Monday, July 25, 2016

The Importance of Sharing

I'm excited to have been invited by a fellow educator, Mr. Kelly Christopherson (@kwhobbes on Twitter) to participate in the #saskedchat summer blogging challenge.  Since I've just started this blog, I'm always looking for jumpstarts, and this is a great one!  I love the subject for this week- "Sharing".

I'm a teacher of many mantras, but one that is central to me is that I shouldn't ever be doing something in my classroom that I wouldn't want someone else to see.  Effective teaching, in my mind, requires many things, and one of these is transparency.  Now I don't know that this necessarily needs to require posting a formal lesson plan every day; this has always seemed overly tedious.  But I believe teachers are responsible for sharing what is going on in our classrooms.  Our principal, our superintendents, and certainly our parents need to know, deserve to know, what is happening.  More than that, our colleagues need to know.

I've taught for 11 years, and always considered myself a teacher who embraced growth, and was active in finding ways to achieve it.  Last summer, while at an eLead conference, I was encouraged to get onto Twitter.  Best decision ever!  Over the course of the past year, I have developed more relationships with colleagues all over the country, have communicated with #eduheroes more, and have grown more as an educator than I could have ever imagined.  But, as I used the platform to grow in my practice, I found that it also provided an awesome way to share the work in our classroom with admins, fellow students, and parents.  I love taking pictures of student work and posting it, love it more when a parent likes or retweets it, and love it best when students themselves move it forward. In so many ways I'm frustrated for not getting onto Twitter sooner.

I've been fortunate to read the fantastic book Kids Deserve It! recently, and two thoughts shared by the authors really stand out while writing this post.  The authors discuss social media as a tremendous communication medium.  I've never been one to hand out my cell phone number to students or parents (still a personal rule, more on that in a minute), so when students had questions, they were encouraged to either wait until the next day, or email me.  I've always been good about checking email, but I have to think about it, and there were always delays.  Now that I'm on Twitter, and I allow students to follow my professional handle, they tweet me questions all the time, and I get instant notifications, and moreover their fellow students can see the questions and answers.  Love it!

The authors of Kids Deserve It! also quoted another #eduhero of mine, Angela Maiers, who said "When you are not sharing your brilliant ideas, you are doing a disservice to others."  I'm not sure how many "brilliant" ideas I have, but I have passion for the craft of teaching, and we all need that to be shared as much as possible.

We educators work in a world in which sharing is just as important as it always has been, but is infinitely easier than ever before.  This brings with it rules, digital citizenship if you will.  For me, when sharing through social media, the rule is always to remember that once it's shared, you can't take it back.  Therefore I keep the personal and professional distinctly separate.  I have Facebook, Instagram, and a personal Twitter account.  But my current students are never allowed to follow me until after graduation.  My professional Twitter is the only medium through which current students can follow, and as such becomes the primary "sharing" method I use for my classroom.  Another of my mantras is that I go to Facebook to socialize, but I go to Twitter to learn.  Rarely does anything personal (other than the occasional picture of my incredibly adorable kids) go on my professional Twitter.

Sharing is an absolutely fundamental practice in effective teaching.  I hope to impact someone else, but I know that I have been deeply impacted by others having shared with me.  I am thankful when my son's teacher shares something they have done in class, and I hope that the parents of my students, and the students themselves, enjoy it when I do the same.  Educators need avenues of growth, and digital sharing is such a great way to achieve this!  We teach better when we are challenged, when we are inspired, and to borrow a line from two of my #eduheroes Adam Welcome and Todd Nesloney, our kids deserve the best teaching we can provide!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Don't Be Afraid to Get Your Pants Dirty

It's the end of July, and while there have been many thoughts this summer about new ideas and goals for the new school year, the time has come to seriously work on moving some of these from "thoughts" to "action."  It is a time not just for setting goals, but considering how they are going to be fulfilled.

With this comes, you guessed it, reflection.  I've written before about my ardent belief in the need for all educators to be ready to love every single student.  This isn't a passing thought or belief; it is part of my passion for teaching.  Having this love for your students pays obvious dividends in classroom planning, quality of activity, excitement of environment, etc., but we can't forget the role that love for our students plays in effective discipline.

We've all seen the teachers whose idea of effective discipline is to expect abject and thorough obedience, and when that isn't demonstrated by a student, then it's time for a referral and the principal's office.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all about respect, and certainly realize that there are times when the admins in the building need to be involved.  But so many potential classroom discipline issues can be rendered moot if the student is within a classroom that centers on three fundamental truths- love for the student, fairness of expectation, and mutual respect between the teacher and the student.

As I was working on this post, I happened to start reading the book Kids Deserve It! by Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome.  By the way- If you are an educator or leader in a school, and you're not reading this book, you are missing something special!  One chapter of the book was titled "Never Slam the Door", and it spoke to so many of the things on my mind as I wrote this post.  It spoke to the reality of all teachers that we each have had "that student...the one who works to make him or herself unloveable."  I bet that if we all stopped to think about students who have presented the biggest challenges, from a disciplinary angle, this description would likely apply.  So...what do we do with this student?  Do we present ourselves as simply another in a long line of "senders"- teachers dealing with the student by sending them to the office every time a discipline issue arises?  Or do we strive to work as a "change agent"- teachers who have decided to try and find the root of these issues, and be an agent of positive influence and change in that student's life?  The first route is always an option...if you're looking for the easy way out.  But I can assure you, I can promise you, without a doubt in my heart or mind, that this model will not only stunt the growth of a child, but it will also earn you the ire of an administrator.  Moreover, it will rob you of an incredible moment that could be had with a student.

I've been very fortunate, over the course of my career, to have had several of these moments with kids.  I don't wish for discipline issues, but always try to seize on them as a moment of growth.  I remember having to write an elaborate classroom management plan while completing my undergraduate work, and emerged from college believing that I needed to have such a plan in place in order to have any kind of order in my classroom.  What is clear now, after 11 years of teaching, is that, while it is good to have a process with which one is comfortable, teachers need to be flexible, ready to handle any situation, and ready to understand that each student is going to have a different story, a different need.  My process is pretty simple- as a discipline issue arises, I always offer a quick warning (sometimes verbally, sometimes something as simple as moving through the classroom and placing a hand on a shoulder, or a foot to the back leg of the desk).  If the issue continues I may ask the student to step outside and have a seat.  I know what you're thinking, so far this isn't any different than most teachers.  Here is the key, however- never leave the instance or the student in such a way.

"That student" for me will always be vividly etched in my memory.  This student had a propensity for talking out in class.  As teachers often do, I was "warned" about this student.  Generally I don't listen to such warnings, but would be lying if I said I wasn't keeping an eye on her.  Sure enough, she started the year with issues that ranged from talking out to sleeping to being openly defiant.  After a warning, I asked her to step outside and have a seat, which she did (with a considerable amount of attitude).  The easy way out- claim "good riddance" and be thankful for a few minutes in class without said student.  But sitting a student in the hallway does nothing to fix the issue, and certainly nothing to help the student.  As I've written before, it is our responsibility as educators to love every single kid that comes into our classroom, even, and especially so, those that are harder to love than others.  I purposely ended class that day with about 5 minutes to spare, and stepped outside into the hallway.  The student was sitting down, as I asked her to do, but it was obvious that she was not in a good mood.  I sat down beside her, in the hallway, in the dust, and calmly asked her why she believed I had asked her to step out.  She explained, perhaps grudgingly, that she had talked out and disrespected me.  I then asked her if she thought what I had done in response was fair.  The look on her face was priceless.  I could tell that she had been expecting detention, and had certainly never been asked that question.  She responded with a yes.  What then followed was a conversation about the need for mutual respect, and what I believed she could bring to the class and her classmates.  By the end of that short 5 minute conversation she was calm, I was calm, and we had an understanding.
And I'm proud to say that, from that moment on, our relationship was one of trust and respect.  I continue to look back on that instance as the moment that I began building a relationship of trust and respect with a student for whom I care a great deal.

I don't tell this story to sound my horn, but simply to encourage each of us to remember what Welcome and Nesloney talked about in Kids Deserve It!  We make nothing better by filling out referral forms left and right; we make no impact on the kids when we fill up detention.  Sure, we might gain a day or two of quiet, but how many potential future issues could we solve by simply handling things the right way the first time.  When confronted with a discipline issue, we have to make the effort to find the root of the issue.  We may not know the hurt they are feeling.  We may not know how pain in their life is manifesting itself as a discipline problem in school.  Give them a chance to talk.  "When you listen to a child, you give him back his voice" (Nesloney, 38).  This doesn't mean be lax or stop setting expectations on behavior.  It simply means to check your reaction, and make sure that you give the time to a student. Sit with them in the hallway; don't be afraid to get your pants dirty.  Treat that student with respect, and don't be shocked when you get it back.  Love may be the only one who does.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

How Being a Father Changed My Teaching

I've been lucky enough, over the course of my career, to have had the chance to mentor several teachers who were new to the profession.  Without a doubt, this has not been a role that I have ever taken lightly.  With every teacher I've mentored, I've always started with the same question, "Why are you a teacher?"  I love this question, because I believe it is at the heart of good reflection.  Why are we here, in this profession?  What is our motivation to teach, and teach well?  What is our inspiration?  I ask myself this question all the time, and even post a small strip of paper on the top of my computer that says, "Remember why you are here."  I was asked once if the strip of paper was a sign that I wasn't happy with my career or school; that strip, this question has nothing to do with being unhappy.  It has everything to do with reminding myself each and every day that I have a mission, and it deserves everything I have every single day.

Today we are celebrating my youngest son's 3rd birthday.  These days, as you might expect, are filled with the usual- balloons, streamers, new toys that Dad gets to put together (and play with...I'm especially stoked for the new Legos), and the best cake ever!  But every year, on the birthday of my sons, I always try to stop, look upon my boys, and reflect on how they've changed my life.  It never ceases to amaze me, and I try never to forget how thankful I am for them, and to them.  They make me a better man.  But when I really stop to think, I realize how much they've changed my teaching.  I was in the classroom for 4 years before my oldest was born, and I know that my love for the craft and for my students was deeply rooted even then.  But without a doubt, when my son was born, my motivation, my inspiration evolved, and dramatically changed my answer to the question, "Why am I a teacher?"

That answer has always been that I believed that I had a heart for the craft, that I believed that every child deserved a passionate teacher, that I wanted to work with these kids and I truly believed I had something to offer them.  But when my son was born, and certainly when he started school, one motivation trumped them all.  I wanted to be the teacher that I wanted my own children to have.

I want my sons to feel three things every day when they go to school- challenged, important, and loved.

I want my sons to have a teacher who is not afraid to push them outside their comfort zones, to realize that each of my sons are unique, like every child, and will need to be challenged on their own front.  I don't want my sons to have a status quo teacher, I don't want them to have a teacher who is comfortable treading water in the classroom.  I want them to have a teacher who is not afraid to use unconventional thinking, try new things, use technology in inventive ways, to stand up for what they believe is in the best interest of my child.

I want my sons to have a teacher who makes them feel important, both as part of a class or a team, but also as an individual.  I want my sons to have a teacher who sees them for who they are, embraces their strengths, quirks, and weaknesses, and loves them for these things.  I want my boys to be empowered to find their voice, and more importantly, use it to be a channel for positive change in this world.

Above all, I want my sons to have a teacher who loves them.  I want my sons to have a teacher who understands that the best teachers are those that know that they need to love, not tolerate or endure, but legitimately love every single child that they teach.  And I want my sons to know that their teacher has that love for them.

Can each of us be that kind of teacher?  Is it too much to ask?  With all my heart, I hope every teacher answers the same way.  I hope that I'm that kind of teacher.  I hope that my students feel challenged by me, know that I will fight for them, know that I love them.  My oldest is getting ready to start second grade, and my wife and I are so thankful that his teachers thus far have challenged, respected, and loved him.  I can only hope that his teachers in the future do as well.

As for me, if asked, "Why are you a teacher?", the answer is simple.  I want to be the teacher I want my sons to have.  Happy birthday son.  Love Dad.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Teaching in a Mad World

Like most Americans, I've followed the tragic events of the past week with a mixed bag of emotions and thoughts.  Clearly, the primary emotion has been tremendous sadness for the lives lost.  Sadness for the families, sadness for the country, sadness for my children and my students.  I was reminded of a poem by the Somali poet Warsan Shire:

"later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered

But, again like most, I've felt that overarching need, as we so often do in times like these, to find someone to blame.  I've spent the better part of the day considering that thought, and read countless posts on social media from new "experts" on who I should blame, everyone from the black community to police officers to President Obama.  But, ultimately, it seems that the more I reflect, the clearer the blame is to assign.  If we, as Americans, want to know who we should blame for the creation of a culture in which this level of hatred can exist, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

As I've reflected on these tragedies, and the world in which we live, the other thought that has hit so hard for me is what can be done to change this culture.  What responsibility do I have to make something positive from this tragic time, not only as a citizen of this country, but as a teacher?  I've always been a big believer that complaining rarely gets one any where, and if it does, not only is it rarely positive, but does nothing to address the bigger issue that might be at play.  In my mind, if you want to complain, then you had better be prepared to either offer an alternative, or to be part of the solution.  Complaining without a desire to change something for the better is always being a part of the problem.  So, again I ask, what can we do as educators to try and make a difference in our culture, because make no mistake, I believe this is an issue of American culture, and it will take every American to fix it.

As I've said, I feel great sadness in light of these events, certainly for the families of the lives lost, but perhaps more so for the indictment they lay at the world which we've created.  I can't help but think about the students in my charge, about my own children, and the world to which we are sending them off.  What can I do, a teacher in a small rural school, to change things, to make a better world?  Can these lives lost be lost for something greater?  As I look for these answers, I'm reminded that my responsibility as a teacher to my charges is not only to prepare them for the content knowledge they will need in the next steps of life, but to do my own small part in preparing them for life itself.  And to do that, we educators must take stock of the world into which these young people are journeying.

It seems clear that these deaths, like so many around the country and world today, are rooted in one basic reality: the reality of fear.  Fear of the different, fear of the disagreement, fear of being uncomfortable, fear of the unknown.  We educators have a tremendous opportunity each day to help combat that fear, to encourage our students to embrace understanding, but to do so we must be prepared for the challenge that comes along with it.  It would be easy for us to march into the classroom, and tell the students what they should feel, what they should think.  But that is merely being part of the problem.  We have to challenge them, push their comfort zones, but allow them to grow in their own mind.  What can we do to meet this challenge?  I have a few thoughts.

  • Encourage deliberation- I teach social studies, so the word "debate" is often a favorite.  How often I've heard "Mr. Cline, when are we going to debate?" I've always had a problem with that word, however.  Not in the discussion, and certainly not in the passionate defense of an idea. But what I have so often seen in debates is that the parties involved simply listen to argue, to poke holes in the other sides argument, and the result is generally hard feelings, and rarely any positive understanding.  I prefer "deliberation", which inherently encourages one to listen simply to listen, to learn.  Steven Covey, the author of the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" wrote "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." We have lost the art of meaningful conversation, the ability to speak with someone who is different than ourselves, and emerge not angry, but more knowledgeable; not changed, but accepting.  Encourage your students to understand that there is always something that can be learned from someone else, but they have to be willing to listen for the sake of learning.  Not changed, not adopting a point of view, but understanding that it is a voice, and that every voice has worth, and that we each are better when we can see all sides.
  • Most importantly, love every single one of your students, even, and perhaps especially, the ones that are harder to love than others.  If one thing is clear from the events of the past week, it is that we live in a world lacking in understanding and love.  We have to love these kids, every one of them, with a deep love that lacks any superficiality.  And they need to know it.  These kids need to know that we love them, that we want what is best for each of them, that we accept them for who they are and love who they are.  I've never been afraid to tell a student that I love them, that I care about them, that I am here for them.  If we expect our students to be a positive part of this world, if we expect them to develop the kind of capacity of love and understanding for others that is going to begin healing the wounds of this nation, then we had damn well better be sure to model it ourselves.  And if you can't do that, if you ever feel that it has become cumbersome to demonstrate that kind of love for every single child, then consider the reality that this might not be the field for you.
As Gary Jules once sang, "It's a very, very mad world", and we stand at the precipice of choice: do we accept this kind of tragedy as simply the ways things are, or do we strive for something better, a world of acceptance, deliberation, understanding.  Note that I didn't say agreement.  I may have sounded naive in this post (I prefer the term "idealistic"), but I'm not that naive.  Humans will never agree on everything.  We aren't pattern molds, and we shouldn't strive to be.  Our country is undeniably stronger because of its diversity, not in spite of it.  We need diversity of opinions and thoughts, but we also need the ability to agree to disagree.  How often has someone close to you said something like "We just can't talk politics"?  Why?  We should be talking about politics, and anything else that is important to us.  We just have to be ok with not agreeing on the same point of view.  That kind of growth can't start when we are 30; it has to start when we are young.  It has to start at home, and it has to be encouraged and supported at school. I can't say if every single one of my students is going to need that knowledge we gleaned about some Supreme Court case we covered, or the issues with Reconstruction, or anything else we covered in class.  But I know that skills in the art of deliberation are skills that can fit any future.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Time To Up My Game!

Not too long ago, I told my seniors that one of my biggest hopes for them, as they left for the next step on their life's journey, was that they would find and pursue a passion in life that would help to define who they are, as teaching has done for me.  I'm remarkably blessed that I can sit here and honestly say that I can answer the age-old ice breaker question, "What would you want someone else to be able to say about you?" I am a father, I am a husband, I am a son, I am a teacher.  And each of those are my passion.

I've spent a considerable amount of time on Twitter, and have found it to be an incredible way to connect to my kiddos and their parents, but also a tremendous source of growth.  So many of those I follow inspire me with their blog posts, particularly those that are so real, that have clearly been written from the heart.  In talking with a few of those teachers, the biggest thing I heard time and again was that their blog was instrumental in their reflection on the profession, and if a blog post served to help or inspire another teacher, then that was icing on the cake.  Amen!

Thus, this blog.  I believe strongly in the power of reflection.  As teachers, if we are not reflecting constantly, then our teaching is suffering.  How can we ever expect to grow if we are not willing to reflect on our practice?  How can we ever see our weaknesses, and yes, our strong points, if we are not reflecting?  If this blog can help me in that constant process of reflection, then I can't wait to get started!  And, if something I say in a post could help someone like so many have helped me, icing!

A few things about me as I start this journey:
* The 2016-2017 school year will be the 12th in my career, all at Frankton High School in Indiana.  It is important for me to note that the thoughts expressed in this blog are mine alone, and are not in any way to be construed as the views of the Frankton-Lapel school corporation.
* I have been married for 13 years (as of July 26) to my incredible and beautiful wife, Dawn, and together we are raising two boys, Grayer and Rowan.

With that said, I can't wait to see where this blog goes, and I hope that posts will inspire questions and conversation! For those teachers who are veteran bloggers, I look forward to your tips!  Here goes!