Saturday, August 27, 2016

When Out Of Control Is A Good Thing

Have you ever had those moments when you realize, "Man, you've got a long way to go."  I get those moments all the time as a teacher.  I've been at this for 12 years now, and looking back I can see the growth I've experienced.  But, looking ahead, I can see all the growth still to come.

One of the biggest hurdles for me has always been giving up control in my classroom.  Maybe I'm a control freak, maybe I'm OCD, maybe I'm both.  It's just hard for me to do.  One thing is sure, as hard as it is for me to say...some of it lies in my expectations for my students being set too low.  I should know better by now, after 12 years of teaching (at least in my opinion) the absolute best students, that I'm pretty sure I can throw just about anything at them, and they're knock it out of the park.  And yet giving up control is still tough to do.  But, as usual, the kids showed me the error of my ways.

I am working with an incredible group of seniors in a government class right now.  I've worked with some of these kids for 4 years.  If you're wondering, no, it is not lost on me how blessed I am to have been in a position to have seen their growth in this formative time in their lives.  The thought of them graduating has me getting a little emotional right back to my post!  We've been talking about the "why" of the Constitution- its inspiration, its debates, why it exists as it does.  We recently focused on the debate between the groups known as Federalists and Anti-Federalists, and I asked them to read parts of the writings from both groups, discuss them in small-groups, and then consider how each side would have responded to a set of prompts.  Going into discussion day, I knew it would be a great discussion.  Again, the product of awesome kids.  And then the discussion began.  One period later, as the kids left the room to head to their next period, I realized that I had barely spoken the entire period.  Had I established the basis for the discussion?  Yeah.  Had I provided resources to the groups?  Sure.  Did I steer the discussion?  No way.  That was all the kids.  In the end product, the discussion itself, the one thing around which the lesson revolved, I had exhibited zero control.  And I LOVED IT!  I couldn't help but think, what if I hadn't set the prompts, what if the kids themselves had written them?  What if I had given up even more control?  Does good teaching have to involve the teacher?

Just so you know, I still think the answer to the last question is yes (I'm not in the middle of an existential crisis).  Instead, I'm pretty sure I'm just seeing a reality that I've missed, and as usual it is the kids who have taught me.  Ask yourself- "What are my students capable of?" And if your answer has a limit in it, understand that YOU ARE WRONG.  If there is one universal truth that my students have shown me, not just this week, but in 12 years of teaching, it is that the only limits on our students are those that WE believe exist.  Trust them, respect them, give up a little control, and be ready for them to blow your mind.

One more thing, can I just say how thankful I am to this blog.  People I trust kept telling me, "Blog to reflect, blog for yourself, don't blog so others will read, just won't regret it." Amen brothers and sisters, amen!  Someday I'm going to come back and reread this post...and smile.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Passionate Teaching...It Shouldn't Surprise Your Students

From the title of my blog it should be clear that promoting passionate teaching is central to my "teaching identity".  In my opinion, a "teaching identity" is how one defines everything that is central to who they are as a teacher, from philosophies on discipline and homework to the work one puts into crafting relationships with students.  While approaches to teaching will always differ (and this is not only fine, it's great), one trait must underlie the identity of all teachers- passion for the craft, passion for the students.

I would ask any teacher- Do you know how lucky you are to do what you do?  Are you aware of the incredible gift you have in each of your students?  I know that there are innumerable obstacles to teaching that can threaten one's ability to keep the passion alive.  Teacher pay, the focus on standardized tests, frustrations with parents, etc...the list grows fast.  I get it.  I feel these frustrations as much as anyone else.  I get it.  But I have never been able to understand someone who can't feel hope when they look at their students.  I can't tell you how many times I've found myself in a rut, when I have told myself "You are not doing a good job."  It happens to me every year.  And every year I am saved by the same people- my kiddos.  It goes without saying that I am both thankful to my and for my students.  How can we not be filled with a passionate desire to serve the kids to the best of our ability? They deserve that!

And shouldn't that passion for the craft, and passion for the kids, be demonstrable?  I was in the middle of a discussion with a class recently, and the kids were blowing me away (as they so often do) with not only how well they had grasped the topic for our discussion, but for how they were connecting the dots in such ways to point out great branches of thought, at times beyond what I had considered.  Needless to say, I was amped.  It's hard not to be when you teach amazing kiddos.  When I get amped I tend to get animated (it has to be quite a sight...talking with my hands, talking fast...oh my!) A student seated near me started chuckling, to which I apologized (I can only imagine it was annoying).  The student responded by saying, "It's fine.  You are just so passionate about what you do." I was, of course, flattered by that comment, but noticed the faint layer of surprise in her tone. Should she, or any other student, be surprised that teachers are passionate for their job, for their students? To borrow a line from one of my favorite bands, Led Zeppelin, "It makes me wonder."

What are you doing each day to show your students the passion you have for your work?  What are you doing to make sure your students know that the root of that passion is them?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Day 1: To my kids, to their parents

Day 1.  I am starting my 12th year of teaching, and it never fails...the butterflies.  I'm nervous, but more than anything, I'm excited.  As we start this new year's journey, a few thoughts for my kiddos and their parents.

Kiddos- I know you are in high school.  I know you are hormonal teenagers.  I know you probably feel like you're too old to listen to someone say they care about you.  Well...get over it!  I am genuinely so excited to work with you this year.  I am excited to walk on this journey with you.  I'm excited to do this together.  Notice I've chosen my words carefully, to convey to you the fundamental reality of our work- it is a together mission.  I may be the teacher, but I look forward to learning from you.  I may have a bit more knowledge right now, but your voice, your mind, your heart have tremendous value, something to offer that I can learn from.  And it goes without saying that I hope you can learn from me as well.  Our success this year will be measured together.

I cannot tell you how every single day will go right now, but there are a few promises that I can make to you.  One is that I will never lie to you.  I will be quick to praise your success, and I want to do what I can to help you be the best version of yourself if I have concerns.  I will set high expectations for you, because I believe you can reach them.  I will be there to listen and help, both with class-related issues or otherwise, if you will let me. I will not be perfect. I will admit my mistakes, and work to make them right.  Most of all I will care about you, regardless of how hard you try to make it so I can't.

I hope you have goals for this year, and if I can help you, please ask.  I think it is important that you know that I have goals as well.  I want to do a better job of communicating with home.  If I have a concern that needs to go home, it will.  But I want to make sure I am letting home know when you've done something great!  That is just as, if not more, important.  I want to continue working on giving up control in OUR classroom to you the students.  Each of you is capable of bringing something great to our classroom; I need to make sure I am listening.

This will be a great year, and I look forward to our work together!
Parents-  If there is one thing I would say to you, beyond what I've said to your child, is to tell you that I am so thankful that I have been given the opportunity to work with your child.  A primary mantra I have long held as a teacher is "to be the teacher I want my own kids to have."  It is never lost on me, I never forget, that each day you are giving me the thing most precious in your life, and trusting me.  What an incredible honor, and extraordinary mission!  I can promise you that I will keep that mission at heart, and I will care about and challenge your child, just as I would want my own son's teacher to do for him.  Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Emerson once said, "Life is a journey, not a destination". I hope that, in the end, we can look back together, and see that this journey has been one in which we've grown, and grown together.  Be open to that journey.  See the dead ends and avoid them if you can.  If not, realize that we often learn more from times we've lost than times we've won.  Find pride in the person you are, not effort in becoming someone you're not.  Find, and stick to, those that add to your life, not subtract.  Move forward with passion.  And remember that there are people in this place that care about you, and trust them. Cheers to our journey!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Key to Handling the Unexpected...Being Prepared for It!

Ask any of my students and they will tell you that one of my constant preachings is on the need to fight procrastination.  Unfortunately it is a sermon which often falls on deaf ears with students, but the importance of preparation is a real thing, especially in teaching.

Most teachers, like me, undoubtedly enter each day with at the least a vague plan for the day, and at most a formal lesson plan.  I'm somewhere in between, largely due to my utter disdain for "formal lesson plans".  I believe in good planning, but the tedious form taught when completing teacher preparation programs has always seemed like busy work.

Planning, however, is a key variable to successful teaching.  I often use my off-time in the summer to map out my ideal plan.  I prepare a blank calendar for the semester, enter holidays and other interruptions which I know about, and then go about setting my plan for what will happen if every class meets for the entire class period every day, without anything unexpected taking place.  I think about what we will do if we run short on time or have time leftover.  Like I said, "ideal".

In thirteen years of teaching I have never actually used my ideal plan.  And I'm ok with that.  I know, going into the year, that this ideal plan won't work.  I know I will have to move things around, or even cut things.  I know that snow days, delays, pep sessions, convocations, etc. will cut into class time.  I know that there will be times that I will need to give extra time to a subject, or that an opportunity for a great class discussion will present itself.  In short, I know that the unexpected is going to take place.  But I have found that it is much easier to handle the unexpected if your prepared.

With a calendar in front of me, I can see what can be moved, and to when.  I can see what can be cut, if needed.  Most might say that having these kinds of plans in place makes the classroom too concrete; quite the opposite.  Being prepared in such a way allows me the flexibility to plan ahead for what may come, and ensure that I am covering material the kids need to know.  If I think that more time needs to be spent on a given subject, or that the class would really benefit from an informed discussion, I can look at my plan and make the necessary moves.

Others might say I'm over-preparing...OK, I'll admit, that observation seems to be more on-point.  I might be over-prepared.  But weathering the storm of a sea that promises, like all, to be tumultuous requires me to ensure that I have a sea-worthy ship.