Why teachers are Salmon swimming upstream

Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.

These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.

In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.

In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.

In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.

In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!

The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!

Professional Learning – Developing an Inquiry Culture

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A few years back Sam and I ran a 1 day workshop and 4 days of demonstration lessons at Mt. Scopus College in Melbourne, Australia. The format was very different to the usual ‘run of the mill’ workshops or conferences which most of us have become accustomed to.

Since then, Lana Fleiszig has developed a strong relationship with ISHCMC for a few years now and naturally, we thought it made perfect sense to bring her to VIS too.

The value and impact was immediate and she instantly drew in our teachers. Lana said it best when she referred to herself as ‘the provocation.’ And that is what she did, she stirred up our thinking, added to our evolving inquiry culture and inspired us to continue the amazing work she did for the week she was with us.

The power and value in hosting in-house professional learning is obvious. We all could learned together, we all got on the same page and we are all finding ways to strengthen our practice through her ideas and knowledge.

We are sending 4 teachers to Shanghai to complete Making the PYP Happen. They will fly to Shanghai, be part of the workshops and then, snap – it’s done. A huge amount of investment and resources funneled into 4 people. A week with Lana (in-house) meant that 28 teachers and 19 Instructional Assistants were all touched. I know which basket to put all  (or most) our eggs in.

So how did we take the learning to the next level after Lana left?

Using Inquiry Moves (see below), each teacher selected 1 that they wanted to develop. They now have three weeks to collaborate with those people (outside of their teams) and then share back to the group. This is just one step of many we plan to develop and strengthen.

This is how we are developing an inquiry culture at VIS. This is just the beginning. We have big plans to bring Lana back and take us through the next cycle of inquiry learning t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r!

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True Colours

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The ebbs and flows of exciting new job prospects and recruitment is slowing down to rest dormant for another cycle in international schools. More on this later in the post. Let’s pause for a moment and wind back to August before going any further.

You’re in August, just returned after a relaxing break, time to ponder and consider if you are staying on or moving on, as your contract is a perishable item, just like long-life milk in aisle 4. Before you know it, you find yourself in October (some schools drop the ‘letter of intent’ much earlier than this). You have to resign before squaring away that next job.

What to do? Am I fulfilled? Have I outgrown this place? Am I happy? Do I offer something unique? The questions, the introspection, the game of  romanticizing and flirting with the dozens of possibilities of potential schools begins to become real. Then the practicalities and gravity of moving sets in…. shipping, housing, Visas, notarization, friends, the comfortable life you’ve created, police checks….. here we go again.

So you’re now leaving and have a good 6 months left at the school which saw something special in you when they first took you on. They hired you on all the skills, knowledge and passion for learning that you were bringing with you. Life was good. The cycle turns and rolls effortlessly.

And this is where ‘the game’ becomes interesting….

Who are you once you have a foot out the door? You’ve signed and secured a new contract somewhere else. Good for you!

How are you going to spend your remaining 6 months? What is your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? I believe that the true colors of who one really is, shine through in the last 6 months of their contract. This is when you see someone in their full light. Their morals, their values, their ethics, their desire, their essence, their personality, their qualities, their core…..

Are you someone who begins to:

  • arrive late to work?
  • use all your sick days?
  • say less? do less?
  • leave at 4 on the dot?
  • withdraws?
  • gossip and be more negative
  • and on and on…..

Or are you someone who:

  • gives their best and remains consistent?
  • contributes at meetings?
  • turns up to organized events and supports them?
  • is positive and works hard?
  • still cares about learning and growing?
  • has the desire to ‘finish’ well, right up to the middle of June?
  • and on and on…..

I believe that school leadership and administration needs to connect with the schools that teachers are going to and share some ‘home truths’ with how things have turned sour (or not) in the remaining 6 weeks of the year. More like a follow-up conversation, a hand over. Sharing an appraisal or goals. We do that with our students, why not educators….. Maybe this would work…. maybe not. There has to be a way to circle things back.

Sure, leaders can have conversations with those who flag and meander. I think there is a missing link from the beginning of August. The ‘sun setting stage’ of one’s time in a school says a lot about someone. The approach we need to take should go beyond the signing of a new contract and hoping they stay true and consistent to what they have shown and been like.

Let’s finish well, let’s finish how we started!

Why do we have to manage grown adults ‘out of’ and ‘in to’ schools?

Early Years – The “Frontline” of Education

Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.

This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:

  • they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
  • they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
  • they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
  • they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
  • they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
  • they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
  • they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
  • they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form

So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.

They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.

 

 

Why “kids love this” isn’t actually good enough

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Twitter, educational websites, articles and news stories are all increasingly full of headlines about how kids love this latest gadget or that new gizmo. Photos show such children gathered around these shiny, new bits of technology pressing buttons and, apparently, learning all by themselves. Schools chuck cash at little robots and the latest big screen things with a thousand features nobody needs. They’re playing in virtual forests or putting a thing on their head and pretending to make a sandwich, yet get bored in a real forest and wouldn’t dream of making an actual sandwich they can eat. They’re flying hovering mechanical pests around while we all ignorantly pretend that one day they won’t have real weaponry on them… you know, like the real ones used by the military of powerful countries. They stare into screens with their increasingly ineffective eyes and suffer periods away from them like heroin-addicts waiting for their next hit. They will give their attention to a video of a teacher explaining something yet ignore the real human being in front of them.

Meanwhile, all the adults are saying more and more meaningless things about it all, like how “cool” or “awesome” it is. How this generation can “multi-task” so much better than previous ones. How they can learn “without us”. And, most ignorantly of all, how much “they love it”.

Now, let’s talk about something else kids “love”. Candy. They will gorge themselves on giant handfuls of fluorescent, toxic, carcinogenic, lumps of sugar, chemicals and the occasional bit of re-purposed animal product interminably until someone either stops them, it runs out or they throw up. Do we also think this is “cool” or “awesome”?

Don’t get me wrong. I think kids are capable of the most amazing things, but they still need guidance. Older generations have still earned the right to be concerned about something that doesn’t look quite right to them. People who have fought in wars or lost their fathers and uncles to conflicts that later turned out to just be testing grounds for the latest weapons technology have the right to feel uncomfortable about how robots and drones will probably end up (already are) being used and who will control them. People who grew up with gangs of friends who talked until the sun set and the voices of their mothers called them home for dinner have the wisdom to regret seeing their children and grandchildren vanish into little digital rectangles and six-second concentration spans. The millions and millions of people who have experienced the joy of arguments in the grey areas of existence between right and wrong, good or bad must have legitimate worries about generations emerging who know only of dichotomies, liking and disliking and believing the latest thing a computer told them to think.

Just because we conveniently ignore the fact that we too will be old, we too will be silenced, written off and shoved in a nursing home to wait to die by the apparently all-knowing younger generations doesn’t mean we can’t speak out now and call for some technological wisdom, some caution and maybe even… perish the thought… a little foresight? There’s a new sort of culture that’s telling us that the older people get the more stupid they become. We’re issuing licenses to our young to ignore us while willingly giving them the tools they need to dehumanise themselves and their poor unsuspecting offspring. Oh, and I forgot the best bit, manufacturing all this shite is systematically making the air, water and land too toxic for any of them to inhabit.

Yeah… “cool” right? Pretty “awesome” eh?

Now, I know most people won’t even have read this far into the posting and will have already liked, not liked, retweeted, followed or unfollowed on the basis of the title, first few sentences or whatever image I put in it. I also know that the technology I am using to write and share this is the technology I am talking about. Be careful about falling into the trap I referred to above, about completely agreeing or disagreeing, about thinking I am totally right or totally wrong. Neither you or I know… let’s not flatter ourselves. Just allow yourselves to ponder, to ask questions, to think critically and, yes, to be just about as cynical as our children and their children deserve us to be.

Natural inquiry depends on a culture of permission

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Inquiry is basically about permission.

When students know that they are able or allowed to pursue the questions that come into their head, take the directions that become appealing to them and make their own decisions, they do those things more. It sounds obvious to say it, but it’s true.

When there is a culture of permission – when the teacher in the room is more likely to say “yes… let’s do it, let’s give a go, let’s get that, let’s go there, let’s see if we can find that”… well, then the students are more likely to end up with that attitude and more interesting learning happens as a result.

You know when you’ve entered a classroom like this as it has a very particular feeling to it. Students are usually engaged in doing very different things and working in different ways, and the teacher is not the centre of attention. In fact, there is usually a sense of things not being completely under the teacher’s control, a wonderful feeling of teetering on the brink of chaos. Not only is this type of teacher comfortable with not being completely in control, she is also confident in her students’ ability to make decisions and that “bad decisions” are not bad decisions but opportunities for real learning.

Children have their natural tendencies to inquire eroded progressively as they get older. Sometimes, this is because the adults around them fear for their safety! Other times, though, it is because the adults around them want to be in control… or feel they have to be in control because that’s what teaching is.

So, I guess the culture of permission starts at the top. If school leaders make sure teachers know that being in complete control of students no longer represents good teaching, perhaps teachers will – in turn – be more inclined to release control to their students.

Isn’t it ironic… don’t you think.

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“When that is out of the way.”

“Once we get through it.”

“It will soon be over.”

“When it’s done we can then get back on track.”

How many times do we hear these statements in schools. Wishing to be doing something else. Galloping along to get to something else, even if we don’t know what that something else is. We all know in schools there is something to be done. We are always doing things, most of the time without knowing the purpose or meaning of it.

As we all know, accreditation is a big deal and we do know the meaning and purpose of it. Being authorized means you are a good school, doing good things and it’s a good place to work and learn – essentially, that is what it all comes down to in its simplest terms.

A self-study is an opportunity to take a look at the school you teach at and students learn in.  A school should invest about 12 months in the Self-study process. That’s plenty of time to collect evidence, look at the previous evaluation report, make some self-study groups, make judgments against the standards and practices, write a summary and go through a team visit. This is an opportunity to learn more about what you do well, where the holes are and find ways to plug those holes to be an even better place for parents, teachers and students. The self-study is a time to celebrate, keep schools accountable and  mostly focus on Section C (2,3,4) – the quality of teaching and learning and how people work together towards a common goal.

This is the right time to now introduce the word irony in this situation. If a Self-study is meant to be an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of how far you’ve come, why does it bring so much displeasure and angst?

We have dedicated and committed teachers doing their best to put a robust, detailed and accurate Self-study report together… yet I have to say, I’ve caught myself saying the above statements. I should be fist pumping teachers in the corridor and giving high fives for the work we’ve done. The reality is we are tired. After a good day of teaching and learning, getting up in front of the staff and saying those words Self-study, just sucks the enthusiasm out of the room. But, this is important and we have to do it. The Self-study is mostly about collaboration, teaching and learning. This is the business we are in. This is what we offer.  I find this incredibly ironic and vexing.

Half of me feels like I am going to get a rap over the knuckles for sharing this much with you.

Am I saying what everyone else is thinking and feeling, or is it just me?

Maybe I am suffering from Self-study fatigue….