The Work in the Work

 

“I really believe in this, but (as always seems to be the case) I can’t quite figure out how to do it with the kids I have this year. Sigh.”

“I thought I’d planned for everything but I didn’t realize that…”

“I know this should work.  Why doesn’t it work? If I could just make this work everything would go so much better”

“It seemed to work well for everyone except A and G, so I guess I need to go back to the drawing board to figure out what to do differently.”

There you have it- a summary of the accumulated writings of my graduate students over the last 15 years.  The theme? “I tried X and it didn’t work quite right (or for everyone). I failed and need to do better next time.  If only I could figure out X, I could finally get to the work of teaching.”

If only I could figure out X, I could finally get to the work of teaching.

It seems to me that this is so the reality of teaching. Always and everywhere- ideals and reality clash and struggle together and that’s the work- fitting and re-fitting over and over. If I could give my students (and teachers everyone) one gift, it would be an understanding that this struggle isn’t the thing that gets in the way of our work, it is our work.

I think we sometimes believe that we’re not doing the “teaching” thing right when it’s

messy and awkward, but the business of education is, by its nature, messy and awkward because: human beings.  The messy and awkward IS teaching- the attempt to match up our highest ideals and aspirations with the gritty reality of nurturing young, developing human beings.  If we were surgeons, we’d expect mess and unpredictability and a never-ending sense of “what’s the next problem?” but for some reason teachers think we’re supposed to able to anticipate everything, plan for it, and prevent it from going sideways from time to time.- all while maintaining a cool, organized, professional façade.

Personally,  I think that would be bad practice- even if we could do it which of course we can’t.  It would take all of the messy-awkward-learning out of it- for the students and for us. The “whoops- that didn’t work- now what” factor isn’t a sign of dysfunction, it’s evidence that you’re authentically IN the work. If we’re really doing it, we’re grappling with ideas and problems and the messy reality of human development.  And what better what to model for our students what it is to be fully present, real, learning human being that for them to see us grappling, figuring out, “learning out loud” as it were.

That’s the nature of teaching.

So the next time you’re feeling frustrated because you can’t get to the content you want to cover or you can’t figure out how to solve the problem in front of you, please, please, please be gentle with yourself.  It’s not about trying and trying and trying until you get it right. You are getting it right, so long as you’re staying in it with all the authentic presence you have in you.

Let’s Library!

I have kids.  Real, live students.  In my library.  The last time I had students, well, let’s just say that the internet was brand new and leave it at that.

I started easy- just the 5/6 first thing and the 3/4 at the end of the day (the k-3 kids have a guest reader).  Figuring that the 5/6 kids are already experts in how to make the library a safe, fun place where everyone can learn, I asked them to write our rules before they went to pick out books.

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Not bad, if I do say so myself…

Learning to Library: Day 2

So it’s my second day (and second week) as the library media specialist at Wells Memorial School in Harrisville, NH

This is important because 1) I have a lot to do and 2) I have a really, whole lot to do.  Like, a lot.  It’s also important because it’s been a long time since I had a class of my own and, let’s be honest, my street cred is a bit weak at this point.  So…I have a lot to do.

One of my favorite things about working at Antioch is our faculty. They’re largely still in the classroom full or part time and those who aren’t, well, they were in the classroom. Recently.  Really, really recently.  So now it’s my turn to brush the dust of my pedagogy. So far I’m feeling hopeful largely because of the cheers (yes, really- CHEERS) that greeted me in the 1/2 room when the teacher introduced me and announced that the library would reopen after the holiday.  They actually, really, truly CHEERED about that.

So first thing first- I need to order some books.  Our collection is great but it could be so much more great, if you know what I mean. Today I’m going to be looking at our graphic novels and our award winners- we need to have more of them in here.   I have an awesome volunteer coming in to help with Mount Shelvmore, so we’ll make a bit of progress on that.  So…wish me luck.  I get kids the first Tuesday after break, so I have exactly 2 days (weeks?). And I’m meeting the 3rd and 4th graders at 10:30.

Wish me luck. Did I mention I have a LOT to do today?

Trading Places

It’s been 15 years since I had a classroom of my own.  I’ve taught all manner of graduate students since then, face to face and online, but they’ve all been grownups (at least legally). I’ve been in hundreds of k-12 classrooms, working with teachers at all levels and subjects in all kinds of settings, but my own space, with my own kiddos? Nope.  Not in awhile.

Today that changes.  Well, sort of.  Today I’m starting a new role (while also keeping my old role) as a brand-spanking-new Library Media Specialist in a local (very rural, very small) elementary school.  I’ll only be there one day a week (though I realize it’s going to take more time than that) but I’m totally and completely jazzed and excited.  I’m switching sides- instead of being the coach helping a teacher figure out how to do new stuff, I’m going to be the teacher looking for help.  I’ll be pursuing my Alternative cert (which is something I usually help other people do), so I’ll get to see what that feels like from the other side. Right now I’m back in “how do I do a PO” and “What’s my login for the computer?” land for the first time in a decade and a half.

This is both terrifying and freaking AWESOME.

I’ll keep you posted.  Right now I have to go figure out what all of this stuff means.

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Brains, man…

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“Well, I’ll tell you…they seem to be pretty determined to blame their students for being teenagers.  It’s sort of hard to teach ’em when you’re mad all the time, you know?”

That was the short report from one of my school coaches recently. Being as how I seem to spend a lot of time these days reminding people (parents, teachers, MYSELF) that teenagers are just not adults, no matter how much we WANT them to be adults….well…I’ll give you the tl:dr upfront:

“The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it,” says Frances E. Jensen, Harvard professor of neurology.

Teenage brains, for the most part, aren’t able to do what adult brains can.  At least not consistently.  They’re learning how to be adults, but they aren’t there yet.  When they were babies we didn’t get mad at them for falling down while learning to walk or when they made a mess while learning to use a spoon. We didn’t go all Zero Tolerance- Suspension- Incarceration on the three year olds who threw tantrums.  It’s easier to remember that humans develop on their own timelines when they’re young and cute (and easily controlled physically).  We just keep giving them chances to practice, picking them up when they fall, wiping their faces and cleaning up the mess until they get the hang of whatever we’re trying to teach them.

Teens aren’t as cute.  They scare us a little. Plus they LOOK like adults so it’s easy to forget…

But they aren’t adults.  Don’t for a minute assume that just because they got it right once, they’ll get it right consistently- because they won’t.  They can’t.

Need proof?  Here you go:

I’m a big fan of Sarah Jane Blakemore’s work

Or

Need something a little more academic?

So it’s pretty clear- they aren’t doing these things just to make you mad.  So Stop Being Mad at Them.  It’s not helping you and it’s not helping them. You may have to teach it (and “it” could be anything from the Pythagorean theorem to Turn In Your Homework Every. Single. Time to Put Your Phone Away I’m Talking to You) 10,000 times before they get it.  Just like their parents had to help them stand up again roughly 10,000 times and don’t even get me started on the success/not yet ratio related to potty training.

This growing up thing is a process, not an event. No fair getting unreasonably crabby when they fall short. And if you’re crabby more than 50% of the time, you’re being unreasonable- and you’re making your own job harder.

Anyone who’s ever been yelled at or discounted can tell you- it’s stressful.  And stress isn’t good for brains.  Need proof of that? Here or Here or Here

Tired of clicking? Here:

 “when the youngsters heard the criticism, they had a negative emotional reaction (see: eye roll and exasperated sigh) as well a lack of ability to process what was being said (see: “Wah-wa, wah-wa, wah-wa). But a surprising find was that, while hearing their mother’s criticism, the adolescents were not able to understand where their mother was coming from.”

Yup. Your crabby is actually counterproductive. They aren’t hearing anything you’re saying.

Need a something to do instead? Edutopia has some great ideas fresh out of the oven this morning, or how about a little Unconditional Positive Regard?

Get the point? Good.  Now take a deep breath and go out there and grow some brains.

A Servant’s Heart

You know how you have favorite words and phrases? Go-to language that just sort of rolls off the tongue in different situations? Sometimes slang, sometimes jargon, sometimes just words you like because they’re fun to say? (I’m a big fan of “plethora” and “veritable,” personally.)

One of my professional favorites (along with “edubabble”) is “the students and families we serve.” I use it a lot in describing goals, aspirations, the mission and values of my program and my department.  I never really thought much about it until a potential client school pointed it out as an unusual turn of phrase.  (Really? It’s unusual? I don’t think so but whatever- that’s beside the point) He noted that, while it’s certainly a concept that he and his faculty would agree with, it wouldn’t be a phrase that would come to mind for them right off the bat. It was the word “serve” that drew him up short- he didn’t think of their work as service so much as…educate, teach, inspire, etc.

In my undergraduate program (Go Mizzou!), I was fortunate enough to have an educational philosophy course that pushed me to identify my own stance as an educator.  What did I ascribe to, not in terms of traditional educational philosophy, but as a human being about to walk into a career filled with teenagers?  We had some great conversations and I settled on the idea of a Servant’s Heart. It was something I’d explored in my summer work with the American Youth Foundation, it had been a part of my own religious upbringing, and it was something my grandmother had talked about during my summer visits to the family farm. The idea that my role was that of servant- humble, willing, cheerful, kind, supportive- fit well with who I wanted to be in my professional life.

Now, 20+ years later, I can say that I’ve done a lousy job about half the time.  It’s not easy, that particular stance, but it’s something I continue to aspire to.  Particularly as I seem to see more and more schools arranged for the convenience and goals of adults (policy makers, administrators, bus companies, testing services, etc) and fewer and fewer in service to the kids and families who walk through the doors everyday.  As we get more frustrated with those above us in the educational food chain, we let our anger roll downhill. We blame teachers for not being inspirational enough, we blame parents for not doing a better job of instilling values and work habits and reading skills, we blame kids of not being the kinds of students we think we were, for lacking “grit” or “aspirations” or whatever.   There’s a whole lot of anger, a whole lot of blame…not a lot of service.

Here’s an idea: the next time you’re tempted to go down that road, when you feel the anger building and you want to scream in frustration, take a deep breath and turn to the person “downhill” from you- the person most likely to bear the brunt of your frustration at that moment, and ask one simple question:

“How can I help you?”  

Just that.  Not “how can you help me?” or “how can you fix this for me?” but “How can I help you?”  Sincerely. With curiosity and not judgement. With sympathy and a recognition that, as Mother Teresa told us “We belong to each other.”

Let me know what happens- I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

For all my GET TO THE CONTENT! No Time T

For all my GET TO THE CONTENT! No Time To Waste! Colleagues “Week One Is Just Week One” #ThereWillBeTime http://ow.ly/RokLy