Sunday, September 18, 2016

Never Underestimate Your Influence


Sometimes when I reflect back to my nine years teaching English and social studies, I feel a little sad for the experience I provided my students. The same goes for my coaching. I was named our high school's head basketball coach at 25-years-old, just two years out of college. When I think back now to some of the things I did, or didn't do, it makes me want to drop my head. 

Even at the time, I often struggled with my confidence that I was doing a good job, especially in the first few years. I think I felt a little on edge nearly all the time. I was often stressed, but I really didn't talk much about it with anyone, not even with my wife, Lori. Sometime I even felt trapped. "Maybe I'm not cut out for this," I thought, but I didn't know what else I would do either.

Things really started to change for the better when I went back to get my Master's degree. I didn't really want to be a principal at that time. I figured you needed to have teaching figured out to do that. But I knew I needed to do something different. The graduate classes helped me see things from a different perspective, and the connections I made provided support for my growth.

Even though I improved during those teaching years, I sometimes wish I could start over and know what I know now. I would do so many things differently. My classroom would be a completely different place. My coaching would have a different focus. I think I would enjoy the journey a whole lot more.

In just the past couple of weeks, I've had different connections with several of my former students. We live about an hour away, so that doesn't normally happen too often. 

A former player was visiting our church with her family. Her husband's family lives in Bolivar. It was great to see her just for a few minutes.

Then I saw a former student at a restaurant where he was working. He's a manager there. I honestly didn't remember him. But we chatted for a few minutes. He shared a little about his family and said he really enjoyed my class. That meant a lot.

Another former student is now an English teacher in the same school where I taught. She returned to her home school after graduating. She was extremely bright and conscientious. I'm sure she must be an outstanding teacher. She messaged me through Facebook, because she came across one of my quotes that Edutopia had posted. I was happy she reached out to me.

And then last night, one of my favorite former players, who is now the head football coach at Southwest Baptist University, here in Bolivar, led his team to a thrilling comeback win. The Bearcats are now 3-0. I can't even express how much I enjoy seeing him be successful. I messaged him to congratulate him. He still calls me coach when I see him, which is about the greatest thing ever.

I have to remind myself that during those early years, just like now, I was doing the best I could with the information I had at the time. And when I see my former students doing well, it makes me feel very proud. And not because I was a huge influence in their lives. Like I said before, I think I would be so much more if I could do it again. But I still feel that connection. I'm proud of them and thankful that I had the privilege of working with each and every student.

Yesterday, we held our Bolivar HS Alumni Hall of Fame induction luncheon. There were three honorees this year. As they told their stories about their school years, it was obvious the gratitude they had for their school and the teachers who worked with them. These individuals are incredibly successful in their careers and very active in their communities.

One of the inductees, in particular, shared how teacher after teacher had impacted his life. When he spoke of his high school football coach, he was choked up and had to pause. He remembered each one by name and described the specific impact they had on his life. Several of these former teachers were among the guests at the event. None of the lessons had much to do with academic content by the way. But he named the character traits each one modeled for him. And how he took those lessons into his life and has tried to convey them to his own daughters.

As I listened, I got a little choked up myself. I thought of the impact that teachers have on the lives of kids and the influence my teachers had on me. It's the greatest profession in the world. I thought of how I wish every teacher could hear his words as he thanked his teachers with such sincerity. It was such a reminder about the value of relationships. 

It was also a reminder of the incredible impact you have on the lives of your students. Even if you feel you don't measure up, or maybe this isn't for you, always remember your legacy is not about doing everything perfectly. It's not about having it all figured out. Just be the best version of you. Show up well each day and try your best. Keep growing and learning. Invest in the lives of your students. And never underestimate your influence.

Questions: How do you look back at your teaching legacy so far? Are you too hard on yourself? How can you do your best today to invest in students? Please leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Not Just Better, But Different

Recently, we had a faculty meeting to start our teachers thinking about their personal learning plans for this year. Personal learning plans are an important part of what we do to grow and learn as educators at Bolivar High School. I outlined what we do and why we do it in a previous blog post.

During our last meeting, I challenged our teachers to try to develop a learning plan that has the potential to be a game-changer for their own professional practice and for student learning. It's easy to get in a pattern of just doing mostly the same things but trying to do them a little better. As a result, we may miss great opportunities to do something that would be completely different and possibly tranformational for student learning. It could be a game-changer.

I would certainly applaud those who seek to improve established practices, especially newer teachers. It's much better than an approach that doesn't seek growth at all. A worse scenario would be an educator who teaches exactly the same lessons year after year with little adaptation. Even the smallest incremental change is better than no effort to improve.

But for teachers who have developed their instructional foundation, it can be highly rewarding to take a risk that could be awesome or awful. You see I believe the things we often choose to pour our energies into are safe. We want to improve, but we aren't comfortable enough with failure. If we are doing hard things, it can be highly rewarding, but it can also be terrifying.

During our staff meeting, I shared the video of Caine's Arcade with our staff. I asked our teachers to consider how their own personal and professional learning is similar or perhaps different from Caine's learning.

Each small group worked to develop a visual representation of how Caine's Arcade might help us think about developing our own successful learning plans. These are a few of the characteristics often found in successful projects. 

1. Starts with Empathy - Empathy recognizes there is a problem to be solved. It involves seeing things from another person’s perspective and seeking to help make something better.

2. Rich Inquiry - Develop lots of questions to drive your learning forward. Seek out resources. Find the information you need to advance the project.

3. Deeper Learning - Apply the knowledge to create new understanding and original ideas. Invite complex thinking.

4. Meaningful Connections - Successful projects are usually personally meaningful, and they usually involve connections with others.

5. Autonomy - If you want commitment and engagement, not just compliance, autonomy is better. Our teachers are the ones who choose their project and are empowered to see it through.

6. Risk of Failure/Celebration of Success - Most meaningful projects have a chance of failure. The idea might not work. The more ideas we try, the more likely we are to find ones that are game-changers. We always need to reflect and celebrate what we’ve learned and what aspects are successful.

Our teachers shared some amazing insights from their reflection on the video. It was exciting to see the type of thinking happening around the room.

Here are some of the comments teachers shared on an exit survey:

It's always exciting to have the opportunity to learn something new and different. I also love to experiment.
You telling us that if we try our plan and it fails, it's OK.
I like that PLP is all about ownership and autonomy.
They will be something that has a positive impact on students and teachers.
Personal growth encouraged
The autonomy to make decisions of how I want to spend my time making a difference.
I feel good about the collaboration and the sharing that will take place. I feel like it's a very open place to share good and new ideas
I want to continue to grow as a professional.
PLP's hold me accountable for growth.

This next week we will have small group meetings (3-4) to share the ideas we have so far. It's an opportunity for everyone to give and receive feedback. When we share our ideas, they almost always get better. Someone will have a suggestion or make a connection that will move our thinking forward. 

Caine's Arcade was transformational. He didn't necessarily have that in mind when he started, but he did have lots of big ideas. In the end, his little arcade started a movement that has impacted students, educators, and beyond. And some more pretty cool stuff happened for him too. Caine's Arcade Part 2 details what happened after the initial video. It's amazing.

Who knows what you might start at your school with an idea and the willingness to pursue it? Be willing to take a big chance and try something new for your students. Your dreams and passions make learning come alive for you and for your students.

Question: Some educators seem to think that new ideas are unnecessary. They say the fundamentals of learning and education are unchanging. Stay with the tried and true. What would you say to this type of thinking? Leave a comment below or share on Twitter or Facebook.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

7 Steps to Be a Better Advocate for Your Students

Recently I participated in an outstanding Twitter chat (#satchat) about advocating for students. It's such an important topic. Almost every teacher is successful with the top tier students. The top students seem to learn almost in spite of the teachergood, bad, or indifferent. But to reach students who have significant struggles, at school or home or both, requires a teacher who is willing to be an advocate.

Educators have the opportunity to influence and support students who need a helping hand. We can lend them our strength for a time and help them find the strength within themselves to carry forward.

This excerpt from Katy Ridnouer's book Everyday Engagement summarizes what it means to be an advocate as an educator:
An advocate is a person who supports or promotes the interests of another, and that is what a teacher is doing when he or she works to engage students and their parents as partners in a positive, learning-focused classroom community. An advocate is also one who promotes a cause, and I believe every teacher must be an advocate for student and parent engagement in learning, and for learning in general. They must promote it actively; they must embed these efforts into their classroom practice on an everyday basis. 
So based on these thoughts and reflection from the recent Twitter chat, I am suggesting 7 steps to be a better advocate for students.

1. Be Present

Every student needs to know you will be there for them and move closer to their messy situations and not push them away. Students need our unconditional love.

2. Ask

Get to know your students. Connect with them. Know them well enough to see when something's not right. Make the person in front of you feel more important than the content you teach. Ask how things are going and how you can help.

3. Listen

Take the time to really listen. You don't need all the answers. And you don't need a degree in school counseling to hear what your students are saying.

4. Understand

Listen to understand. Try to see things from the student's perspective. You can't be an effective advocate if you don't really try to feel what they're feeling and see it like they are seeing it. 

5. Speak Up

Be the voice for the one who is overlooked, underserved, or mistreated. Don't just look the other way. Say something.

6. Take Action

Words are powerful but actions speak louder. Do something to show your support. Reach out. Every action you take to help a child builds bridges to a better future.

7. Always Encourage

Some situations may feel hopeless. We can't fix every problem. But we can always provide encouragement. We can say something positive. We can show how much we care. The kind words of a teacher can restore hope to a kid who is feeling lost and all alone.

When we become wise and caring advocates for students, we are developing young people who someday will be able to better advocate for themselves.

Question: How are you advocating for your students? I want to hear from you. Share your ideas by leaving a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Hottest Posts Everyone's Reading This Summer

Where did summer go? I guess it's still hanging on just a bit longer. It's certainly hot out today in Missouri. The temps are in the mid-90's. But here is a look back at some of the popular posts from the blog over the past couple of months. As always, thanks for reading and responding to ideas I share. I really appreciate your support, and the way you push me to think deeper and give more. Thank you for leading and serving in your classroom and school! You are amazing!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

10 Signs Twitter PD Might Not Be Your Thing

If you've been on the fence about using Twitter to support your professional learning, this list might help. If you exhibit the following signs, it's probably a good idea to just forget about Twitter.

1. You don't understand Twitter and aren't willing to learn.

2. You don't need any more personal or professional support. You have all the friends you'll ever need.

3. You have perfected your craft. Every kid is learning every day. You have no room for improvement.

4. You've never had a good idea someone else might benefit from.

5. You're not interested in your voice being part of a larger conversation about education.

6. You only collaborate with colleagues in your school because they have cornered the market on how to teach well.

7. You don't have time to do something that could be a game-changer for you and your students.

8. You're afraid you might change your mind about something. You hold onto your beliefs about kids and learning like a security blanket. You wouldn't want that disturbed. What if your flawed assumptions were challenged and didn't hold up under scrutiny? Ouch!

9. You can't believe amazing professional learning could be free and convenient and totally self-directed!?! But it is.

10. You're so passionate about education and kids, you are afraid you will get addicted and have to go to therapy (warning: this could happen).

If this list doesn't describe you, you might be a great candidate to use Twitter to grow your PLN (personal learning network). Twitter may seem a little difficult at first, but it's a great way to challenge your thinking, find new resources, connect with educators across the globe, and consider new ideas that can help your professional practice.

Best of all, it's free and can be done at your convenience, any time of day all from the comfort of wherever you are. There are really no wrong ways to use Twitter for professional learning as long as you feel it's supporting your goals. For me, it's been the most powerful professional learning possible. It's been a game-changer.

Question: Is Twitter your thing? Or are you still on the sidelines? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook...or Twitter. :-)

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Do We Really Have Time for Digital Citizenship?

We've started a series of weekly discussions in our building about life in our increasingly digital world. I guess you could call it Digital Citizenship. I prefer to call it Digital Leadership. We have a half-hour academic support time built into our schedule four days a week. This past Thursday during that time we had our first lesson. We provided teachers with a couple of choices for activities that were pretty easy to implement. We showed a video of interview clips with our own students sharing some thoughts about how their digital life impacts their overall life. And then we discussed the upsides and downsides to technology, for us personally, for our relationships, and even for our nation. 

In my visits to classrooms, there were lively discussions during this time. These are relevant issues that kids really want to discuss. They want to hear different ideas, share their experience, and wrestle with how to successfully navigate this complex world. 

But there were also some challenges to making this happen. Our teachers and students are accustomed to having this academic support time for tutoring, making up missed work, and other important tasks. There were some legitimate concerns where the loss of the time was going to impact the academics of students. They really needed to retake that quiz or there was a study session for a test the next day. And so, I let the teachers decide. If you feel the academic need is pressing, then skip the Digital Leadership lesson this time.

Even my daughter, Maddie, was disappointed she wasn't able to use that time for academics. She is playing tennis and has missed a ton of school for matches and tournaments. She's working hard to get caught up and values Liberator Time to get stuff done. She was concerned about the loss of that time.

As I've thought about how this has all played out, my biggest question concerns our priorities. Are we really paying attention to our students' needs? There is no question that preparing students academically is important. But if we aren't preparing students for life in a world that is rapidly changing, will the academic knowledge really be that helpful?

Each year, I hear stories from heartbroken parents and see shattered lives because of decisions that were made online. I see the impact of all sorts of digital miscues, small and large. Besides the tragic circumstances that arise, there are also less obvious consequences of failure to navigate a digital world successfully. Who is helping kids figure this stuff out? 

One teacher commented that parents should be doing more to monitor and support their own children. I don't disagree with this. I think parents can do more to be aware and help meet these challenges. That's why we've hosted parent workshops and provided information in our newsletters to help parents in this area.

But what I don't agree with is the idea that it's completely the parents job to address these issues. Our school does not exist in a vacuum. We MUST address the relevant issues of our time and partner with parents to help students be successful. Our school motto is, "Learning for Life." That points to the need for learning that really matters, that will help students be successful, not just on a test, but in living a healthy, balanced, fulfilling life.

In our school, every student must have a device for learning. They can use a school issued Chromebook or they can bring their own device. But using a device is not optional. I think this ups the ante for us in our level of responsibility on these issues. It's important no matter what. But when our school is so digitally infused, we must work to educate our students about the challenges they will face. And we must educate them about the opportunities that digital can provide, too.

We are so focused on our curriculum and meeting standards I think we can forget to pay attention to our students and their needs. We aren't thinking deeply about what is most useful to them now and in the future. We see them as just students. It's all about academics. We are completely focused on making sure they are learning science, history, math, literature, etc. Are they college and career ready? Did they pass the state assessment? 

And the one overarching question, the elephant in the roomare you teaching content or are you teaching kids? Cause there's a difference. The best teachers are always ready to teach the life-changing lesson. They understand that's the stuff that really makes a lasting impact. Students will forget the foreign language they took in HS, they probably won't ever use the quadratic formula in real life, and reading Victorian literature isn't likely to spark a passion. 

I hope you get my point.

We can't afford to not make time for Digital Citizenship, or just plain citizenship. 

Question: How is your school addressing the relevant issues of our time? I want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or respond on Twitter or Facebook.
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