This is a powerful talk. It turns many of the dominant educational practices and beliefs upside-down. It also is a bit of a slap in the face for some of the current practices in many schools. I will pick one to pull apart – mixing classes up every year.
I work in the international school context. Our students are perpetually making friendships and then losing friends when people leave to go to another country. They are perpetually saying good-bye to their relatives, whom they see only during some holidays. They are isolated from their own cultures and often possess few or no relationships with local people other than those who are subservient to them.
These children crave the stability of solid friendships and relationships. That stability comes from their classmates and the bonds that evolve from spending each day together. Then… here comes the weird bit… we mix them all up again the following year. They have to start all over again, from scratch, from zero…for some reason we seem to think that pulling the rug out from beneath their feet is the right thing to do. Young children’s strongest friendships are nearly always with kids in the same class. Invariably, the friendships weaken or all apart completely when they are put in separate classes.
Some kids can handle this. But, should they have to?
Some kids can’t handle it. And, no, its not going to toughen them up and make them more resilient. It’s g0ing to make them lonely.
This is pretty demoralizing for teachers too. We spend a whole year developing a class as a community of learners. We nurture relationships and cultures. And then we pull it all apart. And the process of pulling them apart and putting new classes together is not an easy one – it is time-consuming, emotionally exhausting and fraught with complexity on many levels.
I propose that we limit this practice and seek out opportunities to provide stability for our students. We keep classes relatively unchanged if it feels like the right thing to do. If there is something wrong with the dynamics of a class, we take steps to remedy it. If not, we leave them alone, let them have their friendships. They need them.
Every year, in international schools, a certain number of teachers spend several months – usually between August and December, figuring out what to do with their lives. This is because they have signed a one-year contract and must decide whether or not to sign another one.
Recently, I chatted with a non-teacher at a party. He told me he was here, in Vietnam, until 2018. He said this with a real peace, like someone who knows where they are and is fine with that. All too often, international school teachers are caught between two places, or sometimes three… or even four. Home, where they were before, where they are now and where they might be next.
It is very difficult to be content with one’s current situation in these conditions. It is also an exhausting way to live… making the biggest decision you can make – where to live – every year.
I reckon schools should get rid of one year contracts and introduce two or three year contracts as the minimum. This would:
- get rid of the gossip – “is he staying or going?”
- remove some of the uncertainty
- help people feel more settled
- fill schools with people who want to be there, not people who aren’t sure where to go next
- encourage commitment rather than delaying decisions
- encourage people to live in the moment rather than worry about what’s around the corner
Food for thought. I am a perpetual signer of one-year contracts, but I know how debilitating those months of indecision are, how they affect my enjoyment of where I am, how they affect the friendships I have made but am not sure will continue and how they affect my enjoyment of my work.
My little heroes this morning are this kid, and the other guy just behind him.
The basketball court was covered with earthworms this morning. Many of our little city-dwelling students were screaming mindlessly or stamping on them. These kids are scared by nature. Part if it is cultural – many people in this part of the world think the utterly beautiful and harmless Gecko is evil, for example. Part of it is their increasingly sad, air-conditioned, sanitized, concrete, screen-based lives. Show them a bug and they run for their lives… and usually an adult comes with a can of poison to kill it.
But these two Grade 2 students saw me picking up the worms and helped me out. They were a bit squeamish about it at first, but they soon found out nothing was going to happen and promptly returned all the worms to the soil. I made sure I made a big deal of how proud I was of them, but I walked away thinking a number of thoughts:
- We teach kids they must take care of their environment, but do we get them out there properly experiencing it? I have written about this here.
- How can we say we are developing curious students if their reaction to things they don’t know or understand is to scream or kill?
- What do we do about cultural beliefs – particularly damaging ones – that we believe are ridiculous?
- Caring for things – anything really – needs to be modeled. It is clear that this is not happening at home for many of the students in this part of the world – quite the opposite it seems. So, how do we put adult modeling at the forefront of everything we do in schools?
- If a student goes all the way through an international school and still screams at worms but gets into a good university, can we say we’ve “educated” them?
“Action” is the most abstract of the PYP Essential Elements. We know it’s there, we know its important, we know its designed to encourage students to do good things… but we so often misinterpret it, forget about it and trivialize it.
Jane Goodall’s quote, below, puts it in the most simple terms. Students (and teachers) need to see how everything they do represents their “actions” and that reflection on what they do helps them to consider the difference – either good or bad – that their actions make. This could range from putting their shoes away when they get home to reaching for a book instead of an iPad to helping a friend with a problem to noticing a child beggar and mentioning it to a parent to… the list goes on.
Our problem, very often, is that we narrow down what “action” means so much that it has little or no value. Are we surprised, then, that so many of our students go through school believing it is a bake sale?
How do you guide your students towards a sophisticated understanding of Action?
I have written before about teachers and the “cult of business” – that perverse competitiveness that sometimes emerges between teachers as they jostle to see who arrives earliest and leaves latest each day!
Nobody can deny the commitment of these people, although they are often the ones who complain about being “overwhelmed” or “burnt out”. However, the fruits of their extreme labours are often rather difficult to identify, and may be hidden in the minutiae of over-planning, excessive marking and the preparation of reams of teacher-created materials.
While people like these are working so hard on these things, they may be missing something way more important – who their students are. While they may expend their energy on the details, the logistics and the practicalities, they may make little effort to discover what makes their students tick.
You see, I think that’s lazy.
You can work your fingers to the bone without ever tuning in to your students, without ever helping them “work from within” and without ever stimulating genuine inquiries in them. As a result, it is possible that your students may end up having a year doing those “low grade clerical tasks” that Sir Ken Robinson refers to – in a highly organised, highly effective but almost entirely uninspiring classroom.
Ironically, a teacher who arrives later and leaves earlier each day may well end up having a more profound effect on their students.
The art of teaching cannot be measured by hours spent on the premises.
Mindfulness practice creates a mood, and skillful educators use that mood to help students be at their best.
Often, the mood that is necessary is one of independence, self-management and self-direction. I find it effective to give students a decent 10 minutes of mindfulness practice. Then, in the final stages of that practice, I ask them to consider what their intentions are for the time that follows. What will they try and achieve? What do they need or want to do?
We work towards being very detailed in the description, so rather than say “I will work on my project” they give specific details like “I will research how to split video files so I can edit my movie”. As you can see in this video, some of the students are quite specific and yet others are very vague. With regular practice, they would all be outlining their intentions with more detail.
This sort of strategy not only creates a mood and helps students be self-directed, it also gives the teacher a big picture of what stage each student is up to with the things they’re working on and how organized they are. In this sense, it is also a formative assessment. After the session in this video, I knew exactly which students I needed to give some time to and follow up with.
“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”
“Lean into the uncomfortable.”
“Having the courage to be imperfect.”
“Letting go of who we think we should be and be who we really are.”
“What makes you vulnerable, makes you beautiful.”
This all sounds very nice. Very easy to say, yet quite difficult to actually do – especially, for people who work in schools.
Schools are very good at developing the head. We spend so much time thinking about thinking and developing ideas and perspectives. While there is a strong argument that this is important and thinking has an important place in what we do, we need to also develop the heart in terms of our interactions with our peers and students.
We can think about things and solve problems, but it is nothing unless we are developing feelings and emotions to connect every one of us.
It is this deep connection that is inside of us all. This allows us to be compassionate and also have the courage to be more vulnerable.
This made me think about how I could deepen my connection with the people I work with. This would ultimately improve our relationships, trust and as a way of being better at what we do.
How can I strengthen my relationships with those that I spend so much time with?
The answer is being more vulnerable. If we reveal more of ourselves at work, so that people get to know us better, wouldn’t this spur on others to be more comfortable around us too?
As teachers, we really do fear letting other people see us. We hide so much away and keep it locked up. We sometimes get to see people differently outside of school, if we are lucky.
We don’t want our students to hide away, do we? Of course not!
We all need to get better at being playful at work, lower the walls and bring in the real you to work. Show your personality, share things beyond the transactional stuff that is meaningless and empty. Otherwise, we just take things too seriously. We become too stiff at work because we are too busy to get to know each other better.
Being more vulnerable gives others permission to also drop their guard a bit. Schools would be so much more fun to work in if we could develop more compassion, connection and courage by being more outward and vulnerable with one another. How else do you get to know each other?
Do you hide yourself or show the real you in the work place?
Visible thinking is nothing new.
Many people do it, at varying levels.
This got me thinking about how people use visible thinking beyond just using visible thinking strategies. Do we use this to drive student inquires and interests by taking the time to read everything students write or is it just decoration that looks good on the wall?
Let us share something that worked well today and consider the possibilities and potential in the “new doors” that visible thinking strategies open up. At the moment students are exploring, interacting and creating through the arts as a way to launch into their next unit of inquiry. We set the rooms up with different art zones and they had total freedom in what they could do, and choose where to go and when. We just stepped back and let it all happen. 30 minutes into the experience we brought them together to respond to some questions and statements that were written to provoke thinking.
The results were incredibly revealing.
We started to read all of them carefully and noticed that just about every student made a connection that opened up new doors to learning. This is responsive teaching. Could you imagine what doors would open if we gave the students time to explore, create and interact with the powerful statements and ideas they have revealed to us? Whether it be revealing their personality, learning style, knowledge, skills, attitudes…….. it is all telling. They are telling us how to teach them and maybe what they want school to be more like, if we gave them the time to do so. Where could these lead? How could they spark new connections and learning? Are we opening doors and walking through them, or shutting them closed?”
Last week, Yoojin and I were talking about new ideas and possibilities to consider for her Passion Project. On the following Monday she came to school and everything we had talked about she had followed up with by taking action. She didn’t do what we were talking about, but our chat inspired other ideas which then lead to more ideas. Clearly, Yoojin had thought deeply about the conversation we had and then put those words into purposeful action.
This then gave me an idea and I saw an opportunity to extend this to every student in the class.
Each student had till Friday to do one thing that they have been talking about doing and never got around to it, or do something that connected to learning throughout the week. The conditions were really simple, they had to prove with evidence of how their words and actions had come together.
Students are really good at talking about ideas and most of the time don’t do anything about it. They often take action only as a result of an adult telling them to do it.
We all had a remarkable week of learning, connecting and accepting responsibility. Every student had something to show and share. Here is a list of some of the things students did as part of their Yoojin Project:
- Two girls arranged to ride to school together;
- Washing up the dishes;
- Playing with their brother or sister;
- Putting more effort and detail into their exposition writing;
- Taking photos of graffiti in the community;
- Spending more time with their mum and talking about their day….. and so on.
Everything that students did was timely. It was always connected to learning, knowledge and skills. Most important of all this experience was developing them as people.
Students saw the value and meaning in what they were doing and why they were doing it. They received feedback about their Yoojin Project by their peers. They felt really positive and good about themselves. This is what successful people do – they are doers.
How much time do you take away from the other ‘stuff’ jammed into your schedule and put it into something that is authentic, purposeful and meaningful naturally? Sometimes we need to teach beyond the curriculum to reach them in other ways.
We all need to carefully listen and observe our students in what they do. We also need to take it one step further and make time to take these opportunities and treat them as priorities in what we teach.
The Yoojin Project is now part of us and what we do. The students know that this term means putting their words into action. Now how special is that for Yoojin!
Whether we like it or not, teachers need to be interesting. If we are not interesting then there is little or no chance that our students will find us or the material we teach of any interest at all.
But, how do you “become interesting”. Paul Arden, in his brilliant little book called “Whatever you think think the opposite” makes the case that it simply requires you to be interested.
Many of us in this profession trudge the well-trodden path from school to home and home to school. For many, life revolves around school and an unhealthy obsession with how much work there is to do. Sometimes there is even a twisted pride and rivalry around how late people stay at work, who gets in to school earliest and who comes in at the weekend or doesn’t. There is a dangerous assumption that the hardest working teachers are the best teachers.
I have bad news for these people. All those countless hours spent at work may mean they get more done, but may make it much less likely that their students want to learn from or with them. It may make them very dull people who are unlikely to interest, inspire or motivate young people in the slightest.
So, instead of staying behind at work… ask yourself if that task really needs doing or if it will really transform learning. If not, get out of there… go and explore your city, go and take some photos, go and read a good book, go and see a movie, go and meet a friend (who doesn’t work at school!) and talk about life, go to a museum, go and people-watch somewhere, go down that alleyway you’ve always wondered about, enroll in an evening class, eat somewhere you’ve never tried before, go to a market, develop that talent that lies dormant… be interested in the world outside of school.
What you bring back to your classroom – knowledge, curiosity, connections, awareness, compassion, perspectives – will inevitably make you a better teacher.