Tuesday, March 29, 2016

On Being a Gymnast

    Today's writing challenge is to create a metaphor/simile/analogy to describe my teaching philosophy. I'm not sure this is a philosophy but it didn't take me long to think of it. So here it is,, my own little metaphor about teaching. A teacher is a flexible gymnast.
     What the heck is that supposed to mean? Well, let me tell you the thought process that brought me to this conclusion. When first confronted with today's question, I immediately wondered what I believe a teacher is--a parental-like figure, a counselor, an educator--one who wears many hats. Ergo the gymnast--someone who is flexible and who can jump through hoops.

     The last comment may need the most explanation. Jump through hoops? Yeah, I said it. Fill out the PO just the right way. Request help for a student by contacting the right person and filling out the right form. Six credits in five years to keep your license. Document this, sign that, fill out this form, go through these channels, etc. I'm not complaining. There needs to be order. But sometimes you just need to be adept at jumping hoops. Every year or two there seems to be a new idea coming down the pike that educators embrace, changing all the previous work we had just completed after the last new idea had rolled through. That's the frustrating part. Those are the hoops.
      But it's not only jumping through hoops. It's vital that we as educators are flexible. I think that may be our most important characteristic. This is coming from someone whose early philosophy mirrored that of Marie Antoinette. If my kids couldn't keep up with my "sit and get" teaching style and couldn't comprehend MY style of teaching, well they had a problem. Forget my changing for them. No, "let them eat cake!" Too bad if they were starving academically, let them feast on the nonexistent "cake" in their lives--the stuff I assumed they had access to, which, in fact, they didn't.
     My arrogance rivaled Antoinette's if not exceeded it. Slowly, my attitude has changed. Credit two things for that. One, the school where I teach and two, my teaching mentor Max. He had a profound impact on the way I viewed education philosophy and more importantly, how I viewed kids. If I learned anything from Max it was the importance of being a gymnast in my approach to students.
     I must be flexible. I can't think of a single quality that embraces more. If you're flexible, you'll be willing to differentiate instruction for students, know not everyone learns the same way. If you're flexible, you'll realize kids are dealing with huge outside factors that make concentrating on school difficult some days. If you're flexible, you'll realize your content isn't the end all, be all in your kids' lives today or any day and realize that's okay. If you're flexible, you aren't married to your lesson plans. Sometimes learning windows appear that you need to open for the fresh air they bring into sometimes stale teaching. If you're flexible, you'll adapt and incorporate other teacher's successes into your own repertoire.
     In real life I'm probably the least flexible person I know. But one thing I've learned through out the years is flexibility is a must have for teachers. It really does matter to students and to yourself as a professional. Remember students first. Flexibility matters. It can make all the difference.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

It's All in the Way We Think

     I recently saw an Abbott and Costello gig about math. Hilarious as it was, it got me thinking about the way students look at things. Sometimes their approach isn't my approach. Actually, often times it's not. But does that mean their approach is wrong? Not really. I'd say my adamant insistence that they interpret literature the way I want them to is wrong. It's interpretation. Do I see a use of logic? Are they analyzing? If their interpretation is different than mine, are they wrong?
      Thinking back to my college days, I know I was usually the odd person out when it came to agreeing with the professor's take on a piece of literature. I'm going to take hits for this, but when we discussed the book The Great Gatsby, I told the prof it was a banal, trite work that was boring. The only voice of truth in my Am. Lit class, at least in my opinion (I still haven't come around on that novel). Students were aghast that I spoke what I'm sure many of them felt. The professor was astound I could be of that opinion. In hindsight I realize in most of my lit classes I often countered popular opinions with my own. But I always had a logical reason and a basis for my view.
      If my students disagree with me, is that wrong? Actually, I encourage that way of thinking. I don't want a bunch of milk cows following the leader into the barn every day at 4:00. I want free thinkers who analyze on their own.
      Now granted, literature is not finite like math. And in math there are absolutes. But most of life isn't that way. Most of life requires us to process information and come to a logical and reasonable conclusion. Not always my conclusion.
       If we want to encourage critical thinking, let's not squash thinking that doesn't mirror our own. Not everyone processes or looks at things the same way we do. Should students be discouraged from alternative thinking? Or is this something we as teachers need to encourage? Even help develop?
      It's all in the way we think. Some see 7 x 13 as 28 and others don't. Next time your students use logic and reason to come to their own conclusion and not yours, don't discourage it. Maybe you'll learn a thing or two. It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Challenging Issues

    Whenever I tell people what I "do," they smile and reply, "That's great. Where do you teach?" If the person is from my home city, they do one of two things. Wrinkle their brow in confusion because they never knew my school existed or furrow their brow in concern because I teach "there" those "troubled" kids. Well, I'm here to tell you that my "troubled" kids probably present as many challenges as those in the traditional high schools. Kids are kids. Some like school and some don't. My job is to reach them all--somehow--and infuse in them a thrill of learning.
     Today's reflective post is to discuss the most challenging issues in education. For me, it's the previous scenario. How do we change the preconceived ideas people have of the students who attend my school? We do service projects once a block in the community. Nice, but not quite enough to erase the stigma. My classes engage in projects to promote the school, addressing the misconceptions people may have. Good, but no cigar. One of our students recently won a Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Contest. Top 1% of the 320,000 entries. Ho hum. I won't belabor my point, but you get the idea. It's  a challenge to change preconceived ideas.
     The same is true in traditional education. The public has preconceived ideas of what teachers can and should accomplish and, frankly, some of those ideas are spot on and some are off target. I think one of the biggest challenges facing education is changing people's ideas of what education should look like and how to approach the classroom.  For educators this means rethinking how we teach. Are we keeping up with the changing times? Are we being innovative in the classroom and continually trying new ways to teach material? New ways to challenge our students to think and analyze? New ways to engage them in learning?
     Perhaps we need to address what education should look like in the modern world. Should it continue to be "sit and get," with students listening to lectures and writing down notes? Or should we look for new methods of teaching the same material with more student involvement and engagement? The challenge, if you believe in making changes, is finding the time to make the whole scale adjustments to how you approach teaching.
     Maybe the challenge isn't so much in perceptions as in practice and attitude. Maybe teachers need to adjust how they view these changes in the landscape of teaching, embrace them more and be more positive in their outlook.Perhaps teachers need to take the first step in facing the gauntlet of attitude issues by readjusting their own. It's our job to believe in students. Every. Single. One.
     By changing our attitudes toward students, perhaps the environment in the classroom becomes more positive and more "can do." I've heard long enough what my kids "can't do" and so have they. Maybe we need to approach them like they can achieve.
    The list of challenges in teaching is as varied as those who are in the classroom. Everyone has an opinion. But this much is true. Unless teachers begin and end the day with confidence that their kids can learn and a willingness to be innovative in the classroom, mediocrity and self-doubts will linger. In everyone, student and teacher alike. By approaching students and the classroom with a more positive outlook, teachers can set the tone for the learning environment and the expectations of students. And that? That can make all the difference.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What are Your Strengths?

     How important is it to realize your weaknesses as a teacher? Ask most people and they would say it's invaluable. However, ask those same people about the power of realizing your strengths and they'd demurely dismiss your question. "Oh,I don't have any strengths" we coyly respond. But it's not true. All of us have strengths and once we recognize and begin to develop those strengths, students win.
    Ask yourself that simple question. What are my strengths as an educator? Where do I shine? What do I do well? There's no pride in admitting you do have skills and talents that enable you to do your job well. Not recognizing our positive qualities not only diminishes us but it minimizes our perception of ourselves.
     There are things I am good at and things I definitely need to work on. But the key is that I admit both the positives and negatives in my life. I admit weak areas freely, so why not claim the strengths?
    Teachers need to realize they do impact lives and they do make a difference and they do have strengths that aid in their teaching. Too often people criticize others for acknowledging something they do well in their lives. Instead, we need to embrace those things we excel at and develop them.
     I took time and looked at my own skills. What am I good at? What are my strengths? Do I utilize my strengths to improve my teaching? Unless I admit I'm good at somethings, I'll never be able to use those skills in the classroom. We do a disservice to our students when we're too prideful to admit our strengths. There's nothing to be gained when we operate in "humility" and refuse to admit we are skilled in certain areas.
     Once you evaluate your life and see how you operate, pick out the strong points in your teaching. Everyone has them. Everyone has something he or she is good at that can be beneficial in the classroom.
    I know my strengths and I use them daily to be a better, more approachable teacher. How about you? Acknowledge your strengths and use them intentionally daily. It will make all the difference.