Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Just Jump In

   Teachers need to integrate technology seamlessly into the curriculum instead of viewing it as an add-on, an afterthought, or an event.                                                                                                            – Heidi-Hayes Jacobs

     Recently I finished up some technology-based classes. For those who know me, it should come as no surprise that I take classes in technology. I’m fascinated with the potential. I’ve found I can’t out think, out dream, or out imagine how I could use technology in the classroom. Taking these types of classes, I believe,  help me become a better teacher.
      What is it about hardware and software and mechanical gadgets that enthralls me? Several things. One, I can use them to differentiate instruction for students.Not just modifying down but also modifying up the scale, offering more advanced students a challenge comparable to their abilities.
     Another reason I prefer to utilize these tools is that they often lead to engagement. Students need to be 21st century ready when they leave high school. What does that mean? To me it’s a fancy way of saying they need to learn how to think analytically, how to work with others, how to think beyond paper, and how to communicate—verbally and in the written form. Honestly? I think these are huge, especially thinking and communicating. My goal as a teacher has always been to get my students to think, to analyze, to use logic, to pick an idea apart, looking  for logical fallacies. As they learn to think, they also learn to write. Again, using logic, using critical thinking skills, and writing to defend or persuade. These are the hardest skills I’ve found to teach but the most important.
     A third reason for using technology in the classroom is to prepare students for the world around them, for life after high school. My redundant words echo the importance of learning to be comfortable with technology. By exposing my students to a variety of online programs, different computing devices, and a myriad of learning opportunities in different formats, I am able to arm them with skills to navigate the technological pathway. They won’t be intimidated when facing new programs but easily experiment and learn how to work them.
     I want my students to learn how to work as a team, looking  to others to augment their own work. One project involved learning to create a digital magazine. Students worked together, learning that in publishing there’s an order. When one part of that order stalls, it forces others working on different parts to stall as well. Students worked as a team, proofing each other’s work, assisting each other in the layout and design process, and critically analyzing the artwork needed and choosing what worked well with a written piece. Because this was a publication that would be available online and in hard copy format, students took extra pains to make sure what they produced was their best.
     Finally, I believe technology offers students the opportunity to think critically in terms of troubleshooting glitches. Who hasn’t had a technology malfunction? I’ve had more than my share and they regularly seem to occur when I really need to get something done. My tech support (husband) isn’t  always available to help me troubleshoot the problem. Where do I go? Google, of course. I can usually find answers on the internet. When students encounter problems, I look at it as a learning opportunity and ask questions that will hopefully help them understand the steps in troubleshooting problems.
     People toss around the phrase, at least in education, “life-long learner.” Because of the rapidity of the changes in the technological world, for those who immerse themselves in technology, they will become just that—learners in an ever-changing world.
     I’ll continue to press myself to learn so I can stay current with my students and the world around me. Hopefully, making me a life-long learner. If you don’t use technology to enhance your lessons, consider it. Take the jump. The water’s initially a shock, but you get used to it. Trust me on this. Just jump in.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's Your Gift?

I'm taking a class to gain my last needed credit to make the coveted "lane change." However, this isn't just any lane change, it's the last one I'll do as a teacher. That means I'm getting old. That means I've been teaching a long time. That means my career is coming to an end. But I'm still learning new things, surprising truths, actually.
     The first thing I've realized is teaching has meant more to me than I ever thought it would. An eager seventeen-year-old punk who left home and never looked back, I couldn't wait for college. I would be around people from a variety of backgrounds who would challenge my thinking, befriend me, and welcome my insights. It was in college I truly learned to think. Yet, I never went to college for that reason. I went away to escape from a dark childhood.
    I shared my formative years story with a friend the other day and she asked me if I'd ever written about my upbringing. I haven't and I won't bore you with the details, but suffice it to say I'm in the exact place I'm supposed to be, teaching the exact subset of kids I can relate to. I've been them. Lived that life. Survived my childhood. Beat off the negative comments that swirled around me. Proved I could succeed.
    My conversation with my friend helped me realize that, truly and completely, for the first time. I'm teaching a group of students I love to teach because I understand their struggles, both emotionally and relationally with family.  When I share my story with someone, inadvertently the question always arises--how did you endure that? My answer? I made a choice. Simple, really.  I made a choice to be a victor not a victim. I share that same message with my students.
    So why the disclosure? Because of my friend. She helped me to admit something to myself that has been robbed of me by my past. It was through her that I saw a purpose in where I was and why I was teaching. Instead of listening, subconsciously, to the negative recording from my youth, I realized I could break that record and believe in me. In what I did in the classroom and for my students. I've known for a long time I could relate to my kids like most others can't. But she made me see that as a gift. As a victor's gift. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
    See, I teach at-risk kids. Not bad kids. Not punks. Young adults who want to be viewed and treated with respect by those older than they. I LOVE my job and my students. I wouldn't want to teach anywhere or anyone else. And honestly? I think I'm good at developing relationships with my students. They come to trust me, knowing I'm on their side and their advocate. Beyond wanting them to learn how to think and analyze, I want my students to know they, too, can be victors. It's all in the choices they make.
    My career may be careening to an end, but I've still got a few years to go. I'm going to enjoy being in the classroom like never before. Why? Because it's a gift. I'm going to enjoy my students beyond expectation. Why? Because they're a gift. And I'm going to believe in myself, my gut instincts, like never before. Why? Because of the gift.
   I'm glad to learn the truth my friend helped me realize. It was something my head knew, but this time my heart acknowledged it as well. My friend showed me that we all have gifts. We just need to uncover them, dust them off, and use them.
     So look around and see what you find. I've looked and found my gift. What's yours?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Teaching Truths

 Teaching is not for the fainthearted.

                I guess I’ve finally achieved it. I’m important enough for the local paper to publish my salary, along with those of my colleagues. On what must have been a slow news week, our local heralder of the news made a decision to show people of my region just what teachers and administrators make, including benefits.
                Don’t get me wrong. I don’t actually mind people knowing what I make. After 24 years of teaching, I make less than most professionals. Far less. Yet I think teachers put up with a lot more than the regular Joe realizes. 
                Teachers are subject to microscopic inquiries on everything they do in the classroom or school. Students can disrespect teachers, swear at them, even grab them with minimal repercussions.  Students may push the boundaries, but most teachers I know continue to patiently encourage the wayward young people, working with them to become engaged in the lesson.
                Again, don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my job. That’s why I continue to work at it, putting in countless hours over the summer and after hours that aren’t reflected in my pay stub.  And not just me—countless others in my profession do the same.  This is one of the many things the public doesn’t realize or see. They don’t see us paying for lunch for a student or two (or five) who doesn’t  have lunch money. Or buying clothes for a student who doesn’t have much. Or giving students money to buy bus tickets. Or buying jackets for young people who wear hoodies in the winter as their only protection against the cold. Or adopting families at Christmas time to ensure the kids receive some gifts that special night. Or gathering a group of reluctant readers after school and reading through The Great Gatsby with them, page by page.
                Teaching is a tough profession and is not for the fainthearted. You must be thick-skinned to endure the scrutiny of the public.  Much like police officers, teachers make negative headlines. Students underperforming, students bullying, students doing poorly on standardized tests—all problems that stem from bad teachers. When was the last time you heard something good about the teaching profession in the news? Yeah, me too.
                So does the public, who viewed my salary, realize what teachers do with all that cash? The amount of money spent on continuing education credits so they can renew their licenses? The amount of money spent on supplements to the curriculum? The amount of money spent on conferences to enhance their teaching prowess? The amount of money spent on books, magazines, and other materials that enrich them as teachers? If that amount was averaged and subtracted from total salaries, would the public have a better understanding of how much teachers make?
                Teachers really and truly aren’t in this profession for the money.  But we do need to be compensated for our work. It gets tiresome being scrutinized every time teacher’s salaries are negotiated,  being criticized for wanting to earn more so we’re not listed as 46th in the nation for teacher’s salaries, and being accused of taking a “vacation” during the summer months when we aren’t paid.
                I may sound a little negative in this post, but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to enlighten people about the state of teachers’ salaries, the amount of work educators do, and the love with which they toil. Teachers are good people who try hard to make a difference in the lives of young people by educating them, encouraging them, and expecting them to learn.
                So as a celebrity earner in my area, I welcome you to view my salary.  And by the way, if you’ve read and understand this blog post, thank a teacher for helping you learn how to do so.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Who's In Your Corner?

Time for reflection with colleagues is for me a lifesaver; it is not just a nice thing to do if you have the time. It is the only way you can survive.

                                                                                              ~ Margaret Wheatley

      There are times when teaching isn’t fun. At all. Maybe it’s a mass of paperwork, unexpected meetings or a confrontation with a student. Or maybe it’s just a bad day. When nothing you try seems to go right. I can think I have a handle on being the most organized person around and it all goes south in a minute when students don’t responds as anticipated. Now what? Not a fun day. At all.
     To minimize these events, I try to stay connected to colleagues and bounce ideas off them. People I know, trust, and respect as educators and people. Not only do I offer ideas, I gain insights and see things differently when I’m around these people.
     Later this week I’m meeting with two of these colleagues, Eric and Bridget. And I can’t wait. Why?  Because I know I’m going to learn new things, be challenged as a teacher to think creatively, and become a sharper educator because of their influence.
     These are teachers much younger than I who may lack my experience but who brim with ideas and energy. I look forward to these meetings and encourage them. It’s by meeting with fellow teachers whom I respect and trust that I grow as an educator. They keep me sharp in my thinking and adventurous in my lesson planning.
     This handful of teachers I look to support me with innovative thoughts and thought-provoking questions. When submitting an idea for review, I expect the concept to be pounded out, questioned, trampled on and generally roughed over good. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I want to be challenged and asked to defend why I’m teaching as I am. I want to have to use my critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills just as I ask of my students.
     So who in your life holds you accountable in your profession? Who asks you the difficult questions? Who do you turn to when you need advice on anything from collegial interactions to dealing with a disruptive student? Who do you turn to when you want to share victories and defeats?
     I also realize these people are going to make me work harder and think deeper than I normally do...which is a really good thing! No profession is easy if you want to be good at it. My level of effectiveness as a teacher equates with the amount of effort I extend. Surrounding myself with like-minded people, whom I consider better at the craft of teaching than I, makes me strive to improve myself and work harder to achieve more in the classroom.
     I hope you have some colleagues with whom you have that type of relationship. Not “yes” men, but professionals who will treat you with respect yet won’t shy away from honesty. I am blessed by those in my life. I’d be half the teacher I am today without their input into my life.
     Everyone needs someone in their corner. If you don’t feel you have a group of fellow workers you trust and respect, start cultivating those relationships now. They will make you a better educator and a better person. Trust me on this.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Great Teacher--Final Installment

  The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book.                                                                                          ~Author Unknown  

      This is my last post on what makes a “great” teacher.  Again, I’m not the expert. I asked my students and these are the most frequent responses I received. In my opinion, it’s a pretty exhaustive list. One I would be well served to pay attention to! School starts in a couple of months. Ruminate over the ideas you’ve read and try to incorporate one or two of them into your next school year. See how what a difference making a few changes can make. I know I plan on it.

A “great” teacher…

11. Is willing to let students explore and learn.
      This can be a hard one as a teacher. We all have a curriculum and standards we feel tied to and any slight deviation makes us feel as though we’re failing students and letting them down.  But one of the earmarks of a great teacher is being flexible. I think this goes right along with flexibility.  Giving students choices and allowing them to captain their learning. This ownership helps with engagement.
Lesson Learned: Every student is different. Allow students to explore and more learning and engagement will take place.

12. Isn’t afraid to fail.
      This can be difficult for some teachers. We as teachers have been taught to maintain control in the classroom. Which translates for some that they must always be right and have all the answers. It’s good for teachers to admit they don’t know something or that a project or lesson they are attempting just isn’t working as it should. I try to be transparent with my students which, I believe, invites them to share the difficulties they may be having with a lesson or a concept. I’ve failed a lot as a teacher. And I’ve failed to admit the failure.
Lesson Learned: It’s much better to admit defeat than try to convince kids you’ve got everything in hand when you don’t. Kids are smart. They know a poor lesson when they see it. Admit it and ask for their input to make it better. You may be surprised at the response.

13. Treats students with respect and like young adults—don’t talk down to students.
      I hear this over and over from my students when they transfer in from other schools. They like my high school because we treat them like young adults and allow them to make choices, good or bad.  I think we gain stronger relationships at Community (my high school) because we do try to treat them with respect. I’ve seen what being a helicopter teacher does to students and it’s not positive.
Lesson Learned: Give students the chance to be young adults and make their own decisions. You may not agree with the choices they make, but the students have to learn the lessons of life as well as curriculum. It’s a safer place to make the errors in your classroom than on the streets.

14. Recognizes that students are under pressure.
      Students today have tremendous pressure. Some may be involved in multiple extracurricular activities along with having work, school, and family responsibilities. This can take a toll on kids. At my school extracurricular activities don’t exist because most of my students work to support themselves, help support their families, or to pay for some of their expenses. Work is vital to most of my students. But for some reason, employers don’t realize these kids are in school. I’ve had students who are scheduled to work until 1 or 2 in the morning. When they mention to their employer that they have school the next day, the employer tells them to work or get fired. So they try to do both, work and school, but wear themselves out. Of the two, school usually comes in second. Realize these kids have more than school going on in their lives. More than work. More than family. Some are parents, some feel like parents to younger siblings, some are caregivers to their parents.  Whatever the case, school is in the mix but may not always be the highest priority for students.
Lesson Learned: Don’t be so rigid that you can’t empathize with students. However, help them problem solve to relieve some of the pressure. Realize most students don’t like the circumstances they are in any more than you do. Don’t add to their pressure. Do what you can to relieve some of it.

15. Has enthusiasm for their job—they LIKED what they were doing.
      I’m ending this series with one of the more important qualities of a great teacher, in my opinion. If you’re a teacher and you don’t love kids and your profession, it may be time to exit stage right. You can’t fool students. They know teachers who love what they do and love being in the classroom. And they respond positively.
Lesson Learned: Know when to hang up my profession. Reevaluate my enthusiasm as a teacher and toward my profession. When I can’t say I’m excited for school to start in September, it may be time for me to hang up my lit book!

      Students are perceptive people. They teach me something new every day. I hope their list of characteristics of great teachers has given you some ideas to ponder. Summer is a super time to reinvent yourself in the classroom. What will you do this next year to become a “great” teacher? Think about it.