If you have walked into a tall building and seen the dreaded "elevator out of order" sign, then you know the importance of an elevator. It gets you where you need to go with minimal effort- but if it does not meet you where you are- it does not fulfill its purpose.
And the one that feels the pain is the one who has to use the stairs.
I have come to believe that teachers are educational elevators. We are there to raise a students understanding by making their path to success more accessible. But the key for us is to meet the students where they are. If the elevator only goes down to the third floor, you have to walk up three floors to get to that elevator that takes you where you want to go. Is the elevator really doing what it was meant to do?
I think the most obvious example of educational elevators is in content.
I started my educational career as a math lab assistant at an elementary school, performing interventions with students in kinder through second grade who were falling behind. Every day, I had to gauge where the students' understanding was, and move my instructional strategy to where they were. This was more than just "can they add and subtract," as I would show five manipulatives, hide two behind my back and ask "How many do I have now?" They would answer five, because technically, I still had five. So, I knew I had to change my approach and methods- and not underestimate these young learners.
Now, I am at the high school level. We like to talk about how secondary educators are experts in their content area. I believe this to be true at my school- we have teachers who are brilliant in their content area. But I sat in many college lecture halls with experts who had no clue how to meet me where I was. Many of our students will disconnect and fail to learn if we are unable or unwilling to take our elevator down to their level.
Getting a baseline measurement of where students are at the start of content introduction is a great way to move the elevator. It lets you know what areas of strength exist, and what areas of growth are possible. That allows me to shape instruction moving forward, spending more time in areas of greatest need. In a less formal manner, you engaging in open conversation in and around class time is a great formative assessment.
I can never expect students to just understand what I am talking about. I will have to work to move toward their understanding to bring them where they need to be. That takes relationships. I would never set foot in an elevator that has holes in the floor, exposed wiring and groans and complains with every movement. Teachers need to develop warm class environments- physically or emotionally or both- that are welcoming to students.
Educational elevators must be accessible and inviting to fulfill thier purpose.
In a conversation with fellow educators and school stakeholders, we discussed how to best reach our school sub-populations that were underperforming. In the course of the conversation, we turned to finding ways to engage parents, and get them on board with the district's approach to educating students. It came up that we do offer opportunities to come to our schools often, but the parents that come are the ones we have already established a relationship with. The parents we need to connect with are the ones that never come.
So, it was asked, why don't we go to them?
When I was a minister, we often talked about the flaw in modern American churches that expected the people to come to them. "We have services every Sunday and Wednesday, we are a big building, and they know where to find us." All true statements- churches are nothing if not consistent. But there is often a shortage of reaching out- unless you are missionary minded.
Schools could claim the same thing- we are open every day, we have big, distinct buildings, and they know where we are. We even send home emails and flyers. But it always comes from a stationary approach. Come to tutorials, come to events, come see us.
When do we take education to them?
I feel that schools are beginning to adopt a more missionary mindset in regards to parent outreach. At least two schools in my district had events where teachers went to neighborhoods of their students to establish relationships. One gave out sno-cones in a neighborhood park, allowing them to meet large numbers of the students they were going to serve. Todd Nesloney and Adam Welcome share in Kids Deserve It events they have done that go to where the hard to reach parents are. Offering food is always a good idea, by the way.
Educational elevators must be mobile, or they are not meeting thier purpose.
You Gotta Get On
Personal responsibility is vital for students to grasp. As educators, we tend to blame ourselves for everything that does not work with students. Yet I know educators who have done EVERYTHING to reach students and nothing happens.
When an elevator door opens, appears safe, and meets you where you are, it has done everything it can to meet your needs. You gotta get on for it to fulfill its purpose.
Some students simply will not get on your educational elevator.
Do not take this personally. But at the same time, even if a student has called for you a dozen times in one day, and you have met them where they are every time with no response, we must be willing to answer every call, every time.
But ultimately, our students must make the choice to raise their understanding.
Educational elevators have to always be available, even to the students who are reluctant to get on board.
Education is about growth, movement, and progress. Yet it can become very easy for us to get fixed in one position or approach to education. Flexibility is a core characteristic of educational elevators, and one we need to constantly maintain.
One word of caution to you as an educational elevator- don't take on too much.
One summer I was at a Student Council camp as a sponsor, and too many people got on the elevator in the dorms. It got stuck. For two hours. Thankfully for me, I saw the overload and did not get on. Not so fortunate for the sixteen or so people who were on it.
Know your limits- what you can do and can't, where you can help and where you can't. Know who to turn kids two when the weight is too much.
Do whatever it takes to get students to success, even if you are not the one to get them there.
I started the 2016-2017 school year with high hopes. 2016 ended well, lots of momentum and great possibilities abounded. Then 2017 hit.
I stood in my kitchen last night talking with my wife Kristin about how disappointing 2017 has been for me. I have had two interviews for admin positions that did not result in jobs, and a couple other times I did not even get an interview. We put our house on the market in College Station, where houses sell in days or weeks at the most- ours went on the market almost a month ago with no offers anywhere in sight. Then, as I was expressing my frustration, I pulled out some cling wrap to cover the cake we had just made and there just wasn't enough to cover it.
I just can't catch a break.
This year, you will have students who just can't catch a break. They will enter your room with hopes for the year- or they will enter with desperation that it will be just another year of the same. How do we connect with them, how do we meet them where their need is?
If my struggle through 2017 has any value, it is in learning how to empathize with students in three areas:
High Achievers Not Achieving
I want to be an admin. I have worked hard over a short time in education. I have had success in and out of the classroom, but I have not yet achieved a goal I set for myself. Well meaning people tell me that I am talented, but the timing is not right, or to keep in mind that I have only been an educator for five years, or that there are a lot of talented people out there as well looking for jobs.
Now imagine an AP student expresses frustration with not getting the score they hoped for, or another student out-performing them. Would you tell them that there are a lot of talented kids that are just better than them? Would you tell them they are just juniors and they have plenty of time to be a high achiever?
I sure hope not.
Understand this- high achieving students are driven, focused, competitive, impatient, and hungry. When they struggle, they do not want to be told how close they are, they want to know how to get there. They want to solve the issues that are keeping them from success. They take defeat personally. So, we need to recognize that they are in fact grieving for low performance outcomes. It is emotional and personal when they do not achieve as they hoped they would. They do not need platitudes and patience, they need practical steps on how to move forward. What can they do to improve? So begin a dialogue, ask them questions to get them thinking, and provide them opportunities to practice their practical steps.
Low Achievers Not Achieving
Our house has been on the market for almost a month. It is forty years old, but the bones are good and there is updated decor throughout the interior. It is in an established neighborhood with lots of mature trees and big lot sizes. It has a lot going for it, but no one wants to buy it. It just cannot seem to please anyone.
Some students come to you with baggage. They have something to offer, but no one seems to see it. They try- they take criticism and make efforts to fix those concerns, but it just does not produce results. So they start to give up. They let the negative comments get to them. They get weary. Telling them to try harder becomes an insult, because they already are trying harder than many students around them, they just struggle.
So, tell them positives. Always start with positives. And any negatives must be addressed as actionable suggestions, not definitive descriptions. Like with the high achievers, ask them questions to get them thinking, help them to own their learning. Find out what instructional strategie works for them. Help them find a success, even if it is a small one, because success can breed confidence, which breeds more success.
Students Who Just Have No More to Give
As I stretched the cling wrap out, desperately hoping it would cover the cake to keep it fresh, the telltale sound of the plastic pulling completely away from the cardboard tube rang in my ears. I tried to stretch it, , unfold it, rearrange the position- there was just nothing left to give.
You will have students enter your room this fall who have nothing left to give. No amount of stretching, unfolding, or rearranging will change the fact they are stretched too thin between home, school, work, and extra-curriculars. They are being the parent to younger siblings because the parents work two jobs or are otherwise engaged. They have to devote extra time to their sport because that scholarship shot is the only way they get to go to college. They are in all upper level classes and the workload has become more than they can bear.
These students have two options that you can be a part of. First, they can quit something. Maybe that is the need from an academic standpoint, but what if that second job they work is how thier family eats? Maybe the student can afford to cut back on something, we can help them through that tough choice. And it will be tough, for them and you.
The second option is make the best of what they have to offer. Find a way to help them be successful. Coach them, tutor them, help them sort out a schedule that maximizes their opportunities.
Both of these require you to be present for the students who have nothing left to give. That way, you can give to them.
We learn from life. Sometimes it relates to the content, sometimes it relates to the skill of learning our students are discovering. We must use our experiences to connect with students where they are- and when we can relate and empathize, we create a safe and trust filled place to engage education.
What is it they say about politicians?
"They will say anything to get elected."
Well, it is that time of year when many educators will be tempted to say anything to get their classes and campuses to listen. We are going to make a lot of promises over the next few weeks, make some big shows of what we intend to do, but I want to caution you:
It is not in the big things that we make the most impact, but in how all the small things will add up.
I am not against the big things- they have their place. But what too often happens in the world and in education is we make a promise or put on a big show on day one, but after that we never do anything like that again. The big thing becomes a sort of island in the midst of an ocean of the small things, and it does not connect with people. Here is an example.
I am a huge proponent of student voice, as anyone who reads this blog knows. A big thing for that would be to host a student panel where I got ideas on how to shape instruction and develop class environment and design. I would tell the students they get to have a hand in how they are educated. I tell them their voice matters.
Then from day two on, all their suggestions and ideas are ignored.
That's a big, glaring example. For most of us, it is more like we do some fun team building games on day one, and then never do them again.
If you want to go big, you have to maintain the small in the day to day. I believe there are two ways in which the big things can and do work in education- be they at the classroom, campus or district level.
Each year, our district has a Kickoff- some districts call it Convocation. It sets the vision for the year ahead by celebrating accomplishments from the past year and outstanding students and teachers. It works when that vision then becomes a driving force for the year. One of the best examples was our Kickoff two years ago when the district unveiled it's You Matter campaign. The very next day, our district-wide professional development was all about teacher choice of six sessions that were led by district employees. Both were big events, but they had an impact because they set up all the small things. Our district employee page still posts pictures of staff members that have been nominated for the You Matter Hall of fame. We have You Matter extended sessions of popular classes offered at the beginning of the year. We have You Matter post-its that can be shared with staff and students.
All these small things started with a big thing, but they have been maintained.
If you go big to start things off, you better make sure to engage in the small things from then on out. Because if you lay out a vision and do not keep to it, the people (students and teachers alike) will wander from the focus. There is significant research to the effect that a big assembly does not have much long term impact if there is no follow-up in the day to day.
Ten year old me sat in front of the television watching a bunch of people standing on a wall, waving flags and celebrating. Then they started tearing the Berlin Wall down. I had little understanding of the Cold War beyond James Bond movies and Rocky IV, but I knew this was significant and real, and not just because Tom Brokaw told me it was. Twenty plus years later, as a US History teacher, I read a book about the Cold War. That wall coming down was a big thing that was made possible by all the small things leading up to it. Pockets of protests, years of negotiations, and a few accidental little coincidences and mistakes and a people were set free.
Sometimes we start our year with a promise- do you work and there will be a prize at the end. I find the Culmination big thing to be more beneficial because there is a build of expectancy. In my class, we make coffee cup goals on day one, and at the end of the semester we have a coffee/hot chocolate day to celebrate progress towards those goals. Its a big event that students look forward to and we build towards throughout the semester. But if I do not remind the students of their goals, or set the expectation before them and hold to those daily small things, then the big event has little meaning.
The Big Small Things
Over the summer, I have really begun to evaluate the importance of follow through. If I make a promise, I need to keep it. At the end of last school year, I said I was going to write a book over the summer. I have, but it's not done. Yet. It's close, and I plan to finish draft one in the next week or so, but I will finish it.
Have you ever been promised something by a teacher or student or administrator and it did not happen? It didn't feel good, did it? Now remember that our students hear our promises and our "Big Things" loud and clear on day one. We cannot be like those stereotypical politicians who will say anything to get elected. We must be diligent in all the small things that make our commitments to students and fellow educators come about.