Tuesday, August 31, 2010

It all starts with you...

On any given day, educators experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  How an educator reacts and responds to these highs and lows can often dictate the overall mood of the day.  In my short 6 years as an educator, I have learned several things as it pertains to remaining positive, as well as keeping things in perspective when it comes to my professional and personal life.  Educators have an extremely difficult and mentally draining job, but yet at the same time, educators also have one of the most rewarding jobs.  The most difficult and rewarding jobs require a certain kind of mental strength and stamina...the strength and stamina to look in the mirror, and take control of the power...

Something most educators fail to realize is that they have the power and the control to dictate how well, or not well a day goes.  Sure, of course, we all have days that are better than others, but we are ultimately in control of whether we have good or bad days.  We have all done it, and we are all guilty of letting somebody or something take control of our day.  When we allow others to control the outcome of our life, we are relinquishing control of our very existence.  I have made this mistake many times before.  It is my new goal to take the power back, and regain control of my life.  The best thing about taking control of one's life, is the fact that when you take control of your life, you give somebody else the opportunity to take control of their life.  Empower others by empowering yourself...perhaps the most underrated and underutilized method to professional and personal growth. 

Reflect on your existence, and evaluate how you approach both your professional and personal life.  Do you believe in yourself?  Does your happiness and positivity rely on the actions of others?  Do you feel proud of your accomplishments and doings?  Can you walk with your head held high?  Do you feel in control of your life?

Take this opportunity to look in the mirror and realize the potential and power of you.  Do not fear the power you possess.  This power gives you the ability to control your life and the outcomes of your experiences.  Be positive and give yourself the benefit of the doubt.  Work hard, prepare, encourage, and motivate yourself to take responsibility of controlling your life.  Oh, and if you are looking for people with whom to surround yourself...seek out those who believe in themselves, and in due time you will see they not only believe in themselves, they believe in you too.  When one believer believes in another, the ripple effect is inevitable...Are you ready to make the first wave...?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Taking risks and experiencing failure...the two perfect ingredients

Educators across the country are returning to their schools with fewer resources, larger class sizes, increased work loads, and the fastest changing student population ever...these challenges and setbacks do not excuse us from taking risks and doing whatever it takes to meet the needs of our students.

This school year several colleagues and I have chosen to implement some major changes in our classrooms.  These changes require that we invest more time, more of our energy, and have more patience.  The initial implementation stage is crucial to making sure these changes get off on the right foot.  Additionally, as with anything new, we must also accept the fact that when doing something new, you are never quite sure what the outcome will be.  The obvious question would be, "why did we choose to make these changes in our classes; especially since it requires more of our time and energy?"  I will speak for my colleagues here, but the answer to this question is simple...we chose these changes because we believe they are in the best interests our of students, and regardless of any challenges and setbacks, we have an obligation to do whatever it takes.

My colleagues and I have all taken a risk by incorporating new forms of technology and social media in our classrooms.  I know it is still early in the school year, but these changes have thus far proven to be both beneficial and positive changes.  I would be lying if I said everything has been positive.  These new changes have stirred up lots of opinions and feelings toward technology and social media in the classroom...change has a way of doing that to people.  I can honestly say I love hearing what other people think and believe when it comes to improving education.  Just as we teach our students, we should take information from several sources, and then construct our opinion based off of those pieces of information.  If somebody has good solid information about something I am doing that is wrong, you bet I want to hear about it.  However, finding out that something I am doing is wrong, and not as effective as I'd hoped, is not going to stop and prevent me from taking future risks to make education as applicable and relevant for my students.

We have all experienced failure in someway or another in the educational arena, the biggest difference is how we responded.  Did you swear to never take another risk again because of your fear to fail?  Did you isolate yourself from sharing and group collaboration?  Did you tell yourself to not rock the boat, and to just do what everybody else is doing?  Did you give up on yourself and the needs of your students...?  I hope, for your sake, education's sake, your children's sake, America's sake, and the future of the world's sake, you did none of the above.  Taking risks and experiencing failure are what make us human, and as educators we owe it to our students to continually search for new and improved ways of educating them in preparation for their futures.

I encourage you to take risks in an effort to improve education, and when you experience failure, use it as an opportunity to grow and further develop your skills as an educator.  Take failure, criticism and pessimism as roads on the journey toward success.  Never be afraid to try something, do something, or start something that you believe can improve the educational process.

"Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go" - T.S. Eliot

Push yourself, push your students, take a risk, experience failure, grow from it, share your knowledge, take another risk, experience failure again, learn from it, share your knowledge, take a risk, positively affect others, make an impact, inspire, motivate, and be a leader...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Finding...and taking the road less traveled

I was inspired to write this post after speaking with a friend and colleague. Over the course of a lifetime and career we all experience the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. So much of what we do in our lives comes back to our goals, expectations, hopes and dreams. The biggest difference between those who accomplish their goals and those who do not...are the paths they choose while developing their vision.

As humans we all crave and need a certain kind of energy that fuels us toward our next task. I have no doubt that most humans have goals and dreams, what I am concerned with is their fortitude and their level of persistence to allow these dreams to come to fruition. For every goal and dream their is a path, and the larger the goal and dream the more difficult and complex the path. The most difficult part of any journey is making sure we have the perseverance, dedication, and focus to see the journey through...

Just like many things in life, it sounds pretty simple...but I can assure you, it is easier said than done. How can we make sure we have the required perseverance, dedication, and focus to reach our goals and dreams?  Through my own experiences and by talking with others I have come to the conclusion that it requires a vision. Each person must develop and refine his/her own vision, and if one is growing and developing, the vision will be in a constant state of flux and change. Since the vision will always be in a constant state of change, it continually provides us the needed fuel and drive to push on toward our goals and dreams. It is because of this pattern of growth and change that we are able to maintain a certain level of focus to keep us on target.

For me, I have concentrated on developing my philosophies of education (yes plural). While doing this I have constantly found myself searching and reaching into areas unknown to me. This has fueled my curiosity and dedication to improving as an educator, while giving me the opportunity to share and collaborate, thus refining my instructional leadership skills. By working to improve, refine, develop, share, and strengthen my vision, I have enabled myself to maintain the level of energy required to accomplish some of my initial goals and dreams. It is a long journey, however with a vision and the desire to grow alongside your vision, you too, can travel the road less traveled toward your goals and dreams. The road less traveled is not less traveled because people choose not to take it; it is less traveled because most people never reach it...

** Develop a vision...and go where others were unable **

Monday, August 16, 2010

Reinventing yourself = survival...

My first official working day at school was today...I witnessed ups and downs, heard screams of joy, and whirlpools of pessimism and discontent.  As I thought more about the "happy" people, and the not so happy people, I decided to concentrate on why the "happy" people were happy.  I soon realized there seemed to be a couple underlying factors that lead to their happiness / enthusiasm toward the new school year.

I have to preface this by saying we are introducing an entirely new online gradebook / website for our school and district.  Needless to say, there are several staff members who are less than happy with the idea of a new grade program being introduced two days before school starts.  Part of me does not blame them... 

As educators grow and develop, they are given ample opportunities to reinvent themselves.  This new online gradebook / website is the perfect opportunity for our staff members to be innovative, while giving them the chance to reinvent the way they conduct classroom communication, as well as building and establishing relationships with parents.  I understand that educators tend to be creatures of habit, but just as our students change from year to year, day to day, and minute to minute, we must have the ability to reinvent ourselves to address the ever changing needs of our student population.

The "happy" people today were:

1- embracing change for the betterment of education and supporting any initiative aimed at improving the educational process for students, parents and educators.   

2 - invigorated by the idea and opportunity to reinvent certain components of their class, while accepting the fact that all new initiatives take time and patience.

Over the course of a career in education, we will all experience numerous changes and new programs.  These changes will be both good and bad, but it is imperative that we continually reinvent and innovate the way we approach education.

-The educator that sees opportunity as a path to growth will be the educator to survive longest.

-The educator that reinvents him/herself in the pursuit of improving education will have the greatest positive impact on his/her students.

-The educator using innovation as a tool to do his/her job more effectively...will be the happiest.

Let us use change and reform as a way to innovate, reinvent, adapt, grow, and develop...most importantly, envision a world where you are in control...it's all up to you!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Why YOU matter much more than you think...

Educators are constantly using their energy and resources on others.  Their students are their number one priority, and consequently educators are always filling the buckets of others.  Educators dedicate their lives to the development and growth of others...but wait, who fills the buckets of educators?  Who is there to tell the educators they are doing a great job, and if they need anything somebody will always be there to help?  That is where I come in...I want to remind all educators how important they are, and why what they do is so much more important than they might think.
- You are a role model... Educators spend 7 hours a day being a role model by exhibiting a professional demeanor that oozes responsibility and accountability.  Always acting ethically and morally, educators by default have a huge impact on student character and development.  Everything we do throughout the course of the day is under the microscope, and because of that we have the power to be a positive, influential and everlasting role model impacting the lives of children...

- You are a leader... Educators very rarely see themselves as leaders, but I can not think of many other professions that put somebody in a leadership position on a daily basis with such a large diverse group of people.  The 100 or more students you see every day are looking for a leader, and every day you have the opportunity to be that leader for them...

- You teach organizational skills... Educators teach students to be prepared for class, to take responsibility for turning in assignments, and to complete an assortment of tasks.  As a result, educators are constantly teaching students about organization.  Organizational skills are perhaps one of the most important skills we help students develop...

- You can ruin their day, or make their day... By your positive attitude and by caring you hold the key to making a student's day a good day, or a bad day.  There are so many things that happen during the course of the school day, but by being respectful and caring you can help make every day a good day...

- You spend more time with them than some parents... This is another part of education most educators don't realize.  Because of sports and jobs there are students who spend very little time with their parents during the week, consequently we have a much greater influence and impact on our students than we think.  Be aware of this, and use it to your advantage to provide the necessary structure in life that a student needs...

- You help them understand who they are... Over the course of a school year educators and students experience a lot of different situations.  Every situation in which a student is involved, helps to shape his/her understanding of his/herself.  By being an educator and by being a part of that experience, we naturally play an important role in helping students understand who they are...

- You can motivate and inspire, or deflate and discourage... Your passion and love for education can ignite a fire in your students.  In contrast, your lack of passion and boredom toward education can extinguish any fire way before you even have a chance to motivate or inspire your students.  I am an educator because of my former German teacher, Matt Maier.  Inspiring and motivating is something you do, just by doing your job...    

- You don't just teach them, you educate them... Teaching is one thing, educating is something completely different.  Anybody can teach somebody something, but it takes a special person to educate somebody. Teaching is temporary and contained, while educating is forever and limitless.  You have the ability and power to not just teach your students, but rather educate your students and prepare them to be self-sufficient, responsible, lifelong learners who were impacted and influenced by YOU!!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

7 proven strategies that WILL engage your students...

Over the last 5 years as an educator, I have learned a tremendous amount about student motivation and student engagement.  Recently, I started reflecting on my current practices and strategies I have used to engage my students over the years.  The program I am with has doubled in size from roughly 140 students to over 280, so I feel confident these strategies can, and will work.
1.  Don't just care...really care!

It is so easy to get wrapped up in our own little worlds, but we have got to remember that whatever is going on in our world, is 100 times simpler and less complicated than that of our students.  If a student is having a bad day, or if a student is having a great day, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.  Be interested and actually listen to their stories, because if you can show the students you care, they will trust you, and when they trust you, magical things can happen in an educational setting.  Take an interest in their music, their hobbies, their triumphs and struggles, and use that information to help them.  IF THE STUDENTS DON'T THINK YOU CARE, YOU WILL NEVER MAKE A MEANINGFUL CONNECTION WITH THEM!!

2.  Speak to every student at least once every class period - the more the better!

I have tried very hard to make sure this is common practice in my classroom.  Even if it is a simple "hello" or "how are you doing?" it can mean a ton to the student.  Additionally, making that early connection in the class period allows that student to feel more comfortable, which as we all know, students must be comfortable for learning to take place.  STUDENTS DON'T LEARN WHEN THEY ARE STRESSED AND UNCOMFORTABLE!!

3.  Meet your students where they are; not where they are supposed to be, or where you want them to be...

This strategy can be really difficult, but if you can master it, it can pay huge dividends in the long run.  Every year I start with new students, with different ability levels, different learning styles, and different attitudes toward education.  We have got meet each student on their level.  Their level means their ability, their learning style, and their attitude toward education.  If we treat every student the same, we CANNOT expect the same results!  Just as a doctor evaluates all of a patient's symptoms and treats the patient accordingly, we must evaluate each student and approach the learning process in a manner which is best suited for that individual student.  FORGET ABOUT USING ONE STRATEGY TO TEACH ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS!!

4.  Have high expectations, and expect the best from every single student every single day!

I can honestly say, this has probably been my biggest strength in terms of increasing student engagement.  I have found that when you push the students and they know you are pushing them, they engage themselves and respond at a much higher level than if you were giving them review work over and over.  Human nature is to enjoy a challenge and a task that requires more than the minimum.  If your students are disengaged and non-attentive, perhaps they are bored, and they need a challenge to get them going.  Let your students know you have high expectations for yourself, and consequently you expect the best from them too.  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A CHALLENGE WHEN IT COMES TO STUDENT ENGAGEMENT!!

5.  Do whatever it takes to get your students out of their desks, and give them every opportunity to use their arms and legs!

Organized chaos would be how I would describe my classroom.  Students need to move, and sitting for 7 hours a day is frankly torture.  Would you want to sit for 7 hours a day and listen to people talk at you...no, I think not.  I try to get my students up and moving at least 2 to 3 times a week.  I am talking about relay races, group work, activities that require building things with their hands, an activity where unused fly swatters are used, and lastly skits and reenactments that make everybody laugh.  THE HUMAN BODY WAS NOT DESIGNED TO SIT ALL DAY!! 

6.  Focus on the three R's - rigor, relationships, and relevance...

I already talked about rigor (4) and relationships (1), but I wanted to keep all three Rs together.  If the students see no relevance and value in education, then how can we expect them to learn?  We have got to make sure what they are doing in school is practical and relevant, because if we don't we have no shot at engaging them.  In my classroom I have shown them the connections to what we are learning and the world in which they live.  Also, I have used resources to make what they are learning applicable in their current lives, and have shown them ways to use what we have learned in class.  IF THEY SEE NO VALUE, THEY WILL NEVER BE TRULY ENGAGED!!    

7.  Most importantly...give your students a voice and involve them in the educational process!

Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult things to do in an educational setting, and because it is one of the most difficult, it is one of the most important.  The students know how they learn, they know what they like and dislike, and they hold the key to getting them interested and engaged.  Every day I see 140 students, and my goal is to use them to help me do my job more effectively and efficiently.  Students are a free resource that most educators ignore.  Include them in making assignments, teaching lessons, designing rubrics and writing quizzes and tests.  What do you have to lose?  They will provide you with a wealth of knowledge, and most importantly, they will be engaged because they are a part of the process.  They now have a voice in how they are educated, as well as how they are assessed...STUDENT INVOLVEMENT = AWESOME!!

Please respond with any additional strategies you have used to engage your students.  I would love to add to my list and compile a much larger list to use for new teachers, as well as teacher growth and development programs.  Thank you in advance for your help!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Good ideas spread...and win - what are your good ideas?

As mentioned in previous posts, I have really tried to utilize my summer to better myself.  I wanted to refine my skills as a progressive educator who is able to meet the needs of students in a meaningful and influential way.  As such, I have concentrated on new ways to integrate social media and technology into my classroom instruction.  All of the ideas and suggestions I plan on using started out as ideas.  In particular, they started out not just as ideas, but rather good ideas, and taking it to the next level, they are good ideas that have spread.  We live in a world where there is no shortage of ideas, however there is a shortage of good ideas that will ultimately win out and help shape our society.

This leads me to Seth Godin.  Godin is a unique and visionary leader who sees things a little differently than most.  Most importantly, Godin has been able to identify some of the reasons why good ideas are good ideas, and in particular why they spread.  His major point about the spread of ideas ties directly to the need and the targeted audience of the idea.  Surprisingly enough, as educators we have become infamous for using ideas not particularly designed for education, but hey, they seem to work! 

Every day we go to work or talk to a colleague we should take advantage of this opportunity, and utilize the educators around us and listen to their ideas.  We need to pay attention to our surroundings and keep our eyes open for those good ideas, especially those ideas that are worthy of spreading by our hand.  One of the biggest advantages to working in education is the availability of free and reduced resources.  If you tell someone you need something because you are an educator, most seem willing to throw ideas and resources at you for free simply because you are in education.  Let us take advantage of these ideas and identify the ideas that are practical for our use.  The ideas are out there, it is up to us to recognize them...and if you want to take it a step further, start spreading your own ideas...

Open your mind and explore different theories and beliefs, and when you see no value or purpose in something, try to focus on an audience that might see value in this concept or idea.  Try something new, take a risk, and discover a world of possibility...you hold the power!     

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why we should concentrate on educator growth and development when it comes to the educator evaluation process...

If you have been in education for one year, you have most likely experienced the educator evaluation process. Depending on what school you work at, and in which district you work, your experience could be completely different than that of another. I think it is fantastic that individual schools and districts retain the right to do things in a manner which is best fitting for their students and their community, however when an educator evaluation process is lacking and inadequate, the students and community suffer.

Before we can address this issue, we need to agree that the educator evaluation process serves some kind of a purpose. Hopefully, this purpose is much more than just simply saying whether a teacher is good or not. In most districts teachers get a formal evaluation once a year. The teacher is given advanced notice before the evaluation, and the teacher is able to prepare the perfect lesson plan to show off his/her abilities in the classroom. Additionally, there is normally no pre-observation talk to discuss what the teacher is planning, as well as no post-observation talk to discuss what the results of the observation were. Now...I am not a rocket scientist, nor do I claim to know everything about education. I do, however, think educators have one of the most important jobs in the world, and as such would require one of the most intricate and developed methods to evaluate its educators.

First off, if we are given advance notice before our observation, I am fairly certain most educators are going to perform well and have a positive evaluation. How does this really evaluate our educators? How does this help our educators grow and develop their weaknesses into strengths? How can one, advance notice observation, determine the overall effectiveness, or lack thereof, of an educator? How can such an important job have such an underdeveloped evaluation process that frankly hurts educators by not helping them grow and develop, and leaving too many educators in a field in which they are not really suited. Imagine, if we gave each student all the answers to the test, and determined the student's grade purely on that one test...would we really know much about that student? Has that student grown in his/her mastery of the subject matter? We have got to change the evaluation process we use for educators, because in its current form, it is doing more harm than good.

Please allow me to take a step back here. I am an optimistic, forward thinking person, so I would now like to concentrate on educator evaluation programs that focus on educator development and growth. I believe that a great educator evaluation program begins with teacher growth and development. We should be using the evaluation process to help our teachers to grow and become better equipped to deal with the educational challenges of the 21st century. The educator evaluation process needs to be a collaborative process that involves other teachers, administrators, and I honestly think...students. Students have a wealth of knowledge that can improve the educational experience, and frankly their voice is one to which we must listen. It is time to embrace the opinion of others to make sure we are using an evaluation process that helps and actually improves educator ability.

A growing trend in education is standards based grading. I firmly believe a standards based grading system would be an asset to educator development and educator evaluation methods. We would then be able to quantify the strengths and weaknesses of individual educators, while empowering them by helping them to understand ways to improve their skills. In its current form, we are missing out on the chance to help educators find their true strengths, while limiting their weaknesses. Let us challenge each other to make the educational setting as good as it can be. It is time to change!

Check out this valuable link: http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9213/teacher.htm

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Human nature - why sometimes we should fight to ignore it...

I will preface this post by saying I am only 15 pages into the book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch.  Despite not being too far along in this book, I feel empowered to share my experiences thus far.

In my short 5 years in education I have learned many things, however for this post I will concentrate on just one.  There is one thing for certain in education...and that is, there is nothing certain in education.  The education system in America has been going through, and will continue to go through a process of change.  Ironically enough, this process of change is continuing to change and evolve.  What we started with just a mere 5 years ago, is now something completely different.  If you talk to an educator who has 30 years of experience in education, you would be amazed to hear all of the different trends and changes that have taken place over the last 30 years.  Unfortunately, for better or worst, many of these trends and changes have changed, stayed way too long, or completely died.  How can such an important piece to our democratic society be in such a constant state of turmoil?  There is one thing to blame...human nature.

As humans, we are wired to adapt and change.  Throughout the existence of mankind we have evolved and transformed our way of life, and because of our ability to adapt and evolve we have not just survived, but we have thrived.  As with many strengths, there is also a downside.  Specifically with education, we are constantly looking to change and transform the educational process for the better.  Because of human nature we tend to jump on board with any idea or proposal that claims to solve all of our educational problems.  Human nature is jumping on the train before asking if it is the right train, or checking to see where the train is going.

By no means am I advocating we ignore change and educational reform, but rather I would advocate taking a step back and really evaluating new ideas and measures before implementing them.  I think we should use the quality over quantity approach when addressing educational issues and ways to improve.  We should use caution and ask as many questions as possible before using classrooms and students as guinea pigs.  We should take risks, but take calculated risks that have really weighed the potential benefits and costs of such measures.  I am 100% for innovation, creativity, transformation, and any other type of progressive change that can improve our education system.  If we have analyzed all the available data and information while considering and including all stakeholders, we will be doing what is in the best interests of the students.

"If we're growing, we're always going to be out of our comfort zone"         

John Maxwell       

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Why leading from the middle is the future, and why being compared to a pez dispenser is okay...

As education continues to evolve and change, it is necessary for our educational leaders to adapt and change as well. All too often we see schools and districts that lead with a top down approach. Even though this type of leadership has proven to be successful in certain circumstances, the level of effectiveness drops off over time and any future potential positive impact dissolves.

How can we change this? How can we get leaders to understand that in order to get substantial results for more than just a short period of time, it is going to require a new form of leadership? I know the concept is not new, and this idea is not earth shattering, so then why do we have so many schools and districts that are more similar to a dictatorship than a collaborative team working together for a shared common interest? We talk so much about getting students involved and a part of the process, so isn't it time we get teachers, staff, parents and community members involved? It takes time, energy, patience and dedication, but you can ask any educator who has a supportive and involving leader, and I can guarantee they will be more pleased with their job, as well as much more productive. In the world of education, more productive means having more meaningful and positive impacts on children, and isn't that what we are trying to accomplish?

The approach to leading from the middle is simple: A leader leading from the middle can reach and impact everyone. A leader leading from the middle can spread resources, ideas, suggestions and creative innovations in a much faster and efficient manner. A leader leading from the middle can facilitate the growth of other leaders by empowering people to share their own ideas and experiences. A leader leading from the middle is similar to a pez dispenser, because the leader should be popping out ideas and suggestions to anyone and everyone. Everybody loves pez dispensers, especially pez dispensers that are dispensing ideas and resources helping educators grow both personally and professionally. Nobody should be afraid of their leader, and I am not aware of anyone who is scared of a pez dispenser.

Let us encourage our leaders to spread their influence by empowering others to become their own leaders. Let us all start leading from the middle and begin dispensing pez to encourage a collaborative shared vision approach to education. True leadership will be most successful if it begins in the middle.  Providing resources and influencing others will always trump giving orders and dominating others. Please share your experiences and suggestions on leadership, and ways to improve the collaborative approach to education that is necessary for educators to succeed.  Here is a link to check out: http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2010/01/13/you-should-lead-from-the-middle/

"The best leaders instill in their people a hope for success and a belief in themselves. Positive leaders empower others to accomplish their goals." - anonymous