Monday, October 12, 2009

Are You Experienced?

I read something recently about the counter-intuitive lessons of experience. A research study showed that as we get more experienced in a profession or a task, we do get better, but we also often become overconfident, overlooking the details or the steps that made us successful in the past.

I've been considering this lately as I wonder about myself as a teacher: Am I as good as I used to be? I can remember past classes that seemed magical while my present classes seem good, but some days are a bit of a slog. Perhaps as I look back on the past I'm painting over the ugly patches in my memory with Cocoa Rose (actual color) or remember my students at the end of the class more than the imperfect creatures they were at the beginning.

Regardless, I think we must slow down, remember and savor the steps, and not rush our students or ourselves. One of my favorite quotes comes from legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, who would tell his players to, "be quick, but don't hurry." As a teacher it is so easy to become so overwhelmed by the numbers of students and all the details that we rush or skip important steps like, "Why are we doing this?" In the goal oriented nature of education (these days), do we perhaps undervalue the process that is less easily measured? We know our students do. Their parents do. Our administrators often do.

The danger in skipping steps comes in creating a gap between our expectations for students and what we've actually prepared them to do. If we've rushed or forgotten something important without realizing it, and our students are underperforming, do we begin to blame the students? Have you met a mediocre teacher always bellyaching about how terrible the students are "these days" and what they can't do? Perhaps we're all in danger of becoming that teacher if we don't slow down, dig in, and do the slow and messy work that needs to get done each day.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Looking for Inspiration? Try Three Cups of Tea

I know this book has been out for a few years and on the best sellers lists for a long while, but if you are like I was and hadn't gotten around to reading it yet, I believe it's worth your time.
In this inspiring non-fiction book, Greg Mortenson stops at nothing to get schools built and staffed in the mountains of Pakistan. He fights centuries of inertia, cultural bias and poverty, and...wins!
As a whole, the book makes me think about all the seemingly petty excuses for lack of success I use from time to time when things don't go well for my students or school. How often do we stop ourselves simply because of our own misguided beliefs and attitudes? Why do we keep on doing the same old things that don't work?
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, said on the Charlie Rose show this summer that the biggest barrier to success is simply the willingness to act. When there is a problem, most people slink around and let it fester. The difference between success and failure often isn't intellectual brilliance or moral fortitude, it's just the ability to act. Something isn't working? Act. That doesn't work? Try something else. How often are frozen in place by our fears, doubts and conventions?

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Energy to Teach

Now that I'm solidly back in the school year, I'm reminded of what a physical challenge teaching can be. Here was my schedule today:

  • 6:30 Arrive at my classroom...Organize the room,board and materials for a kid with Chemistry homework (I'm an English teacher) off to pick up the computer lab key...Boom! The first bell rings.

  • 7:50-9:20 Analyze college essays with bleary-eyed AVID students...develop some starting points for their own essays...go over to the computer several students one-on-one with the wording and conceptual approach of their essays...Boom! The second bell rings.

  • 9:20-9:50 Run back to the library and return the computer lab key...find my waiting homeroom students outside...try to connect with the twenty or so new freshmen kids in my homeroom whose names I'm still foggy on...answer their questions about how to get a password for their online grades account...Boom! Time for 2nd period.

  • 9:55-11:24 Analyze an allegorical story with my 38 English 10 Honors students...discuss the relative merits of rushing through life and being "phony" (We just finished reading The Catcher in the Rye)...Talk about what makes a good writing prompt for an groups develop prompts...Boom! Time for lunch.

  • 11:24-12:05 Run and grab my lunch...head up the hill for an AVID college tour fundraising with kids and another teacher to figure out how and where were legally able to sell food...choke down a tuna sandwich...boom! Lunch is over.

  • 12:05-1:33 Prep period! Whew...At least some peace and quiet...Read, respond to and "deal with" about 30 new e-mails...grade five reflective essays...Boom! Time for the last period of the day.

  • 1:39-3:10 Honors English 10, do the same thing I did 2nd period all over again with more exhausted students...Boom! End of school.

  • 3:10-5:00 Type up student prompts and post to the class with a parent and her son who isn't working as hard as he could be...Mom and I search for something that will motivate him...grade two reflective essays...A former student stops by looking for work as a tutor...Wife calls...time to get home!

Even just typing all this is a bit exhausting. I wish I could say I accomplished all these tasks in a calm and deliberate manner, but I felt rushed and harried all day. Perhaps the solution is to accept that there is simply too much for one person to do every day. When I woke up this morning I wanted to get even more papers graded, but the kid with the Chemistry problem and the former student, plus all the other unmentionable minutiae of the day, prohibited all that.

Sometimes I feel like I'm running in place or chipping away at a a tunnel with nothing but a mechanical pencil with a tip that keeps breaking off. It is too much but I don't plan to stop. My kids need me to do all these things day after day, so I go on. I suppose I just have to draw the line at my physical health and sanity. When I feel cracks forming in my patience or sense of hope it's time to take a break.

If you're wondering why I'm blogging, on top of all this? I'm back to the essays as soon as I hit this period.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


In order to teach and teach well you have to have a kind of cockeyed optimism or force of will. As Walt Whitman exhorted in Leaves of Grass, “By god man, you will not go down! Hang your whole weight on me.” Sometimes you just have to believe in your students and yourself against all odds and empirical evidence.

You have to be the optimistic one. Some days in class, you may be the only one. Especially when the kids are tired or if you have a tough class with kids who aren’t successful in school. Sleep deprived kids in a morning class may just want to endure it. Sometimes, it’s simply all on you to provide that spirit.

I don’t think many of us are used to being that person. Some of us have to reach down and find that optimism. It may feel like you’re putting it out there and no one is reciprocating, making you feel ridiculous. We’ve all seen the cliche of the extremely excited teacher (see Hamlet 2 if you haven't yet) who is not connecting to the students and looking clownish.

As a teacher, you have to risk becoming the clown and act in relentlessly spirited, optimistic and good natured way on the side of your kids. You can't simply protect yourself. Not only in the classroom but outside, when you see kids on the street or in the hallways, stop, talk to them. Some of the best teaching happens in these situations, when you have a moment with a kid alone and you can give a word of encouragement or a compliment. You must show that you care and that what happens in the classroom IS important, you notice, you think about them, worry about them and you ultimately believe in them. They will respond.

I’ve heard a lot of kids talk about teachers who they think are fake or going through the motions. When they catch them “offstage,” they’re just empty, or don't have time. That reaffirms the idea that everything kids do in class is arbitrary, fake and false, so everyone continues to go through the motions.

While you have to be that strong person, that leader, you don’t want to dominate the classroom. You have to be humble as well. You can’t just be Mr. or Mrs. Onstage Superstar all the time. You have to be that spark, then let the kids go and create the opportunities for them to shine. They can't do that if you're the only one doing the thinking and performing all the time.

Sometimes that’s hard when you get a really difficult class. Day after day it seems like you are the one dragging the class along like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill. However, if you stick with it day after day after day, the kids will respond. Maybe not all of them, but even the ones that don’t will respect you for it and at least have an example in their mind of someone who doesn’t give up.

You never know what seed you’re planting. A kid could change a month after your class, a year, a couple years and perhaps a piece of what you did helped them. Just keep plowing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Your Life Outside of Teaching

Where do you draw the line between teaching, your family and life outside of work? If you have been teaching for awhile now, you know how all consuming it can be. If you haven’t taught yet…get ready. Although you will have the great vacation time that comes with teaching, the flip side is the school year with its fast pace and huge work load. At certain times of the year it feels like you work and work and work, come home, collapse and do it all over again. I sometimes feel, as Bryant Gumbel described when working as host of the Today Show, that I am eating breakfast again every five minutes.

We must be good models of human beings as teachers and if we are out of balance in some way and not living up to all of our responsibilities as husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and friends, then we aren’t modeling appropriately. You have to craft your life so that you draw the line in certain places. Create boundaries where you say I’m going to work at this time and be with my family and friends at this time.

You must take care of your health, and get enough sleep, so that you can work effectively and when that time away from work comes, you don’t just collapse or hide in a dark room, failing your other connections in life. Keep yourself in that harmonious, singing mental state.
Again, make time each week. Don’t save all your needs for weekends and vacations. It may seem uptight, but planning is the best way to ensure that your needs get met. Otherwise, all your responsibilities as a teacher (whose work never ends) will creep up and bleed into the rest of your life.

I heard a teacher once say at a conference "Don’t neglect your own children in the raising of other people’s children." There are so many students with so many needs you could spend forever on those other problems. As someone about to have his second child, I'm determined not to let them grow up with their dad locked in a room grading papers.
Keep your inner life full and healthy for your own sake and your students' sake. They won't learn from a shell.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Joel Klein vs. New York City teachers : The New Yorker

Joel Klein vs. New York City teachers : The New Yorker

This is a disturbing piece about the nearly 1,500 New York teachers who are paid to not work. I generally support our teachers' unions and think they're necessary to preserve academic freedom. I observed some countries during my time in the Peace Corps where the staff changed at high schools as determined by national elections. Tenure does and should protect and preserve academic freedom from these kinds of political gyrations.

However, the unions undermine their own position when they defend incompetent teachers at all costs. In order to improve education in any sane time frame there must be a mechanism to move consistently poor teachers out of the profession. One teacher in this article implied that poor teachers would realize they couldn't do it and voluntarily leave the profession. While this does sometimes happen, I think we all know there are folks who stick around for decades when they don't deserve to.

The difficulty comes in how to judge teachers. Do we trust administrator evaluations? Test scores? I'm not sure either of these are accurate measures, but to claim that there is no possible way to judge teachers fairly, and therefore all should keep their jobs no matter what, is intellectually dishonest.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Future of Reading -New York Times

The Future of Reading
Students Get New Assignment: Pick Books You Like

This is an interesting New York Times article about some teachers and districts letting kids read whatever they like in English classes in order to encourage them to read more and like what they read. I understand why teachers would do this, however, I wonder if we should abandon the great books of our history and culture so easily.

Perhaps we simply need to do a better job of making the case to our students for these books so they actually want to read them. Maybe the failure is ours, not theirs.

Teacher man: a memoir - Google Books

Teacher man: a memoir - Google Books

I can't put this book down by the late Frank McCourt. A line struck me as I'm preparing for the first day of school on Tuesday. He writes of teaching, "If you don't learn to love it, you'll wriggle in a corner of hell." Love it folks!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Trying Something New

In an attempt to find new and better ways for my students to build their skills in English and a desire to make my class more relevant, exciting and consistent with our modern world, I'm considering trying something new this year.

While reading Howard Gardner's analysis of Google's practice of allowing its employees to spend one day a week working on their own innovative project in Five Minds for the Future (see the bookshelf at the bottom of this blog) this summer, I thought, why wouldn't this work with students?

I'm thinking of calling it "Innovation Friday," Here's the idea:

  • Students create an ambitious project of their own design that requires them to show they have achieved or grown in specific standards, personal goals, and class goals.

  • Each project proposal must be approved by the teacher.

  • Every Friday, students spend the entire period working on their project, while dedicating a certain amount of time outside of class to it as well

  • We do three of these projects throughout the year. The first is individual. The second is chosen and completed by a small group. The third project is an entire class effort.

  • The results or outcomes of the projects must be posted online for community viewing and comment.

The reason for doing the individual, small group, and class version would be to better simulate the different kinds of experiences they will have in the future.

My fear in doing something like this is giving up control and that some students just won't get it, procrastinate, and turn in low quality work. I think I could mitigate this by raising the bar on their projects when I meet with them about their proposals, having them turn in progress reports, developing a grading rubric with the students, and meeting with individual students throughout the process.

I will also have to give something up if I'm dedicating Fridays to this activity, but I think overall it will add more variety, excitement, creativity and learning about personal responsibility to my class.

Any suggestions? Am I crazy?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Do Teachers Need Education Degrees? - Room for Debate Blog -

Do Teachers Need Education Degrees? - Room for Debate Blog -

These editorials from the New York Times are fascinating and illustrate what a fluid and strange profession teaching is. There seems to be no true consensus in our society (although many examples of forced consensus) about what children should be learning, how they should learn it, how we should measure it, to say the least about how teachers should be trained and what we should be doing.

Over the long run, I hope this blog will help teachers (and myself) navigate this incredible ambiguity.

As far as the specific debate above, I would say teachers do need education degrees, but most teacher credentialing programs should be changed to more of an apprenticeship model, with less time in the college lecture setting and more time in the schools they will be working in, practicing their craft in the classroom. At least in California where I am credentialed, it seems like much of the course content has to do with political mandates rather than serious explorations of the pedagogy and philosophy of teaching.

I'm curious to hear what other teachers think about the credentialing process and their experience.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

By Sarah Fine -- Why I Left Teaching Behind -

Thanks to great teacher Christopher Greenslate for finding this piece:

By Sarah Fine -- Why I Left Teaching Behind -

Ms. Fine reports feeling "undervalued" as a teacher by the administration in her inner city school, friends, and American society. It seems the charter school she worked for sought to improve education without much input from the teachers. This hierarchical style of educational reform seems destined to fail.

More and more research seems to imply that children with less educated parents need more physical time in school to close the achievement gap. Some charter schools have figured this out and shown powerful results. The problem arises when schools, like Sarah Fine's, try to extend the school day and school year without increasing teacher compensation, reducing teacher pay to around 10$ an hour. No wonder charter schools have such a high rate of turnover.

The Obama administration has embraced (see the New Yorker abstract) the charter school model as practiced by the KIPP and Green Dot schools. I only hope they don't try to make these changes on the cheap, forcing more good teachers out of the profession. In this sense, perhaps Ms. Fine shows insight in her feelings about the value American society puts on education, learning, and teaching.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Day to Day Success in Teaching

Remember that as a teacher you’re in it for the long run whether it’s the class, the school year or your career. This is a dangerous profession in that you can set yourself up for burn-out or simply hating what you do. Depression or feelings of impotence can insinuate their way into your spirit if you don't guard against them.

Let’s say you have a class where you start off okay, then things start to drift. Students may seem to lose motivation, you have some discipline problems or just a sense that strong progress has halted in your classroom. You begin to feel like you just want to get through that class every day and you’re not happy to see them.

To deal with these situations you must reinvigorate yourself every morning and not think of the big picture. Just think about TODAY. How am I going to make today a great day? Given everything else that’s gone on, my failures, their failures, what can I do today to make this class work? How do I have to change? If you go into class each morning and work with the focus on that one class or student immediately in front of you, rather than get overwhelmed by the work load, the apathy, the long term goals, or the long term trajectory of a student, you will see you can turn the tide in a class.

There will always be students who come in with negative attitudes who don’t want to learn. As a teacher, you have to win them over. Convince them not only with your arguments and reason, but with your pure exuberance and belief in yourself, subject and life. The cockeyed optimist is the successful teacher at any level. You have to believe in the face of cynicism, class after class, year after year, student after student and day by day.

If you can’t generate that enthusiasm within yourself and students perhaps it is a sign this profession isn’t for you. It’s simply tough being a cynical person, and then going in to confront the cynicism of your students. You have to be an optimist to teach well (See The Passionate Teacher on the bookshelf at the bottom of the page).

Another piece of thriving day to day is avoiding burn-out. There’s an enormous amount of work to do outside of the classroom just to stay afloat, even if you do control what you’re grading. You have bureaucratic work, collaboration, meetings with students and parents, e-mails, etc. Set schedules so you can create a rhythm for yourself.

For example, Mondays and Tuesdays might be days where you grade and organize student work. Wednesdays and Thursdays you have a set time for some exercise after school or doing something that recharges you. I would recommend that you do these recharging activities before you go home to avoid collapsing into exhaustion when you get there.

Stick to your schedule. People will ask you to meet about this or that, but you can’t let your physical and mental health consistently rank second if you are going to survive for the long term. These are not luxury goods. They are essential. We have a responsibility to model physical and emotional health to our students.

You could be the most intelligent, intellectual person in the world, but if you’re unhealthy, you are sending the wrong message to your students about what it means to be an adult. They will sense your lack of health and want to check-out of the world and model of adult life you are offering, which makes them much less likely to learn from you. Take care of yourself!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


English Rubric Blog adapted from Michelle Mullen

This is a controversial topic. In my classroom I like students to be able to do things. My assessments are skill based and ongoing. I assess kids during class discussions, essays, projects and presentations because I want to see what students can do, not remember.

I think many teachers get too wrapped up in grading and grades. We think of grades traditionally, as a way to give students a final evaluation and everything they do is just a piece of that. This shouldn’t be the model at all, each assessment should be formative, not something used simply as a part of a grade. We should use the assessment to help that student learn. Too often teachers, parents and students think of it all as a part of a final grade. Most parents will ask their children, "How are your grades?" fifty to one over "What did you learn how to do today?"

My grading is also not point-based. I use holistic rubrics for major projects and the overall grade. This sometimes gives me a lot of headaches, not because it is a difficult system, but because students and parents are trained to see everything through the lens of points rather than what their work shows about their learning. The rubrics attempt to put the focus on learning. Click here for the English Rubric I use (created by Michelle Mullen slightly adapted by me). Click here for the AVID Rubric I use (created with Blaze Newman).

The effect of a point-based system is that it teaches students and parents to simply play the game of gathering points rather than focus on their learning. With the holistic rubric, students have to fit a profile rather than gather points. Students then have to make an argument for their final grade. There are some things that are recorded as point values, but these do not make up the complete grade.

I do feel like I’m swimming against the current in this because most teachers are still using the traditional systems and I have to educate students and parents about my system, which does take time. However, I have seen many teachers spend so much of their time on accounting in their point systems, getting so bogged down that they don’t even have time to think about their teaching. Many teachers do the same thing year after year simply because they are spending all the time when they’re not teaching a class on grading. Don’t fall into this trap. You must have some reflective and creative time dedicated to improving your practice.

Part of being a healthy professional is giving yourself time to reflect. Many teachers will say they don’t have time or their classes are too big. I can’t reflect. I just have to tread water. If this is the case you are doing a disservice to yourself, your students and your profession.

Find ways to cut back on your grading. Don’t grade everything. Do peer grading. If you don’t have time to really assess students and you feel like you are just accounting, accounting and accounting, there is something wrong with your grading system. Step back from what you’re doing and ask yourself: Do I really need to count every piece of work? What can I let go of? Can you know through less time consuming means what students have and haven’t learned? Don’t let the accounting suck away at your time for actually helping your students.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

As Classrooms Go Digital, Textbooks May Become History -

As Classrooms Go Digital, Textbooks May Become History - "In a Digital Future, Textbooks Are History
Heidi Schumann for The New York Times

In California, high school interns try out digital 'flexbooks' created by the CK-12 Foundation.

Published: August 8, 2009

At Empire High School in Vail, Ariz., students use computers provided by the school to get their lessons, do their homework and hear podcasts of their teachers’ science lectures.
Down the road, at Cienega High School, students who own laptops can register for “digital sections” of several English, history and science classes. And throughout the district, a Beyond Textbooks initiative encourages teachers to create — and share — lessons that incorporate their own PowerPoint presentations, along with videos and research materials they find by sifting through reliable Internet sites.
Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions — or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web."

This may be unsettling to many teachers, but we are on the verge of a major upheaval in education over the next five to ten years. I think we need to engage these changes in positive ways rather than simply fight against or deny them. I hope this blog will become a place to discuss, understand and share thoughts about these types of changes. Hit the link at the top for the full article.

Friday, August 7, 2009


You can always do more to help a student. You can always give them another assignment and more feedback. You can always find one kid in your class that needs more guidance. As you probably know, to be successful in teaching you must put in enormous amounts of preparation time and be accessible to students, however, you must also decide where to draw the line. Where should you stop?

In other professions, sales for example, the more work you do the more money you may get, so you can draw that line when you think you have enough. Teachers work by a very different equation. Many of us simply want to help kids. Kids, however, always could use more help whether it's a conference, feedback on an essay, or further practice of skills. So when we finally do turn our attention to other aspects of our lives, by choice or necessity, guilt sets in.

I can remember days where I’ve worked 16 hours plus, or weeks where I’ve done that and then when I finally stopped, I still felt guilty for stopping. Of course, ultimately everyone must figure out where to draw the line for themselves, but if you’re not drawing that line correctly or participating in martyrdom, eventually, on some level, you will be unhealthy, unbalanced and unhappy.

We must always keep in mind we are emissaries to the adult world or role models for our kids. If a teacher is always stressed or frazzled, and I know we’ve all had these teachers, that teacher provides a poor example of what it is to be a healthy adult. Kids pay much more attention to who you are and what you do than what you say (See Teach like Your Hair's on Fire on the bookshelf below).

Teachers often become surrogate parents, psychologists and social workers for their kids. You can and must do this at times to be an effective teacher, but I would recommend that you give yourself time, and plan for these necessities. Don’t let it eat up your whole life.

Planning can ameliorate guilt more than any other tool. Sit down and write out realistic plans for your days and weeks. Be the architect of your life (See Built to Last on bookshelf below). If you plan out those times and make your life organized in this way and say, this is the time I’m going to work, this is the time I’m going to play, exercise, write, or be with friends or family, you can leave work without guilt, knowing you are making sane and thoughtful choices. Perhaps this sounds rigid, but if you aren’t rigid and you have a big heart, as many teachers do, then all those little responsibilities are going to eat away at you. It took me years to learn this and in many ways, I'm still learning it.

Some people do take everything on. The kids love them and maybe they earn awards in the short term, but they may not be able to sustain those efforts in the long run of their lives and careers. What are you going to do to yourself if you keep neglecting your life and your own needs? Your married life? Your family? Your children? Do you want to look back at a destroyed marriage and kids that grow up without you, or a very stressed out you? Or do you want to be happy and be yourself?

If you are overwhelmed by work and just trying to keep up all the time, you may not be growing as a person or professional. How will you come up with those new lessons or innovations in your classroom if you are buried under paperwork and the personal problems of students? Create space for yourself to think, be happy and rise above! If you don’t, it can be devastating to your personality, your sense of hope.

Another way of decreasing guilt is to look at teaching through an existentialist lens. Just be the teacher. Shut down any feelings of worry or guilt before you’re in the classroom and after. Trust that when the time is on for you to “go,” you’re going to do it. Get into the flow of your work. Define yourself this way. Build off of the strong experiences that work, reflect on what doesn’t work and do it day after day. Trust in yourself, keep improving, and you will become a good teacher and healthy role model.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Loving your Subject

My great former principal, Fran Fenical, used to say that if you were interviewing a teacher and they only mentioned how much they loved their subject the whole time and they never mentioned kids, then she knew that was the wrong person to hire. I agree, however, if a teacher only loves kids and not his or her subject they will also be lacking something. You must be passionate about your subject too and find ways to enthusiastically communicate that passion to your students. Sometimes they won’t get it right away, but if you can come with that enthusiasm and that passion day after day for whatever it is you teach, then your kids will eventually want to learn from you.

Learning can’t thrive as a grim responsibility. You have to find the joy and excitement in it. Sometimes the testing and standards regime get this wrong when certain schools, in an effort ensure that scores raise, will enforce programs in which each teacher follows the same rote lessons every day. I believe the “life is in the details.” In teaching, excitement is in the details with the beautiful perception of a subject that is by definition individualistic. You can’t get that from a generalized teaching system or materials.

Think about the writing in textbooks. There is no "voice" or style. We lose students when we present them with these lifeless materials. See Neil Postman's The End of Education on my bookshelf at the bottom of this page for more on this. This is where the standardized testing, teaching and learning movement falls down.

I can understand why someone looking at it from the top might think everyone should be learning the same things and there is some truth to that, but I don’t believe we should or can be learning the same things in the same way. It seems like what we learn and teach and how we learn and teach are becoming more and more conflated recently.

You may not love all parts of your subject, but you need to use those parts you are passionate about to drive your teaching and bring in the rest of it. If you don’t have that, you will just be going through the motions, and teaching and learning won't thrive that way.

Education is about transcendence. Students are going into something in which they will come out greater than their former selves. They are transcending their former selves. That’s scary for many kids. They’re fearful of stepping out and getting judged. If there is no enthusiasm involved, then they won’t take risks.

If you’re working with struggling students, many of them have already learned by high school to hate school. Classes where teachers and students are just going through the motions and not seeing the beauty and the joy of learning itself cause this apathy. With that, the students lose their own passion and reason for being in school. Many feel that it’s just this dismal chore that their parents yell at them about and it becomes a completely negative experience.

I like to start class on the first day with the most exciting things about my subject. Many teachers start off with rules and the syllabus, handouts, grading blah, blah, blah...and kids are already bored. Then you’re supposed to grab their attention later? You’ve already lost them. Start with the best you have. Make them think deeply about something that matters. This sets the tone in the class. It’s not about grim responsibility or threats; they will see the main point is the learning and the intrinsic good in learning itself, not that it will get you a job or help you sound smart at parties, but the pure joy of understanding the world in a new way.

Methodology will only take you so far. Infuse your methodology with passion and flexibility, then embrace your own idiosyncrasies and those of your students. This will add life to to your classroom.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Do you have to like your students? Yes!

Above everything else, you have to like the kids you work with. Whether they’re teenagers, middle-school kids or elementary kids. It seems like an overly obvious point, but we've all worked with many teachers who don’t seem to understand, love their kids or even like them. All students will soon be adults like you and me and we should treat them as such, not as “evil” or broken creatures that we must "fix." We have to build our classes and lessons with some leeway for kids to be kids.

If you get into teaching and you find you are upset all the time and kids aren’t behaving like you think they should or reacting like you think they should, perhaps you should adjust what you think kids are. It’s not a matter of lowering expectations. There has been some research showing that teachers who account for this bit of spontaneity in the classroom, letting kids be who they actually are, are more effective than teachers who clamp down on every “out of line” response or action. These overly controlling teachers will actually miss teaching opportunities because of this inflexibility. When teachers control too much, kids shut down (See Malcolm Gladwell's "Most Likely to Succeed") .

The roots of this rely on rhetorical theory which says you must know your audience first and foremost. If you are speaking to an audience you are not seeing, your message will never get across. The kids will sense your dislike and constant disappointment.

Kids that may seem hopeless and immature early on in life actually will have a psychological shift in their early 20’s and figure a lot out. I think we have to treat them all respectfully as if they all have that potential to make that change at all points in their K-12 existence. Once you make that perceptual change, to where you’re actually seeing kids for what they are, and adjust your lessons, your personality and your rhetoric to your audience then you will be much more successful and happier too.

When you love your kids and don’t see them as the enemy, you are more likely to listen to them and hear them. They will sense this respect and be more honest with you. This is one way to get over this insane adversarial relationship that has developed in so many American schools. Look at our films and our archetypal characters like Ferris Buehler or Bart Simpson. How can we have a culture in which we rebel against education?

Even more crucial than everything else: If you don’t love your kids, you will not have the energy to sustain your effort day after day, month after month, class after class, essay after essay. When you’ve lost your passion for kids and their learning and opening up the world, everything becomes a drudgery. Without that spark you probably won't do that one extra thing that was going to make a difference for that kid.

In teaching, you are overworked. You will be given much more of a caseload and a task than you can accomplish reasonably. Without that magic infused into everything that you do, you will fall short sooner or later. So yes, you have to like your kids!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thriving as a Teacher

The focus of this blog is to explore and write about how to think about, conceptualize and feel about teaching, not how to teach. This will be something teachers can use to support themselves rather than something that says, “Everyone teach this way.” So many teaching programs and workshops focus on methodologies, but miss the point of what the purpose of teaching and learning is.

Do you have a reason for teaching? Do your students have a reason for learning?

In addition to reasons, how do we organize our lives as teachers? We deal with so much ambiguity in evaluating ourselves and our students honestly, it creates a psychological challenge.
How can we be sure we are succeeding and we haven't simply created an echo chamber of our own misconceptions about what our students have achieved?

There is always more that can be done to help a student. How and where do we draw the line?

Some future topics I'll look into in more depth:

Loving your kids

Loving your subject



Day to Day

Your Family/Your Life Outside of Work

The Obligation to be Passionate

How do you deal with some of the above questions? Please suggest some future topics as well.