Educational Insights, Victories, struggles, Parables and questions
When I was 22 years old, I preached a sermon at the church I worked at as a youth minister. At the end of the service, an elderly lady approached me and said, "That was good. You will be a great preacher someday."
I was offended. I mean, I was good. I spoke well, had good illustrations, and kept 90% of the audience awake. I had been a state finalist in UIL Informative Speaking AND 4-H Public Speaking for crying out loud.
See, I thought I was as good as I could be. This was a problem I had first caught an inkling of in my first semester of college. My first speech in my Honors Speech class at A&M was amazing. I wowed everyone. But then, I never improved. I just kept doing my thing, but never growing, and getting a little irritated when others did not see my awesomeness.
That elderly lady was reflecting, and making a sound, evaluative comment that I should have listened to.
Flash forward to this week. My classroom has been a hit. I have heard "Can I just stay here all day?" and "You're the best part of my day today" and "This is awesome." Those are great things to hear, but as I have grown, I have learned that those compliments are superfluous. They are emotions, in the moment, and not from deeper reflection. But at the end of the day on Friday, one student hung back after my last class before I took off to oversee the Credit Recovery class I have during my duty period. This student had been quiet all week, he did not jump in on any of the discussions, but he had said a little to me as he entered the class, and when I went around to the groups during their "Perfect World Genius Hour" time. His comment hit me harder, and meant more than any exultation I had heard all week.
"You know, you're a pretty good teacher."
He did not say this on day one, for all to hear. He waited, he reflected, and he shared when it would have the most impact. He evaluated me, and because he did not strike me as the kind of student to frequently praise his teachers.
His comment was taken as high praise.
As I reflected on this, and how my perspective had changed due to my learning about growth mindset and, you know, gaining maturity in general, I made a connection. I have heard a lot of teachers via social media complaining about T-TESS, and often, they use this meme, or one like it:
OK, yes, T-TESS is expecting a lot from us as teachers. And I am not going to dismiss concerns that reaching Distinguished might require a process of some sort of deification- it does expect perfection, and we need to have an ongoing conversation about achievable goals. But you know what?
I am excited about it.
And I feel the meme above is not about legitimate concerns as much as it is about teachers used to getting the top score suddenly getting the middle score. And no amount of calling it "Rock Solid Teaching" will change that perspective.
So, this is not to my administrator friends, it is to my teacher friends.
We need this.
I can honestly say I could virtually sleepwalk through my PDAS and get high marks. After my first round of evaluations, I was never worried. But the moment I heard about T-TESS, I began to think and reflect on my practices. Was my current instructional technique good enough for Proficient, let alone Accomplished or Distinguished?
The mere thought of T-TESS made me think of how to get better, to push myself further, to take risks.
How many of you have begun to take for granted that you will get the highest marks on your evals? How many are offended that the rules changed, that the expectations moved forward? How many think that the move makes the job too hard?
How many of you also have called for "MORE RIGOR!" for your students along with the chorus of voices in education these last few years?
Well, guess what. T-TESS is "MORE RIGOR!" for teachers.
We give our students more rigor and more stretch to deepen their learning. We want our students to grow and mature, so why do we not desire the same thing for ourselves?
I believe so much of our lives revolve around perspective, and we desperately need to have a perspective that views T-TESS and any other new challenge that comes our way as an OPPORTUNITY to become better for our students. We cannot allow ourselves to assume we have "made it" as teachers, and we should invite any new methods to continue to stretch us. This is an opportunity to address the concerns of our students who think we give them the hard lessons but are not challenged ourselves. This is an opportunity for us to have something in our life that helps us relate to our students, and them relate to us in turn. This is an opportunity to live out the "growth mindset" and the "stretch" we have become so fond of asking our students to buy in to.
That elderly lady introduced me to "growth mindset" fifteen years ago, but neither of us knew it then. I was not "there" yet. I am still not there. I adopted a phrase years ago as a ind of motto, and it applies to us here, now. It means that I am glad of what I have accomplished, but recognize that I have room to grow. So here it is, changing the meme from above to reflect what I think we as teachers need to have as our perspective:
To me, this means I am happy to have achieved some good as a teacher, but I am not done moving forward and maturing as a teacher. I am not the college freshman who had nothing left to learn, or the young minister who was at the top of his skill. I recognize I am but a journeyman, on my way to greater things.
The student on Friday reminded me, I am a "Pretty Good Teacher," which means by the end our time together, I can still work toward being a "Pretty Great Teacher." I was proficient for him this week, but my goal now is to move toward Accomplished.
And maybe someday I can earn the Distinguished title of "BEST TEACHER EVER."
And it will be based not on emotion, but on the fact that I made a true, positive impact in a student's life.
I was so excited to unveil my coffeehouse class to my students. Would they enjoy it? Would it benefit their learning? Would the stuff I built stand up for the whole week?
All along, I had a sort of rubric in the back of my mind, a measurement to know if things worked or didn't. Here is how week one went:
Design = Relationship
This part was the most obvious. I would set the room up in such a way as to make it easier to build relationships with students. The seating, the lighting, and the music in the background all contribute to an atmosphere that is relaxed. Students instantly responded with positivity. I also had a suggestion box for ways we could improve the class, and I implemented those suggestions right away to demonstrate that I hear their concerns and will move to address them. This helps to build trust.
The success of this area was evident by having about seven current students bring their friends to look at the room and another four or five former students come to hang out before and after school. There is still lots of room to grow, but we are off to a great start.
The classroom redesign was never just about flexible seating and low lights. That's just aesthetics. No, this was about a culture shift. I wanted students to take ownership of their learning. Coffee Talk- our student facilitated bell work discussion does that. Of my five classes, three of them performed well above expectations. The student facilitators had great poise and thoughtful questions, and they managed the flow incredibly well. The other two did very well, and with a bit more time I think they will own their learning well. The second area is in the Perfect World project my sociology classes are doing. At the close of classes, they get a little bit of "genius hour" to plan their projects. They have a poster board map that is laminated, and they lay out their settlements, determine their resources and beginning thinking how their society will associate with the other three in the class. I've been inconsistent in getting them enough time, and right now I give a good deal of direction, but these are easily fixed issues.
I really want to incorporate social media in my class. Daily hashtags were the first step, but so far, no students have used them. Time will tell.
I also plan plan to use You Tube Live to stream lectures for the students who miss class, and I'm using Air Server, but my room has terrible wi-fi. I've requested a wi-fi boost, hopefully that will help.
Goals are an important part of education. Having my students write class goals on the paper wall ended up being a beautiful thing- aesthetically and philosophically. The personal goals on the Starbucks cups went well too.
The class is off to a great start. The relationships and student lead portions are As, but the tech side did not go as well as hoped. I'm giving it a C. Goals were a solid A. Overall, I think week one is a solid B+.
Two people stood atop the same mountain, at the same time, and saw the same view.
The first person noticed the sunrise, but was immediately drawn to the way the light showed exactly how high up they were. They noticed the green valleys, but focused on the slippery snow covered slopes, ripe for an avalanche in just the right conditions. They saw the slippery shale, and thought of how easily an ankle could be turned, and when they noticed all the boulders, they thought of all the ways a concussion could affect their descent from the precipice. They were filled with fear and dread, overwhelmed. Why had they ever wandered to this point?
The second person took the beautiful sunset in, and relished the feeling that being this high up made them the tallest thing around for miles. Oh, how much they could see! Farther down the slope, they could see the green slopes, and while navigating that slippery snow would take care and caution, the excitement would be invigorating, and the results worth it. They drew a charge when thinking about how they would have to be surefooted and agile to navigate the shale, and imagined all the fun ways they could descend from the precipice- maybe even bounding off one of those boulders in celebration. They were filled with expectation and eagerness. Why had they waited so long to do this?
It is all about perspective. Educators, we stand on the precipice, this the night before our students return. Do see the pitfalls and think them too dangerous- or just the right amount of stretch? Do you see the long journey and think about how tired- or how fulfilled- you will be in May?
I am sharing my "theme video" for this year. Yes, it has my new favorite song I have been talking about. It also features lots of pictures of my fellow staff at College Station High School. But please, take the message for yourself. Enjoy the precipice- but may you enjoy the journey to come even more.
It's the time of year where Back-to-School sales are in full swing, students are about to get schedules, and a lot of teachers are talking about how short the summer was.
I'm one of them. My summer has been filled with grad school, house painting, chopping down trees, StuCo camp, more grad school, presenting at a state convention, and a complete classroom/instructional design makeover.
I do not share this to brag- or complain- just to frame what I am about to say.
I have never been more excited to start the year.
Honestly, I do wish I had a few more days to sleep in, or had been able to take a relaxing mountain vacation, but I'm not going to complain. I am choosing excitement and hope because my students deserve it, and I will not survive the year without it.
Earlier this summer, a Twitter chat I am on (#CSISDchat) asked what song I would play to get me ready for that first week, and I responded that I would choose Switchfoot's new song " Hope is the Anthem." It is all about overcoming, seeing the positive, and choosing hope. This lyric really captures that message:
"Hope's a seed you have to sowWhen you let it go it comes to life
So you stretch your arrows on the bow
And you pull them back and watch them fly"
I believe teachers have quivers full of hope. Each encouraging word we share, each "I believe in you," and every time we nudge a student to not give up is our arrows taking flight.
But what if our quiver is empty? I NEVER advocate "fake it till you make it," so how can we fill our quiver with a week before students? Here are a few suggestions that have me excited for the new year.
1. Take on a new challenge. For me, it's my classroom redesign. I'm not drastically changing my content, just updating. But I am changing methods and instructional design, looking for new ways to reach and engage students. If you like to test yourself, taking on a challenge is a great invigorating technique.
2. Set goals. Like the first suggestion, some tangible thing to shoot for might be an inspiring goal. A skill you want to improve, a performance outcome to reach, or maybe some recognition you want to go for are just a few examples. With T-TESS utilizing goal setting as a key component, this might be a good jump start on the new evaluation method.
3. Read/Listen to an inspiring speaker/podcast. Even if you've read or seen it before, a great book or article that challenges your thinking can be so inspiring. Good words have a great impact. And maybe even branch out to inspiring music. That new Switchfoot album has been useful for getting me pumped up.
4. Read old letters form students/parents. I have kept senior letters and parent notes that I've gotten over the years. When I have had a bad day, I pull them out to restore hope. Why not read some at the start of the year to remind you of where you hope to be in your relationships with students at the end of the year?
5. Get organized. One of the biggest fears I hear from teachers at the start of the year is that they are not organized. Take some time to think through the calendar, map out some activities and re-arrange that supply closet. I know it makes me feel better to accomplish something, even if it's a small thing.
Hope to me is a choice, and as we start this year, I choose hope. I want my students to have hope and expectations of success, and I believe that I have the seeds of hope that need to be sown in their lives. So I will spend the last week filling my quiver, and getting ready to launch hope to my students.
My students think I am addicted to Dr. Pepper. I'm not gonna lie, I like it a lot. But I have always been the kind of person who gets wrapped up in things, some might say addicted. I crave Torchy's Tacos, Daiquiri Ice ice cream from Baskin & Robbins, and Great American Cookie Company Cookie Slices (and they come in double slices, too!). I get addicted to shows like Friends and Lost, and I really like Batman stuff.
But lately, I have found a new addiction.
As I have been working on my Coffeehouse classroom, I find myself thinking about it. A lot. I find excuses to steal a few minutes away while shopping with the family to scout cool stuff for the room. Last night, I was at a Student Council Lock-in, and when I would run to my room to get stuff for the event, I would take a couple minutes to adjust and tweak and repair. This morning, while the students were waiting to be picked up, I hung decorations and made adjustments. I constantly have ideas of how make things just a little more...perfect.
I am passionate about this project, and the ramifications it could have not only on how I manage my classroom, but how I shape instruction and how students learn. I want to take play around with the best practices and placements of signage, and how to arrange the seating. I already feel like this might not be set in stone when day one rolls around. And that $150 budget? That was just for the initial, right? Cuz I have lots of cheap little additions I can still pull off...
Now imagine if our students were as excited about exercising their creativity.
How would it change the way we teach if students looked at the information they were to work with, and said, "I cannot stop thinking about how to keep digging into this!"?
My goal with this classroom design was never just about the look. It was about developing an entire culture around the way my students will learn. While they sit at a "coffee bar" or in couches, each day they will start not with "Bell Work," but with Coffee Talk- a student led discussion over the topics of the day before, utilizing the research done by the facilitating student. We will be seated in a way that promotes conversation, and mobility. The lighting will not be stark florescent, but instead it will be soft and relaxing. Students will have their phones, so instead of fighting that, I will use it to promote the learning with daily hashtags for Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. I will even Storify the Twitter when there is enough traffic. I have a couple designated spots to display student work. The students will "order" the sequence of units each six weeks.
I am addicted to my classroom design because I find it exciting, invigorating, and new. I want more, because I want to break new ground.
The culture I hope to build with my room is one that is passionate and contagious, and I cannot wait to see my students share my addiction to creativity.
And learning in general.
I teach Psychology, Sociology, Communication Applications and Debate at College Station High School, as well as coach the debate team and co-sponsor Student Council. I am an aspiring administrator.