Teaching is one of the most fulfilling professions ever. Ask any teacher who’s had a previous student return to talk fondly about their time in the classroom and you’ll know what makes this job so rewarding. But along with this fulfillment comes some of the greatest challenges – committing to lifelong personal growth and professional development and being willing to shift beliefs, personal and professional. We can’t be great teachers if we don’t agree to change and adapt practices to suit every new group of students we receive every year.
I think this is one of the baffles for pre-teachers or non-educators – why not simply teach the way we were taught? Why not run classrooms and schools like they were 10/20 years ago? Straight rows, teacher at the front of the class answering questions, 10 neat problems on a sheet of paper, raising hands, etc. We know this way and how things can be. The problem with this thinking is we have had years to look at why and how this model ends up marginalizing different learners and different types of learners in the classroom. By embracing new and better, we can truly change our practice to reach more students where they are and grow them as learners and citizens.
I was recently sharing with a great group at NC Association of Compensatory Educators and we started talking about the need to shift thinking and teaching practices to reach all students, especially in our most challenging schools. Its easy to settle or make excuses for what we think is the good of students. Settling can come from a good place but it has harmful consequences.
Lowered Expectations is a New Form of Discrimination
When we accept student limitations or make judgements/predictions based on their family or neighborhoods or race or gender, no matter how we phrase it or who we speak to, we are putting them in a box. The bias we are creating eventually becomes a reality of practice in the classroom or school.
The above visual is one of my favorites. The first box represents the one size fits all classroom it is so easy to create. Its easy to see how the student who needs us the least gets the most, often unnecessarily. And our neediest student, who may not always ask for help or doesn’t know how to ask for help, gets left out or hurt the most.
What can we do to ensure we have high expectations for our students?
We have to agree that all students can learn at a high level. We have to agree that all students can grow, that they can leave us better than when they came to us. And we have to accept this will be hard, great work to see it through.
Our parents send us the very best they have, we have to do the very best we can to improve every aspect of their lives the best we can.
Last weekend, I presented at the #WGEDD conference in Kansas City. Getting the invite from Jimmy Casas and Jeff Zoul to share was a highlight. I knew I was going to have a great time connecting and sharing – two of my favorite things and this meet up did not disappoint.
Its no wonder why #WGEDD has so many homerun features. Two connected learners have had time to reflect on what works and what REALLY works at learning events and bring the best of both together:
Some personal highlights for me
Hearing from a long-time inspiration, Salome Thomas-El, @. I have only seen portions of his presentations before but never heard his passionate presentation first hand. I love hearing an energizing story and his is at the top. I’ve been the principal of a high needs school and his message confirmed some of my beliefs: 1) don’t believe the Hollywood version of principals turning around schools 2) “Our kids who need love the most ask for help in the most unloving way” and 3) we don’t get in this work because things will eventually get easier – ‘don’t ask for a lighter load, pray for a stronger back.’ #micdrop [I bought both of his books when I got home]
Presenting with my project partner, Joe Mazza, on #leadlearners! Joe and I have been working on our #leadlearner project for some time but we’ve never had the opportunity to share with a group. The feedback and contributions from our audience members was incredible and affirming!
Great time in KC! Follow the #wgedd learning at the hashtag and make the conference when you can!
Last week, I had the privilege of giving a co-keynote with a good friend, John Bernia, at AMLE [Association of Middle Level Education]. This was a great experience, truly a tremendous honor! We had a blast energizing about 1000 educators committed to growing and supporting middle school students. I can’t thank Dru Tomlin, Dena Harrison and other AMLE staff for inviting to be a part of this great experience.
We wanted our message to be inspiring and uplifting so we chose a topic we thought paralleled the excitement and energy of the audience – ‘Make Everyday Like AMLE.’ Our challenge to the audience was to capture their excitement, remember their enthusiasm to learn and connect and take that back to middle schools and make a difference. Growth events like conferences bring out the best in our learning natures – we are genuinely excited to connect with other educators and experts and get inspired to better ourselves or help others improve. I believe its because we get to choose our learning paths and pursue our interests – even for a short time. This is what we need to capture and build upon everyday as we work with middle schoolers, and all students, as we strive to build better learning environments.
Something I Noticed
I’ve spent my career as a middle school educator. Except for 3 years of my 22 years in, I have loved being a middle school math teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal and now principal. I have worked to grow and get better every year so that I can serve my students better. I have loved every year. This past week, as I’ve shared my experience with people, I’ve become a lot more cognizant of what people say about middle schools and middle school educators. Specifically, when I identify myself as a middle school educator, I get responses like, “I could never do that!”, “Those kids are all hormonal [implying off-balance]”, or “What a crazy age group.” On my return trip from AMLE, I counted 4 separate responses like this before I got home. It was a disappointing given I just spent some days with educators committed to growing and supporting our middle schoolers. What do these casual thoughts and statements say about our commitment to work with this group?
This has made me reflect on the power of casual words and phrases we use when we talk about middle schools and education in general. My growing concern/problem is these casual joking comments will become reflexive responses. People with little or no firsthand knowledge of what happens in middle schools, or education, will take these ‘jokes’ as truths. Without knowing middle schools, they allow casual jokes or comments to serve as factual characterizations of middle schools. This shouldn’t be.
Middle schoolers grow up to be people
Let me qualify this by saying I absolutely do not believe that everyone has malicious intent or is out to intentionally harm/destroy the image of middle schools. But we have to look at the sum total of what our words and casual references can do to the public. If we hear enough times that middle schools are crazy places to be, a FEAR of middle schools will develop. If we hear enough times that middle schoolers are erratic and crazy, we will do our best to avoid these kids [and they are kids]. If we hear or say something enough, it can become true or we can convince ourselves, it’s a fact.
We are all committed to improving the lives of students. As such, our actions should reflect our thoughts, not just repeat a joke we heard. This weekend at #WGEDD, my good friend Joe Sanfelippo talked about someone’s bad 15 minutes in a school system defining their whole experience with school system and how that became all the language they used when they talked about the schools. We can’t let a bad experience or one bad teacher or a bad grade become define our [middle] school experience.
While I’m committed to working with all of my parents and teachers experiences in schools, I don’t want readers of this to take on the cause of correcting everyone’s negative experience in every school. I would like for us all to be more deliberate in what we say about middle schools and of course, schools in general.
Baruti Kafele talks a lot about intentionalily, being very purposeful in choosing words and actions as they reflect the mindset and the person presenting them. If we as educators and parents casually joke about middle schools, we are enabling, empowering and validating a lot of the misconceptions people have about middle schools. Instead of following along, lets make a point to redirect that sentiment. We have to make deliberate effort to show we want to be a part of the support for growing all kids. Lead or redirect conversations to help people know that:
All school expressions are important. We should do our best as parents, educators, #leadlearners to promote that school need more support to help kids achieve.
I came across this article some weeks ago – Does knowledge matter in the age of Google? http://buff.ly/2brmg2N. Heads up, the first couple of sentences may be slightly bothersome to some but bear through it as it gets to the heart of the discussion – how we as a society, particularly our growing millenial workforce, view knowledge and more importantly, the value we place on knowing facts. There’s a great statement about how we are ‘outsourcing memory’ and are at the detriment of not knowing what we don’t know. It has a great conclusion, ‘Knowledge is not wisdom, but it is a prerequisite for wisdom..,’ after all, we do have to know why we have made decisions we’ve made and why we should or shouldn’t make decisions.
But we have the hard reality of living and working in the information age. This article, Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours – http://buff.ly/2bJV5TH hits on this point. Prior to our world being connected and our developing the ability to share conversations and information with the click of a button, gathering this knowledge was work and saved for exclusive groups. Now, information, more accurately access to information, is a right! We can get to it by making a casual decision to do so. With our inventions and innovations and our deciding to share, we are growing the amount of information in the world. We once held libraries in reverence for holding all or most information we needed. Now, we can take a smart device, with or without service, to a public wifi and get those same facts.
All of this leaves me with some questions:
Call to Change
The solution here of course lies in the how and the what we do in education. Our expected learning outcomes and demonstrations of learning can’t be tied to regurgitating facts or filling in blanks or solving naked math problems. It calls on us to unlearn most of our own K-16 learning experiences and embrace delivery methods that require kids to ask questions, solve problems and challenge existing viewpoints. We have to embrace that the grade of 50 or 70 or 100 cannot denote the end of learning.
We have to embrace that where our emphasis and value was on knowledge, now it has to be placed on growing intelligence and perseverance of every student. Changing these perspectives should be our top priority.
Last year, my instructional team developed a learning activity for the staff. We gave them fact recall questions OUT of their content area and told them NO TECH! There was a little stress at first but when we allowed them to use tech to answer the questions they felt a little better. Imagine how this makes our kids feel. [Fact deficits should not impact a child’s comfort in class] Later we gave them a the real activity that required them to dive deeper into the concepts and create a project that really demonstrated understanding. For this outcome, it really didn’t matter what facts you brought to the table, the tech helped with the fact gathering. What counted was the team working together to achieve the goal and building upon each other’s strength. The lesson design made the day. We have to continue to work with our adults to change their perception of good work to ensure that our students are able to participate in that work.
There are new skills and mindsets our students need that we can dive into while teaching our standards:
For most schools, summer is a time for conversations and interviews for vacancies. Every new day in summer brings about new opportunity for hiring more staff to bring into the school, an opportunity to bring new skills, backgrounds and perspectives to make for a more diverse learning environment.
I look forward to these talks because I am always looking for different voices and thoughts to make my team[s] better. Creating and building a healthy schools means building a team [I avoid the word family here] that is focused on growth and improvement and school goals. A healthy school can weather conflict and challenge amongst team discussions and planning and come out better, stronger, even renewed at the end. Every principal is looking for these lead learners, at all levels, to make classrooms, grade levels, departments and groups better.
I’ve recently began to focus on why people want to work at West Rowan Middle. West Rowan Middle is a great school with a great reputation, academics and athletics. We are fortunate that our school has a special place in many local hearts. While we don’t get the attention of our larger neighboring school districts, we are lucky to get the love we do. So when we’re interviewing and the question comes up about why are you looking to join, the answers vary widely. Its great to hear prospective teachers say they are looking for growth opportunities/advancement, help with developing skills or just looking to teach in different environments. While this doesn’t guarantee a job, it does get us off to a great start. And its sometimes like finding the treat in the Crackerjack when you meet the educator who’s family has recently transplanted! Its a great feeling.
Recently some of my conversations have led to me probe even deeper into motivations of people seeking to join our school. One reason given is people have been ‘wanting to get close to home.’ At first, I took this as a welcome sign but as I’ve reflected on it, I am becomimg more indifferent about it, to the point now where I may not be happy with this answer.
This answer, on the surface, is about convenience. While I recognize it may make the teacher’s personal life easier, it doesn’t say anything about a commitment to making our school better or dedicating to working with our school population.
Our kids need and deserve someone who is committed to the vision, goals and mission of our school.
We have to make sure that the people we are inviting in for interviews are seeing the our school first. Our mission, vision and core values are setting a course for our school. Its made me change what I want to make sure I hear from candidates. I’ve added some questions to my interview expectations to gauge where the hearts and minds of the people wanting the join the #Bulldog staff:
We want and need everyone who wants to come to West Rowan Middle and make a difference for kids and our school to be a #bulldog. But all of our priorities have to align – kids first and making sure that our teams are the clear winners!
I’ve been meeting with our school based new teacher mentor about planning impactful on-boarding experiences for our newest teachers, both to the profession and the building. This is her first year in the role and she wants to make sure she does a good job in supporting our newest game changers.
During our last talk, I asked, beyond the normal paperwork and monthly meetings, what innovative things did she have planned for our new teachers? This conversation evolved into something wonderful. We all know the value of the gentle nudge, the right question that will inspire people to do move out of a routine pattern and think different. That’s what happened here. I don’t think our new teacher coach [and that’s the title I am giving her by the way] expected to be given a wide berth in this role. But that’s what I was asking for – extraordinary experiences to grow our new teachers.
We prefaced our list of learning opportunities with the premise that while we won’t overwhelm our new teachers, we will provide them with quality growth opportunities with consistent opportunities for reflection.
I was very happy to empower our lead learner/new teacher coach with the freedom and support to help our newest game changers grow and develop. Instead of a checklist, she needed support and encouragement to take risks. It made it safe to give her the three things we need to grow and support our new teachers:
Game Changer Initiative 1 – Support: During our last faculty meeting the outgoing new teacher coach gave a very moving and heart felt appeal to our new coach – ‘You have to get to know them.’ Those words still resonate with me. On her last day, she told me that getting to know new teachers and seeing them grow gave her personal/professional joy and fulfillment, in turn I’m sure it enriched their lives as well. This opportunity to build relationships and have different conversations has to get beyond the check-in and check-out mode we fall into. Our newest game changers need to know it is safe and always welcome for them to come to us with what’s on their plate. They have to know they won’t always get the answer they want but they will always get the support they need. #relationships
Game Changer Initiative 2 – Motivation: We can’t change the realities and demands of teaching. While we can challenge traditional thought, we can’t shield/protect/avoid the things that can easily despirit us. Its our charge as lead learners to keep new teachers inspired. Visiting other schools and seeing best practices, getting new teachers to find and share a great Pinterest collection with the group, share a new PLN building experience are great ways to start conversations and keep everyone focused on moving forward. Getting better is the goal. Carol Dweck’s Mindset, is a great read and it dispels the notion that we have to stay in cheerleader mode 24/7. While I believe in a positive disposition, we have to keep new teachers focused on growing and improving, not at an arrival. No matter they victories or barriers we are living now, we have tomorrow to make another difference with students.
Game Changer Initiative 3 – Keep Them Hungry: This is a goal for every lead learner. How does a teacher keep his class motivated to keep learning more difficult materials? How does a department chair keep her teacher group focused on trying new teaching methods? How does an administrative team keep teachers focused on continuously growing new skills to match new learning needs? I share resources I collect from my PLN regularly with my staff. I embrace my role as a researcher/reader and filter out what is not needed, what can be useful later and what will make good PD/discussion points now. My team makes a point to challenge traditional concepts when we can and at the same time provide alternatives, mostly found from our PLN. But alternatives and a suggestions don’t create fire in new teachers – a lead learner focused on seeing learning and teaching that is responsive to student needs does. Good talks about our new vision, mission and core values is a good start. Not settling for what is convenient is great mindset and students-first is a must.
Last month, Dr. Julie Morrow @morrowj1967, our Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, led a talk with principals about setting the tone in our schools and how important our influence is to teachers, students and our community. I tweeted this picture during her presentation as what she was saying really resonated with me and the conversations I’ve been having with several #leadlearners around my school:
— Derek McCoy (@mccoyderek) May 17, 2016
Her passion about this message evident and this is a message that speaks volumes by itself. It made me reflect on my actions and thoughts:
What do I really believe about my school?
I also reflected on other lead learners in my building:
Department Chairs: Do the teachers in these departments merely get updates or are they hearing an inspiring message to try new things? Do the teachers in departments know they are supported on every level? Are teachers encouraged? Are teachers being told that their department is critical but our overall goal is drive the school mission and vision forward?
Grade Level Chairs: Do teachers hear a positive message in supporting the emotional/social needs of our kids? Are teachers building great routines that help them get to supporting students? Are teachers being told that their grade level is the most important and our overall goal is drive the school mission and vision forward?
Leadership Team: Are they seeing me model tough conversations and change and is it giving them the tools and impetus to do the same? Do they hear and see the vision of our school being communicated in a powerful way that will help them repeat the message?
Parents: Do my parents hear me say we look forward to seeing kids everyday? Do they believe it? Do they know we are always looking for new ways to challenge kids?Do they know that we treasure their future?
I want my attitude and message to be meaningful and contagious. This is a great message for us all, any educator in any position, to keep a keen eye on what we do and say and be purposeful in our acts and messages.