A few weeks ago the New Zealand government launched an online campaign called inspiredbyu. The idea is that New Zealanders would write a virtual postcard to teachers that helped shaped them into the person they are today.
On the surface the initiative seems great. Genuine words of thanks are the most powerful bonus any teacher can receive. Yet I find myself wondering if in celebrating the best means we don’t take time to learn from our failures.
I’ve been critical of the superhero narrative creeping into our national conversation of education that there’s a special breed of teachers out there that will be all things to all kids all the time.
However the reality is that no one teacher is a perfect fit for every student.
Education is such a personalised process. Each learner brings with them their own personality and so do our teachers. The things that make a teacher great in the eyes of one student are often part of their personality.
However just like shoes what might make someone an awesome teacher for one student might be down right awful for another.
At the end of last year I received some lovely cards and some words of thanks from both students and parents. I also received a phone call from one parent that will stick with me for a very long time.
A child in my class had hated being in my class so much that they were refusing to come to school.
While feeling the sting of criticism can be tough, mostly I felt bad for the kid that they felt so poor in my class for the entire year. The words still hang in the air.
I was this child’s worst teacher.
There wasn’t any malicious intent from either me or the child – just a break down in communication. I knew something was up but I wasn’t able to put together the missing pieces. In that respect I was a failure.
Did I learn from the experience?
Have I changed my classroom management as a result of the experience?
While classroom success should be celebrated failure isn’t something that should be stuffed away. In fact the first thing I did after the phone call was let my principal at the time know about the situation. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do but it was the right one.
At some point in their career every teacher is going to have a moment when they are someone’s worst teacher.
Having this title doesn’t make a teacher bad it’s what we do with it afterwards that counts.
At a time when teaching in the media is increasingly being polarised between the incompetent and brilliant it’s worth reminding that all teachers have bad days and also kids in their classes that they weren’t able to develop that learning relationship.
Most days I’m good for most kids, great for some and working really hard to make adequate with a few.
People have unique to express their feelings
This was the central idea for my first unit of inquiry as a Primary Years Programme (PYP) teacher.
As part of the unit’s provocation my class and I watched Kindness Boomerang and I challenged the kids to come up with ways to apply the big idea of the clip to our class and school to re-create the movie. This was an activity I had done at my previous school. I want to avoid repeating activities as I don’t want to fall into the habit of doing things because that is what I’ve always done.
As ideas such as ‘show respect’ and ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ emerged as ways people could take action to apply those feelings of gratitude and kindness in the clip to their school life I realised that my students could talk on a theoretical level about how their feelings affect other people. The gap in their learning was that they didn’t know how to apply those phrases into concrete action in their everyday life.
One of the concepts in the PYP is the action model. The curriculum encourages students to reflect, to make informed choices and to take action that will help their peers, school staff and the wider community.
We often think of taking action as tackling big revolutionary ideas that will have a major impact on the community or even the world. In schools this often takes the form of raising money for a big issue that the students have been studying. A letter writing campaign to politicians, creating art, volunteering for a community projects are also forms of action that can come out of a unit of inquiry.
However just as important are those little actions – helping clean up without being asked, saying thank you to a family member for making dinner, comforting a friend who looks they are having a bad day or asking before taking someone’s picture can be overlooked as an opportunity to put into action all the qualities from the IB learner profile.
We assume that those moments are almost insignificant in comparison to a big issue like global warming. Yet noticing and acting upon problems in our immediate environment is something the youngest learner can do and the actions often have an immediate impact.
Why do teachers let those moments for learning slip away?
I still think big projects have a place in the classroom. However in planning this unit I was mindful that big classroom projects can shift the focus from the understandings to the task itself.
My class did create their own version of the Kindness Boomerang. As I scaffolded the students to identify small actions they can take to in school make someone else feel good I worried that learning the process of movie making might overshadow the understanding of one of the lines of inquiry – how our feelings can impact on other people.
I introduced the class to teaspoon moments. This classroom tradition, which last year took the form of lollypops, is named for an inspiring quote by the recently departed Pete Seeger. Each day I try make time for members of the class to acknowledge a person who has done something small to make someone else’s day a little more awesome.
It’s a way for the class to tell each other that they matter.
But what about outside of the classroom?
As part of their homework the students were then to spend time noticing how a member of their family helps them and taking the time to express gratitude to them noting the effects on both them and the people around them. The students started noticing that by expressing thanks to other people not only did they feel better those around them did too. It was amazing to go into a parent-teacher conferences a few hours after reading the outpouring of love and gratitude by the students about their parents in their homework. However some parents had no idea what their children had written.
As if by design the picture on the right showed up in my Facebook feed, another provocation to push our learning forward.
Teaspoon moments moved from the afternoon to the morning and a homework task for the students was to think of a small action to make a family member have a positive thought in the morning. They had to notice the impact on themselves and their family member.
It was time to move on.
At the end of the unit I asked the kids to reflect on their experiences in class and presenting their learning at assembly on our class blog.
I left things there.
No poster or a lengthy write up. Just a few sentences from the kids about their key take aways and a reminder that the learning keeps on going even though the unit was officially ‘over.’
Now it was my time to be the learner.
Just before school started on Friday I was outside of the classroom talking to the parent of one of my students. Out of the corner of the eye I could see that my classroom had the look of a group students possibly up to no good. The kids were huddled in a large group and were talking excitedly. What were they up to? I was faced with one of those moments as a teacher where you either step in and redirect the kids away from potential trouble or just let them carry on and trust that they’ll do the right thing.
As I sat down to take the roll the students excitedly handed me a Valentines Day card that they had made and was signed by every member of the class. The words in the middle bought tears to my eyes.
I was stunned not only by the words but by the authentic student-initiated action.
The enduring understanding that I wanted my students to carry with them from the unit was to notice the actions of the people that make their lives and express their feelings towards them. I had forgotten that as a teacher I am person in my students’ lives. While I am mindful that the children in my class notice every one of my actions I didn’t think what I do in the classroom was worthy of a special acknowledgement.
I was just doing my job.
My students taught me that what I do in the classroom matters to them.
That Friday would be 12 hour day with a difficult meeting and a complete re-design of my literacy programme after school. I wasn’t on the bus home until nearly 7pm.
That day those things didn’t matter.
One small positive thought in the morning can change your whole day.
As I looked at the sea of proud faces I responded with a call for a group hug.
Now that’s one heck of a way to end a unit of inquiry.
Daniel Pink’s book Drive and nifty little RSA lecture have been talked about and watched in schools for a number of years now. This along with Carol Dweck’s Mindset are the two books that I feel should be required reading for any teacher and more importantly any making educational policy.
Pink’s central thesis is that traditional notions of motivating people through financial reward doesn’t actually work. Instead he points to three factors that lead to better happier and more productive people. Autonomy, or the desire to be self-directed; Mastery, or the itch to keep improving at something that’s important to us; and Purpose, the sense that what we do produces something meaningful.
If there were a fourth factor I would add to apply for schools it is authenticity. I see authenticity as putting the purpose motive into action.
Time and time again I’ve seen learners up their game when they know what they are doing has consequences beyond the classroom.
Writing becomes more effective when the kids know there is an audience beyond the teacher are reading or seeing their ideas. Kids who hate maths with a passion are suddenly be able to calculate how much money they made at the bake sale with alarming speed and accuracy. A social studies unit on citizenship comes a live when kids actually get to participate in the process rather than watch from the sidelines.
Too often in schools learners are faced with dumbed down problems that have little or no meaning outside of the classroom.
So why do we place them inside the classroom?
To keep to a nice neat timetable?
Because it is easy?
Because those problems will be on the exam?
And soon teachers forget why it is that we learning all this stuff in the first place.
We bemoan the assembly that takes time away from our classroom programme or cultural and sporting events that disrupt the school day without realising those events are just as much part of our students learning as the reading groups.
But how do we capitalise on those projects?
Authenticity doesn’t take much.
It just takes time.
Time to notice.
Time to appreciate.
Time to act.
One of the joys of working in an international school is that you get to celebrate occasions that aren’t as widely celebrated in your home country.
Lunar new year – otherwise known as Chinese New Year – is becoming a larger celebration every year in New Zealand due to an increase in immigration from Asia in the last two decades.
However the occasion is not widely marked in schools in New Zealand if there is a small Chinese community. The timing of the festival is either in the middle of the school holidays or just as school year is starting which also makes things more difficult.
As you can see from this post on my class blog Chinese New Year is a huge occasion at my school. Many of the kids were dressed up in traditional costumes and performed in mandarin. I spent most of the day thinking how lucky my learners are to experience this aspect of life in Asia and learning a different language.
I couldn’t help but wonder if New Zealand learners are short-changed in this aspect of their learning. Speaking the global lingua franca enables english native speakers to get by in the world. Moreover geographical distance makes chances for authentic opportunities to use and language except Te Reo Maori expensive.
In this context language learning often gets pushed into the too hard basket or once a week if we have time. Having dedicated and creative teachers of mandarin on staff helps immeasurably as does opportunities to practice outside of the classroom.
Part of the job description is that you routinely end up doing something well outside of your comfort zone. In this case I ended performing a Chinese dance with the rest of the teachers. Graceful is definitely not an adjective I would use to describe myself.
1. Don’t talk over the kids
If there is one piece of advice I could give you, it is this. Never talk over the kids. You might have to wait a long time for their attention and on occasion you might have to stop and wait. Be patient. Allowing the kids to talk over you is telling your students that you do not expect them to listen to you.
2. Your students’ mistakes are not a reflection on you as a teacher
It can be easy to internalise every bad action your students make as a reflection on your teaching. Especially if you have another adult tut-tutting your students misdemeanours. While modelling and guiding behaviour is important, it is not your job to prevent every bad decision from happening. It is far important to make sure the kids put things right after they muck up.
3. Never be afraid to admit your mistakes.
Don’t be afraid to let your students know that you are a human being too. You will make mistakes. If the stuff up effects someone – a student, a colleague or parent -acknowledge the mistake and move on wiser. Accept any apologies that come your way with with grace and kindness.
4. Learn from your colleagues
Make the most of your PRT time, you’ll miss it when it is gone. Visit other classrooms. Ask lots of questions. It can be easy to get into a habit of eating your lunch in your classroom and go through a day without talking to another adult. Stop into the staffroom from time to time. So much incidental PD happens when you are unloading the dishwasher.
5. Have a life.
Teaching can consume your every waking moment. Start new hobbies and interests outside of school. Maintain friendships with non-teachers. Keep learning. It’s like they teach us on airplanes. Adults need to put their own oxygen masks on before helping any kids travelling with them. A tired and burned out teacher is not effective in the classroom. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.
6. Be bold
Don’t be afraid to do something different but don’t expect everyone – other teachers, parents, the kids – to be enthusiastic about your zany ideas. Remember road blocks are not put in place to stop you from doing new things. They are there to stop bad ideas from being implemented. Back yourself you know more than you think. Find mentors who will guide you into making your classroom vision a reality. Be prepared to have your ideas fail and move on the wiser.
7. Keep in contact with the parents
Take time to contact parents about the good stuff their child does. Flick an email to parent with a photo of their child in class or telling them a time when their child went above and beyond. If you have concerns, pick up the phone and call. Texting can be a fantastic way to reach some of those hard to reach parents.
I’ve written at length about the importance of edublogging. Blogging has helped forge friendships and some incredible learning opportunities for both myself and my students. Use the expertise of the global network of teachers to make your classroom more awesome.
9. Look after your support staff
Support staff are the unsung heroes in our schools. Make sure you always acknowledge the work that they do. Buy some bevvies for your caretaker. Take the time to say thank you to the teacher aides and librarians. Bring in something nice for the office staff.
10. Focus on what really counts
When all is said and done your students aren’t going to remember how to draw a factor tree or that they achieved their national standards. They will remember how they felt being in your class. Build a classroom culture that supports mistake-making and kindness. Schools can be highly political workplaces at time. Don’t waste your time and energy on things that don’t matter. Always remember you are paid to be brilliant in the classroom.
Teachers often bemoan a lack of funding for education. Yet I suspect I’m not the only teacher feeling deeply uneasy about this week’s announcement of an extra $359 million being pumped into the education on the next four years on school leadership.
For teachers to complain of such an huge investment particularly in the form of substantial pay rises seems at best ungrateful and at worst a confirmation of every stereotype of the unionised teacher out there: unwilling to compromise, stubborn and arrogant.
After all, why are we paying our worst teachers the same as our very best?
And there in lies the deep ideological divide between many in the teaching profession and the government. Underpinning the initiative of lead teachers, change principals is a philosophy that talent is something innate which needs to be recognised and rewarded rather than something that is constantly being developed and nurtured.
It strikes me as odd that when it comes to our kids the government has embraced the vision that all children can learn. That it’s s a matter of good teaching that will, to borrow a talking point, ensure five out of five kids are achieving.
Yet when it comes to managing those entrusted with educating our kids, talent is in short supply. There’s an assumption underpinning this announcement that good teachers need titles to make change and in the words of the Prime Minster “we are going to pay them more to get it.”
Pay a reward, get results.
It’s behaviourism. A philosophy from the 1950s which is seen as outdated by modern educators who favour meaningful learning experiences rather than rewards and punishments to motivate students.
Current educational practice requires excellence to be an ongoing journey rather than destination.
Most teachers expert or otherwise will quite happily admit that they themselves are still learning. More importantly, teachers will learn from anyone be it a 1st year teacher, an internationally renowned expert and most importantly their students.
Teachers know that what works for one group of kids will not automatically transfer to another. Just as each kid has their own personality so too each class and school.
The danger in paying to get results from super teachers is that it assumes the process of teaching and learning can be standardised – follow what the expert teacher to get results – when it needs to be personalised.
I know I’m not the only teacher who has taken an idea from an expert at a conference or a classroom observation and tried to implement it in class only to have it fail miserably. I will then adjust a few things and sometimes make the idea work for my learners otherwise I will try a new approach.
Yes expertise and school leadership is important but just as important is that teachers know how to tweak best practice to fit the needs of the kids in their class.
It’s what the New Zealand curriculum calls teaching as inquiry and what high achieving systems strive for – all teachers need to be experts in how their students learn.
On a more structural level teachers as a professional acutely feel the effects of income inequality in New Zealand.
Even at the high decile school I worked at there were teachers dipping into their own funds for food, school trips and shoes.
Throwing millions into establishing an executive level of educators won’t help the 11 year old in tears because there’s holes in their shoes and no money in the house until payday.
Yes teaching quality is the biggest in-school factor in lifting student achievement. However it is those out of school factors, having enough food to eat, secure housing to avoid transience as well as sickness and above all a feeling of love and belonging which have a far greater impact on our kids’ learning.
I’m sure my rant might just seem like sour grapes from a card-carrying member of the teachers union determined to bring down those high achieving teachers down to my own level.
However I don’t actually have any skin in the game. I no longer teach in New Zealand.
Would this announcement be enough to lure me home in the next few years?
While my prime motive for moving overseas is for travel, the support and resources I have enjoy are well beyond what the education system in New Zealand is resourced to provide.
There is more admin support, specialist help, a smaller class and more release time. I am still as busy as I ever was back home however I am now far more focused on teaching and learning.
Because while money is important, the most important resource for teachers is their time.
Rather than injecting a few thousand super teachers into our education system how about focusing on ensuring that every teacher and more importantly every child is supported to be brilliant in the classroom?
While my southern hemisphere readers are starting to get ready for classes in a few weeks, I’m back in classroom and already halfway through a school a year!
Starting halfway through a school year is a challenge. While the class know each other and how the school works, I do not.
The school has a cafeteria, just like in the movies.
We’re not in Kansas anymore.
On one hand, I want to get classroom programmes up and running yet setting the right classroom culture takes time.
I am not the last classroom teacher and will do things slightly differently not because we come from different countries but because no two teachers teach alike. Even if they are in the same school, trained at the same institution their classrooms will be different because no two people think alike.
Fortunately the pedagogy of the PYP is familiar even if the language is not.
Where I might write a class treaty in the past, I now write an essential agreement with the kids.
Nevertheless, the change had me repeating activities I’ve done in the past like improv, preparing visual introductions and an introductory ‘this is me’ video for the learners.
Which leads to an important question.
Do I what I do in a classroom because that’s what I’ve always done?
While I don’t think teachers need to go abroad a change in setting forces you to justify what you do in a classroom and why.
Reading reflections have continued and I’m beginning to bring the Daily 5 into the classroom. I’ve done the professional reading and thinking so I can easily justify the purpose behind it.
Earlier in the week I taught my class some Maori mostly because Te Reo tumbles from lips so quickly when I’m in a classroom setting I might as well let the kids know what I am saying.
As far as first weeks go, this one was both easier and more difficult than in previous years.
Things still feel very foreign which is good – it means I am learning.
WordPress let me know it’s been 3 years since I registered this blog. Wow it’s been a long journey since that first post!
2014 brings with it changes and challenges.
I will be teaching a different age group in a different school in a different country.
Being ready to move on doesn’t make new beginnings any easier.
There are names to be learned.
A new classroom environment to set up.
Policies and procedures to be digested.
A new curriculum to get my head around, the Primary Years Programme or PYP.
The start of the year nerves are here big time. For someone who is perpetually restless I really don’t do well with transitions.
Nevertheless I’m looking forward to the challenge and find myself ready to be pushed professionally this year. I really am looking forward to learning more about the PYP as I have been enamoured with the curriculum for some time.
What has been effortless has been the move to Singapore.
And it call be explained by a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese.
Those who don’t know me well might not realise that I’m actually Canadian. While the accent has long disappeared, I have no affection for ice hockey and couldn’t name the Prime Minister if my life depended on it, a blue and gold box gets me salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. My love of Kraft Mac and Cheese is the sole reason the Canadian government still issues me a passport.
When I lived in Korea 10 years ago, procuring such delights involved multiple train trips and a trip to a black store in a somewhat dodgy neighbourhood. Instead of peddling weapons or illegal drugs this establishment sold a random assortment of American groceries. These goodies were purchased at the adjoining American army base supermarket then on-sold to teachers desperate for a slice of home at a heavily marked up price.
It might have taken me hours to get to the store, my purchases were of dubious legality and cost an arm and a leg but it was worth the struggle.
Here in Singapore I can walk to my local supermarket and it’s there on the shelf.
I’ve been walking around of late wondering if in this age of smartphones and globalisation has made shifting almost too easy. The language barrier is almost non-existent while a host of smartphone apps make it almost impossible to get lost.
Nevertheless life seems to to have a different rhythm.
Seemingly small distances take a lot longer to navigate.
For someone who normally moves at 100km an hour this can be frustrating.
The tropical heat is merciless to those who stress.
I will need learn to chill in every sense of the word or suffer the consequences.
A bit late for a year in review but with moving countries I’ve been a tad busy. The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog which I’ve included below.
However I’ve decided to do my own round up of my favourite posts from each month and my all-time favourite post of the year to round out 13 posts from 2013.
2. Weekly Reflection: catching bubbles (February)
4. Using the Harlem Shake as a teachable moment (April)
6. Blog like there’s nobody reading (June)
7. What are your 11 before 11 #11before11 (July)
9. Weekly Reflection: Minecraft, MLEs and Quadblogging! Oh my! (September)
10. Weekly Reflection: Getting Graded by the Students (October)
12. Singapore bound – so long NZ and thanks for all the fish (December)
13. Weekly Reflection: Giving voice (My favourite teaching moment of the year)
Here’s an excerpt:
The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 88,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.
Intermediate schools are strange beasts.
The students only attend for Year 7 and 8 yet it is a major transition points. The kids arrive fresh from primary school swimming in uniforms that always seem a size too big. At the end of the next year the same kids leave as teeangers bound for high school and those uniforms look like they have shrunk in the wash.
During those two years alongside teaching the formal curriculum a lot of an intermediate teacher’s time is spent helping students manage relationships. We help the students build friendships when they arrive, in the middle we help them maintain friendships and at the end we help our students say goodbye. December is a hugely emotional time in intermediate as half the students are leaving while the other half are saying goodbye to their mates.
The process of farewelling the Year 8s in my class actually started back in January. At the start of term 1 I decided that kids would interview each other about their experiences of school. I thought it might be an interesting keepsake and alternative way to tell a learning story alongside the formal school reports
What I was unprepared for was as I started listening to the footage from the kids was that collective a narrative of school. I found myself frustrated by the one word answers a lot of my students were giving. I realized that while the interviewing skills needed to improved, the beginning of the year footage was merely a reflection of where the students were at emotionally.
They weren’t ready to share their thoughts with their peers.
During the year the students interviewed each other at the end of each term. While I scaffolded some questions, the questioning was all from the kids. As the year went on topics started to diverge and personalities started to emerge. I then put together the footage as 18 minute film. Video proved to be a powerful medium to not only hear thoughts but see the physical changes that happen to the students in the 10 months we were together as a class.
At the end of the year while our year 8 students were off getting tested and orientated at our college the Year 7s and I planned a special video farewell for the students leaving. The hardest part was keeping our plan a secret until the last day. It was very cool to watch the Year 8s reactions seeing the video. Each one of them had a similar smile pasted on their face and knowledge that they were important to us and that their presence in the school mattered.
This year also marked the end of my time at my school.
People outside of teaching don’t appreciate how emotionally demanding the job can be. Your job is to make 28 kids feel that their successes and challenges matter.
But there in lies the rub.
By internalizing the injustices some students suffer, especially those that happen outside school, teachers quickly burn out. Over the year you’ll laugh at your students’ jokes, talk through behaviour problems, cry alongside them in speeches, share your lunch with a child who has none and high five that time when concept you’ve been working on for weeks finally clicks.
And then at the end of the year, it comes to an end. The students you spend time laughing with, going into bat for, and on occasion giving the death stare suddenly disappear.
You are replaceable.
Nevertheless what you doin you classroom matters, to your students, to your colleagues, to the community you serve.
Make sure you take the time to say goodbye well.