework, compliance points, keeping a neat notebook, class participation and other factors that have nothing to do with progress or learning. So why do we continue to do this?

Why do we still believe that grades actually prepare kids for anything? Wouldn't individual, authentic narrative feedback on a student's progress be more effective and support their learning every day of the year? If we took the competition out of schools and allowed students to work together and learn together and help one another, focusing their energy on improving themselves every day- based on real feedback of progress towards a learning goal- wouldn't that create many new opportunities for engaging work? Wouldn't it reduce student's stress? Wouldn't kids actually learn?

Would you hire a contractor who was great at taking tests or would you prefer one with an extensive portfolio and references? Why would you want less for your child's education?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Why" Do We Have Schools Anyway?

Quite by accident I came back across this brilliant Ted Talk this morning. One that I had previously seen several years ago at an administrative retreat in a former school district. In it, Simon Sinek describes what separates great leaders and companies from less successful ones. His examples are brilliant, and the historical content and context is fascinating. It is well worth the time that you will invest in watching it for so many reasons.

In Sinek's model of leadership and success, everything comes down to the "Why" leading to "How" leading to "What" leading to action, purpose and success- which is typically the opposite of how most people and companies do things. It's fascinating stuff.

This of course makes me think about the "Why" in my school. And your school.  Or any school.

Why do we even have schools?

Are schools designed to expose students to many different things and ideas to determine what their passions are and then to apply their learning to chart the course to get to a place where they can be successful doing those things that they love?  Does your school really do that?  How much choice and freedom do kids have to explore, create, collaborate with others like them and focus on a specific area of interest for prolonged periods of time? If you tried to build a school that did that, would you be able to also cover everything in the expansive Common Core Curriculum and whatever will be on those standardized tests that will determine if your students graduate, or worse yet, if they will close down your school and replace it with a for-profit charter that teaches only those things from the Common Core?

Is school just a place to memorize a bunch of facts and figures that someone, somewhere, at some time decided that everyone must learn if they are to have any hope of success in this globally competitive "21st Century" world?  In a world where information changes so rapidly and technology creates new opportunities that never previously existed- every single day- why do we even have mandatory subjects?  How do we even know what we need to know right now, much less moving forward in an uncertain and rapidly changing future?

And while we are on the "subject" of this 21st Century curriculum: why are English, Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and U.S. History so necessary for the "21st Century" learner anyway? Because back in 1892, the president of Harvard University designed curriculum and said that those subjects should be the basis for high school classes. If you happen to be interested in something else – psychology, art, computer science, architecture, international business? Sorry. Those subjects weren’t very popular at Harvard in 1892, so you will have to find a way to work those things in around the mandatory subjects if they are available at all in your school.

Is school about teaching kids to be competitive? If not, why do we have grades and class ranks and other institutions that make school a highly stressful, competitive event every day for many kids?  Learning outside of school is not a competitive event.  In the "real world" that we are allegedly preparing kids for, we learn what we choose or need to learn in real life- when we need to learn it.

So why do we have school?  Why does your school do the things that it does?  Does your "why" make sense when held up to the lens of your "How" and your "What"?

If you don't know the why, how can you do anything else?  "Why" don't you work on that?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

You Only Die Once...

The phrase "You only live once" is obviously a lie. You live every single day, but you only die once. 

With that in mind, why not do some good things for yourself and for other people before then? Tell people that you love them, make an effort be kind to others, do someone a favor, be generous with your time and with other things that the people who you care about might need. Let someone know that they matter to you every single day.

As a principal and a leader I make an attempt to take notice of the good things that the people who I am fortunate enough to work with do every day for one another, for kids and for the community. I try to let at least one person every day know that "You matter" and the things that they do don't go unnoticed and are appreciated. I do that mostly in person, but also through a Google Form that I created that allows all of our faculty to do the same.  Since the debut on April 1st, in a building with a faculty of about 90 people, almost 300 messages have gone out to people telling them that "they matter" to someone else. 

It's a simple thing to do, really. It only takes a minute.  But it really can change another person's whole day, or even whole perspective. I have seen it first hand.  And felt it personally.

How do you let the people who you admire, like, respect or love know that they matter to you?  

And if you aren't doing that, why aren't you?  

"If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse." - Jim Rohn

It's the Effort, Stupid...

As an Assistant Principal in a "High Performing" high school (#755 of 21,000+ in the country according to NewsWeek's rankings), I always find it interesting when the "smart" kids tell me that they aren't as smart as others when they are challenged with something new or have to work hard to learn something. Somehow having to really work to find an answer or being asked to do something student driven and novel makes them feel self-conscious and like they don't measure up to their peers in those very competitive classes.

"If I have to struggle, I must not be that smart," seems to be the thought process. When in reality, sometimes the things that you are being asked to do in a school like this diverge from the same old things that got you labeled as one of the "smart" kids in the first place. "Smart" kids are experts at temporarily memorizing lots of information that may or may not be relevant to their lives in any way and (here's the important part, potential "smart kids" of the future) giving it back to the teacher in the manner in which it most pleases them. They expertly examine the teacher's feedback and give them what they want the way they want it. That makes them "smart." They are great at reading the room. I would not want to play poker against our smartest kids, that's for sure.

Meanwhile, in another classroom, kids who feel they "aren't smart" tend to blame their lack of academic success on bad luck, teacher bias, disinterest in the curriculum or it's relevance to their lives, a teacher they had five years ago who convinced them they were dumb or other things they don't control rather than their lack of effort. 

We all know that guy who hangs around and wants to reminisce about the glory days when they were young and good enough to play D1 football or sign a Major League contract if it wasn't for that one coach who passed them over and favorited less skilled players for some inexcusable reason or if that elbow injury just didn't happen that robbed them of their dream, or if their father took them to practice more often, etc.

Reality typically is that they didn't work hard enough to be successful. Larry Bird was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. But he was the first one to show up every day to shoot- a skill in which he was better than anyone else in the world. Here's the secret: It's not an innate skill or talent that makes you successful or even "smart," it's practice, habits and hard work.

So, teachers of both "smart" and "not smart" kids...if you want them all to be smart kids, stop making worksheets, avoid your prepackaged Pearson curriculum to the extent that you are allowed to, stop asking kids to answer things that only have one answer (or worse, answer it yourself when they are disinterested).  

You are a super talented teacher who works very hard. Use all of that knowledge and creativity and the resources available to you in your building and your professional organizations and Twitter (if you aren't using Twitter to learn and share ideas you are doing a great disservice to yourself professionally) and design truly engaging work for kids to do. Work that students voluntarily put effort into because it matters to them, because it is relevant to their lives, because they have choice, because they can work with others, explore, think and create something of meaning or value to them- that will level the field for the "smart" and "not as smart" kids, and eliminate all excuses.

Wouldn't you like to work in a building with only "smart" kids? Let's work together to make it happen.

Time to Practice What I Preach....

I have been working with teachers and kids about creating and maintaining a "digital footprint" for some time now. Ultimately, as I told my niece who will be a senior at URI in September and beginning her student teaching as a 2nd Grade teacher (you would be wise to hire her after that, she is going to be a superstar), I can see in 3-5 years that the resume will be almost obsolete for educators (and probably lots of other professions as well)

Why will resumes matter less than what you put out there digitally?

1. Teachers are getting hired because they have LESS experience now (they are cheaper) in most districts, so a long resume may be an anachronism now.

2. As someone who hires multiple people every year... What I want to see is a vision of who you are, what you are all about- what you think/feel/believe/are passionate about and how you express those things over time. What you believe about your profession, about learning and about kids.  And ideally, I want to see that developing and evolving over time.

The internet allows you to put yourself out there in ways no other media can.  To share, to speak out, to help others, to question, to look for support, to develop and to be part of a larger community.  Today I will begin to do that more vigorously with this blog.

I won't promise to change anyone's life but my own... but maybe I can give you something to think about, make you feel something, give you an idea, a shout out, a pat on the back or just share what I am thinking/feeling/wondering about.

Here we go.... No more Paper Chace.