Saturday, October 29, 2016

Keeping it simple when it's not...

Late October is a really hard time for teachers. The newness of back-to-school has worn off, the crayons aren't quite as pointy, and the reality of the task that lies ahead can seem downright overwhelming. Add on new district and campus initiatives, involvement in your own kids' activities, and all the allergies (I'm in Texas) and it can get just plain brutal.

I was in a team leader meeting this past week and our principal had us take out a notecard and list anything on the card that was a change from last year. "What are you currently dealing with that is new?" Here are just a few things that I scrawled out:

  • New administration
  • New lesson plan expectations
  • New state teacher appraisal system
  • New student login information (they had FINALLY learned them!)
Here are a few things my colleagues wrote down:
  • New baby
  • New teammate
  • New levels of accountability
  • New system for PLCs
  • New math fact fluency guidelines
  • New behavior unit on campus
The average number of items on the card was around 15. Fifteen?! No wonder things are feeling a little bit stressful. The task was NOT to list everything you actually do. She only asked us to write down what we do that is NEW. Just as surely as Benjamin Franklin's famous quote about death and taxes, in schools across this country, the only thing I know for sure is that things will change. The curriculum will change, the administrators will change, the current, "best practice," of the day will change. There will be new programs, new initiatives, new technology, and new kids. There will be new leaders, new state standards, new areas of focus, and new high stakes tests. 

As an Instructional Coach, I try desperately to limit the noise for teachers so they can focus on what is truly important. There are times, however, that my coaching colleagues and I feel like when teachers see us, what they really see is more work. A new coaching goal for myself is to keep my mouth shut, listen to what teachers are REALLY saying, and to draw on my knowledge, my experience, and my resources to match educators with whom or what they really need.

I was talking to a teacher yesterday whom I wholeheartedly respect. She was talking about how she has had to make a conscious effort to stop reading teacher books now that school has started because she knows it will make her want to change her already successful systems to try the latest new thing. Great teachers are always looking for better ways to reach students, but when we constantly change our approach, sometimes we cannot truly know the effects. I thought it was so brilliant of her to recognize the need to slow down, work on deep implementation as opposed to surface willingness, and to truly focus on the needs of her students and herself.

I recently attended Crucial Conversations training which is designed to help people have productive, valuable conversations when the stakes are high. In teaching, the stakes are always high because children are involved. There are three things that must be present for the conversation to be considered crucial:
  1. Differing opinions (Never happens in education, right?!)
  2. High stakes 
  3. Strong emotions
One of my biggest take-aways from this training is that we often tell ourselves (inaccurate) stories about people and situations that directly influence how we respond when we feel threatened. As I reflected on this training and the recent conversations I have had with teachers, I think the story we are telling ourselves is that we are inadequate. If I am supposed to teach this way now, what does that mean for the kids I taught last year, or the last 20 years? Was I doing it wrong? Are you saying that if I do it this way, I'm now better than I was yesterday? Was that teaching not valuable? Did kids not learn? Do you think I'm not good at what I do?

During another recent conversation with two fourth grade teachers, they were asking about how we can possibly teach the state standards to the depth that is necessary in a workshop model. They were saying they KNOW that it is best for kids, but were struggling with the logistics of different genres, varying reading levels, a fixed timeline, time in text, and RTI expectations. As I listened to their conversation, I was struck with how well they teach. All they could focus on was how they were not doing it right, and all I could focus on was that they were. Even just having the conversation showed that they were honest and reflective, were meeting the needs of a broad range of learners, that they cared about their kids as readers and not just as test scores, and that they wanted to do their job so well. 

I work with some of the most amazing, caring, committed teachers out there. In schools all across this country, teachers are working themselves to the limits of burnout to balance what is being asked of them with what they know is right. In an ocean of ever-changing ideas, research, and initiatives, I want to help teachers identify what their state standards are asking them to do, what timeline their district has given them to do it, and what is best for kids. My daughter happens to be in the class of one of the teachers having the reader's workshop conversation above. I e-mailed her later and hope it resonates with other teachers who are fighting the good fight.

From a parent perspective, you are doing more than, "good things." My daughter is a tough nut to crack and she would take a bullet for you. She's independently motivated to work on reading and math, and is talking about social studies concepts like never before. She talks about experiments, the fun she is having, dance parties, and loves school.

You did that. 

Highly effective teachers always spend more mental energy on what isn't going well, but from my vantage point, and in her eyes, you are the best around.

My kids have been taught by the most caring and committed teachers. I am so fortunate to work with a building full of thinkers, reflectors, and teachers that put kids first. The stakes are high and our emotions are strong. When our viewpoints differ, let us focus on a mutual outcome. 
What is best for kids? 


Unknown said...

What a perfect post!! We are lucky to have you around. Thank you for all of your input and wisdom.