Sunday, October 14, 2012

I Like Teachers That Love to Learn

I have to thank Mr. James Cowper from Ontario Canada for the inspiration for this blog post, which seems strange as I’ve never met him. It was this tweet from him that inspired me:

I’ve been struggling this year with the amount of time that I am scheduled to be out of the classroom for professional development. Being in the classroom with my students is my passion and my joy and I honestly do have a hard time leaving them behind. The reasons for this are partly egotistical: I like to believe that nobody can teach my lessons the way I would . A greater part is frustration: sometimes the mandated sessions that I am required to attend are not relevant or challenging and sometimes, since the guest teacher system was privatized, I have to leave my wonderful students in the hands of a random guest teacher who I have never met. Recently, I had to radically alter my prepared lesson plans at the last minute when a delightful little elderly lady showed up and told me she couldn’t even read my lesson plans as the font was so small. Technology integration was obviously going to be a stretch!
But professional development is a necessary part of my job. Part of the safety demonstration on a plane states that if you are travelling with children you must put on your own oxygen mask first in order to help the children. The same principal applies in the classroom-in order to educate our students we must first educate ourselves. Teachers often arrive in their classrooms to find that new technology has been delivered overnight: interactive whiteboards, iPads, clicker response systems to name a few. We also have a huge shift in curriculum delivery to contend with following the adoption of the Common Core Standards. It sometimes feels like waking up to find a Boeing 747 parked on the driveway with a note saying figure out how to fly this, you’ll be transporting 300 hundred passengers tomorrow!
So I accept that I have to attend professional development and I embrace the fact that I need to learn and grow as a teacher in order to do the best job that I can for my students, they deserve nothing less. I attend district meetings to make connections with other teachers who I can share and learn with, keep up with district developments and represent my school’s unique perspective. I attend conferences to become inspired by the experiences of other teachers and bring back to my students innovative and engaging ways to learn. I attend classes to maintain my professional certification and stay in touch with current pedagogy and best practice.
So how do I minimize the impact my absence has on my students? I try to ensure that I secure the services of a competent and reliable guest teacher in my absence, one who has an established relationship with both me and my students. I leave detailed lesson plans and work hard to institute routines that encourage my students to be independent thinkers and learners. In the event of problems I make myself available to my guest teacher, parents and students via email and Skype. I take advantage of the expertise of my colleagues and try to incorporate team teaching activities at best and offer them up as support at least.
What can I do better? I think I need to communicate more to my parents and students about where I am going and how attending professional development sessions have a direct and positive impact on my classroom. I need to work on finding balance, and enlist the help of my administrators in determining what is necessary, preferred and superfluous. I also need to breathe and realize that I can’t learn and implement everything immediately, despite the fact I want to because I want to be the best teacher that I can be.
This also applies to my role as a mom. On Saturday morning I was watching a presentation live from Edscape 2012, and my son told me that for Christmas he just wants me to not logon on to my computer for a whole day. I am a teacher that loves to learn and I hope that my occasional absence  from both my classroom and from my family inspires  my students and my own children to mirror my love of learning, and embark  on their own unique lifelong learning journeys.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Purpose of Education

I asked a friend of mine who lives in Canada how his six year old daughter Brooke was settling in to the new school year. She is a delightful little pixie of a child who finds joy in everything so I was shocked when he told me she is utterly miserable. She comes home crying every night, she is having trouble sleeping and eating and getting her to school every day has become a trauma for all involved. Apparently she is part of an experiment that the Principal is conducting. He has taken four students from each of his two Kindergarten classes, two boys and two girls, and placed them in the other class for first grade. All four of the kids are struggling because they don’t know the other kids in the class and are not being accepted and included by their peers. When dad went to explain this to the principal and ask for her to be placed back in her old class he was given short shrift, told nothing would change and given no rationale for the decision to boot!
The sad part about this is that it is such a recurring theme in education. New initiatives are often dreamt up and put into place by district administration, by principals, by teachers and all, I’m sure, with great intent. The tricky part however seems being able to figure out when an idea isn’t working. More often than not the success of a new educational initiative is measured numerically through assessment data. Brooke will be tested in the next few weeks in her Canadian classroom and I’m sure the data will show that she is not progressing, not learning and it’s not difficult to figure out why-she isn’t happy!  Children can only be open to learning when they feel safe and secure and happy in the learning environment. Do we need data to figure that out or to determine next steps, or could the issue be resolved through open and honest dialogue between the student, parent, teacher and principal?
Teaching Engage, a class specifically designed to help kids acquire key 21st century skills, I constantly see students struggling with listening and flexibility. Being able to listen attentively to others ideas, ask questions, offer ideas, and encourage others input, then carefully and respectfully consider all ideas, seek to synthesize, and compromise are apparently skills that many adults have problems with too. New initiatives are a necessary part of education as we constantly hone and improve the service we provide but all stakeholders need to start actively listening to each other and remembering the true purpose of education.
I was recently asked what the purpose of education is and I had a surprisingly hard time formulating a response. I eventually came up with this:
The purpose of education is to light a fire in students, to help them develop a love of learning and learn strategies to become lifelong learners. Education should serve to open students’ eyes to the world around them. They should learn to not merely observe, but to think about what they see and wonder about how they can make a positive impact. They should leave the education system with a clear sense of their own significance, their own potential to make a positive contribution as global citizens and a thorough knowledge and understanding of the tools that will enable them to successfully make that contribution: creative thinking, productivity, digital literacy, communication skills, integrity, responsibility, reliability, and accountability.
But I’m beginning to think it really is much simpler than that. The purpose of education is to help and children learn and grow and this isn’t going to happen if a child is unhappy, teachers can’t create safe and happy classrooms if they don’t feel heard and respected, principals can’t create innovative environments if they are not encouraged to take risks and school districts will not be able to attain the assessment success they seek unless administration carefully and respectfully consider all ideas, or seek to synthesize and compromise when needed.
Maybe we should look to successful corporate models for inspiration. Check out this Blog post by Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, a dynamic and thriving group of diverse companies: Have fun, do good, success will come. Aside from the title, which I think would be a wonderful mantra for the world of education to adopt, the most striking thing about this post for me is how Branson is actively engaged in listening. His success speaks for itself and I’m sure it is in no small part because of his ability to listen, his ability to recognize failure and his ability to adapt and move forward. Maybe I’ll send Branson’s Blog post to Brooke’s principal in Canada.