Reflecting

This post is a long time coming. Reflection. There isn’t one of you reading this who doesn’t know what it means, and most of you are probably very clear on the benefit of it. We all heard about it in University. We were told how important it was to look back on a lesson we taught, embrace the positives and work on the negatives, and use this process to refine and improve our teaching. Of course we also were taught about lesson plans…

The trouble is we can always find an excuse or some other activity that commandeers that time we could use for reflection, and we don’t get around to it. Like creating a lesson plan, reflecting is something we know we should do, we know will help us, but we also know we can still get by without doing it. We gain confidence in ourselves as teachers and we let reflection fall to the wayside. I did. I was so sure of myself as an educator that I never really took the time to sit and review what I did on a daily basis. Sure, I would discuss my teaching with my colleagues, share strategies and talk shop, but I never really took the time to think about and go through what I was doing on a daily basis.

When I started writing posts for this blog, I did it to hear ideas from others, to share some of my ideas, and to get a conversation going about issues that were important to me. It didn’t take long to realize that what I was really doing was reflecting on my teaching and my new job, administration. When I was frustrated by tough days, posting my reflections acted as catharsis. I’d reflect and realize that things weren’t so bad, that I was making the right decisions, and I would be able to move past the issue. When I have had questions, or issues that I needed to work through, I write about them, and the solution will often become clear as I put it in a post. Of course the best part about posting reflections in a blog is all the amazing comments you get which aid in both further reflection and with providing ideas and solutions to any issue I may have.

So what effects have I noticed reflection has had on my practice?

  • I am not nearly so critical of myself – I find it easier to be a little more forgiving when I see I haven’t handled something as well as I could have.
  • I can pat myself on the back once in a while – I find it hard to tell if I have handled a situation well. By reflecting, I can look back and really see where I made a good decision, or dealt with an issue well.
  • I can work on my areas of growth – my blog provides me a safe place to share, to reflect, to learn and to grow with the assistance of my PLN. I obviously protect myself by not using student names or specific/telling details, but I am still able to work through a question with people who can offer great insight.
  • I can be me – In these posts I can talk about how a situation frustrated me, brought me to tears or left me speechless. I can admit that my composure was lost, that I made a mistake or that I ended up looking like an ass. I can drop the tough facade, and show my true colors because my PLN includes supportive and understanding people who have been in my shoes and know its ok to have tough days.

Blogging is a wonderful tool for reflection and sharing, but for someone in their first year of administration I can tell you it is has been a lifesaver. The job can be a lonely one, and it can be tough to find someone or somewhere to share, to vent and to find support. I thank each and everyone of you that reads these posts, especially those of you that take the time to comment. I hope you can see now that you are part of my reflective process, and part of making me a better educator. Thank You.

Just Past The Quarter Pole

I am a Canadian, and a hockey fan, which probably isn’t very surprising, but it is necessary for me to tell you that so you get the analogy here. As a hockey fan (Go Canucks Go), the 82 game season is a long one, and we tend to take stock every so often to see how our team is doing. About the 20 or 21 game mark of the season it is inevitable that you will here a hockey broadcaster talk about “The Quarter Pole”. The idea is that the season is 1/4 over and it is a logical time to reflect on how the team has done so far, and how the rest of the season will go.

In my first year as an Administrator I just recently passed the quarter pole, and I am more than 1/4 done my “Rookie Season”. Today, as I walked the halls of my school and reflected on how much I have experienced, I realized this monumental feat (it feels that way to me) and thought it would be a great time to reflect here on what has transpired for me so far. While only about 3 months on the job, I can definitively divide this time into three distinct phases.

1. Excitement/Anticipation

When I got to work in mid-August, I was really looking forward to getting started. My Principal and I had a lot on our plate, but it was really just the two of us, working our butts off to get the school ready to open. She lined me up with a number of tasks and I completed them with enthusiasm and energy, so ready to put my mark on everything within the halls of our school. The job was hectic, the hours were pretty long, but to be honest it was pretty easy. I like working hard and being challenged, I know I am usually able to do a good job, and I enjoy helping people. With each item on my to do list finished, it was usually met with praise and thanks from my Principal, and it was easy to feel like I was doing a great job. This period lasted for about two weeks…

2. Panic/Fear/Frustration/Despair

Wow. It hit me like a ton of bricks. First the teachers showed up, followed shortly after by the students, and soon things were unraveling for me in ways I never saw coming. It started with panic. I really didn’t know where all this was coming from and how I could possibly handle it all. Then came the fear. I really started to think I had a made a big mistake and was afraid I couldn’t possibly make it through the whole year. Frustration seemed the only constant, as each new scenario provided opportunities for me to show just how inexperienced and inept I really was. The final emotion was a feeling of despair, as I looked ahead to a calendar filled with so many days that I would have to drag my sorry butt in to work, miserable and ready to give up…

3. Relief/Realization

Then all of the sudden, I came out of the storm and I’d have the odd quiet day. No kids in the office, no parents calling upset with me, no teachers pointing out something I had messed up, just a really mellow day. I had time to attack the mountain of paperwork on my desk, have the odd cup of coffee, eat my lunch before 4pm, and simply feel like I could manage the day. Relief almost feels like an understatement when I look back on it. Just in the past couple of weeks I have noticed that instead of having the odd quiet day, we’d string two or three together. In fact, it wasn’t that the days were perfect, but that I was able to manage the difficult situations without too much stress. The amount of interactions that have caused me stress are dwindling, mostly because I am finding situations easier to manage. One of my mentors called it “Growing Your Teflon”, and told me that over time I would just learn to let things slide off my back without even bothering me in the slightest. I must be putting on a few layers of the Teflon, because the realization that I CAN do this job, and that I WILL enjoy this job has arrived in the last few days. It feels great.

It has only been three months, just past the quarter pole in my first year, but what I have learned, what I have experienced and the emotional roller coaster I have been on make it almost impossible to believe that it hasn’t been five years. If there is one fundamental change that I can say has happened, it is definitely that my mindset has changed. When I look at the 7 months ahead, I actually am excited again, and I can’t wait to see how it goes.

 

Teachers Should Fail Too!

I am once again at a conference, yes I live a charmed life, this time it is a conference put on by my province’s teaching association for first and second year administrators. Our keynote this morning was Dr. Robert Marzano and he spoke at times about teacher supervision. It was refreshing to hear someone speak about how the supervision or evaluative process could be used for teachers to try new things and to gain feedback while doing so. I immediately thought of a couple of teachers on my staff I would love to work with, assisting them by supervising a lesson during which they tried something wild, and then the two of us reflecting after (or during) the class. This idea made me think about my last post, and about how we want to start motivating our students to welcome mistakes and to grow from their mistakes. I think we need to send this message to our teachers as well.

Risk taking by our teachers is going to be an important part of challenging our students in the future. If we are going to have our students engage in exercises that cause them to struggle, we are going to need our teachers to create lessons that provide students with struggle. I spoke about that last time, but what I realized is that we also have to instill that mindset in our teachers. We have to urge our TEACHERS to go out and fail as well. We have to inspire our teachers to try to create lessons that even we aren’t sure will be successful. We have to urge them to push the envelope, and if done properly, they will be bound to crash and burn from time to time. When they do, we need to be there to thank them for their efforts, to praise them for their courage and to help them back on to their creative and experimental horse.

I was thinking that introducing this idea needs to happen in the interview process for every new teacher we hire. How freeing would that be, to be sitting across from your future boss and to hear them say “We want you to FAIL!”… well maybe not, but you can imagine it would be a comforting feeling to know that your principal expects you to try things and for them not to always go well. For new teachers, everything would be new, so knowing it is ok for things to go poorly might put their minds at ease.

I want any teacher I work with to strive for personal growth in their profession. I want them to feel like they have the freedom to do new and exciting things. I also want our students to know that their teachers care enough about them to be creative and to experiment with lessons. Maybe the most important moment in the process will be when that teacher tries that amazing new lesson, falls flat on their face, and then reflects on that failure with their students. We model so many things for our students, modeling how to properly deal with failure, to grow and learn from failure, that just may be the best lesson we can teach.

It’s The Struggle

I am currently reading the book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, a book about talent “hotbeds”, places where abnormally high numbers of talented individuals come out of relatively small populations. The author went to these places to find out why these “hotbeds” were so successful in their fostering of young talent. He traveled to Brazil (soccer), Russia (Tennis), upstate New York (Musicians), and to the Dominican (baseball) to name a few, to see what young people in these areas did differently. I found it interesting that what Mr. Coyle found in these talent “hotbeds” was similar to the message Allison Zmuda gave us at a recent conference in Edmonton. She talked about making learning for our students “messy” and “uncomfortable”, providing them the opportunity to problem solve and be creative. What Daniel Coyle found was programs designed to have its participants struggle.

I don’t want to post the entire book here, but here are a couple great passages that speak to this point.

” Sally Thomas, a violin teacher at Meadowmount, watches for changes in the way students walk. ‘They show up here with a strut,’ Thomas said. ‘Then after a while they aren’t strutting anymore. That’s a good thing’ ” (pg. 93)

” According to a 1995 study, a sample of Japanese eighth graders spent 44 percent of their class time inventing, thinking, and actively struggling with underlying concepts. The study’s sample of American students, on the other hand, spent less than 1 per cent of their time in that state. ‘The Japanese want their kids to struggle,’ said Jim Stigler, the UCLA professor who oversaw the study and who cowrote The Teaching Gap with James Hiebert. ‘Sometimes the [Japanese] teacher will purposely give the wrong answers so the kids can grapple with the theory. American teachers, though, worked like waiters. Whenever there was a struggle, they wanted to move past it, make sure the class kept gliding along. But you don’t learn by gliding’ ” (pg. 93-94)

When I read this section of the book, a summary of what Daniel Coyle calls “Deep Practice”, it immediately reminded me of Allison Zmuda’s talk of messy, uncomfortable learning. She spoke of Carol Dweck‘s idea of a “Growth Mindset”, where students are not only tolerant of making mistakes, but actively seeking opportunities where failure is the most likely result. The idea is an exciting one, but probably not a comfortable way to teach for many of us. So how do we turn the corner, and get away from information delivery to struggle creation?

I believe the answer lies in risk-taking by our teachers, and administrators who not only support teachers in this endeavor, but motivate their teachers to take chances. We are never going to get to a place where struggle and failure are welcomed in our classrooms until we start getting comfortable allowing struggle and failure to happen without swooping in to save the day. We need to start talking to our students about failure and all failure has to offer us in our pursuit of learning.

When Allison brought this topic up, I was discussing the idea with Kathy Mann at our table, and she asked a great question. She asked “Why are we afraid of failure?” I don’t know the answer, but if I had to guess I would say that we have severed the connection between failure and learning. We need to mend that connection and make it part of what we do on a daily basis. It’s going to be a struggle… but that’s what we want, right?

 

My Assessment Journey

Assessment. The word used to make me cringe. During university, I had to of course take an assessment class. I dreaded it, and I wondered why I needed this class, I was becoming a teacher to connect with kids and change their lives, not create rubrics and figure out how to mark. When I started teaching and we had PD sessions on assessment, or I saw conference posters for assessment, I thought they were for the nerdy teachers who knew/cared nothing about kids. I never considered assessment as a critical part of the education process, because I thought connecting with kids had nothing to do with books (curriculum), marks (assessment) or computers (technology). Well, as is often the case, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Our division is immersed in the movement towards outcome based reporting and authentic assessment. It is great, I am on board and I am excited, but this post isn’t about that.  Instead it is about the journey, and the amazing people who helped me see just how much of an impact assessment can have on connecting with our students.

Last school year, the assistant principal at my school (@imminentshift), who was playing  and continues to play a big role in our division’s assessment move, started talking to me about authentic assessment. He explained to me that we have students who label themselves as a percentage because they assume the marks they get dictate their educational worth. He talked to me about how the process of averaging student marks to come out with a final letter grade is a flawed way of reporting student progress. Below is a quick summary of the great example of the three students packing parachutes, all who have a 70% average, and who would you want packing your chute?

Student 1 – 90-40 -100-50-90-50

Student 2 – 90-100-100-60-40-30

Student 3 – 40-40-50-90-100-100

You get the idea. He helped me see that what we have been doing has been providing feedback that was in no way an accurate portrayal of what our students are able to do. Over the course of the year, he helped our staff start the process of improving the way we teach, the way we assess and the way we provide feedback on student progress. I started to see how we could do a better job, but I didn’t yet see how this could impact our school and our division beyond the classroom.

This past weekend I attended the Alberta Assessment Consortium conference. I listened to speakers like Allison Zmuda (@compclass) talk about how we need to “Incentivize failure” and make a “Growth Mentality” be part of our classroom. It was exciting to hear how making changes in our teaching practice was actually the key to implementing change in our assessment. All of the sudden I started to find myself agreeing with what Allison had to say, and I felt the conversion happening.

My conversion to a full fledged assessment believer occurred during Dale Skoreyko’s presentation “Assessment Leadership – Leading the Way to Assessment Literacy”. It wasn’t as if Dale presented some ground breaking theory or new design for reporting, he simply talked about the importance of the work his teachers were doing and how much he believed in it. He talked about how a parent might come in to argue that his child deserved a better mark, say a 72 instead of a 67, and how he would ask the parent that if he were to give the student 72, would he suddenly know more? Would that child be able to DO more? He talked about how he simply told parents that they were there to talk about the child and the child’s learning, and percentages or raw data had very little to do with that. He talked about how his schools, after implementing some new assessment policies, saw discipline problems and missing/late work become non-issues and how students were more engaged and more excited to be there. He has gone through changing the assessment process in multiple schools in the city of Edmonton, with greatly different socio-economic populations, and yet all of his schools saw this improvement after it was underway. As I listened I laughed, I shared at my table, and more importantly, I got excited. I really started to feel like this might be the way to change so many things for the better within the hallways of my school. School culture, student achievement, staff morale, parent support, and overall building energy, I really imagined all of these things being affected in amazing ways. It was, as I posted on twitter, one of the best PD sessions I had ever attended, and one that had a profound effect on my opinion of assessment.

Just how much of an effect did it have on me? Well, as I gushed to my wife, my family and anyone that would listen I realized I had turned into one of those “nerdy educators” who was excited about assessment. I was wrong about them, and now I am quite happy to be among them.