take this job and shove it?: a tired teacher reflects on when enough is enough 

I don’t know how to write this post.

Partially because on some level I feel like it’s already been written, but the act of putting words and phrases to secret utterances will make them reality lived instead of fear assumed.

Partially because it’s been said before by countless other teachers…ex-teachers.

Partially because this is not anybody’s fault who might be reading this. I have worked in 3 buildings that serve at-risk students, and in each of those places are stories of meaningful and authentic work that makes a difference.

But, I must write it. For me. To breath.

For the first time in my career as a teacher, I don’t honestly know if I can keep doing it. I have spent a decade loving students into learning, but I just feel so… Exhausted. Overworked. Underwhelmed. Ineffective. Discouraged. Heartless. Mistreated. Disrespected. Confused.

Being a teacher has been my everything. It is my ministry. It is my purpose. It is my salvation. It is my joy. It is why I get out of bed in the morning and what I relish as I lay down at night. During every interview for my three teaching jobs, the question was always asked: “Why do you want to be a teacher?” And my response was always the same: “It’s not a want, it’s WHO I am. That’s like asking why do you want to breath?”

But now I find myself choking on the very air that used to sustain me.

I find myself breathless from never being enough. Just today, with some squirrely kids in my advisory, I was waiting for respectful attention. They keep talking, as if I’m not even there. As if this is not even class. Finally one says: “Miss what are you waiting for?” I reply, “Respectful attention.” One of the ringleaders mumbles, “Respect must be earned.” And I broke. I just couldn’t take it anymore. So, all the conferencing I’ve done with you…that’s not respect? All the phone calls home to your parent for positive contacts…that’s not respect? All the food I’ve brought you, that’s not respect? Taking your whole class to spend the period playing basketball, that’s not respect? Asking about how you’re doing, that’s not respect? Lending you one million supplies so you could decorate lockers, that’s not respect? Well…then I guess I better accept disrespect, because I have. nothing. else. to. give.

I am breathless from the frantic data collection. Oh, my method of measuring student progress isn’t enough? Right, I see, let me make 26 spreadsheets, input data, and then make a table of contents just to be able to manage all those spreadsheets. Never mind that all this data collection reduces the time I’m able to do what it’s designed for: respond to it. Can I work on this other data and plan some lessons on it? Oh, sorry, right, no I can’t, because I have to jump through this hoop, for you, for them, for the system. When can I just be a teacher instead of a walking calculator?

I am breathless from the impossible standards. For the past two years, I have had the honor of being labeled as “distinguished.” I worked my ass of for it. But you know what? I had to work a LOT harder in my general ed class than my AP classes. And now, I can’t get a distinguished score to save my life. It’s ironic that the day an email comes out with me being highlighted in a video district-wide for my implementation of a teaching criteria is also the same day that I realize that I’m not being scored so much for what I do as what my students do. But you know what? I can’t control them. And in a new building with students who are not quick to give their trust away, well, I guess there goes my ratings. Does that seem fair? I am the same teacher. It is me. But my scores depend so much on them rather than me. And why do I even care? Is that what teaching is about? I don’t know anymore. How do I know I’m good when my students curse at me in frustration and the system curses me with frustration? Somewhere along the line in leaving no child behind, we’ve left the dignity of teachers out to dry.

I am breathless from the expanding–or shifting–duties of teaching. In college, I learned how to plan and grade, how to teach the art of communication, how to select books and write questions, how to modify for students with special needs, how to use standards. You know what’s missing? HOW TO FREAKING MOTIVATE A STUDENT AND CHANGE THEIR MINDSET. And that is all I spend my job doing anymore. I don’t teach English. I don’t teach academics. I spend 80% of my time managing behavior, attending to social and emotional needs, and figuring out what lever will actually spark a student’s intrinsic motive. I am not doing the work of a teacher. I am doing the work of a cognitive therapist or a motivation scientist. And I don’t have the training. I don’t have the time. I have 150 students. In urban ed as teachers of at-risk students, we always say we are their parents, their teachers, their therapists, their nurses, their lunch ladies, their disciplinarians, their cheerleaders, their coaches, their tutors. Just typing that sentence exhausts. And living it for the last 10 years has me completely drained.

And what is breaking my heart the most right now, what is suffocating me is the crushing-stone-weight of this question: what good is our system doing for at-risk, urban students? We have sacrificed high expectations on the altar of culturally-responsive education. We have buried beneath their specialized needs the conviction that they can–and will–do great things. We have held their hand until they are bruised. We have carried them on our shoulders until their legs have atrophied. We have handicapped them with scaffolds and differentiation and sentence starters and remastery exercises and outlines and modifications and second and third and fourth chances and misdirected restorative justice conversations and soft behavior systems and resources and… And then, they go to their jobs, and they are late, and instead of getting a pass, they get fired. They go to college, and instead of self-advocacy, they wait in vain for a deliver that has always been there. They go to their families, and instead of someone walking them through a hard conversation, they shut down and quit. They go to vote, and instead of having their voice count, they don’t follow directions and their ballot is struck down. Tragically, in an effort to empower students, we have torn them down to helpless, codependent, thoughtless birds who wait for some momma bird somewhere to drop a warm worm in their mouth. I can’t do it anymore. I won’t do it. Enabling is a band-aid for cancer. And my students, our students, your students, their students… students… deserve better.

I am left, empty and winded, after this post. Maybe I’m having a bad day, a bad month, a bad semester. Maybe it will all get better next semester. Maybe it’s just displaced attempts to grieve as my therapist thinks. Maybe I’m a baby and need to suck it up. Maybe in April I’ll be writing more posts like this or this or this. Maybe.

But until then, let me catch my breath.

 

Advertisements

welcome home to b261

The first day is everything.

My students spent their summer inundated with news reports about senseless, merciless and unjust killings of people who look just like them. They are afraid.

My students spent their summer working multiple jobs just to keep food on their families’ tables. They are hungry and tired.

My students spent their summer wondering which of their teachers from May would still be there in August. They are insecure.

My students spent their summer listening to a white man’s rhetoric about how they don’t belong in this country, how they’ll be shipped back to a place that is no longer home to them, only to have their vision of this country’s promise cut off by a wall. They are worried.

My students spent their summer surrounded by terror attacks of extremists who (reportedly) worship the same god they do. They are disheartened.

So, yes, the first day is everything.

When they walk into my classroom–into our classroom–they don’t just need a safe place. They don’t just need a restorative place. They don’t just need a grounded place. They don’t just need a comfortable place. They don’t just need a welcoming place.

They need a home where they belong.

  • Home is where the door is open and inviting. It is important that the minute students see our classroom, they know it is for them. I do this with welcoming signs and clear communication.img_8376
  • Home is a place that is tidy and organized. I bought a carpet to ensure the auditory and aesthetic quality of my room was on point. I have bins for students to store their stuff. All of the previous day’s handouts have a place to be with clear labeling. I have minimal decorations as this will arise collaboratively with students’ contributions and academic anchor charts throughout the year.
  • Home is a place where resources abound. My first year student teaching, my mentor had the students bring community supplies for extra credit. I have copied this every year since. We have bad days or forgetful days; when that happens, my students always have what they need in the classroom to be successful–partly because they provide those resources for each other. IMG_8421
  • Home is a place where students are known. I do not want students’ first day to be going over a syllabus.

    Rather, I give a survey the first day so that I can gather important information about who my kiddos are…in school and as a human. While they are taking the survey, I walk around and introduce myself to each of them individually with a handshake. Such a first day procedure ensures that the priceless first impression that our time together will not be about rules, but about them.

  • Home is a place where I as the teacher am known. This was my first year at my current school, so the reputation that in the past had always done so much prework for me was void. So, I brought my reputation to them…alongside my heart. Students walked into the classroom to find this letter.
  • Home is a place where students see themselves. Our first activity as a class was to watch and discuss this video about “what’s your WHY?” I shared with students that there will be times this year where it will be hard and discouraging, and that’s exactly why they need to know why they’re showing up and persevering. Some of their whys (more still to come from students throughout the year) now are on display at the front of the room as a visual reminder to them that this is not about a grade, but about a heart matter.
  • Home is a place where students honor connection. The day after I introduced the why concept, we had circle. In this time, with the passing of a talking piece, students shared who or what their why is and told a story about their why. It was tender and special and bonding. It was a beautiful way to establish the kind of feel we will have in our classroom.img_8387

Just as the circle, I end where I started. The first day is everything. For I know that for there to be great learning in my class, there must be great risk.

And everyone feels more comfortable risking when they feel at home.


For more of my thoughts on how to establish a sense of home where students belong in the classroom, check out:

 

 

 

 

 

a classroom Thanksgiving

In the 1940’s, Maslow said it:

full bellies + safe bodies + happy hearts + thriving self = engaged learning

This week it popped up on my feed:

respect given + respect received = engaged learning

And Friday, it blossomed in my classroom:

family potluck + words of gratitude = engaged learning

Actually, I don’t know yet, for sure, with quantitative numbers and qualitative studies, if my Friday activity will result in engaged learning. But I just don’t care.

Because it meant so much more.

IMG_6792

These words are the sentiments from the students after our Thanksgiving celebration as a classroom family. We began by writing notes of gratitude to each other. Each student had a poster, and as we sat family-style, we passed them around and wrote words of encouragement, thankfulness, and praise–light–to each other.

As usual, at first there was confusion and chaos, as is the case with any newly initiated task in any high school, anywhere. But then it got quieter and quieter, more focused and more heavy as the students felt the weight of giving this joy. There were traffic jams as some students wrote more, meanwhile side chit-chats and songs and obnoxious complaining and sessions of giggles popped up elsewhere.

You know–family bonding.

Then we feasted. Homemade donuts and posole and cake and arroz and enchiladas and perogies…yep, my students know how to do it right.

IMG_6790

And while we feasted, we gave thanks. We whipped around the circle (rectangle, really) and shared, through many tentative tears and much hearty laughter, what we are thankful for this holiday season.

I’m grateful for my parents.

I’m alone at home; but when I come here I’m not.

You make me smile…and that’s pretty important.

I don’t have a family at home, and you have shown me I have one here.

Yep, it got me “in the feels” too (as my kiddos say). It was a good day in the classroom.

It was a good day as a human.

 

what I learned about facilitating while being a student

Recently I had the opportunity of attending the Advanced Placement Summer Institute just outside Seattle. 3 and 1/2 long days of non-stop seat time sure provides clarity on what and what not to do as a facilitator of learning–whether it be snotty little toddler students to scary big adult students.

  • The facilitator’s preparation sets the tone for the entire learning experience. If frazzled, students will be rushed. If disorganized, students will be disengaged. If insecure, students will be rambunctious. If unintentional, students will be misguided. Some surefire ways to set a focused tone: a quality-crafted agenda with clear outcomes that are reviewed consistently; strict reining in of tangents; a quick but clear pace.
  • Everyone doesn’t just need norms, they want norms…even if they are putting off that “I’m too cool for norms” vibe. In a room of competent and experienced Language Arts teachers, one would think we could move forward in a timely and purposeful manner that honors all parties in the room. But, even with grown adults, “honor” needs to be defined and normed at the beginning of every single birth of a new group dynamic.  Such norming prevents behaviors like this (which are not malicious but nonetheless annoying): computer Christie (names are alliterative but not authentic) in the corner who does everything online to avoid actually giving the time of day to the human adults beside her and the facilitator in front of her; galloping groupies who are too consumed finishing their preparation for their presentation to be respectful and attentive to the current group actually presenting; cocky Christopher who is dead set on the canon and consistently insists we are dying a slow death from cultural–read dead white guys–illiteracy…even when we’re talking about multiple choice strategies; tardy Tiffany who just can’t seem to make it on time; demanding Daniel who consistently usurps the (non-existent) agenda with his own directions. Yada yada…if you have ever been a part of a learning dynamic, you can name a hundred of your own pet peeves that, with just a little norming, could be alleviated.
  • It is the facilitator’s job to manage equitable access to processing and participation strategies. I am a verbal processor. I like to talk aloud through all parts of learning: introduction, competence, mastery. In all reality, not just do I like to talk aloud, I must. When there are opportunities embedded throughout instruction for me to turn and talk (gag at the dropping of a buzz word), I do learn more broadly, more deeply, and more permanently. I need that from a facilitator. Just as much as the non-verbal processor next to me needs some think time, in quiet, in peace, without the banter of dominating voices, well, dominating everyone’s thoughts. Speaking of that dominating voice, I’d like to get a word in edge-wise. But without a facilitator who is attentive to the pre-established norms, as well as the shared weight of participation across all members, the loud flies just keep buzzing while the quiet flies sit patiently–or not so patiently–on their shit. And that just stinks.
  • The best facilitators maximize space, place, and pace. Yes I am a “mature” adult learner. But no thank you, I do not want to sit in an uncomfortable plastic chair for several hours in the row looking at the same blank wall next to the same colleagues. Let’s put up some anchor charts that remind us this is our space. Let’s move the chairs around to reengage our numb glutes. Let’s take a brain break every hour to reinvigorate our minds. Let’s try something different than the traditional and easy sit and get. Variety is the spice of life, and the preservative of learning.

Of course at this training, I learned so much about how to be a better Advanced Placement English Lit teacher. But I also inadvertently learned a plethora of lessons on how to be an effective facilitator.

Let’s hope the learners I lead would never write a blog like this!

from saddle to school: what riding reveals about teaching

I have had the soul-joy lately of reconnecting with my heart’s deepest passion: horses. For as long as I could remember, the mere glimpse of a horse brought my soul to its knees…a kind of divine whisper. Thanks to a God-placed friend, I have been partially leasing a tall and regal Saddlebred named Bruno. After I spend some time brushing the matted dirt out of his pinto coat, I lead him into the arena for some lunging and riding. For the first few times, I also received some training on how to best communicate with him; his owner, Nicole, would give me feedback as to how I was using my voice, my legs, my hands, and my seat. Every time I feel his nose at the end of the lunge line or his muscular back beneath me, or hear Nicole’s suggestions, I cannot help but think of teaching since the echoes resonate loudly between riding horses and teaching students. Here are those echoes.

  • Build the relationship. 

With Bruno, there was much time in the beginning of our riding dedicated to getting to know one another. How does he respond to the bit? How will I move in my seat? How will he tell me he’s confused? How will I ask for more, or less? What are the cues that work? What’s his favorite treat? How much do I like horse-snuggles? These questions and their answers are the foundation to how our time together will go. There can be no riding without relationship.

And so it goes with students. The foundation of my classroom must be asking and answering questions that build relationship. What are the students’ learning styles? What is my teaching approach? How will they tell me they’re confused? How will I ask for more, or less? What are the cues that work? There can be no learning without relationship.

  • Always know where you’re going.

With Bruno, what is in my head guides my body, and what guides my body guides the horse. It is subtle and nuanced. If I am planning on going left, I will think left. My hips and shoulders will shift. As will his feet and nose. If I am planning on cantering, I will think speed. My seat will change and my grip on the reins will shorten. And his feet will fly. However, if I am not thinking about where I’m going next, or if I’m not thinking, or if I’m thinking about something else, Bruno will walk right out of the arena towards the hay supply. There can be no riding without mindfulness and intention.

And so it goes with students. What is in my head guides my presence, and my presence guides the learning trajectory. It is subtle and nuanced. If I am planning on rigorous writing tasks that prepare my students for college, I will craft high-level prompts and writing instruction to support that. And the students will rise to meet that challenge. If I am planning on critical and analytical thinking, I will create a classroom filled with questions with no answers, or many answers. And the students will open their minds into greater cognitive capacities. However, if I am not thinking about the end goal, or if I’m not thinking, or if I’m thinking about something else, the students’ minds will walk right out towards the hay of distraction: side conversations, defiance, mere compliance, and/or average work. There can be no learning without a teacher’s mindfulness and intention.

  • Cue with the least amount of force.

I have learned with Bruno to ask with the least amount of force as possible. First voice. Then seat. Then legs. Then reins. Then crop. If I rely heavily on the reins, he will eventually ignore the reins (not to mention the seat and my voice). The more aggressive I am, the less sensitive he becomes. This goes back to the relationship. If he knows my voice, and he knows my seat, he is more likely to respond to those cues consistently–and willingly. Of course, this gentle cuing would not be possible were it not for the hours and hours of training Nicole has given Bruno: teaching him what she wanted, how to meet those expectations, and what the cues are for those intended outcomes.

And so it goes with students. Students must be given opportunities to respond with the least amount of “force” as possible. In the classroom, I cannot rely more on consequences than clear expectations and strong relationship. The more aggressive I am, the less sensitive the students become. The more I say “no,” the less weight that “no” carries. In the classroom, I cannot spend more time correcting a student on their misbehavior than I do training them on correct behavior. I need to invest time early on and consistently throughout the year explicitly teaching students what I want, how to meet those expectations, and what my cues are to remind them of those desired outcomes.

  • The horse’s choices are in direct correlation to my choices.

Bruno wants to please me. He wants to do his best. He wants to shine. Often, when he is not, it is not because of anything he is doing wrong, but rather because of my poor communication. The direction he turns, the speed he goes, the way he holds his head ultimately is not about him…it is about me and how I am riding.

And so it goes with students. Students want to please their teachers. They want to do their best. They want to shine. And when they are not, it reflects on what I’m doing as a teacher…or not doing. How students engage, or disengage, with the learning is correlated to how I craft the teaching.

As I sit in the saddle, I am overwhelmed by the responsibilities riding on my shoulders (pun intended). But, ultimately, I am also overwhelmed by the joy the relationship with him brings me. There is no greater feeling than being in sync with a glorious horse beneath me.

And so it goes with students. As I stand in my classroom, I am overwhelmed by the responsibilities riding on my shoulders. But, ultimately, I am also overwhelmed by the joy the relationships with students brings me. There is no greater feeling that being in sync with glorious students learning because of me.

creating a student-led classroom

During this past school year, I have focused on creating a student-led classroom. This focus grows out of my own ideologies as a teacher, the evaluation system of my district, as well as the professional development our school has been receiving.

Picture1

One of my goals as a teacher has always been to transfer the locus of control from me to my students. I find myself aligning with a constructivist model in my classroom, where the students are in charge of their own learning and I act as a facilitator. In this system, my students are as much the teacher as I am. This is critical for the population that I teach: a student body that is used to be underestimated and overlooked. By organizing my classroom into a place where they take leadership, the routines and community of our classroom operate from an asset-based lens–a lens that builds them up and elicits their strengths as opposed to magnifying their weaknesses.

Naturally, because students feel believed in and entrusted, they rise to the occasion. They take ownership of their learning, of their writing, of their discussions, of their reading. Thus, a student-led classroom breeds students who are more engaged. On any given day, I have at least 95% engagement in my classroom. And not compliance-engagement, where students do what they’re supposed to do passively to avoid consequences, but active, energetic, purposeful engagement.

But a student-led classroom is not just about what I believe…it is about preparing my students for college. A student-led classroom inherently creates a soil where solid and healthy trees of rigor can grow, and students climb these trees into the sky of their future. By transferring more of the responsibility to students, they are forced to be meta-cognitive…one of the highest skills in terms of rigorous thinking. They also must become self-advocates. Both meta-cognition and self-advocacy are essential skills for college learning, and so a student-led classroom eases the difficulties of transitioning to college.

Lastly, I have focused on creating a student-led classroom this year because it aligns with our district evaluation as well as our school PD. To be distinguished in a majority of our evaluation system’s categories, the ownership lies in the hands of the students…not the teachers. The students are evaluating each other, building the objectives, applying their learning, checking each other for understanding, teaching each other, keeping each other in check, etc. And being the perfectionist I am, I want those distinguished ratings! And so I must not only push myself, but my students to be the best “teacher” possible.

This has not only been something on my mind, but on the mind of my colleagues as well. One of our PD approaches this year has been learning labs, where we visit a host teacher’s classroom and debrief together. In each of those, our focus questions have revolved around building student capacity:

How can I vary teacher CFUs according to content target to foster student self-checks for understandings?

How can I build higher level (according to Bloom’s Taxonomy) questions from students that elicit thoughtful upper level responses from peers and between peers?

By focusing on these questions, we read, planned, and reflected on how to increase rigor of questioning by transferring leadership to students–a critical component of a student-led classroom. When I hosted the learning lab, I worked with a colleague who suggested adding a peer evaluation component to my planned lesson. I did, and the level of thinking and evaluation it elicited from students was inspiring! (See this website for the lesson plan and graphic organizer I used to implement this peer evaluation.)

The many reasons I want to create a student-led classroom matter very little if I cannot actually implement it on the ground. Here are the strategies I have used to transfer leadership to my students:

  • Asking quality questions and teaching my students to do that. As my boss said, this is “making the question do the work.” I used AVID strategies to teach my students the language and process of quality questioning. That became a foundation for my questioning, as well as their own.
  • Student-led discussions. I modeled effective discussion leader practices. I pointed them out. Then I handed that role over to my students. Here are resources for this. Part of this piece is 100% participation…no one can hide in my class. In fact, it’s often a part of grades for students to call out their quiet and hidden peers.
  • Student evaluations of each other. We wrote papers. I then showed AP scores on those same prompts. They used this to score each other’s papers and give feedback. I was no longer the grader…they became responsible for that evaluation piece.
  • Student feedback to each other. I expected students to give feedback to other students during discussion, such as correcting verbs, upgrading vocabulary, adding details, asking probing questions. See resource for how I taught them to probe each other to increase depth.
  • Socratic seminars. Stay tuned for a 3 part blog series regarding how I make these work for my students! For right now however, I cannot say enough about how this practice transfers ownership to students!
  • Structures. A student-led classroom has an innumerable amount of structures, routines, and procedures that are hidden, but essential. They are the foundations! For example, students must have rubrics and models to give quality feedback to each other.
  • Teacher language. The way I talk to my students, about my students, from day one, establishes whether or not I will be able to transfer leadership to students. Therefore, I am a broken record: “Listen to your colleagues.” “We honor all voices in here.” “Talk to each other, not me.” “There are 24 teachers in this room…I am only one of them.” Language like this converts students from passive unbelievers to active owners of their own leadership qualities.

Did it work this year? Yes. Did it work perfectly? No. It is a work in progress. But these are some moments that I am proud of and that highlight the student-led classroom I’ve created and its many benefits:

  • I hosted a PD for my colleagues on how to facilitate Socratic seminars.
  • I scored 7’s–distinguished–in several LEAP categories.
  • On my student perception survey: 97% of students said “my teacher encourages me to share my ideas” and 100% agreed that “my teacher makes sure we treat each other with respect.”
  • Feedback from when I hosted the learning lab: “a classroom where the students both ask and answer the questions”; “students conversation at table did not follow a protocol but all students participated”; “students shared leadership roles”

Of course, there’s more to do. Next year, here is what I want to do to strengthen the level of student leadership and ownership in my room:

  • Supports. I have built up quite a repertoire of student supports and scaffolds, but I need to do a better job of introducing them earlier and pulling them away as the year progresses. The goal is for the student to not only not need those, but to feel confident without them. I know in college they will not have those, and I will be heart-broken if I handicap students so that they are less prepared for the rigor, intensity, and individualism of college.
  • Sequencing. To meet the aforementioned growth area, I need to re-sequence my texts. Right now, they progress to the most complex and difficult, but I think I need to rearrange that so I send them off to college and the AP exam feeling confident and prepared. This goes back to the structure piece I mentioned earlier. I cannot create a student-led classroom unless I have organized the content in such a way that fosters that.
  • Early embedding of clear structures. Every year I feel I waste so much time getting to know the students and figuring out systems that will best support them. I need to do this earlier and earlier each year, so that I can immediately start expecting them to take leadership in our classroom. This directly correlates to one of the challenges of a student-led classroom: how much time it takes. It’s much easier for me to just tell students something, and it’s quicker. But to establish the structures, then let students struggle until mastery, is much more time-intensive. I know it is worth it, but it calls on me to be on my game much earlier in the year so as to minimize these transitions.

I want to conclude with a symbolic representation of two different classrooms:

This is a teacher-centered classroom, in which the teacher is the hub. All the spokes represent the students. In this classroom, all information originates and returns to the teacher, while the spokes are independent of one another.

This is a teacher-centered classroom, in which the teacher is the hub. All the spokes represent the students. In this classroom, all information originates and returns to the teacher, while the students are independent of one another.


Here is a classroom that is messy, but still contained. The boundaries are the teacher as facilitator. The dots are the students all participating, all leading, all owning.

Here is a classroom that is messy, but still contained. The boundaries are the teacher as facilitator. The dots are the students all participating, all leading, all owning.

I do not want a classroom where I am the center. I want a classroom that is led by students, owned by students… but mostly loved by students.

the puzzle of a positive learning environment: 10 pieces (glue included)

The adage goes something like this:

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to play with that concept a bit:

Ask me a question once and I don’t have an answer–shame on you. Ask me the same question twice and I still don’t have an answer–shame on me.

Part of our district’s teacher evaluation system is how we build the learning environment for our students. I am grateful that I tend to score effective to distinguished in these categories. Once I was asked the question by my observer: how do you do it? If you’ve followed my blog at all, you know how much I care for my students; they’re like my own kids they are my kids and I strive to make my classroom feel like home. This is the why, but not the how, and honestly the reflection hasn’t gone much deeper than that; after all, teachers in our society–me included–very rarely focus on what we do well. For one, I don’t want to be considered as arrogant, or a braggart. Two, we are bombarded with messages that we are not good enough–both intrinsically and extrinsically. But just recently, another observer asked me the same question: how do you do it? After some digesting of the repeated question, I realized there is power in deconstructing how I do it, in naming the pieces–yes for others, but also for me.

So how do I put together a positive learning environment? Here are my puzzle pieces…

  1. Take your job seriously, but not yourself. The job of a teacher matters. It is a weighty responsibility to empower students with the tools to create a better future for themselves. And every day I approach my work in deference to that gravity. I plan intentionally, attending to the expectations of external standards while attuning to the needs of my students. I grade rigorously, ensuring that my AP classroom in the hood could give any privileged AP class a run for its [abundance of] money. I teach vigorously, always focused on a target with both explicit and implicit learning goals. I treat time like it’s a precious commodity in the classroom–and it is, because for so many of my students who are behind, I’m trying to teach them senior curriculum while simultaneously catching them up. I remain grounded in the present of my students’ abilities, all the while looking ahead and creating conditions that prepare them for college. However…all this does not mean I am a stoic. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I am just as passionate about humor as I am humanities. So I sing, rap, dance, burp, cry, cuss, dance, hug, joke, and laugh the deep belly echoes of bliss with my students. I make fun of myself. I intentionally use comic relief like the Old Bard himself… albeit not with that much finesse. Much of this self-deprecation lies in the art of code-switching-a skill my students also have to master. Sometimes I speak street, sometimes I speak in lyrics, sometimes I speak Spanish, and sometimes I speak academia…but always I speak with purpose.
  2. Expect nothing less than the best from students. For all my eight years in education, I have worked with underprivileged, at-risk youth. But really, I have worked with the underdogs of society. All an underdog needs is someone to believe in him/her–even when that’s missing intrinsically. And I do believe in every single one of my students. I believe in them so much I will not let poverty, emerging bilingual skills, or systematic oppression lower my standards for them. I. will. not. All their lives they have been told that they are behind and can’t do what other students can. I will not send that message. My students will read and write and listen and speak at collegiate levels. They will behave like responsible contributors in a community of learners. They will turn in work that makes their brains hurt. They will risk and fail. And I will stalk them until they try again, so they feel the victory of a hard-fought success. In the words of one of my former students: “Every time I walked into your classroom, I knew I was going to be productive because you wouldn’t let me do otherwise.”
  3. Be humble. I apologize to my students about once a week, at least. Sometimes I bomb a lesson. Sometimes I forget to make copies. Sometimes I mess up a grade. Sometimes I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m low in energy. Sometimes I’m unprepared. Sometimes I make hurtful assumptions. But always, I apologize. I do not project an image of perfection to my students. I reflect on how I’m trying to grow as an educator, the mistakes I make and how I’m trying to fix them, and the challenges I’m fighting. In this, I become a part of our community, instead of the one above it.
  4. Teach people, not stereotypes or statistics. From day one in my classroom, I get to know my students as human beings. I give them a survey about who they are. I ask for their music preferences. I tell them about myself. Then, I follow up with them–how’d the game go? how’s your aunt? are you feeling better? I recognize that my students are a series of stories, and to be written into that story, I need to know the plot and the characters and the setting. Though I expect nothing less than the best from my students, I also need to know what is their worst, and why it is happening. Ultimately this comes down to one key skill: questioning. I do not make assumptions (because when I do, I get in trouble). Instead, I question students about the why so that together we can work through the how.
  5. Teach stories (and skills) that matter to people in way that attracts people. Because I teach people, I teach stories that matter. In The Book Thief, we see that friendship allows us to endure any suffering; in The Bluest Eye, we see that our choices have lasting impact on others; in The Things They Carry, we see that stories are salvation. And that’s just semester one! We spend so much time in collaborative discussion because how people present themselves at interviews matters. We spend so much time revising our writing because the people who can articulate themselves are more likely to get what they want. We spend so much time analyzing, because people who know that all messages ultimately try to manipulate them have power. This does not mean I ignore standardized testing and expectations; it means that as the teacher, it is my job to interpret and convey those in a way that matters to people, and not just to the data gods. Part of that responsibility is the call to make learning fun, innovative, exciting, and interesting. In the words of a one of my former students: “Mrs D’s class wasn’t a class. It was the time of day where my mind was challenged and stretched into new ways of thinking.”
  6. Explain the why. Sometimes it’d be nice, and easier, and less time-intensive to just say “because I told you so.” But I, as a human being and learner, always want to know the why behind what I’m doing in meetings or in PD or in life. And so I approach my students with the same dignity. I work hard to explain our tasks in terms of skills needed for the world. I plan assignments and assessments that never constitute busy work, because my students deserve better. 
  7. Read the field and respond accordingly. Some days, when the majority of my students do not do their homework, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes a teachable moment about time organization. Some days, when the mood in my classroom seems off, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes a teachable moment about stress management. Some days, when I can’t get my kiddos to shut up and engage with the work, I stop what we’re doing and have them reflect. Perhaps it becomes at teachable moment about values and responsibility. You see the pattern. I pay attention to my students, I ask them to be meta-cognitive, and then we find solutions. In addition to sending the message that their hearts and souls matter just as much as their brains, I hope these reflective skills transfer to their lives beyond the classroom.
  8. Build in social-emotional learning. I teach the standards because they matter. I teach stories because they matter. I teach meta-cognition because it matters. But I also teach social-emotional skills because they matter..the most. A classroom without a sense of community does not allow for deep and meaningful learning–especially for emerging bilinguals (Google “affective filter”). Social-emotional learning is the solid and hidden foundation upon which classroom management is laid, from which stories and stories of learning rise gloriously into the sky. The first weeks of our class are spent on community building. It is essential that we all know each others’ names, feel safe to take risks, as well as feel responsibility to hold each other accountable. We do circles about issues in their lives. We tell our stories. We do cheesy community builders. We make commitments. In the words of a former student: “Your personality and way of coping with us and our weird generation created such a great environment that I always enjoyed walking into your classroom, mentally prepared to learn.”
  9. Ensure all voices contribute, and all voices matter. It is essential in my class for ALL students to share. And it is essential for all students’ voices to be honored. To create this, I often do not give my own opinions during discussions. I also often do not respond to students’ comments. This creates a place where I am not the center of the conversation, but another voice in it. This also empowers students to find their voice and use their voice–in my classroom, but most importantly in the world. In the words of a former student: “No voice was left unheard and we always had safe environment to be ourselves.”
  10. Synchronicity. The stars have aligned so that I could teach. I feel blessed that God has made me with a unique skill set so that I could be a teacher. I view my job as a ministry of care and empowerment. When I go to work, I feel a divine synchronicity. I know this might not be the case for all teachers…and so I come back to the idea of “loving what you do and doing what you love.” Such an internal motivation for teaching is obvious to students…especially those who have seen teachers come and go. When they  know I want to be there, it’s more likely they’ll want to be there.
by Rabia

by Rabia

The final piece is more than a piece; it is the glue that holds everything together: love. I love my students. I treat them as my own. I speak to them from a place of love; I teach them from a place of love; I laugh with them from a place of love; I listen to them from a place of love; I build our learning environment from a place of love. And when I mess up, which I do, I am grateful that “love covers a multitude of sins.”


 

For all my teacher-blogging friends, I’d love for you to blog about your own puzzle pieces for creating a positive learning environment. Link to mine, and send me your link so I can include yours!

Life in the Dport

Expats Abroad

A Tree On Fire With Love

But it's still scary sometimes because most people think love only looks like one thing, instead of the whole world

Curiosity Travels

"Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity."

Young Adventuress

The Solo Female Travel Blog

Young Adventuress

The Solo Female Travel Blog

teaching With "Ang-sigh-eh-tea"

The life of a teacher who struggles with anxiety and depression.

Sampa Sympatico

A Yankee Teacher's Experience of Sao Paulo, Brazil

LINDSAY JILL

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

Once Upon a Time in México

Living my dream of teaching, traveling, and discovering culture

Teach. Travel. Taste.

A peek into the life of an American teacher in Colombia

2seetheglobe

Adventures in Globetrotting

Meditating Millennial

A Millennial's Journey Into Meditation and Mindfulness

Nomad Notions

Tales of Expat Living, Teaching, and Tramping in Taiwan and Beyond.

Sojourners' Journal

“Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people." —Albert Einstein

Middle East by Midwest

Observations and Experiences of Bahrain

Ex(pat) and the City

The life of a twenty-something Canadian living & teaching in Korea.

International Schools Review

ISR Blogs are open to site members and visitors alike. Your Voice Counts.

Teaching - Traveling - Learning

The Life of An International Teacher

LOVE.LIVE.LIFE.ABROAD

THE ADVENTURES OF A NOMADIC TEACHER

pedagogyofthereformed

Teaching in Brooklyn in Spite of Everything

Actively Dying

by Peter Fall Ranger

Practicing Presence

An attempt at mindfulness in life, learning, and love

chanyado

Chanyado. Shade. Respite from the sun. A place under the tree to rest my head, and wiggle my toes out in the sun.

The Educationista

Life. Lessons. Inspiration.

Words Half Heard

writing into meaning.

gadflyonthewallblog

"To sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth."

Greatfull

A snapshot of my journey to living each day with gratitude and striving to be full of greatness

Imperfect Happiness

Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. ~ Mary Oliver

tspelczech

"I'm too old to live my life in fear of dumb people." - Charlie Skinner, The Newsroom

Perfectly Pleased

I take the little moments of life and write about them. Always with Love.

Cultivate Clarity

creative writing and mindfulness-based coaching, workshops, and retreats

Crawling Out of the Classroom

In everything that my students and I do together, we strive to find ways to use reading and writing to make the world outside of our classroom a better place for all of us to be

ADVENTURES ON THE YOGA MAT

writing into meaning.

AFFECTIVE LIVING

Teaching. Learning. Living.

Mostly True Stories of K. Renae P.

My Adventures in Teaching and Learning

candidkay

Taking the journey, bumps and all

jenny's lark

the beauty of an ordinary life

Nonlinear Compilations

Parenting, teaching, writing, and learning to find beauty in the present

Education Thunk

Thoughts and musings on education as it is, was and will be.

talk from chalk

What I've learned while teaching

Thoughtful teaching

Thoughts on teaching in the modern world.

Hope, Honor, and Happiness

A blog for the book “Kingdom of the Sun” and discussions on finding the Hope, Honor, and Happiness in education, life, and the seemingly impossible.