Category: Speaking

To be interesting, be interested

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.

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Standing up to gossip

Schools are funny places. A large number of teachers haven’t ever really left school. They went to school, then university and then back to work in a school. Sometimes feels like they’re caught in perpetual adolescence.  What I am talking about applies to everyone. Doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, people like to gossip.

It takes a lot of guts to withstand what others say. The test in this is not changing or bending who you are in order to be liked or accepted by others. There is a lot to be said in staying true to who you are. It actually feels really good!

It takes more guts to actually challenge gossip. Not many people do it. They either engage in it or remain silent. Both just as bad as each other.

I respect anyone that stops gossip in its tracks and says, “what you are saying didn’t happen like that” or “if that person was here what would they think?” or “I don’t think what you are doing is ok”.

I watched a video many years ago, the title escapes me, but there’s a scene where one of the actors refers to gossip as feathers. The image above shows the effects and destruction of gossip – a lot like a feather pillow bursting open. The feathers go everywhere and spread as it blows in the wind and is carried far away. It is almost impossible to collect the feathers and put them all back in the pillow. This is a lot like gossip and the irreversible effects it has. Gossip can colour reputations. A teacher’s reputation is all we really have and can take away with us.

There is a real upside to this post. I can confidently say that I am at a school where gossip does not really exist. I am sure it is there, just not in the malice or nasty ways that I have heard and experienced. It feels so good to be in a school that does not feed or fuel gossip. If there is gossip, it is just the latest scoop on what’s going on, pretty light-hearted stuff.

What is your work place like with gossip?

Have you or would you be able to stand up to gossip and shut it down?

What really matters?

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What really matters in life? We all hear this a lot. True.

I’m sure most of us could rattle off an extensive list of what really matters to us. Ultimately, it would boil down to a very small number of things. Family, happiness, and…..well, happiness.

It is so easy to get sucked into things which often sit on the circumference of what really matters. Think about the people and relationships in our life. Why is it that we sometimes treat them worse than complete strangers….. because we know they will always be there. Well, hopefully. This is quite telling and also really stupid. It tells me that people don’t really know what matters or even who matters. Now, let’s think about arguments we have with people. This includes colleagues, friends or family. The real reason the confrontation surfaced often gets lost, and you start fighting about other things. Things that have no connection or relationship to how the initial argument started in the first place. Vexing!

We need to make time for what matters. This requires a lot of effort and awareness. It is all about closing the chasm on what we know we should be doing against what we need to do more of.

This also applies to learning too. We should be asking our students this question every day. “What learning today meant something to you?” I wonder what responses we would get if we asked the students that at the end of each day. Let us make no assumptions about what they would say. Imagine the natural inquiry to extend and explore on the learning that mattered to them. Spending time on something they are on the edge of knowing to help construct their own meaning about learning.

Alright, now I need to bring this posting back to the center. The real purpose and motivation for sharing this points to human interactions more than learning (even though there is an obvious connection to learning). If people could focus on the things that really matter all of the time, our interactions and dealings with others would improve dramatically. If people dump problems, concerns, dilemmas or issues on you challenge it in a way that asks, does this really matter?  At what point did things turn sour and what triggered it? People need to find alternative ways to communicate on what is really happening without judgment or ego. Be very clear about making a choice on what is at the center and focus on the ‘one thing’ that needs to be addressed. Stick with it until there is a resolution or a conclusion. Don’t get pulled into the things that end up making us feel overwhelmed or inadequate, either indirectly or directly. A lot of what other people dump on us often says a whole lot more about them, than it does us. Step back, take a breath and take stock of the things that deserve your attention right now. I challenge anyone who is reading this to try it for just one day. Observe any noticeable change in how you feel and/or make others feel too in the process. Challenge people to be better and have the same expectation for yourself. What really matters?

Mission impossible?

After the first few pages of the book I started reading yesterday, I was already questioning the way my profession works – I work in international schools which are all committed by their mission statements to making the world a better place.

The story begins on a rubbish dump in an Asian city and follows a family that ekes out an existence by sifting through everyone’s waste.

People live that type of life in all of the cities and countries in which international schools exist. As they make their way to another day of “making the world a better place”, our students pass those people without noticing they exist. Let’s not kid ourselves either… most teachers do too. You see, I am not sure we are all doing this in order to improve the world… I have a sneaky suspicion that we’re doing it for the domestic help, the incredible lifestyle and the exotic holidays. Luxuries possible only because of the massive divide between rich and poor.

Many of our schools perpetuate that divide. Many offer zero scholarships. Many pay their local staff so little that they are desperate for overtime just to survive. Many have deplorable environmental practices. Many make no real expectation that members of its community will ever really look or see beyond their own needs.

I wonder when we will start to see the evidence of the world being a better place because of our schools. I wonder when we will see these big, wealthy establishments putting their money where their mouths are. I wonder when we will stop tolerating the things we know are going on around us and actually do something about it. I wonder when we will stop waiting for the world to be a better place and actually make an effort to have an impact.

I wonder when we will go and get that family from the rubbish dump, give them a home and a job and educate their child. “Oh, but we can’t do that for every family” is the predictable opt-out clause for that one, of course. But, we can do it for one family… which is better than doing it for none. Maybe then our mission statements will be possible, visible and tangible and not just some lofty, ambiguous ideal that we will never really be accountable for.

Children who attend international schools should be the luckiest children around. Not because the schools have the best facilities and because they get to go to a tropical beach at the weekend. They should be lucky because they are surrounded by reality, a reality that is often beautiful but in need of attention. They should be lucky because they live in places where it is possible to make a difference. They should be lucky to know how good that feels.

Children learn by doing. What exactly is it that we have them doing towards making our mission statements real?

The Teacher Personality

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From what I have observed as a teacher and as a pedagogical leader, perhaps the fundamental questions teachers need to ask themselves are “do you know your personality, do you know how your personality affects the way you teach and do you know if your personality is willing to be malleable?”

To experiment with the pedagogical approaches that are shared on this blog, I have found that the following personality traits would be a good start:

– a curious person
– knowledgeable about all of the weird and wonderful things people do in their lives
– willing to learn from any experience, including those created by kids
– willing to know your curriculum and treat it as a friend
– willing to allow uncertainty into your teaching domain
– willing to allow things to become messy
– willing to resist peer pressure to conform in order to do things that feel right for your students
– willing to reeducate parents so that they too may see learning differently
– willing to make things happen rather than dictate what happens
– willing to set aside your agenda in order to watch, listen to, notice and begin to understand your students

Many of us are this way already. But, others may become more like this…

The skillful educator

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To be a teacher who truly has an effect on students you must know learning. To know how to teach is not sufficient, instead you must become skilled and dexterous at noticing learning. And this is learning without predetermined boundaries. Contexts yes, boundaries no. For when we establish too narrowly the boundaries of learning we instantly rule out learning that is new and different.

To know learning, you must know life. An adult who “lives to work” will struggle here as a direct result of inevitably becoming rather narrow minded. An adult who is aware, who is regularly challenged and exposed by new situations, an adult with knowledge beyond her own area of expertise is much more likely to be able to see learning of different types.

This type of person sees and makes connections that enrich life in their classroom. Most of these connections are spontaneous and not planned for. This type of person responds to students in a way that makes the student feel that they are part of a wider world, not a classroom bubble. Connections are frequently made with media, knowledge, literature, ideas, people, businesses, organizations and aspects of society that lie within and beyond the walls of the school.

When this culture of connections exists in your classroom, learning can take many forms… sometimes being so “disguised” that it looks unlike learning in any traditional sense. Learning lies in the background and provides forward momentum for students regardless of what it is they are doing.

If you were to walk in to the classroom of a teacher like this, you would see them:

  • Creating contexts in which students are engaged and energized.
  • Differentiating – in a sophisticated sense – so that students are pursuing their own inquiries or working on their own projects.
  • Getting out of the habit of playing “guess whats in my head”. Sharing ideas and making connections with and for students as and when they are needed has a profound effect on the directions students can take.
  • “Noticing and naming” the learning that is taking place in order to validate what students are doing and help them plot their way forward, navigating their way through their curriculum.
  • Establishing a meaningful reflective process that creates a culture of intrinsic motivation for students.
  • Taking steps to set classrooms up as “learning studios” that are dynamic spaces that change according to what students are doing.
  • Skillfully and intelligently documenting learning using different forms of media.
  • Empowering students by deliberately creating a “culture of permission” in which students feel that they can give things a go and that their teacher is able to work with them to make things happen.

Do you know any teachers like this? I do. And all too often they are in the minority. How do we change that?

Teachers are always wrong

It has become painfully obvious to me over the last few years that teaching may be the only profession in which you can be guaranteed that someone will say you are wrong about something at least once a day.

There are so many people with a vested (and sometimes even not vested) interest in what you do in your classroom that you can be sure to be judged over at least one small detail each day at work. I can think of no other profession in which there are so many other experts lining up to tell you how, and how not to, do your job. In which other professions could you open your email at night, be unjustly criticized by someone and then struggle to sleep? It happens to teachers all the time.

This can become extremely debilitating:

  • It can stop you from being innovative
  • It can make you second guess your every action
  • It can limit the experiences you offer your students
  • It can destroy your confidence in yourself
  • It can undermine the fundamental importance of the individual teacher and the differences we bring to education

I am fairly lucky. To a certain extent, I am strong about what I believe about learning and how I go about putting what I believe into practice.

Others are less lucky. Many teachers are highly sensitive people to whom the opinions and judgments of colleagues, parents, administrators and whoever else happens to pass by matter a great deal. These people can shrink before your eyes as their individuality, decision-making, ideas and approaches are questioned. They spend countless hours writing replies to critical emails – all too often justifying their own blatantly good actions in response to blatantly ridiculous criticism. Honestly, if we were to spend several years gathering all of the things teachers are frequently told they are wrong about we could compile possible the best tragic joke book of all time!

This trend really bothers me. The disempowerment of teachers really bothers me… particularly as these people are being asked to empower their students.

Schools should…

  • Possess a very clear vision/mission statement through which everything can be “filtered”
  • Hire teachers whose thinking and practice are aligned with that vision
  • Have a default setting of backing teachers first, responding to criticism second (if at all)
  • Have a zero-tolerance approach to gossip in the teaching community
  • Hire leadership teams who have a strong, teacher-centred, approach

Teachers should…

  • Believe in themselves and the way they work
  • Make sure they are working in the school that is right for them, and vice-versa
  • Not apologize in response to unfair criticism
  • Always respond to criticism by suggesting a face-to-face meeting, not by an exchange of opinions or justifications by email
  • Inform a member of the school’s leadership team once a series of criticisms begins
  • Have confidence in the fact that most criticisms are likely to come from ignorance
  • Allow their colleagues the space to be themselves

Parents should…

  • Have faith in the teachers who devote their last drop of energy to doing their job as well as they can
  • Make sure their kids are in the right school for them, or;
  • Be willing to have their predetermined ideas about education permanently changed, or;
  • Be ready to change which school their child goes to, not try and change the school they do go to
  • Find other distractions if they find themselves putting too much thought into what is going on their children’s classrooms!

Picking fault with teachers in a  way that is destructive should not be tolerated. In all honesty, is there another profession in which this happens???