Pencil Fairy Project

We are so fortunate in that we often have the opportunity to partner with teachers in learning, problem solving, and improving practices.  Inevitably, across various contexts and grade levels and locales, teachers report frustration with students for not having pencils.

Pencils.

We kept hearing it.  We’d ask questions like, “What frustrates you so much about the pencil issue?” and the responses were varied.  Some said it was an indicator of showing up unprepared, a lack of respect for them or their class, a lack of responsibility.  But, for us, it always felt like a resource issue.  Teachers should have all the pencils they need to engage their learners in all the ways.

Pencils.

When we are confronted with beliefs about what kids “should” do or have, we are always mindful of all the ways we – as adults and professionals – drop the ball.  We are often without a writing utensil when we need it most, yet there is always someone nearby willing to share.  We know these teachers would give us a pencil if we asked!  They would never tell us we were disrespectful for not having one or take it as a lack of our preparedness for our time together.  It happens.  People forget pencils.  And all kinds of other things!  But, for some reason, kids not having pencils was a very frustrating and pervasive problem for teachers.

Pencils.

The more we talked about it, the more it seemed like it was not really about pencils at all.  It was about resources.  Supplies, yes, but also time!  We have seen teachers tag their pencils with identifying markers and create check in/check out systems for pencils, some schools have pencil machines next to the soda machines!

So, we thought maybe this is a small way we could alleviate a huge frustration for teachers.  We could get pencils to teachers and kids.  Lots of pencils.  Loads of pencils.  Enough pencils that no one has to man a sign in/sign out for pencils or sweat a broken pencil, or worry about trying to find one on the floor to avoid being in trouble.  What if we could just get pencils to teachers?  Would that one teeny tiny thing do anything at all to take a teeny tiny load off teachers’ overwhelming list?

We crowdsourced pencils from our friends and families generosity using social media and Amazon wishlists.  We connect directly with teachers using teachingisintellectual’s Instagram and send as many pencils as we can to each teachers’ request.  We take pencils to every professional development we get to do now because it is one small thing we can do for our teacher partners.

Pencils.

We’ve distributed over 20,000 pencils now and we hope it’s just the beginning.  We advocate for fully funded public education and will continue to fight that fight.  Meanwhile, we will contribute as many pencils as we can to as many teachers who need them.

Drop some pencils off at a school near you today.  Do it again next month.  Kids need pencils and it is something you can do.  And pay off an overdrawn lunch account while you’re there too.

Reacting VS Responding

Yell and sit…sit and yell, get a little louder, be a little firmer…they’ll eventually listen-right?

Wrong.

I walked into a room recently where an educator was sitting on a bench demanding that the kids stop! She kept saying “I said stop, stop!…(a little louder) Stop it NOW!…(even louder) I said STOP STOP STOP!” Her face was turning bright red and she was clearly frustrated. Teaching isn’t easy, we all get frustrated, patience is hard, so, so hard. We are all human. We all have emotions. But, I want to encourage you think about this question: how does yelling help?

Children are in tune with adults more than we like to admit. They read our body language, notice our facial expressions, and feel our emotions, sometimes as if they are their own. Children’s frontal lobes are still developing, this is the part of the brain that helps us control our emotions. It’s our job to help nourish that development, help it grow. That’s what we do as teachers-right?

Just as you might spend extra time with students working on letter sounds or multiplication facts, we MUST spend time developing social-emotional skills. With this, it’s also important to constantly remind ourselves that their brains are growing (yes even in the teenage years). We also must remember that students need varying levels of support recognizing, managing, and expressing emotions. (I know, this is a lot, you already have so many other things you must teach and fit into your day, that curriculum map is just haunting you at night!) However, research shows that learning can’t happen without self-regulation, trust, feelings of safety –from both peers and adults—all of which are part of social-emotional development. So how can we do this?

It starts with modeling.

The teacher I described above was trying to get her students to lower their voices. They didn’t hear her, they were engaged in a game, and instead of complying to her demands, they just matched her volume and continued the activity. She was frustrated and angry. I get it.

But to be honest, I don’t know that they even knew she was talking to them, or understood what it was that she wanted them to “STOP!”  Instead, they matched or modeled her tone, her yelling.

Wait. Sometimes kids only respond to yelling…right?

Wrong. It might seem like it to us, as adults. Perhaps, because once our faces have reached a certain level of red or we’ve stomped and made enough noise we get their attention, or scared them, they comply?

Let’s be honest though. Yelling isn’t fun for anyone, including the yeller. Besides the obvious—sore throat, exhaustion, anger— it also causes an increased amount of adrenaline and stress hormones for ALL parties involved. When is the last time you screamed at your students and said— alright good, that felt great, time to get back to learning those multiplication facts?

I want to challenge you to consider the difference between a reaction and a response.

The dictionary definition of reaction is: an action performed or a feeling experienced in response to a situation or event.

But wait, the word response is in that definition, so what’s the difference? To make things even more confusing…

The dictionary definition of the word response is: a reaction to something.

Despite the concise dictionary definitions, there is a difference and it matters!

ReACTion has the word ACT in it. When we react to something it’s typically a more immediate action that comes from an event or situation that occurred. When reacting we often don’t take time to think or process the situation, instead we jump into flight or fright mode and act.

For example, a child just knocks over the entire tub of papers (after you have asked them to stop running in the room multiple times). You’re frustrated, you yell, you demand they pick it up, or lose recess for not listening, you REACT.

Next, let’s look at RESPONSE. If you just look at the dictionary definition you could argue that the above example is a response as well. I won’t disregard this point, but I want to encourage you to think about a response with a different mindset.

Response = thoughtful and intentional action.

Where you take a quick moment, that deep breath, you try to remind yourself that your student is still learning. You are the teacher.  You find empathy. Remember, mistakes are okay, they help us all learn.

So that child knocks over that paper and instead of yelling, you take a deep breath, quietly walk over to the child, make a plan for how to pick it up, help them re-focus, teach them how to self-regulate, model that response. With calm. With words. You respond with understanding and through a teaching lens, not with anger. Not with yelling.

I know this is hard. You won’t be perfect. We all slip, we are all human and sometimes even our own emotions get the best of us in front of students.  But every moment that you can remind yourself to RESPOND instead of react is another moment that you are modeling self-regulation, communication, and helping your students develop the social-emotional skills that are key to successful learning.

What strategies do you use to self-regulate when you feel yourself reacting emotionally?  Stay tuned for some suggested strategies and more on teachingisintellectual.com

Teacher Education Faculty and First Year Support

I think often about students I have worked with who are in their early years of their teaching career. I remember my early days in the classroom, feeling prepared and ready for the year, but eerily aware that there were many unknowns: student strengths and instructional needs, district and school policies, and the curriculum to plan, write, and prepare. There was no formal induction support, but I thrived with several informal mentors. I also knew other teachers who weren’t feeling successful and supported. As a result, they  often left teaching after their first few years. I served as an induction year mentor after my first two years of teaching. It was important to me to help other teachers succeed in their early years in the classroom. In addition to mentorship, research on effective teacher induction support programs suggests there are many ways we can support new teachers, including: workshops and seminars tailored to new teachers, targeted professional development, reduced workload, and common planning time (Ingersoll & Strong, 2011).

Flash forward to the present… I am now an assistant professor. I am well versed on the evidence about creating effective teachers and interested in retaining effective teachers, especially in the first years. Those early years, and my role as an induction year mentor and model reading teacher, have remained an important motivator in the work I do today teaching foundational education coursework in the areas of special education, inclusion, reading, and learning disabilities.

I don’t believe the task of induction support should be shouldered only by school districts. I think teacher preparation programs should have a role in supporting their graduates. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (2010), and other researchers, have suggested teacher preparation programs and school districts both need to be involved and connected to ensure continuity and coherence (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Latham & Vogt, 2007; VanZandt Allen, 2013), just as faculty are part of the equation in other countries (Darling-Hammond, 2017).

Recent research suggests some teacher preparation programs are contributing to induction support and teacher knowledge in innovative ways. Examples of strategies include:

  • helping new teachers develop personal and professional identities (see Henderson, Noble, & Cross, 2013)
  • supporting graduates in the first five years in attending a Summer Curriculum Writing Institute (see VanZandt Allen, 2013)
  • facilitating book studies as professional development (see Dolan, 2017)

We should also make sure these approaches go beyond basic support and challenge our graduates to have academic and scholarly pursuits. It shouldn’t just be about the day to day support, but also continuing to build a foundation of ideas and resources that will carry an educator through their career. Do the deep dives in content and pedagogy. Complete action research. Stay in touch. Ask new teachers what they need. Teach them how to reflect.

No matter your role in education (teacher, administrator, university faculty), there are myriad ways you can contribute to the retention, mentoring, and continued preparation of teachers in their first few years.

If you are a new first or second year teacher (or new to a district) and your district offers induction support: please sign up. This is a chance to get advice, feedback on your teaching, a clearer understanding of policies and expectations, and improve your student outcomes (Ingersoll & Kralik, 2004; Strong, 2009). Expect that learning will continue.

If you are a teacher or administrator in a state or district that doesn’t provide induction support: please get involved and speak up. The New Teacher Center (2011) reviewed all state policies on teacher induction. Check out your state here: https://newteachercenter.org/policy/state-policy-reviews/

If you are faculty in a teacher preparation program: please review what your department is doing and your contribution/service in this area. Ask yourself, “Is there a way for me to provide service through supporting induction year teachers?”

As a faculty member, I am going to take the next step here for me: supporting a first-year teacher in action research and writing and reflecting on it through the year. She asked, I listened. By now you’ve probably already read the first blog in a new series by Bev Chatfield. Watch for more planned reflections in this 10 month blog series chronicling some of the intellectual work of a first-year teacher and how we are working through it with action research, reflection, and dialogue.

The first years are the most important in retaining teachers. How are you supporting first year teachers?How are you supporting teachers new to your school or district?

 

I’m Here To Learn

A little about me in the month before my first year begins

To be perfectly honest, I’m nervous about my first year of teaching. I’ve spent the summer
reviewing learning theory and teaching strategies, reading radical books about equity and power dynamics in the classroom, building an elaborate teacher emergency kit filled with everything from pepto to a tiny hair straightener, and trying to find the courage to refresh my memory of physics. Yes, physics – the subject that sends shivers down the spines of rising high school juniors and, for many others who have taken the course, flashbacks of nightly fifty-problem homeworks straight from the textbook.  Physics has a bad reputation of being isolating and difficult. As someone who struggled through physics courses in both high school and college, I know first hand how true that can be.

Early in my college career, I was determined to become a math teacher through the more common route of majoring in physics with a minor in education but I quickly became overwhelmed by the independent lecture/homework structure of learning in college level math classes. In hindsight, it seems like fate that I took my first education course during my second attempt at Calculus II; the more I suffered in math, the more I ached for a learning environment that used research-based strategies and theories to ensure the understanding of its students. I was introduced to the idea of learning communities, classroom structures that encourage students to learn collaboratively towards shared goals, and I constantly imagined how such communities could improve my
experience in math. I continued taking Calc II until I passed it on the fourth try, having changed my major to Philosophy and taken on a fifth year of private university to do so. By then, I was hell-bent on teaching math with learning theory in mind so I pursued a Master of Arts in Teaching.

I took a long, difficult, and less travelled road to becoming a teacher and I believe that I’m
personally the better for it. I’ve learned how to work hard and recover from failure, I’ve met a network of creative and intelligent people through talking about my own passions, and I’ve been given many exciting opportunities like this one by being willing to take risks with people I trust.

How I’m going to make my teaching intellectual my first year

My experiences in education and philosophy over the last six years have instilled in me a love of research and self-reflective learning. It seems that the natural progression of this would be to participate in some scholarly exploration in my first year of teaching. Similarly, it seems natural that I should continue to be mentored by a faculty member who guided me through academic and professional quandaries in the past. With Heather’s encouragement and knowledge of the process, I’ll be improving my teaching this year through action research.

I believe that the best way to become good at anything is to study it. I don’t want to just keep my head above water this year; conducting action research will allow me to hone my craft and provide my students with a thoughtful and intentional academic experience that considers their social, emotional, and academic needs through community-based learning. I’m still nervous but I know exactly where to channel that excited energy: becoming the best teacher I can be.

Now some things I want to know from you!

How are other first year teachers reflecting on their practice?
What are other first year teachers reflecting on? (parent communication, reading instruction, etc.)
Can action research help me be a better teacher?

Recess Is A Right

I posted a picture on our social media of a tweet from the 2006 MN Teacher of the Year Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens that read:  Advice to a new elementary school teacher:  never, every withhold recess from your students for any reason.  They need the activity and you need them to have the activity.  It shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege, but a part of your daily curriculum.

The post generated conversation which is awesome.  In this post, I hope to provide some context for recess as a right, not a privilege and some alternative strategies.

First, remember, behavior is communication and it always always always serves a purpose.  You can read a bit more about that here.  Once we determine the function of the behavior, we can find more appropriate ways to meet that function for/with the learner.  Okay, so let’s play this out with recess.

Basic scenario:  Learner is off task in class, out of seat, what have you.  Teacher subscribes to the “you waste my time, I’ll take your time” philosophy and responds with taking away 5-10-half-all of recess.

Behavior is communication.

  • What is the function of the off task behavior?  Is the learner avoiding the work?  Is the learner unsure what to do?  Is the learner “bored”?  Is the learner seeking attention from the teacher or from friends?
  • Are any of these functions met by reducing/eliminating recess?

Nope.

(Side question:  have you ever taken recess from a child one time and never ever again?  Does it every work to change the behavior, teach the behavior we want to see, or is it a punishment we invoke because we’re frustrated?)

Why do we offer time in the school day for free movement?  Is recess really “their” time?  What is the role of recess in teaching and learning?  Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control endorse recess with policy statements outlining the cognitive, social emotional, physical, and academic benefits of regular unstructured play time for elementary age learners.  The slow whittling down/removal of recess has never been rooted in the evidence of development, teaching and learning, or best practice.  It has always been about increasing instructional time.  But, recess actually HELPS learners attend to task, focus, learn.

Let’s look at it another way.

Think about a time you’ve been in a long faculty meeting, professional development day, webinar, or something similar.  Even if the content is engaging, you may find yourself getting restless.  You may get up to go to the bathroom, get a drink, stand by the wall for a bit.  You may stretch in your seat, check your phone, or pick at your nail polish.  You can do what you need to do in order to get your attention back to the topic at hand – you can take self regulated brain breaks because you’re an adult.  If your admin or PD provider told you that getting out of your chair to stretch your legs would mean you do not get the scheduled break time everyone else gets, you would probably have strong feelings about that.  Because we all need breaks – whether we’ve “earned” them or not.

Taking away recess is a power move, not a teaching move.  Reframing all of our actions and reactions through a teaching lens means recess is not a bonus or a reward, but a critical and non negotiable part of a learner’s work.

Now that we know taking away bits, pieces, all of recess does not support our end goal of teaching and learning, what can/should we do instead?

Tackle the function.  Meet the need in an appropriate way.

So, if it’s escape, build in break cards, mindful moments, a quick “errand” that incorporates a little movement.

If it’s attention getting, what is driving it?  Is it teacher attention or peer attention that’s desired?  Use proximity, room arrangement, teacher talk cards or, if you can, take just a moment, get on the child’s level, and ask them what they need.  That very well may be enough.

They’re communicating with you.  Let’s be listeners, teachers, learners about our learners.  Restricting their movement and limiting their freedom creates barriers in our relationships and does not teach the behavior we want to see.

Make recess a right, not a privilege.  What are some other learner rights you feel are non-negotiable?

 

Engagement: The Holy Grail of Teaching

Recently, a colleague asked me for recommendations of books about developing growth mindset.  He wanted to be able to recommend something to parents whose children are “apathetic toward school.”

Learners.  Apathetic.  Toward.  School.

Why may that be?

Okay, yes, I can collect some literature.  There are most certainly books.  (I always always always recommend Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? for starters).  AND, I always insist we consider the causes behind those apathetic behaviors rather than the behaviors themselves.  Treat the disease rather than the symptoms, amiright?

So why may learners present as apathetic toward school?

Here are four of my ideas – in no particular order – followed by some quick and easy ways to create interest for those apathetic learners.

  1. School (as in, the building and the people within it) is not welcoming, safe, inviting, accepting, or engaging.
  2. Nothing being taught is relevant in “the real world.”
  3. Anxiety and depression are real and are experienced by children in k-12 settings.
  4. What’s in it for the learner?  Can learners see any benefits from their participation in school?

I said no particular order but I do think #1 is a big one.  Maybe the biggest one.  Why should learners care about school?  Do schools care about learners?  I mean every single learner?  The difficult learner?  The apathetic learner?  The angry learner?  The defiant learner?  It is our job as educators to gain the cooperation of our learners and that often means we have to dig deep.  Forming relationships, human connections, is the critical component of gaining cooperation.  We cannot have successful teaching and learning spaces without meaningful relationships.

Ask that apathetic kid who s/he cares about at school?

Ask that apathetic kid who cares about him/her at school?

Does that apathetic kid feel safe at school?  Feel seen?  Feel valued?  Feel like s/he can contribute in a meaningful way?

Schools typically have one speed – busy!  There are a million things happening in every moment.  Kids, staff, administrators, volunteers, student teachers and practicum teachers, custodians, specialists, researchers, and more all moving within the walls of the school at any given time, quickly, late for the next thing, rushed, distracted, B U S Y.

Is it really so unbelievable that some learners may be overwhelmed, intimidated, exhausted, or shut down by that context?  By connecting with individual “apathetic” learners, we can determine what is causing their lack of engagement, their apathy, their distance and develop strategies to make school a learning environment that works.

#2 ahhh “the real world.”  Such a weird phrase.  What is the real world?  Where is it?  What about K-12 education is not the real world?  This term always strikes me as a flawed and there are just so many reasons why.

  • Loads of kids experience more “real world” before they get out of bed in the morning than I have in a lifetime.  Food and housing insecurity, poverty, and family issues are all “real world” experiences that kids navigate every day.
  • The idea that if we extend kindness to learners and reward the behaviors we want to see, we are not preparing them for the real world.  Right.  Because in the real world, I get paid to go to work . . . or I don’t go.  No one does anything for nothing in return.  Including you.  Including learners.  It’s “real world” and okay to reward hard work.
  • The real world includes loads of problems in need of solving.  Our K-12 learners can and should be tackling real world problems in need of solving too.

#3 Schools need help.  Teachers cannot meet the very real trauma and mental health needs learners bring with them to the classroom.  We need social workers on our teams.  We need counselors with actual resources to support learners, families, and teachers.  We need psychologists and psychiatrists with expertise in child trauma and early childhood/adolescent mental health.  We need resources.  Learners who disengage from school and disconnect from preferred people and activities need support.  What may look to some as apathy toward school may very well be a plea for help.

#4 School, in and of itself, is not super motivating.  Is it?  Teachers make all the difference in this regard.  The difference between a teacher a learner looks forward to seeing versus a teacher a learner dreads makes the difference in a learner’s day, year, future.  It takes ONE adult to see a kid, to really acknowledge their presence, their uniqueness, their humanity.  ONE adult can make all the difference in the life of a kid.  We have to be that ONE adult.  Not for every single learner, of course.  But if we all step up, we should be able to be collectively find ONE adult for every learner out there who is slipping through the cracks, ghosting through the school day, approaching learning with apathy.

What if we took responsibility for our apathetic learners?  What if we saw the onus of engagement in ourselves rather than in our learners?  What if we sought to understand the “why” of apathetic learners rather than just the “how” of their apathetic behaviors?

Talk to me.  What do you think?  How do you engage apathetic learners?

 

We Need To Talk About Families

Every family is doing the best they can with the reality they are in.

Full stop.

I’ll say it again.  Every family is doing the best they can with the reality they are in.  Period.

You may say, But, Jen, I have a family who **enter an atrocity adults enact upon children**.  That family does NOT care.  And I would respond that that family needs intervention, mental health support, positive parenting training, an influx of resources to build their skills as parents and humans.  But I would continue to assert that the family is doing the best they know how to do.  Our society does not rally around strong parenting skills, bonding, attachment, or positive parenting.  Families need our support and our judgement free listening.  Blame gets us nowhere.

On social media, I often see teachers posting blogs written by teachers pleaing “for parents to STOP their ‘bizarrely lenient attitude toward disciplining children'” (to quote one such blog that made the rounds most recently).  There are countless parent shaming and blaming memes and posts on Instagram that make my stomach flip flopped.  Blaming families is the stand up comedy equivalent of punching down.  It’s easy, sure, but it is not productive.  You’ll find lots of others willing to jump on board with you, but it only serves to create a common enemy.  One you cannot afford to have.  Families are not the enemy.

Teaching and learning is not us vs them.

Teaching and learning is not families vs teachers.

Teaching and learning is not teachers vs administrators.

It is the hardest work, the most challenging work – intellectually, emotionally, and physically.  And to bring all stakeholders – families, administrators, learners, communities – into our teaching and learning means finding strengths, seeking common ground, bridging gaps in understanding.

If you find yourself struggling with the families in your classroom, your school community, or more broadly, here are a few suggestions.  “They” won’t change but you can!  You are only in charge of yourself, your own actions and beliefs.

  1. Learn about yourself.  Invest in unpacking your biases and beliefs.  We ALL have them so get busy identifying them and understanding them, how they are serving you, and in what ways they are creating barriers in your work.  If you are white and female, do some work on race.  Read Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want To Talk About Race” and Shelly Tochluk’s “Witnessing Whiteness:  The Need to Talk About Race and How To Do It” for starters.  Then keep reading. And talking.  Get uncomfortable.
  2. Do home visits!  I cannot overemphasize this and I do not care how old your students are.  Meet outside of school.  Go to their homes if they’re willing to host you.  If they aren’t open to that (which is absolutely their right!) then meet at a park, a McDonald’s, or a community center.
  3. Call three families each week to tell them something positive about their child.  Every child.  Take note of attributes unique to each learner – post them in the classroom if you need the reminder!  Keep learner strengths in the center of your work!

Families are imperfect.  We won’t love each and every one but we must strengthen where we can, pour in where we can, build up where we can.  What strategies do you use to lift up hard to reach families?

 

We Need To Talk About Punishment

Recently, after working with teachers on shifting our approach from punishing to teaching, a teacher in attendance emailed me saying, “At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to “buy in to it.”But the more I thought about it, the more compelled I felt.”  Such a powerful statement and one I’ve thought about since.  Let’s talk this through.

Everything we do has consequences.  Every decision we make has consequences.

Punishment, however, is not a natural consequence of an action or decision.  Punishment is enacted upon us “as retribution for an offense” (Merriam-Webster).

Kids make mistakes.  They do things that don’t make sense, that we don’t understand, that we can’t explain.  There are consequences for those mistakes.  If you forget your lunch, you eat whatever the cafeteria gives you.  That is a natural consequence for forgetting your lunch.  A punishment for forgetting your lunch would be a teacher taking away recess or imposing detention on you in addition to the natural consequence of a fruit cup and carrot sticks for lunch.  Is that necessary?  Does it teach?

The thing we’re selling – that the above mentioned teacher was unsure about buying, was the belief that, as teachers, we must teach.  Teach the behaviors we want to see.  Teach them again.  Reteach.  Reinforce.

Punishment doesn’t teach.

I have a tendency to drive too fast.  Rarely, I get speeding tickets.  It stings for a bit.  I pay the fine (punishment) but it does not have a lasting effect on my behavior.  I still speed.  I just hope I don’t get caught.

Our learners approach our punishments similarly.  Okay, think of the last kid from whom you took five minutes of recess.  Was it a one-time consequence?  Did the behavior you were modifying disappear?  Probably not.  Generally, kids who miss minutes of recess, miss those minutes of recess frequently.  Which is all the evidence we need that the punishment is not changing the behavior.

Maybe we are not intending for it to change the behavior?  Maybe we just want to show the learner who is boss.

Either way, the single most important factor in any teaching/learning dyad is the relationship between the teacher and the learner.  Kids do not learn from people they do not like or people whom they perceive do not like them.  We must like kids!  (I know you’re rolling your eyes at me right now but this is a critical characteristic of strong, persistent educators!).  Tell kids the things they do that you like!  Ask them questions about themselves and listen to their answers!  Be intentional about this.  Make note of the learners you’re most likely to miss and plan your connections with those students.  Document your connections each day to make your patterns visible and give yourself some insight into where you may need to put more effort.  Not every learner comes to us naturally so make it a priority to identify those on the fringes.  Build your community from the outside in.

As the teacher, you get to decide your role in your classroom.  You can be the police officer, the warden, the guide, the zookeeper, or the facilitator.  You can catch kids making mistakes, breaking rules, being noncompliant or you can gain their cooperation through intentional relationship building, empathy, and understanding.

How do you build community in your classroom?  What challenges do you face in gaining the cooperation of your learners and how we can help you solve them?

Embracing Failure

I am a big fan of mistake making.  Well, not the making of the mistakes part so much but of the learning from mistakes, expecting mistakes, embracing mistakes.  What if we flip the narrative on failure and, since we know mistakes happen, we anticipate them and respond to them with enthusiasm?

Okay, stick with me here.  Enthusiasm may be a little . . . enthusiastic?

Looking back on a 20 year career in education, I see so many mistakes, of course, and some outright fails.  I’ll never ever forget the time I, with four other teachers, took 32 4-year-olds on a bus field trip.  Left the school, counted everyone multiple times, went to find my seat with my buddy, only to realize he was still sitting in the exact spot – AT THE SCHOOL – where I asked him to wait for me.  We turned the bus around, of course, and raced back to him (he was still waiting patiently) but I could not shake that off.  Even now it haunts me.

Some mistakes are bigger than others. Every last one is a learning opportunity.

I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by mentors and colleagues and friends who embrace my failures with me, who lift me up, who help me see the learning opportunities presented in my failures.  I’m currently in the midst of my biggest professional failure yet.  In that failure, though, so many opportunities have developed.  Opportunities for growth, for challenge, for learning, for teaching, for building resilience, for growing my network, for failing out loud so maybe others can do the same.  Failure also, of course, invites self doubt, shame, embarrassment, to name a few.  So, as I reflect on my own mistakes, missteps, shortcomings, and failures, I often consider how our interactions with learners shape their relationship with failure.  How did I learn how to fail and how am I teaching others about failure?

Well, it’s a delicate balance, right?

We want to embrace failure as a part of learning.  Einstein said, (according to the internet) “You never fail until you stop trying.”  We want to build resiliency in learners.  We want our learners to always be willing and ready to try try again.  We know perfectionism puts limitations on learners’ willingness to take chances, ask questions, seek creativity. However, we also don’t want to embrace mistakes to the point where we accept failure.  Failure has to sting a little in order for it to motivate us, right?

I teach and learn with college students.  Say what you will about this generation of young people but I will defend their work ethic, their creativity, and their dedication to my last breath.  I see a fear of failure in them, a fear of risk taking, a fear of creative problem solving, though. Not because, they want their hands held, but because the consequences of any mistake have been so so steep.  My coursework is ungraded, due dates are flexible, engagement and iterative feedback is essential.  Students find this terrifying.  They struggle to trust that I won’t come with a guillotine on the last day.  Mistake making and embracing failure requires trust.

Teaching and learning depends on trusting relationships.  Full stop.

How do you build learning communities with high expectations, meaningful and trusting relationships, and a willingness to fail out loud?

We must be someone students can trust to launch them from failures into learning.  In what ways do you fail out loud with your learners and help them do the same?

 

Course Evaluations as Thoughtful Feedback

It’s that time of the semester again.

Course evaluations.  True confession time:  I don’t actually read mine.  I am far too thin skinned for that.  I send them to a trusted friend who reads them, tells me the things I need to know to improve my teaching and the course, and we leave the rest unsaid.  I read them eventually.  But right at semester’s end, at peak exhaustion, still raw from the experiences the semester brought, is not the ideal time for me to absorb the feedback.

All it takes is one.  One student to say I “have strong opinions” or “sometimes get off topic” and I’m not thinking any more about what I can learn from that feedback but about how I failed a student or that their perception was that I wasted valuable course time.

See?  It’s best if I don’t read them right away.

I also talk to students about how to write course evaluations.  They are clearly and without any doubt a flawed mechanism for evaluating teaching.  Students are not pedagogical experts, the measures on most evaluations are not meaningful assessments of teaching and learning, and many instructors find ways to dismiss both positive and negative student reports.  However, that doesn’t mean we can not and should not attempt to get the most out of them.  The experiences of learners in our environments are important.  I would argue the experiences of learners may be the most important.  Meaningful learning cannot occur without meaningful relationships.  So the feedback matters.

Students tend to approach course evaluations in one of two ways.

  1. Dismiss them.  Who has time for that?  No one reads them anyway and nothing changes.
  2. Rip them.  Students have waited all semester for the chance to unleash their rage, contempt, dislike of their instructor.  Now is that time.

In response to the first approach, while course evaluations are not great, they do matter.  Depending on the university and the department and the instructor, they may matter in big ways or small ways.  However, if you do not complete them, they do not matter in any way.  Complete them.  Thoughtfully.

As for the second approach, this is the quickest, easiest way to ensure that your evaluation will not matter.  It will be immediately dismissed by the instructor and those evaluating the instructor because they will attribute your anger and frustration to you, and not to your instructor.  Your words and your experience cannot be heard if it’s presented emotionally rather than thoughtfully.

I teach people to be effective, inclusive educators.  Therefore, I must BE an effective, inclusive educator.  Part of effectively teaching is providing meaningful, thoughtful feedback to learners.  I aim to provide ongoing feedback to those learning with me and I ask them to do the same for me.  So when course evaluation time rolls around, we talk about how to provide constructive feedback to instructors.  I guide my students to consider two big ideas first.

  • In what ways did you invest in your own learning this semester and in what ways did you hinder your own learning this semester?
  • In what ways did I invest in your learning this semester and in what ways did I hinder your learning this semester?

Focus on the teaching and learning.  Take responsibility for your learning.  It’s okay for you to dislike my personality, my clothes, my tendency to talk about Netflix at the start of class.  Do those things hinder your learning?  If no, keep it to yourself.  Tell me how I can improve.  Tell me what I should keep doing and why it helped you learn.  Tell me how you would have benefited more from specific learning experiences so I can be better the next time.  Provide me with feedback as you would a learner in your class – tailored for my reflection and improvement.

Those are course evaluations I would read.

How do you approach course evaluations, both as a learner and as a teacher?