Thursday, February 23, 2012

Are We Being Asked to Accomplish the Impossible?

Education reform, what it should look like, and whose fault it is that it's so necessary ( I think most of us agree that it's necessary) is a hotbutton issue for educators, politicians, and average citizens alike.  I've posted in the past about what I think education reform should look like -- to some extent -- and I surely will again, likely in the not-too-distant future.

As for whose fault it is that education needs reforming, consider the words of Clayton M. Christensen in his book Disrupting Class :

"Schools in the United States have in fact constantly improved.  Society just keeps moving the goalposts on schools by changing the definition of quality and asking schools to take on new jobs."

When I picked up this book to read, I was primarily interested in Christensen's take on how technology would, could, and does disrupt the educational process -- hopefully in positive ways.  When I got to the above quote (the idea of which is revisited throughout the book) I felt like I had been hit between the eyes with the obvious.  Christensen backs up his statement with a historical perspective of education in the US.  He points out the four jobs the American education system has been asked to do (each added on to the next, never swapped out) since it's inception:

1.  Preserve/inculcate democracy
2.  Provide something for every student
3.  Keep the US competitive
4.  Eliminate poverty

When stated as baldly as that, it's no wonder the existing system seems to some to be an abject failure.  From this perspective, education has clearly been successful at jobs 1 and 2.  Success at job 3 might be open to debate, depending on the criteria used to define "competitive".  Job 4, the newest responsibility" of the American education system has thus far eluded our grasp, and therefore it needs to be reformed, and someone needs to be held accountable...for not working the miracles being asked of educators.  To again quote Christensen:

"Asking the public schools to negotiate these disruptions from within their mainstream organizations is tantamount to giving them a demonstrably impossible task.  And yet, they've done remarkably well."

Most of us know (and often lament) that as educators we also must, at least in part, be parent, counselor, soup kitchen, Santa Claus, and hero to our students.  Pressure from all sides often makes us feel as though we are failing.

So here is my challenge to you:

Reread those quotes from Christensen.  Acknowledge to yourself honestly how successful you are at educating your students given escalating expectations and often diminishing resources.  Pat yourself on the back before you pull up those tights, tie on that cape, and try to teach your students to fly.

Let me know how it goes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tweet Your Bucket Full

I just finished reading an inspirational book by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton called How Full is your Bucket. The book is a summary (written for the layperson) of Clifton's lifetime body of work studying the impact of positive and negative interactions with our friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers. They say that positive interactions "fill our buckets".

I think most of us realize the impact of a sincere compliment -- I know it can lighten my step throughout the day.  Sometimes I'll even pull out the memory of it later, and wrap myself in it like a cozy blanket.  I also, unfortunately, have had my share of negative interactions whose memories sneak up and undermine my confidence at inopportune moments.

Rath and Clifton recommend actively "filling other people's buckets" -- giving sincere compliments and personally acknowledging those with whom you interact in a positive way -- as a way of filling your own bucket.  I have found that growing my PLN with Twitter is an almost constant stream into my bucket, as well as providing endless opportunities to do some bucket-filling.

Consider the thoughtful retweet.  (I use the word thoughtful, because random retweets are meaningless). When you retweet another professional, you are effectively letting all of your followers know that you think that idea is worthwhile enough to share.  You have filled that Tweeter's bucket.

Consider the uptweet.  When you read a blog post that impresses you in some way, and you uptweet it to your followers, you again are making a statement that what this person wrote, among all the posts you may have read that day, is worth your followers' valuable time to read themselves.  You have filled that bloggers bucket.

Consider the side conversations that can sometimes develop from a Twitter chat.  The majority of those I've had have grown from a mutual sharing of ideas.  Sometimes they are shared values, sometimes the ideas are at odds.  In either case, the willingness to engage in professional dialogue shows that you value the other's ideas enough to take the time for a conversation.

The professional Twitter community of educators that I have been a part of for almost a year has rarely yielded negative interactions.  On the contrary, the connections I have made energize me as a professional, and as a human being.

So here's my challenge to you:

Pay closer attention to your retweets and uptweets.  Acknowledge to yourself that you are filling the author's bucket.  Pay attention to when you are retweeted or uptweeted, because your bucket deserves to be filled to.

Let me know how it goes!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Leadership Means Recognizing Those Who Make You Look Good

"Behind every woman scorned is a man who made her that way." -- Miranda Lambert

I am an avid music listener, and I do love country music.  I heard that song (Baggage Claim) over the weekend, and I had to chuckle.  It rattled around in my brain, and started to ring a bit true in a broader sense -- morale being on a clear downswing these days.

I would put forth the following:

Behind every disillusioned professional with low morale is a leader who did not recognize his or her contribution.

I previously posted about the power of gratitude.  Unfortunately, the inverse is equally powerful.  Not being recognized for professional accomplishments by the people who "matter" can take its toll over time.  I am a true believer in Angela Maiers and the philosophy of "You Matter", but in the current climate where teachers are often portrayed as less than professionals in the media and arenas outside of education, recognition from within becomes doubly important to continue to inspire teachers to go the "extra mile".  It's hard to keep going when your emotional tank is on empty.

Any undertaking that involves more than one person to accomplish, deserves to be followed by the positive recognition of all who helped make it possible.  Any leader who comes out smelling like a rose, owes that heavenly fragrance, at least in part, to any number of people, and a good leader spreads the accolades -- "pays it backward" for lack of a better phrase.

My challenge to you:

As an educational leader, look around at the people who help make you look good.  Actively recognize that not one of us can do it alone.

Let me know how it goes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Madeline Hunter 2012

Madeline Hunter is one of those names in education that I recall studying back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was studying to be a teacher.  Yes, I confessed to being only 40 in my last post, but when I think back to typing some of my papers on a typewriter, it seems we're in a completely different world now. 

I landed in teaching in sort of a backward way.  My undergrad degrees were in French and music, and I did not take any education courses until grad school.  I completed my Master's program in fifteen calendar months -- including studetn teaching.  To be honest, all the names and which names matched which theories were all a blur -- especially as I tried to simply survive student teaching.

I recently picked up a copy of Hunter's Mastery Teaching.  It is designed to accompany a video series, but read it anyway.  I would, in fact, encourage any veteran teacher to revisit "the classics" through the lens of a seasoned teacher -- I think Hunter would agree.

So here's a quote from Madeline Hunter's Mastery Teaching: is important for teachers to identify consciously and deliberately the decisions needing to be made in each category and base their decisions on research-validated knowledge.  Equally important is teachers' ability to "read" signals from students and to assess the learning situation so necessary adjustments will be made.

From my perspective as a veteran (but still growing) teacher, I offer this:

Plan your lessons thoughtfully, but be ready to seize those "teachable moments".  Be prepared to be flexible.  Listen to  your students so you can better meet your learning needs.  Be data-informed, but not data-driven -- in other words, don't box yourself in based on last year's results from assessments taken by last year's students.  Date from last week may even be overridden by a sudden breakthough in learning, or an unexpected tragedy affecting students in your class.

If your teaching employs only science, you're a technologist.  If your "art" does not have a scientific foundation, you're simply a promising amateur.  You need both art and science to be a mastery teacher.

--Madeline Hunter, Mastery Teaching

So my challenge to you is to go read something by Madeline Hunter.  Think about it in relation to your teaching and your students.

Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Power of Networking, and Serendipity

Let me start by saying that last week I turned 40. The "Big Four Oh".  Over the Hill (as my teenage daughters like to say).  But if 40 is the new 20, let me get to 50 in a hurry, because I would NEVER want to go back to 20....or 30 for that matter.  It is certainly true that in many ways, age is just a number, HOWEVER, along with all our visible badges of honor (read:  crows feet and frown lines) comes experience that can't be bought, downloaded, or absorbed through the skin.  No, experience is a product of living life, and being willing to FAIL (First Attempt In Learning)...repeatedly.

I attended a professional development conference this morning sponsored by LECNY -- Language Educators of Central New York.  LECNY is the local chapter of our state organization NYSAFLT (New York State Association of Foreign Language Teachers).  The format was something they called "Quick Takes" -- eleven 15-minute presentations on a variety of topics relevant to foreign language teachers.

The first presenter was Rose DiGennaro -- one of my former student teachers.  I thought I might burst when she credited me with teaching her some of what she was sharing with what have become OUR colleagues.  That was a first for me, and it sure felt good.  It's amazing the pride and satisfaction that comes from seeing first hand that you have had a part -- however small -- in helping someone to grow into an accomplished professional.

I also had the pleasure of meeting one of my "Tweeps" face to face. I've often envied other of my Tweeps who have had the opportunity to meet members of their digital PLN at in-person conferences, but this was my first such opportunity.  It was definitely as cool as I imagined.  Audrey Misiano and I realized a few months ago that we taught in districts not too far apart.  She almost had an opportunity to observe one of the teams in my school, but it didn't work out.  She was another presenter at this morning's conference, and she rocked!  It was her first experience as a presenter, and she had mentioned beforehand that she was very nervous.  I was far from alone in offering her words of encouragement.  It was a magic moment when she stopped feeling like a presenter, and slipped back into her role as teacher.  She was a natural, and it was wonderful to hear her share with our local colleagues some of the ideas and sentiments that I recognized from some of the Twitter chats in which I've participated with Audrey.

The highlight of my day, however, was related to a former student of mine, Alyshia Wilcox.  We've kept in touch since she graduated from high school, and now she is one test shy of being a New York state certified French teacher.  There are few greater honors for a teacher than to have a student follow in your footsteps and become a teacher in your content area.  She contacted me last week to let me know she had completed her Master's Degree, and was moving back to the area.  I invited her to the conference, and she was able to attend.  She has her first interview for a teaching position on Wednesday, and was looking for some tips.

I left the conference feeling truly like I had made a difference, however small, in the professional lives of three people.  What a great feeling, and too often out of our reach as teachers who can often feel isolated and underappreciated.

But the best was yet to come.

I was shopping with my turning-13-tomorrow daughter, and ran into a former guidance counselor from my school who I hadn't seen in about a decade.  Talk about kismet, she is currently working in personnel in the district where Alyshia is interviewing on Wednesday.  All I can say is, WOW.

So, the moral of the story, is to wear your "Badges of Honor" proudly, enjoy the wisdom that your life's experiences have granted you, and never underestimate the power of networking...and serendipity.

My challenge to you:  (Did you think I forgot?)

Get yourself out there and actively try to make a difference in another aspiring educator's professional life:

  • take on a student teacher
  • mentor a new teacher
  • Retweet one of those "welcome (insert newbie's name here) to Twitter" messages
Share your experience, and good things will come back to you.

Let me know how it goes!