I may be about to turn 39 and headed to my 20th high school reunion this weekend, but I don't see myself as older than 30.
But I act like a 12 year old whenever I can.
I enjoy juvenile jokes, I love superheros, and I am proud to say I can still do flips and backflips on the trampoline. I know these things about myself because I am not afraid to engage in the frivolities of being child-like from time to time.
I spend my days with 14-18 years so ready to grow up and be adults and I want to tell them to slow down. Enjoy the innocence of life without taxes and bills and adult obligations. Then I look at my fellow educators and I want to tell them to take the same advice. Don't be irresponsible and derelict, but do have fun. I know that when I am really struggling with the weight of life, taking a moment to let the inner child out is good for my soul. So here are ten things I suggest you do:
1. Read Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, or Percy Jackson. Again. And for fun, not to analyze symbolism and metaphor.
2. Buy a Nerf gun. If you have children of your own, get them one. Then shoot at them. If you don't have kids, shoot at your friends. Buying them one is optional.
3. Collect something a kid would. Action figures, comic books, baseball cards, Pokemon, video games, whatever you loved as a kid.
4. Play. With toys, in the backyard, on a trampoline (or at a trampoline park). Do an obstacle course 5k, or color run or mud run.
5. Sleep in. If you are able to.
6. Eat candy. Within moderation. Thinking you are 12 does not give you the metabolism of a 12 year old.
7. Have a campfire with friends and family. Roast marshmallows, tell scary stories and count the stars.
8. Ride a bike as fast as you can and coast down a hill- pedals flying free.
9. If is snows, make a snowman and have a snowball fight. Or catch fireflies.
10. Watch a movie you love and see if you can remember all the lines and recite them.
None of these will meet the educational standards you have to cover, but I truly believe if you try at least a couple of these from time to time, you will meet those standards with smile.
And maybe it will translate into your students smiling more as well.
In my first year of teaching, I was a US History teacher. That meant I had to cover a lot of really interesting topics like reforms, wars, Civil Rights, and...farming.
Don't get me wrong, farming is vital and important to survival, and farmers are an integral part of our society. But the lessons are not the most interesting.
And so it was in the midst of one of these lessons, I bored myself. It was not the looks on the faces of the sleepy students, it was my own total lack of interest in what I was saying.
From that day on, I asked myself this question: "Would I take my own classes?" Not about content, not about curriculum, but about instruction.
See, I was not presenting the material in an engaging way. I was just going through the material. And it does not matter how much you love your content or how interesting the topic is- if you are not minding your instructional practices, you will bore your students and yourself. Here are a few ideas to bring life to lessons that I have used:
Video Clips- I love using funny videos to add to the lesson. In my psychology and sociology classes, I often use clips from Friends or the Office to use humor to help students connect to the concepts. Even using viral videos- one of my favorites is the lizard vs snakes video from BBC's Planet Earth series- can add to the relevance of the lesson.
Discussion- The more students get to share their viewpoints, the more they feel connected to the class and the teacher. And if you let students ask the questions, then they take even more ownership. There is a crucial piece here that we must not neglect- students must feel safe to share. That means that as teachers, we cannot quickly shut down their ideas. We must correct when there is error in fact, but when students share opinions that differ from our own, that is OK. Do not fear controversy in discussion- welcome it as a chance to debate in a safe space.
Debate: Students love to argue. Set up positions and have students discuss. In US History, I had students defend the Trail of Tears and another group propose an alternative- it exposed both sides to learning that would never have happened without a debate. I will also have students argue from the point of view that they disagree with to broaden their own perspective.
Simulations- I have done Poverty Simulations the last few years in Sociology. This exercise allows students to experience real world ideas in a classroom. I have done role-playing reviews and charades to let students act out the concepts they learn in class. It works really well for visual and kinesthetic learners to engage in these activities.
Art-I enjoy drawing. But I am not good at it. But I will use what I call "stick figure lessons" to illustrate points. For example, I used something like this below for teaching the battle of Thermopylae.
Why art works for engaging the class is that it is personal and it is visual. Both create connections for students and they are fun!
Take Time- Sometimes, you just need a day to catch up or relax as an adult. So do students. It is OK to have some days or to set aside some times where you build relationships in a non-content specific way. My classes will sometimes have days where we just talk, we engage each other. It builds relationships which are foundational to learning.
I challenge you to ask yourself- "Would you take your class?"
Reflect on your instructional practices- we live in a time where our content is readily available to any student who wants to access it. Our job has become about getting students interested in learning, not about delivering the information.
So, how are you delivering a love for learning?
About this time last year, I sat down to lunch with Kelly Kovacs and Shannon Long from Central Office in CSISD. Our topic was the progress on LEADS, a student leadership empowerment initiative that we had been working on for the last six months. One by one, the members of the team had been called away to other duties or simply moved on, and the three of us were all that was left. And now they too were being called away to other duties.
I believed in this program, and I needed something of significance to invest my energies in, so I asked if I could continue to develop the program. They said yes. I asked if I could build my team. They said yes. And with that, I was off.
Today, twenty CSISD 5th-8th graders- that will now be called Ambassadors- walked into the Transportation Conference room for the first ever LEADS meeting, #LEADSLaunch we called it. Campuses represented included Cypress Grove Intermediate, Pecan Trail Intermediate, A&M Consolidated Middle, College Station Middle, and Wellborn Middle schools. Our LEADS Innovators- our teacher supporters- included myself, Amy Powell (CG), Deidre Merseal (PT), Javan Cashaw and Emily Harding (AMCMS), Christie Brod and Eric Zylman (CSMS), and Bunny Muncie and Jill Butler (WMS).
We greeted the Ambassadors and introduced ourselves, then asked them to do the same.
This was the moment- would they freeze up, balk at the intro, or would the shells crack and leaders begin to emerge.
The shells cracked. The Ambassadors shared their names and what they hoped to get from LEADS, each becoming more and more confident as they shared.
I spoke of the vision of LEADS, and also defined leadership and Ambassador- they are representative of not just themselves, their campus and LEADS, but all of CSISD. They carry a weight, but it is shared by their fellow Ambassadors and by the Innovators as well. I told them they were breaking new ground- being the first to do something that could have tremendous impact.
And many of them shared visions for changing not just one small aspect of their campus, but of changing the culture.
We built some spaghetti towers. Then they fell over. And we learned lessons about communication, structural integrity, and that failure is OK. And that failure is possible- even with LEADS. But that if their plan doesn't work, one Ambassador shared -"Well, then we learned what not to do!" (That was a great moment!)
Merseal and Brod walked the Ambassadors through the True Colors Personality test, and the Ambassadors learned about their diversity of perspectives. They learned that each of their personalities had strengths and weaknesses, but that working together would lead to better success.
Powell challenged Ambassadors to find and use their voice. Ambassadors explored how communication is more than spoken and written words, it is body language, timing, and intent. They learned the power of listening to speak better.
Zylman then talked the Ambassadors through servant leadership, providing models from Ghandi to Jesus to Yoda. See, Yoda is always teaching, even in a lightsaber battle. If our Ambassadors are going to change the cultures of their campuses, then they must serve them with humility.
Then we ate lunch.
The afternoon activity exposed Ambassadors to a problem- students sitting alone at lunch. As a part of the gallery walk activity, Ambassadors had been putting post-its on posters for "What makes a leader?" "Barriers to Communication" and now how to solve the lonely lunch situation.
As the Ambassadors got into their campus groups to work- many quickly realized the issue was deeper than just sitting alone at lunch. It had to go to loneliness at school in general, it had to go beyond surface level discussions, it had to go beyond simply physically being near a person while they consumed lunch. See, almost everyone knew someone who ate alone, or hid out in a teacher's room. More than a handful had themselves felt the weight of a lonely lunch.
The Ambassadors then created a video to explain their solution to our group, then will further develop their video to potentially share on their campus as the first LEADS project.
We closed the day with the challenge that Ambassadors be able to explain to their peers just what LEADS is- to be, you know, Ambassadors.
I have planned many events in my adult life, but never has so much time gone into one thing. Over a year and a half of planning from inception to launch. And as I stood in the empty room at the close of the day, I felt content. I felt proud of my Innovators for their work and their heart for these students. I was impressed greatly by the Ambassadors' steps already taken to impact their campuses after just one day.
I felt certain that the vision is just getting started.
Nothing makes you stop like an unexpected obituary.
Last night, while getting ready for bed after a long day of inservice, meetings, and spending time with some college students my wife and I mentor, I scrolled down Facebook to see my freshman Bible Study leader Norman Hogue had passed away. He was forty.
Shock is all I could feel. I had not been in contact regularly with him since college, but over the years we would chat at reunions- the last of which was just a couple years ago.
As I read down the posts on his page- trying to grasp the reality of his passing, I was struck by his significance. Every post spoke of his character, his love of family and friends, his memorable personality traits. I remember Norman, as a college student, coming to my father's funeral along with about a dozen other Aggie friend.
His was- by all accounts- a life of significance.
I was awoken at three a.m. this morning, and due to processing his passing, and processing my admittedly staggering amount of responsibilities that seem to keep piling up (and only partly because I choose them) I started to think about why anyone does what they do in life.And I kept coming back to one word:
We all want to matter. To know that we left an imprint on at least one person. I believe that even the most introverted, hide-out-in-the-mountains-away-from-people deep down wants to feel of some value. That when someone reaches their end of patience and strength- at the heart of their struggle with life is a desire to know they matter.
I chose teaching because I wanted to make a difference. To matter. To have significance. And if I am being candid- I choose to do so much, to pursue innovation, to seek to become an administrator, to challenge the status quo because I want to do something of significance. I want to reach as many people as I can and make a difference in their lives.
At the end of the day, I want to know that I will leave an impact.
I do not think I am unique in this desire at all.
A class clown wants to make an impact. A star student wants to make an impact. The troublemaker wants to make an impact. The scientist, the artist, the athlete, even the wallflower wants to be remembered when they move on.
Earlier in the day, while meeting with my LEADS Innovators, two of them shared a story about one of our soon to be Ambassadors. According to Emily and Javan, this student was on the track to making an impact- just not a good one. Another teacher, earlier this year, approached the young man and simply yet eloquently questioned his choice of friends. "Wise people hang with wise people. Fools hang with fools. Who are you hanging with?" That simple question was a moment of significance for this student. I do not know who the educator is- but they are significant to me, too.
I want to be significant. Yes, because I want to know that I matter. But I also want to be significant in the way that that teacher was to our soon to be ambassador- to be significant in the lives of others in a way that changes their lives.
Norman Hogue changed my life in some ways. He obviously impacted a lot of other people, too. My hope is that I can be of significance to the lives of those around me- be they friends, family, students, or fellow educators.
That is why I strive, why I reach.
Why I press on.
Would you rather be in Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart?
I don't know that I have ever had a conversation where someone wished they could be Andy Dufresne- but I have definitely heard many folks wish they could be William Wallace. Which is odd, because Andy gets away, but William dies.
Both stories are about freedom, and ultimately the protagonists get freedom. But the prison imagery is not one we want to subject ourselves to in our fantasies, while riding freely across the Scottish Highlands to fight tyranny is.
Now, place yourself in your role as an educator. Would you rather create an experience for your students that is more Shawshank, or more Scottish independence?
I truly hope you choose Scotland, and if you do, there is a key mindset shift you have to develop as an educator.
Are you a Warden, or a Warrior?
Both are about control- about order. But they go about handling that in different ways. I believe that the Warden mentality is the one that has historically been present in many school systems- one that seeks to create conformity over individualized strengths. Warriors seek to create a collaborative environment for mutual success. So, what does that look like in practice?
Wardens expect bad behavior, Warriors cultivate good behavior
I have seen and heard many teachers in my life say this phrase: "Kids are so irresponsible." I have been guilty myself. I have also experienced educators that seem to expect the worst from students in an effort to 'be prepared.' That is a Warden attitude.
Warriors will know that bad behavior will exist, but actively work to train students with positive behavior modifications. They will not sigh, shake their head and say "About what I expected" when a student makes a mistake- they will work with the student to shape future choices.
Wardens stand above, Warriors stand with
A Warden will stand above their charges literally AND figuratively. They will put a physical distance between themselves and students. But more significantly, they will distance themselves from students emotionally. They will expect students to share and engage, but they will not reciprocate. They will be on their phone during duty time instead of interacting with students. Wardens know all about their students, but their students know little about them. This can lead to resentment on the part of the student, which in turn leads to a double down on the Warden's side.
Conversely, a Warrior stands with the students. They walk among them, chatting, connecting and being present. Warriors will share their heart- with boundaries, obviously- so that students can know the human behind the teacher. When things get tough, the student does not need to run to a Warrior, the Warrior is with them already. The Warrior will also stand between the student and a Warden- defending and advocating for the student.
Wardens hate their job, Warriors revel in it
Wardens never smile. They complain about hours and pay and respect and then take it out on students.
Warriors never stop smiling. Sure, they have bad days, but they know that long hours and poor pay are pale in comparison to the joy of seeing student success.
Wardens fight with, Warriors fight for
A Warden picks a fight. Sad to say, there are some educators who see education as a battle against unwilling students to comply. Oh, they would never say this, but their actions show it. Condescension, harshness, lack of empathy, even embarrassing a student to prove a point. Wardens are teacher bullies, and yes, they do exist. Wardens end up creating problems for themselves because of how they treat students- as targets, not learners.
A Warrior is in the trenches of the day to day trying to help students win. They are the admins that take a second to speak to the emotional need of a student instead of coldly addressing a violation without regard for reasoning. They are the teachers who spend their lunch time tutoring. They are the paras that will do ANYTHING for their students.
So, which are you?
The next time you begin an interaction with your students, ask yourself- Shawshank or Scotland? Do you want your students to feel they are trapped in a prison of school, or fighting to free the knowledge and skills that waiting to be learned?