When I tell people what I do and who I teach, they say, “Wow, you must have a lot of patience.” I nod and smile and say, “It’s understanding I have.” There’s an article I read in graduate school that has had an incredible influence on who I am as a teacher– I even remember the professor who assigned it. “Food for Thought. Patience or Understanding?” was written by Nancy Weber-Schwartz in 1987 with the conviction that good teachers aren’t patient, they understand the whole child.
I follow this, as is evident in a few of my previous posts– it’s my mantra as a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I have felt frustrated working with children. When I do, I step back and reflect, sometimes catching eye contact with another adult in the room to indicate I need a minute away. In these times of frustration, finding different ways to approach the situation is imperative- I make a visual for the next time, chat with the student when he or she is not upset, or make an incentive plan based on the child’s goals. Knowing exactly what impacts a child’s ability to complete a task or follow a direction is key to providing the necessary support for the child to be successful. Providing the support is what makes a good teacher.
Good teachers who work with toddlers understand that they touch everything because they are curious and discovering their world, so they give them the tactile input they need. Good teachers who work with teenagers understand that their rebellion is something to be embraced, so they ignore the fact that they were late and instead give them a reason to be on time. Good teachers who work with children with special needs discover patterns of behavior, so they can preempt behaviors with necessary support. All of these good teachers have something in common; their work is centered around understanding the child.
Stemming from what can sometimes be crippling compassion and understanding, there’s a high level of dedication and follow-through that good teachers have. Sometimes this follow-through means dreaming about the classroom, not being able to sleep at night, working late and early hours, needing multiple venting sessions in a day, and needing someone else to tell them it’s time to take a break from school. If school schedules didn’t dictate vacations, teachers would rarely take the time for themselves. Most of the teachers I know drag themselves to work when they’re sick because they are overridden with guilt if they miss a day.
I think about the perspective required to understand teachers, and there are few outside the profession who have it. Unfortunately, the ones who really don’t understand are the ones making decisions in schools. Successful teachers aren’t measured the way they should be. Schools get graded based on text scores and test score improvements, not on actual growth of the children. What will it take for our system to recognize what we’re doing to both teachers and students?
I read a post on Diane Ravitch’s blog called Hackschooling: Is This the Future? about a TEDtalk by a teenage boy about redefining schools.
He has a valid point. Learning comes from passion.
The whole picture is not just about making schools centered on individual interests without the training– there’s a fundamental point that he makes about the relationship of his teacher (or guide) to his work. He chooses the topic and someone teaches him how to explore it, question it, and master it. Logan clearly has teachers who work with him to learn the necessary skills to execute research, write about it, and then deliver an eloquent speech. Redefining does not mean taking teachers out of the equation; it means that the child’s passions are merely vehicles for teaching skills.
I’ve been fascinated in the idea of a flipped classroom. The children I work with are grappling with much more than just how to do math problems. As a result, instructional time can be eaten up with the needs of the class. My schedule this year has allowed me to try out the flipped classroom in a controlled setting. Math is scheduled Monday through Friday, but I am not in on Fridays. There is coverage for my group, but they have been spending the time playing various math games. Over my December break, I had time to think about what the group should be doing to help them with the projects we work on when I am at school. I signed them each up for an xtramath account to strengthen their facts, and I started giving them specific math videos to watch on Khan Academy. I formatted the group, so they can practice their quick facts on xtramath. When they feel ready to move into content, they go to Khan Academy to watch videos and complete activities. I took the time this week to teach them the navigation skills needed for working independently on Fridays without me. There are a lot of skills they need on the computer before just handing the assignment to them, and the lessons gave them time to learn the routine. By yesterday, they were confident. What amazed me was that the same content I’ve been teaching was all of the sudden much cooler when in a tutorial video online– I think kids get sick of hearing my voice. The kids loved the control and the fact that it was on a computer. I can pick different videos for different children to help with the specific skills they need to hone. Fridays will now be much more productive, and I’m also collecting data! It’s so convenient, and the motivation and engagement has increased significantly.
Writing has encouraged me to think deeply about my craft as a teacher. In addition, my break has given me more time to reflect on my way of working. Combining writing and time away has helped me to further reflect on my previous post I wrote about taking time for myself to both enjoy my work and avoid burnout. An extension of this reflection is the connection to a few articles, this one in particular, I read about a changing the presentation and delivery of professional development to engage more teachers on a meaningful level. Basically, no one looks forward to a lecture at the end of the day– no one wants to watch someone else click through a Powerpoint after a long day at school.
In this digital age, we have changed our way of learning. Most learning happens through our individual drive to learn (as it always has), but it looks different now. It has become more accessible from home, which results in less face-to-face interaction. Teachers seek on their own what they know they want to know. The problem is that teachers want (and need) to talk with other adults who share their interests and have similar experiences– it can be done online, but there’s value in being able to converse with colleagues in a physical setting. Being able to be fully honest in a place where confidentiality is not broken is important.
What can motivate teachers to want to have PD after school within the school community? There’s no question in my mind that teachers want to learn; that’s not the issue– it’s everything else on their plates– being stuck in the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute and missing out on the bigger picture. It is only natural for many teachers to work like that, but there is a need for exposure to new ideas, bigger ideas, conversations, and reflection.
Here’s the test idea that we’ll try: a small group of teachers will meet regularly to continue a school-betterment project that was started by all the teachers earlier this year. This smaller focus group will continue work on the project, which will deepen our understanding of the flow of academic goals for children and will help create a more consistent reference for the curricular goals for reports, IEPs, conference notes, etc.
The project is intense and will require dedication, motivation, and energy. What’s going to be different is the presentation– we’ll have snacks, coffee, and even a little wine. So, instead of a forced collaboration with only goals and checklists, we’ll get together and work on the bigger ideas– our common interest fueling our learning in a more social and fun context. It seems like it will be more productive this way, and we’ll also feel better about it– not dreading the time we will spend on the project but looking forward to the time we spend on it. The sense of accomplishment at the end will hopefully also come with an interest in doing another project of the same magnitude. We’ll see!
I work hard; it’s a strength of mine. Just like all strengths, it also can become a devastating and consuming weakness. This break has been really good for me so far. I’m happy to report that aside from the posts and a little reading, I’ve been doing a lot for myself. Everyday should be a time for reflection and resolutions, but this time of year puts those ideas in the foreground.
A dear colleague of mine sent me an article several weeks ago, and I just got around to reading it. It’s an article on Ed Week about an American teacher who moved to Finland and began teaching there (EdWeek is free to sign up for online). This teacher learned a lot about himself and the American way of teaching (being, really). Throughout the day in Finland, there are breaks for the kids- after every lesson. Not only do the children have breaks, the teachers do too. And the teachers use those breaks to rest and socialize instead of cramming more planning into every free minute.
It’s so American of me to work through my breaks and my lunches and my weekends. Reflecting on it makes me realize that there’s so much I’m missing in between– especially the rejuvenation and the love for life. It makes me think of my German friends and how they don’t work when they’re not at work; they keep their emails separate. My way of working will lead to burn-out; there’s no question. This idea, of course, is bigger than just me– but I can begin the change with me and maybe even at my school. A few more relaxed teachers will result in more relaxed and independent children. There needs to be more time for children to play and discover the world instead of having it all delivered in filtered, structured, and measurable lessons.
Despite all of the logic, I’m conflicted– what does that mean for accountability and how will that be measured? Finland consistently scores well beyond the United States, but that has only driven our system further from the mindset that helps children grow. Solutions? I suppose one step at a time.
I have been thinking of ways to enhance my math group– especially since my strength is literacy. I’ve been searching around for something productive for my group to do on Fridays when I’m not in school. I want it to challenge them, but I’m also aware that I’m not there to guide them. Always looking for free resources, I happened upon this one called XtraMath. In the week we come back from break, I’m going to spend some time teaching the group to navigate the site and independently sign on with their information.
A special thanks to Alex T. Valencic of Adventures in Teaching Fourth for his post about XtraMath that helped me form this idea. I will write a follow-up with details on how it goes.
The weeks leading up to a break are filled with anticipation. Everything seems frantic and all I can think about is having time to myself and my family. The final week is laden with exhaustion, depletion, and excitement. Each day begins with a deep breath, a cup of coffee, and a countdown. Routines have never been more important, and academic expectations need to be lowered for everyone’s sanity. Children are so easily distracted by travel plans and holidays and family; their minds are not in the classroom. The same is true for teachers.
In addition to the extensive report writing that so many special educators engage in over the breaks, there’s a certain rejuvenation that takes place. There’s enough time to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning without a million things to plan for the day, to bake, to cook every meal, to remember personal hobbies, and to reignite the passion for teaching creatively.
My next couple of posts will be about the new resources and ideas I find for teaching while I explore my own hobbies at home.
Have a wonderful (almost) winter break, teachers. You deserve it.