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Weekly Reflection: Being someone’s worst teacher

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.

My propensity towards messy projects,  quirkiness and obsession with technology  is so much of who I am as a person that it extends right down to my choice of footwear.

What is awesome to me might be awful to someone else.

What is fantabulous to me is awful to someone else.

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?

Yes?

Have I changed my classroom management as a result of the experience?

Absolutely.

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.

10 tips for First Year Teachers

An empty classroom (photo by author)

An empty classroom (photo by author)

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.

8. Blog
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.

Singapore bound – so long NZ and thanks for all the fish

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Departures

Next year sees a change for me.

I’m off to teach at an international school in Singapore.

My current school has been really, really, really good to me. I’ve been afforded some incredible professional development opportunities and had a lot of autonomy to do some cool things with my class.

Nevertheless I found myself feeling restless.

Put simply I can hear planes.

Derp Stephanie, you say, your home and school are below a flight path of course you can hear planes.

As a wanderer I know it’s time to leave a place when I can hear planes. It’s a sign that life has become too familiar and too easy. The planes have been loud this year and despite a few trips, my wanderlust has returned with a vengeance and I found myself desperate to move overseas again.

I’m looking forward to joining a PYP school and teaching a different year group.

Of course change comes with a cost.

I will miss my awesome students and their families.

My fantabulous co-workers and also the amazing teachers I’ve had the pleasure of learning with from up and down the country these last 3 years. Despite the bad press this week I can name hundreds of amazing teachers out there doing amazing things in their classrooms every day. What’s even more fantastic is how generous you all are with your knowledge.

One of the delights of being online is that distance is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Though if I do make it to any New Zealand-based educamps in the next few years I am totally calling dibs on the chocolate fish!

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Chocolate fish for the dunking!

Weekly Reflection – reporting doesn’t have to suck

Fort Awesome, Harvard Yard

Image by drgandy from Flickr

My twitter feed has been quiet of late and there is one simple reason for it.

Reports.

At best most teachers tolerate writing reports as a bureaucratic necessity and at worst they see it at a medieval torture device due to rigid formatting requirements and the lack of sleep that go hand in hand with report writing season.

If I spend an hour analysing data, thinking, writing, drafting and proofreading for each child adds up to 30 hours on top of normal teaching duties as well as the multitude of other tasks bureaucratic that pop up at the end of the school year. If you happen to teach students who are at an age where they transitioning to another part of the education system, there will be reports to fill out to add to the paperwork.

Aside from the legally mandated statements about a child’s progress against National Standards, my school has been experimenting with reporting to parents. This experimentation has left us with a lot of wriggle room to try out  Instead of ticking boxes my syndicate has put a greater emphasis on qualitative feedback. Sure this has has been more time consuming for me as a teacher however the process has been less painful because I have more ownership in the product.

Alongside my comments the students have written their own comments about the year on a google form, selected a picture from the class flickr account and next week will film the final part of their video time capsules which will be included as a QR code on the paper report. Sure it’s a mishmash of old and new technology and the report is not standardised to the whole school.

We don’t all learn the same and we don’t teach the same.

So why should school reports the same?

I’m sure that there are a lot of educators that view reports as a relic of bygone era where communication between parents and teachers was largely limited to official bits of paper going home at mandated times of the years. These days I will phone, email and text parents about concerns and also victories in class.

Nevertheless the end of the year marks a milestone. Reporting for me is part of the process of taking leave of the time I spent with my students. I found it rewarding thinking about how my students have grown in this last year. This is particularly the case for my Year 8s who I have taught for two years.

Like many things in life reporting is what you make of it.

Our jobs as educators is try to find the awesomeness in every kid and nurture it.

Reports are time to see how we’ve both done in progressing towards that goal.

Weekly Reflection: Minecraft, MLEs and Quadblogging! Oh my!

I’ve become a huge quadblogging fan.

For those not in the know quadblogging is when a group of four classes take turns to read and comment on individual blogs. The quad can be international or national.

After a few false starts, the quad I’ve been involved in this year has been nothing short of awesome.   I feel bad that the class hasn’t been able to give as much attention as I would like owing to production practices, swimming and learning conferences playing havoc with the classroom schedule.

Nevertheless my other quadblogging buddies have been fantastic.

A few weeks ago a challenge went out.  The students of one of the quads wanted to map our classroom in minecraft.

To say my students are obsessed with minecraft would be an understatement. There’s something about building virtual worlds which is almost as addictive as refined sugar to my learners.

One of my students took over the project and spent the next few weeks measuring up a storm. I wasn’t allowed to touch my whiteboard as measurements went up and were then put into written form. The initial write up conveyed an insane amount of detail and involved discussions about the Pythagorus theorem.

The excitement of seeing the build grew but there was one small problem – the set up of my classroom is very different to a typical classroom. My students don’t really notice the difference as that’s our normal. We are only reminded that our classroom isn’t typical when the odd student from outside of our syndicate walks in and goes ‘woah it looks different in here.’  As a result our quadblogging buddies were having trouble getting their heads around our classroom layout.

The initial result was wrong.

Very wrong.

And from that wrong I ventured into the promised land as far literacy goes: boys talking to each other about their writing. Not just the surface ‘I think you did a good job’ or ‘how do you spell this word’  but those in-depth conversations, the ‘if you write this, the reader might think that’ talks which really develop kids as writers.

My students had a go at giving the blogging buddies feedback. Helping their peers put things right turned out to be a fantastic way for the kids to really stretch their explaining skills. As I sat working with a child on their reading, I found myself distracted wanting to the capture the learning conversation happening just a few meters a way.

One of my students suggested a fix was for our blogging buddies to make an initial build and then our class could rebuild. While I was impressed by the lateral thinking a quick reminder about the ‘task with the task’ writing and measuring had the kids back thinking.

As always there was extra learning for me.

How could we have explained our set up a bit better?

When did we need to get our rulers and when was time to make sure our explanations used words to helped create an accurate picture in the readers mind?

I’ve been hugely impressed how this connection has lead to so much unintended and unscripted learning. It’s pushed me to think more about how we can redefine our learning tasks.

Weekly Reflection: Shall we dance?

Shanghai

Image by author

Phew.

Just under 4 weeks until production and the scene I’m in charge of is… 1950s rock and roll dancing.

I’m one of those clumsy sorts who is forever falling over and dropping things. For that reason my dancing strictly to the gym to limit the chances of doing damage to myself and others.

Yet here I am in charge of scene of teaching 20+ kids how to dance.

A nightmare?

I think so.

Fortunately one of the kids in the group happens to enjoy rock and roll dancing as a hobby. I am also lucky that one of the teachers at school is an accomplished rock and roll dancer so between the dancer and the other students I’ve managed to pick up enough steps to choreograph 90 seconds worth of dance.

When you can’t dance 90 seconds seems like an eternity when faced with helping 20+ kids on stage. While I have been firmly outside my comfort zone some kids have been in their element. One of the joys of production is seeing the kids who might not be sporty, good at maths or literacy shine. One of my students remarked ‘they were born for this.’

Sir Ken Robinson often talks about how every education system on the system has the same hierarchy of subjects: numeracy and literacy at the top of the pecking order, followed by science and humanities with art and in particular dance firmly at the bottom of the pecking order. The current obsession with childhood obesity has given PE/fitness a bit of a boost however dance is often forgotten about.

In fact as children migrate through school, dance is something that we tick off once every year or so through production barely even touching even one of the four arts strands in the New Zealand curriculum: Understanding the Arts in Context, Developing Practical Knowledge in the Arts, Developing Ideas in the Arts, and Communicating and Interpreting in the Arts.

A few moths ago I stumbled upon a Ted Talk premised on the idea of replacing powerpoint with dance. The idea behind the talk was that not only can dance help explain scientific concepts it can actually help scientists with their work.

Yet I can’t help wonder why we can’t value dance for its own sake. Our preschoolers and junior primary children know that it’s lots of fun to dance but gradually that joy it is educated out of them. We tell them to sit down and stop moving and get on with the serious business of learning.

A few years ago I remember walking down Nanjing Road in Shanghai and stopped to see a huge open air class of ballroom dancers out in the morning. I couldn’t help but wonder would New Zealand be a more happy and healthy if there was dancing in the streets?

Actually there’s not an app for that: when technology gets in the way

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Image by flickingerbrad

As iPads and tablets are gaining popularity in schools, I often hear questions from teachers like ‘I’m getting some iPads for my Year 3/4 class what apps do you recommend?’ That question is often loaded with the expectation that somewhere out there is an app which will drag an existing classroom programme into the 21st century with just a few downloads from the app store.

Anyone know of a good reading app?

Yes I know of an outstanding reading app, it’s called a book. There are thousands of them at your local library.  But surely we’ve all worked out that plonking students in a library and leaving them to it will not on its own ensure kids learn to read?

Which is why I feel so uneasy about app farming.

There are plenty of apps out there that seem educational and undoubtedly find their way onto classroom iPads without much thought. However once you take the bells and whistles away  many apps don’t  do much to enhance student engagement. Lots of skill and drill but is that what really engages learning? If the app keeps the kids quiet while you get on with group work, then it must be good right?

What happens when the kids tire of the gimmick?

That’s an expensive piece of hardware on the table.

For me it always comes back to purpose.

What is it your kids need to learn?

It’s such a simple question that gets lost in the quest to get technology into classrooms or the latest and greatest app on your device.  In fact without knowing your kids or your classroom it’s probably impossible for me to recommend effective apps for your students.

Do your kids to show in words and writing a maths strategy? Explain everything is pretty cool.

Collaborate with others? Skype, blogger, twitter, gmail.

Create a rap to explain key ideas from a novel. Garageband is awesome.

Show fermentation at work. iTimelapse is fabulous.

I often wish there was label on each new classroom iPad warning the teacher in charge of the device that just like the book or a pencil, there are millions of ways that the tablet could be used in your classroom and it’s your job to figure out how to make it work best for your learners.

If you don’t know what the specific app does and why you need it what is the point in having it in your classroom?

Lets take the focus off the technology and bring it back onto the learning. Figure out what your classroom needs are then start looking for tools to do the job.

Weekly Reflection: Creating classroom calm – meditation in classroom

Classroom Break.

Image by Rares Dutu used under creative commons licence

During the summer holidays I had the pleasure of visiting the amazing learning space of @sherratsam and his colleague Chad.

If you ever get the chance to visit either of these educators, please do. However for those whose PD budget doesn’t quite stretch to a visit to international classroom visits, you can visit their blog Time Space education.

For me this day gave me a chance to see theories and hunches about student learning in action. Their classrooms were calm, purposeful and creative hives of learning.

One idea that really intrigued me was the use of yoga and meditation in class.

I’m a regular at my body balance class at my local gym and enjoy the calm and contented feeling I have at the end of class.

Yet as an adult I often struggle with the meditation session at the end of class. Sometimes I am able to relax entirely but I often have trouble clearing my mind. There’s just too much buzzing around in my head.

If I was having trouble how would my highly active class respond to meditation?

Was it going to end in giggles, eyeball rolling and pre-teen goofiness?

To be honest I was highly sceptical that meditation would easily translate from the worldly and sophisticated kids in an international school to a public classroom in suburban Wellington.

But I have been proved wrong. 

For the most part my class has responded really well to purposeful downtime and have been requesting it before I even get a chance to unlock the door from lunch.

Our curtains are drawn and I put on some relaxing music. At the moment the students are learning to focus on their breathing and posture.

What was really surprising for me was that the children whose home lives are complex and sometimes chaotic have responded so positively to this idea of purposeful downtime. On further reflection, this makes a lot of sense for some kids school represents a safe, calm and caring space.

For this reason alone I will persevere with meditation once the novelty wears off.

As teachers we expect concentration in our classrooms but assume kids have the tools to focus.

We want our classrooms to be calm but school schedules sometimes run at break-neck speed.

We want our kids to be mindful of the effect of their actions on others. Yet time out for reflection often comes after the negative behaviour occurs.

What if in sacrificing 5-10 minutes of class time to calming students bodies and minds we gain more engagement?

Is that 10 minutes really a waste of time?

Weekly Reflection: A new principal

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Changing of the guard (image by author)

I never sleep well the night before the start of a new term. There’s lots ticking over in my mind. how will the new classroom set up go (answer, a few remarks about more space and then business as usual) suddenly remembering a job on your to do list, a wake up jolt from an earthquake.

And this term a new principal.

Out of all the jobs in a school, the hardest definitely has to be the principal. Classroom teachers have the LOLz that go with spending time with the kids and not having to worry about setting budgets, buildings and managing the toughest group of learners in the school, teachers.

I joked on twitter that getting a new professional leader for a teacher feels very much like a student getting a new teacher. Students don’t get a choice of who their teacher will be and that new person in the swivel chair is now in charge of professional learning.

Which leads to an important question.

Who is this person who suddenly has the power to make your working day very different?

In this age of google you can quickly find out about a person from their digital footprint and New Zealand is so small that there’s almost always a mutual acquaintance.

A new principal brings change and with change comes uncertainty.

There’s a chance that this new person coming in is going to give up your patch of school culture, change your practice, or challenge a deeply held belief.

That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing.

As I often tell my students if we were all the same, the world would be a very boring place.

A fresh pair of eyes can sometimes do the world of good. Staying the same, doing things the same is ultimately leaving your students behind.

So this term I shall let myself be open to change and also remember being the new kid really sucked for the first few months.

Weekly Reflection: Creating space

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Vision out of the classroom.

For someone who loathes interior design with the fire of 1,000 suns I spend way too much time thinking about classroom layout.  After my initial move away from student desks, I had another classroom re-configuration at the start of the year when I was the lucky recipient of new  classroom furniture.

Yet here I am back in the holidays surreptitiously stashing desks around the school. My initial classroom layout had for the most part worked well. The kids made great use of the space and the classroom could be configured and reconfigured based on our needs. Yet there were some niggles.

Some furniture wasn’t being used at all by the students, there were areas where the kids were bunching up and others they weren’t using at all. A further catalyst for change was the school library re-opening and taking with it an entire shelf load of resources. So I took this midyear break as an opportunity to do yet another classroom redesign and most importantly de-clutter the classroom.

I amazed at how much clutter I have been able to amass in my 18 months in this classroom.  I didn’t even think I had packrat tendencies (when you move every 18 months or so you don’t tend to hang on to junk) but nevertheless old notices, a few resources and whole lot of empty boxes were still in my class. It must be a teacher thing as my mother (who is a teacher) has boxes and boxes of resources that she has stored away in a shipping container (not all of it is teaching resources).

How much do we hold onto in schools just in case it might be useful?

Does it serve a purpose?

Does it make your classroom environment flow better or does it add obstacles and create visual noise?

At the beginning of the year I was very fortunate to spend the day with @sherrattsam at NIST in Bangkok. His blog is a must read but this post on time and space. So I made it my goal over the holiday to create more space.

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I’ve pushed most of the tables in my class against walls to create as much floor space as possible. Floor space creates a physical flow through the room.  There’s no reason that the kids can’t move the tables (and I’m expecting they will) however by placing furniture on the perimeter of the room there tends to be more flexibility in space.

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Teaching station

I’ve deliberately moved the teaching station to the back of the room away from the board. Stephen Heppell (one of my learning space gurus) talks about creating multiple points of interest around the room. By having a teaching station right by the board I was still owning the front of the room.  I’ve also added in a coffee table and sofa to make the area more interesting. Hopefully this will spread out the points of interest more in the room and also give kids a positive experience in groups.

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Music and smell are important and again I’ve borrowed from Time/Space.There’s an electric aromatherapy burner in the background and the dock where I put my iPhone for some relaxing music (much to the chagrin of my 1Direction fans). The aromatherapy has had mixed reviews by the students. Some love it, others roll their eyeballs but the idea of creating a calm environment appeals. The science is very much out on the efficacy of aromatherapy and I’ve been mindful to use scents that won’t upset the asthmatics. However even if the claims about the efficacy of essential oils is mixed it can take the edge of the odour of class full of adolescents post PE. The stools enable the students to use the sink as a work area if they wish.

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Daily 5 board. I totally stole this idea from @heymilly. My classroom has this wonderfully velcro type material along one wall which when you add some some velcro to the backs of laminated bits of card make for an interactive display. The kids names are laminated on the right with different colours. The students park their name next to the choice with each colour representing a different session.The rest of my walls are pretty much bare for good reason.

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The students aren’t here yet.

Each new term brings a chance for new beginnings and new adventures.

By creating more physical space I hope to create a learning environment that has  purpose. Nothing gets added to our environment unless it adds to the room.

My mantra during this busy term will be to go slow.

To spend more time getting the why right.

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