Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Part I: Getting Uncomfortable To Create Change

I keep seeing and hearing the phrase ‘Change The World’ in some capacity in everything that I consume. It’s happened enough times now that I am finally taking a minute to stop and listen to the universe. The phrase is present in conversations I have, books I’m reading (as I am writing this I turned my head to the book sitting next to me - Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds - and the back cover says, ‘How You Gon’ Change The World?’), and podcasts I’m listening to. It has a deeper meaning for me than just being a cheesy cliche. During my first year of teaching when I lived at home with my parents, every morning before I left for work my dad would shout, “Love you, change someone’s life today!” He still continues to say it to me to this day and it is something that I carry with me all the time.

Last year was the first year that I can say with 100% certainty that I changed the lives of the fifteen amazing special education students in my class. I had my best teaching year yet because I focused on the needs, interests and strengths of my kids rather than simply getting through curriculum. We did collaborative projects, had powerful and important conversations, and focused a lot on reflection and social emotional work. Fast forward to this year where I’m teaching a class of only four students - a monumental challenge that I have managed to make successful thus far. Even though they are ‘only four’ students, having them in my class is an opportunity to change four more lives.

But I want to make change on a bigger scale than just in my classroom. I want to change my school, community, and beyond. And I want to do it NOW. But I often feel trapped within my current system, situation, and school. I’m ready for a big change in a big way. I want to surround myself with like-minded people who have the same goals. While there are small pockets of progressive and forward thinking educators at my school, we are in the minority. So, in an effort to feel more connected and try to make change, I joined two school committees this year - the SEL (social emotional learning) committee and the Instructional Rounds committee (colleague observations).

At this week’s Instructional Rounds meeting, we discussed goals and next steps, which are to continue collecting data to explore questioning in classes on the part of both teachers and students. Last year’s observation data showed that there was very little higher level questioning being done in most classes. As we were having this conversation about the next round of research and observation, I vocalized my concerns: If we are aware that this is a weakness, wouldn’t our time be better spent brainstorming ways to remedy these issues rather than continuing to collect data? Shouldn’t we be turning inward and observing each other and then focusing on helping one another change and improve our instruction? The response I got made me grind my teeth in frustration. In short: Change is scary and we don’t want to rock the boat with an already apprehensive and resistant staff.

While I understand that there is a time and place for methodical, paced change, something more drastic needs to happen to truly shift culture and create long lasting positive change. Being courageous and getting uncomfortable is the only way that we are going to make these changes. The danger in slow & steady is that it is safe. It is not disruptive or bold enough to create truly innovative change. We can't expect different results by doing the same thing we've always done. So I will forge forward and continue to innovate within my own student-centered classroom while searching for additional ways to create a bigger positive impact in the not so distant future.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Phrase That Changed Everything

There is always good to be found in any challenging situation. My father is the king of silver linings and I inherited from him the ability to find the light and the lesson everywhere I go. But thinking this way requires a shift in mindset and flipping a situation on its head and looking for the upside is not always easy. I was only able to truly embrace this in talking to my two best friends, Adam and Katie, on Voxer.

Every day on my commute to and from work, the three of us share stories about our lives - Work, marriage, kids, goals and struggles. We listen and give advice, and through these conversations I have come to realize that Voxing has become something of a therapy session. In our three years of talking on Voxer, I noticed one specific phrase that Katie uses when offering advice. It’s the phrase that flipped the switch in my brain and completely shifted my line of thinking:

When asking for advice about an argument I had with my husband over how we dealt with our two year old’s tantrum, her response was: How lucky are we to have husbands who are our equals? How lucky are we to have husbands who are so dedicated to raising our children with us? When I was stressing out over how to execute a demo lesson, her response was: How lucky are you to have this opportunity to present a lesson at such an incredibly reputable and successful school district? And when my kids were sick and the washing machine broke all in the same week (it felt very dramatic at the time), she told me: How lucky are you to have a profession that allows you the time and flexibility to come home and meet the repair man after work?

Don’t get me wrong, it is important to acknowledge and process the emotions of each situation, but at the conclusion of our conversations is always the inevitable ‘How Lucky Are We’ statement that reshapes the scenario and puts things into perspective.

So here's my task for you: Next time you are faced with an overwhelming challenge, try to temporarily step away from the messy emotions and dig deep to figure out what the bigger lesson might be. Ask yourself the 'How lucky am I...' question and take a few deep breaths, understanding that eventually all the pieces will fall into place.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Everyone Deserves A Cheering Section

“Every Kid Needs A Champion.” This is the first thing written at the top of my syllabus. It comes from this TED talk by Rita Pierson:

At yesterday's conference, George Couros made me rethink those words... What about, “Everyone deserves a cheering section”? As teachers, if we are only giving our students one teacher to connect with over the course of their day or year, that isn’t nearly enough. Every single one of us needs to be fostering meaningful connections and building relationships with our students - and with each other. As I sat in George’s sessions and talked with him during lunch, I was reminded of the tremendous power we all have to impact each other’s lives. Every conversation or interaction we have with another person is an opportunity to connect, grow and learn. George changed the entire course of my day by offering to have a conversation with me. He listened, asked questions, and offered advice. So much so, that I felt supported and encouraged enough to finally step outside of my comfort zone and write my first blog post in years! Relationships are truly everything.

At the intersection of relationship building and learning is social emotional work. I went to a few great sessions yesterday on this topic. While I am just beginning to dip my toes into the water of RULER and Marc Brackett’s work, on the most basic level we can all agree that emotions are complex and often messy. To build stronger relationships and guide our students in becoming excellent people, we have a responsibility to help them identify & unpack their emotions. Hopefully, this will lead to meaningful connections, deeper learning, and a stronger sense of self. I want to be the first person in the cheering section for each and every one of my students. I firmly believe there is something to love and admire in every single kid in my classroom. 

Moving forward, I plan to blog regularly (every Wednesday) and share my own stories through the encouragement of my own personal cheering section. By blogging, I am hoping to flesh out my own passions while connecting with those of you who are my cheerleaders - or anyone in need of a cheerleader of their own. I am here to support and encourage you! Thank you to my biggest supporter right now, George Couros, whose words of advice and encouragement were exactly what I desperately needed at a pivotal time. Thank you, George, for giving me the push to start writing again. See you all next Wednesday!