Walking into their classrooms, I had my assumptions. They were predicated on the ideals we’ve talked through, the passion I knew they have and the stories we’ve shared.
Walking into their classrooms, I had my expectations. They were predicated on their conviction for improvement, their commitment to their students and their openness for my visit.
This week, I had the good fortune to spend time in both Anne Doelman (@adoelman) and Dan Ballantyne’s (@ballantynedj) respective classrooms. I was given the rich opportunity to see them in action.
It’s a rare opportunity in teaching, to be a fly on the wall. Too often, the doors are closed, access limited. When I was given the chance, I headed to the classrooms of two teachers I have already learned much from and who I knew would give me more opportunity to be better.
In Anne’s classroom, the easiness of relationship was obvious. Students were comfortable in the environment. It was clearly an environment of trust and mutual respect. Anne has the benefit of a very large, open space, with “quiet” rooms attached. I witnessed an ability to outline intention without being dogmatic. That’s what Anne does best.
It highlighted for me, and gave me a kick in the pants to mimic, a commitment to a student’s understanding of purpose for each element of action. I thought I did it well enough, however, Anne demonstrated an even more explicit means of intentional communication.
She had a video camera rolling for even the smallest interaction, so that students could capture evidence of their speaking and listening skills. The idea of capturing heaps of evidence of their learning was paramount, but the piece I miss, is giving them the footage; allowing them to decide what makes the cut and what doesn’t.
While watching Dan, I saw the epitome of patience. I could see the intersection of his desire to embrace the ideals of the Futures Forum Project and the realities of working with a group of disaffected, disengaged students. And it was working. By being flexible and dynamic, by embracing a student-led suggestion, Dan showed how easy it was to give power to his students. It was neat to see students feed off of another student’s ownership of their learning.
I liked watching Dan be inclusive, while also not forcing inclusion. He reminded me to offer opportunities to participate, but not to mandate it. He allowed a student to passively participate. I hope I do that, but I’m not always sure. It was definitely a moment of insight for me.
Both classroom visits showed me the richness of my teacher network. It authenticated what they’ve talked about and it allowed me to see them in action. A valuable tool more teachers should be provided.
The other day, I was talking to a friend about becoming a teacher. He wasn’t interested in becoming one, but he started asking about how I made the decision. To be honest, it was one of those things that just happened. When you are studying English literature at university, the career options often start at English teacher. A few years later, I was standing in front of a group of grade ten students teaching Australian history on my first practicum in teacher’s college.
I never processed through the implications of the choice before the choice was made. I’m more of a jump-first, react-second type guy.
Now that the first phase of being a new teacher has faded, I have an opportunity to reflect on the things I’ve learned and the things I wish I knew.
Here are the four major things I wish I knew before I started teaching:
1. The job never stops.
Everything I hear on the radio, every book I read, and every conversation I have, my mind is processing for the contexts of the classroom. I strongly believe that being human in the classroom allows for more connection and stronger community, that’s why everything I do outside of the classroom is analyzed and considered. It’s not straining or stressful, in fact, it’s enjoyable.
The other aspect of the job never stopping is that there is always something to do. Feedback, planning, polishing, whatever it is, it always hangs over. Even through the summer, whenever I’m on vacation, I’m thinking about how to do things better; thinking of ways to tweak and innovate.
It’s like many jobs in this fact, but something I didn’t anticipate at all.
2. Rarely do you know if you are successful.
When I was in sales, I knew when I had a good day. I knew when I had a good week or a good month. In teaching (even more so in high school), seeing the payoff of the work is almost non-existent. Sure, you may see a kid develop their writing skills or speaking skills, but the real goal is to help develop a whole person. That impact is often minimal by any one teacher.
There is no real mechanism that evaluates your effectiveness. There is no metric that proves efficacy, which then leaves teachers swinging at fences. We talk about having success criteria for student learning, but there is none developed for teachers. That in itself is fine, but it also leaves teachers waffling somewhere between success and obsolescence. With no method of receiving feedback or meaningful assessment, our idea of our own success is measured with wet noodles.
3. Dealing with colleagues is harder than dealing with students.
I thought dealing with the hormone-injected, clique-crashing, teenage angst was the challenge of being a high school teacher. The reality, for me, is dealing with colleagues is often much more challenging. I’m a firm believer that most teachers are there for the same reason I am, to make the lives of students better today than they were yesterday. However, dealing with the school, union and personal politics has pushed me to learn how best to work with others.
In the last few years, I’ve made a concerted effort at trying to understand the perspective of all involved before moving forward, however, I still often find myself being told my actions have caused a series of unfortunate events.
Generally, my reaction is to keep moving forward and keep creating space for my ideas/opinions. However, challenging ideas is sometimes taken as challenging the person. The challenge of being aware of my own ego and avoiding the conflicts with colleagues’ ego is on-going. My learning continues.
4. The system is broken and everyone in the system knows it.
The biggest thing I wish I knew before I started was that the system is broken, everybody knows it, but because we can’t agree how to fix it, we keep perpetuating the broken system. The “tried and tested” is considered “non-negotiable”, regardless of the lack of true evaluation of the methods. There are too many people with too much invested in the system (despite its broken-ness) to see real reform.
And it’s not that it is broken. It’s that everyone knows there are flaws and yet, nothing. It’s frustrating when you come across an obstacle and it is only an obstacle because of an arbitrary decision that was made years ago.
Despite all these things, I stand by the fact that education and teaching is dynamite. Going into the profession, I wish I was fully briefed.
What do you wish you knew before you started teaching?
I’m an advocate for choice in education. I think the more we can personalize the experience, the more relevant we become, especially in a knowledge-rich, democratized culture.
And so I proposed the idea that next semester in English class, I would have no “required” reading; meaning no “core” text, no “class novel”, nothing that isn’t chosen specifically by the individual student. Sure, I’d make recommendations, nudge students to challenge themselves with great books, etc., but nothing would be something everyone in the class had to read.
That’s not to say they didn’t have to read. I just wouldn’t compel them to read any one specific thing.
The logistics of the idea aren’t fully worked out in my head and I’m not sure if I’m actually ready to jump into it, but the idea is percolating.
The biggest pushback to the idea is what if a student chooses to read nothing. What if she doesn’t like reading and so unless she is compelled, she won’t do it? My first instinct is to assume that she is probably not reading a compulsory text, anyway.
Sarah Le (@sarle83) wrote a great post about the reality of students pretending to read. (http://leslearning.blogspot.ca/2013/11/i-feel-duped-by-student.html)
My more thoughtful response is to use my relationship with the student, along with her understanding of the requirements of the course (curriculum expectations) to help her find/choose texts that she’ll enjoy. It could serve multiple purposes, obviously get a student who wouldn’t read to read something, but more importantly, building the personal relationship. It is a way for me to demonstrate to that student that I value them as an individual.
The other big pushback I got for this idea was around class discussions. How do you hold a class discussion when everyone hasn’t read the same source material? My response, you don’t. Instead you hold mini-discussion amongst people who have read texts that have similar themes. The class discussion model, although I love it, does often trend towards teacher-directed, with only select students participating.
Alas, it is an idea. It needs more development around how do you track reading? How do you keep students accountable? And, what if they still choose nothing?
But, there is a lesson in there too, isn’t there?
Every now and again, you need a kick in the ass. You get complacent. You get lazy. You feel like, “Yeah, I’m doing pretty good.” I was feeling this way in the early parts of the semester. I was “on top” of things. My students were relatively all engaged and learning, I was tweaking what’s worked in the past. I was doing alright.
But the truth was plopped in front of me by Heather Durnin (@hdurnin), a grade eight teacher. While presenting at the ECOO conference about all the cool things she does in her classroom, it dawned on me where I was really lacking. I wasn’t asking.
I was having all these “brilliant” (it’s relative, I know) ideas about how to make the learning more authentic for my students and then determining the idea wouldn’t work for one of the following reasons:
- I don’t have the time to set it up.
- I don’t have the energy to set it up.
- I’ll probably get turned down.
- I won’t get permission.
- The timing won’t work out.
- I don’t have the tech requirements.
- And so on, and so on.
I was killing the idea before it left my head.
And here’s the beauty of what Heather presented, she just asked. She took the idea and ask for help. She threw the possibilities into the wind and waited. She reminded us that she got rejected plenty, but for the few times it works out, it is worth it.
I’m able to explode the walls off the classroom by simply asking for others to join us, collaborate, teach us, be apart of the community by asking.
Simple and elegant, just ask. The perfect kick in the ass I needed.
I don’t have kids of my own. It influences my teaching. The same way having kids would. I could argue I’m a better teacher because I don’t have kids. You could argue, I’d be better if I had kids. Both sides are equally valid and herein lies the conundrum.
I spoke with a parent today. He wanted to know about this “experimental classroom” that I was running.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, “you are experimenting with my son?”
And the reality of experimentation hits, these are all someone’s kid.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t treat them with some inhuman detachment. I care for each of them as someone’s kid. I want them each to succeed and grow. Yet, I believe in trying new things in the classroom which in turn may not work. I believe there’s value in trying something new. There’s value in failing. Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Students learn something even in failure.
However, this is the one shot these students have in this class. This is there one time through grade 10 English. What is the lasting effect of a miserable failed experiment?
Now the reverse is true, not trying something new could be a miserable failed opportunity for enriched learning. I understand that. The experiments are not willy-nilly. They are founded in some “educational research”, which I recognize is often contradictory/cyclical.
How do I reconcile these two aspects of an “experimental classroom”?
My students blog. Some with fervor, some reluctantly. It’s an attempt to find a means of authentic writing. Blogging works for me because it ties to the idea of writing for the sake of writing, not the sake of school.
This is my plea, please, don’t ruin blogging.
A teacher who has students write online on given topics for marks is not blogging. I’m not suggesting you don’t have your reasons for having a student do that, though I can’t think of any engaging reasons off the top of my head, please don’t call it a blog. Call it an online response. Or schlog (school log). Or make up a word with only one vowel, which seems to be the trend, like Tretr. But please don’t call it blogging.
Because it’s not that.
Blogging is an authentic means of communicating self to a community of readers that is developed organically.
That’s why I fear the use of blogging in a class. It can be an opportunity for a person to find their voice, their feet, and their tribe. If it is ruined by too much school (i.e. pre-determined topics, fixed criteria, marked, etc.) then we’ll have ruined another form of writing. Students will be so much more reluctant to give it a try on their own. They won’t understand that they have a voice to share with the world. They’ll think the only people who blog are in school. And the only people who read blogs are teachers.
Instead, I think blogging is personal. It is an opportunity to capture thoughts, feelings, analysis, around a specific idea that the writer chooses. I think a successful blogger is able to capture a reader’s interest and deliver interesting and engaging insights. Most blogs have a specific, personal and important niche market.
As for evaluation, the market determines the quality of the blog, not a solitary evaluator. The number of visitors, the comments, the feedback, retweets, are the evaluation of the blog.
If I’m not able to get people to read my posts, then I’m doing something wrong. It’s a balance between successful marketing, but also providing a quality product. I have to give readers a reason to read. If my only reader (the teacher) “has” to read, then what impetus do I have for producing original, interesting content?
According to Kelly Gallagher in his book, Readicide, by succumbing to schoolification we are killing/we have killed reading. Especially reading that requires us to wade through dense, poetic language.
Let’s not do the same to a writing form that allows for personalization. A writing form that democratizes media, opinion, analysis and insight. A writing form that doesn’t fit into a hamburger worksheet.
Please, don’t ruin blogging.
At the beginning of my teaching career, I assumed the typical default teacher position, “No.”
“You want to work in groups when I want you to work individually? No.”
“You want to do a different assignment than this one? No.”
“Can you work in the hall? No.”
And so on, and so on.
Let’s be honest, ‘no’ as a default position makes sense. It makes order easy. Having thirty students in a room, in theory, is easy. Because of course, in theory, they are all at the same level, need the same attention, have the same motivation, etc., etc. The reality is that thirty students in a room are thirty people in room. Each with different needs, different baggage, etc., etc.
To make things easy for me, I relied upon the insistence of compliance. If everyone is doing the exact same thing, in the exact same way, in the exact same time frame, it’s simply easier to manage for me.
I hid my default position under the guise of “fairness”. It’s not fair for any deviation of what I want.
Sure, I said yes at times, but really it was usually because it worked for me too.
Instead it was ‘no’ to change. ‘No’ to student ideas. ‘No’ to difference. ‘No’ to chaos.
Seth Godin points out the truth of what “no” means:
What “no” means
I’m too busy
I don’t trust you
This isn’t on my list
My boss won’t let me
I’m afraid of moving this forward
I’m not the person you think I am
I don’t have the resources you think I do
I’m not the kind of person that does things like this
I don’t want to open the door to a long-term engagement
Thinking about this will cause me to think about other things I just don’t want to deal with
And so over the last couple years, I’ve made a conscious effort to change my default position. What if my default position was yes?
“You want to try something different? Yes.”
“You think this is boring? Yes.”
“You want to run with this? Yes.”
“You want to change the direction of my plans because of a movie/news article/book? Yes.”
The power of a different default position is that my students start owning what they are doing. They start owning the direction/decisions of the class. They start owning their time. They start owning their learning.
My classes are louder, crazier, less controlled. I’ve potentially got thirty students working on thirty different “assignments”. My evaluation doesn’t fit into an easy grid/weighting/mark calculation.
Is it better? I think there have been moments of joy, moments of revelation and more moments of engagement. If that’s better, than yeah, it is better.
Godin is right. Saying “no” is more often about me than it is about them. What’s your default position?
Last Thursday, my night school class started railing against teachers. More accurately, they started slagging on the bad teachers they’ve had in their school career. It started after one of them did a presentation entitled, “The Problem with the School System”.
I let it go as his audience rallied around him. The bad teacher legends were starting up when I cut in.
“Let me get this straight, you think you were unsuccessful in school because of the teachers you had?”
“You blame the teachers?”
“Yeah.” They agreed. The few became the many. They started back in on the teachers that had ‘done them wrong.’
I interjected again.
“I think you are to blame.” They stopped talking. They looked at me. “I think it is your fault you didn’t learn.” Silence. “I think, you came into this room tonight, hoping I could give you something, ready to be passive. Only a handful of you have been active in your learning so far, the rest of you are sitting waiting for learning to just happen. But the truth is learning is up to you. I can’t do that for you.”
The sat in silence. They wanted to resist. They tried to form a rebuttal. But they couldn’t.
The truth is, in a culture of passive entertainment and apathetic entitlement, school needs to reframe the process of learning.
Being passive in learning is no longer an option. The problem lies in that too many teachers, students and parents are waiting for school to teach, waiting for the information/skills to wash over them and waiting for someone else to do the work.
But the truth is, time’s up.
The radical, tactical shift that I’ve been promoting and writing about for the past three years is about moving the system towards something more active. We need to be nimble. We need to be constantly moving, changing.
There is a great quote, “Decisions are made by those who show up.” It is not completely true. We’ve got to expect more from ourselves. We’ve got to do more than just show up.
Later on in the evening, one of them approached me, “Mr. Kemp, if you can’t do the learning for us, what is your job?”
“I believe my job is to set the environment for you to learn and to offer feedback and support as you ask questions and explore. You see, I’ve been through the maze of developing these skills before and so, I’m standing in the middle. I can’t just tell you to turn right or turn left. Instead, I need to keep shouting so you can hear me, as you figure it out.”
“You really believe this?”
They hated it when I first introduced it. They tweeted, “This is killing me.” They even begged me after class to never do it again.
Eight weeks later, I suggest it, they do it. They like it.
I call it No-Talk Thursday.
Sure, there are still the skeptics and the resistant, but as a whole the class fades to silence much quicker now than it did then. It is a stretch of time where they are allowed/encouraged to disconnect and instead plug into themselves.
This isn’t to say they never do it on their own time, but when the world is buzzing around you too many of them choose to buzz along.
In about fifty days, I’ll be leaving K/W and flying to B.C. to begin my 42 day Bike Across Canada. Forty-two days of solitude, pedals and scenery. As I’ve explained to my classes what I’m doing, many of them ask, aren’t you going to get lonely? Aren’t you going to get bored all by yourself?
The truth is I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I’ve never gone this long on my own. I’ve never allowed myself this long to be contemplative.
I’ve never been silent for so long.
As we shift gears and move into our “No-Talk Thursday”, I often think “Is seventy-five minutes a week near enough?” Should we be practicing quiet contemplation more in schools? Is school too loud?
As we shift our classroom pedagogy towards a more online presence, a more “connected” existence, do we also allow the natural hustle and bustle of technology into our classrooms and in essence, into the learning procedure?
We know that learning happens when a student “thinks about thinking” or a student “wrestles with the knowledge/concepts/ideas”, however, are we giving students space to do that critical contemplation, or meta-cognition?
Should we be taking more time to resist the hustle and bustle and add more silence?
The system needs to change. It needs to adapt with changing times, changing students and a changing information paradigm. School needs to shift.
In my mind, it needs a radical tactical shift.
As I talk with other teachers, it seems that this is a universally accepted idea. The system needs to change.
John Mayer sings, “We are waiting on the world to change.” The problem is that year after year, as we sit and wait for a system that is adequately responsive, we lose another opportunity to get started.
Can teachers change the system? Are teachers system leaders?
On one hand, we are the front lines. We are the first person to deal with students and parents. We show up everyday and close the door. We have the utmost of control over the experiences of a student. Innovation and change can happen on a daily basis. We have the ability to radically alter how we approach learning, how we instruct, and how we assess.
Yet, the status quo is maintained. The change that happens is often minor. We haven’t seen any radical change since the dawn of the information age.
And the reason, because the system hasn’t changed.
This paradoxical relationship of change has stymied any lasting, important forward movement.
Teachers speak about a mistrust of administration, the Ministry and the support they’d have if they were to try something outside the box. Not to mention, the fear of trying something, failing and the lasting implication to the students under their care. For all the talk about trusting teacher practice and judgement, is there All valid reasons for sure.
Though it isn’t enough. Change is needed.
I’m left questioning the likelihood of true systemic change. I’m left wondering if the acts of a single teacher, or even a radical group of teachers is really change. But, that doesn’t make me still want to try new things, challenge the system and encourage others to do the same.
I guess my question is, are you waiting on the system to change or being the change?
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