“My students hate that” I sometimes hear teachers say. Or “Oh… my students get bored by that”.
More often than not, they could easily replace “my students” with “I” as, more often than not, it is the teacher’s disliking for something that transmits to the students.
If a teacher doesn’t value something, it is far more likely that their students will not value it. If a teacher doesn’t see the point of something, they are unlikely to be able to create any interest or motivation for it in their students.
Ultimately, in schools, we have to ask ourselves if we are surrounded by people with the same values about education, the same beliefs about the types of learning that are important and the same convictions about the types of pedagogy that are powerful.
If we are… well, we’re more likely to feel that we’re part of something that has meaning. If we’re not… we may well feel quite alone.
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.
Life is short.
Childhood is even shorter.
Children deserve to come to school and be excited, challenged and motivated. We have our students, in our space, for one year. During this time, we are creating narratives – stories – with them. What are those stories? What stories do our students tell about their days at school?
On Sunday night, my daughter said “I can’t wait to get back to school to work on my project, Daddy. I love what I am doing.”
Wouldn’t it be great if each student said those words to their parents on the night before school? Wouldn’t it be great if every student was totally engrossed in their inquiries. “It feels like playing” she said later.
The first half of the year, in many schools, can be very business-like. Some things that have always been on the agenda may now be expected to be done with consistency and quality. Some familiar things may be done in unfamiliar and better ways. Some new things may be added to the equation in order to take teaching and learning to the next level. This all takes time and effort. It is hard work.
In the second half of the year, however, there may be no surprises. So, focus on those narratives I mentioned above. Focus on working with students so that each day, each week and each month of their lives at school unfold as interesting, exciting, surprising stories of personal growth and learning. If some old habits need to be discarded to make that happen… discard them. If a few risks need to be taken to make that happen… lets take them. If a few people need to be challenged to make that happen… challenge them.
Teachers put a lot of work into figuring out what our students should or could be doing. But, we also need to take a good long look at why. How do we get our students to want to read, question, write, draw, build, listen, design, argue, solve, play, win, collaborate, research, experiment, notice, think…?
Each day, ask yourself these crucial questions:
Would I want to be a student in my class?
Would I be interested in what we are doing?
Would I be inspired by me?
Would this unit excite and motivate me?
Would this experience stimulate my curiosity?
Would I be at my best here?
You want the answers to those questions to be “ÿes”. You are teachers. It is your purpose in life for each of your students to feel that way. It is your source of pride and satisfaction when they do feel that way. It is what gives you a thrill and makes you feel as though all of your effort has real meaning.
Life may be short. But it is shorter when waiting for each day to end, when waiting for the weekend, when waiting for a meeting to be over, when waiting for the next holiday to come. This time is your time, and it is the most important time for your students.
It is their childhood. Help make it an amazing one.
Image by Patrick Breitenbrach
In all schools it is seen as an essential component to learning, vital in the formative growth of students. Without feedback, how can there be development?
“How do you give feedback to your students?” ask administrators.
And, administrators do their best to give feedback to teachers too… albeit in ways that are far from perfect.
Feedback is crucial.
So, why is it that when teachers painstakingly spend hours preparing CVs, pouring their soul into covering letters and holding their dreams in their fingertips as they press send on that email… their chances of any feedback are non-existent?
Days or weeks waiting, wondering, wishing.
Then, out of the blue… the inbox reveals the clinical phrase “we regret to inform you that your application has been unsuccessful”.
But why? The teachers ask… what is wrong with me? Is my CV crap, is my experience insufficient, was my covering letter poorly worded, am I the wrong type of person?
Well… who knows? And fat chance of fixing any of those issues next time. Learning from the experience? Non-existent.
So, where is the feedback then? Has anyone ever received feedback on their job application?
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?
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…
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?
Both my daughters had swimming galas this week. On Saturday morning, guess what they were playing… yep, swimming galas.
This is a pattern in my children’s lives. When they have real experiences, those experiences become part of their play, part of their language and part of their landscape. After a trip to the doctor, they play doctors for weeks. After a train journey, they build trains out of dining chairs. After a meal in a fancy restaurant, they create fancy restaurants and write menus and act like chefs.
Pretty obvious really.
But, it does make me think about schools and how much learning comes as a result of real experiences. As a teacher, the most powerful learning opportunities always came from times when I was able to provide them with real experiences. Unfortunately, the nature of schools often means that learning is divorced from real experience. We counteract that by trying our best to recreate the real when we can. We try our best by using the virtual resources that the Internet gives us. But, nothing can or should replace the real experiences that are available by going to real places, speaking to real people or making real emotional connections.
When those things happen, learning is inevitable.
As if by coincidence, I came across this passage in the book I’m reading at the moment (“Night Train to Lisbon” by Pascal Mercier):
“Thus it was 11,532 times that I clenched my teeth and went back into the gloomy building from the schoolyard instead of following my imagination, which sent me through the school gate and out to the port, to a ship’s rail, where I would then lick the salt from my lips.”
Perhaps an education based on real experiences would mean he wouldn’t have to make that choice.
I was recently very fortunate to attend a keynote speech by Richard Gerver (@richardgerver) during the IB Annual Conference in Singapore.
One of Richard’s quotes that really resonated with me was:
“One of the most important things we need to do in education is get out more.”
This a short and simple statement but, like many short and simple statements, it asks many questions!
How often do we venture beyond the walls of our schools?
It’s funny… “field trips” are viewed as a special event and are done, in most schools, pretty rarely. In my school, for example, most grade levels have ventured out of the school only once. There are many reasons for this – costs and the fear of anything “happening” are often the biggest barrier. Indeed, I know of one IB school in Australia in which it is strictly not allowed to take students on field trips! How about that?
Yet, every time we take students outside of the school there are learning experiences above and beyond those we planned for:
- Genuine connections with the real world
- Improved sense of place
- Observations of people’s behaviour
- Improved ability to look, see and notice
- Rich language and conversation
- Emergence of prior knowledge and wisdom
- Natural curiosity
- Greater bonds between students
- Bursting the bubble by going somewhere new, expanding horizons
- Revealing information about students as individuals in different contexts
- … and more
You see, very often teachers have a limited understanding of the learning objectives that will be reached by taking the kids out somewhere. But, if we realize that everything is learning, everything is an opportunity to develop, everything is a formative assessment – from how well students behave in an art gallery, to how curious they are in a botanical gardens, to how well they talk to strangers at a market, to how they sit and eat during a picnic. It is all real learning.
How well do teachers know the world outside the school?
I work in an international school and, of course, you get all types. In Bangladesh, I worked with local teachers who had never stepped foot in the local markets – that was for servants to do. In China, I worked with people who detested China and refused to enter into society at all, purely frequenting expat restaurants and bars. In Thailand, I worked with people who spoke literally not a single word of Thai. In Vietnam, I work with people who go from school to home and back again over and over and over each day, week, month and year. Of course, there are the complete opposites in each school too – one of my colleagues here speaks the language pretty fluently and has covered nearly every corner of the country in his travels.
My concern is that we are, in these schools, teaching many students who live in a privileged bubble, our schools are often bubbles themselves and many teachers also live in a bubble. What are we teaching them then?
I find it fascinating to provoke people in international schools by asking what difference it would make to the curriculum if the school was suddenly picked up and dropped in a completely different country in a completely different city. Rather soberingly, in some ways, the answer would be “not much”.
What connections does the school have with the community?
Inspired by the stories of two-way community connections that come out of Reggio Emilia, I do wonder about how schools can become genuine parts of their local community. Like a watch, schools seem to have become a “single-function device” – kids get dropped off here and we teach them. How else do we serve our community though? Is student art displayed in local restaurants, shops and public places? Are the students encouraged to initiate projects that feed into and have an impact on the local community? Are the expertise and talent from the local community brought into the school to create those connections? Are the students visible in the local community?
It seems we are stuck in some rather tired looking moulds (schools excel at that!). We can break those moulds by getting out more, as Richard says.
How does your school do it?
“Nearly the weekend”
“Holidays coming soon”
In schools, you can’t go five minutes without hearing people saying these words, or something similar. In that sense, I suppose it is no different from the average workplace. What does make it different to other workplaces though, is that kids might hear us. What is the main lesson they will learn from hearing those words?
That people wish their lives away.
It’s such an astounding contradiction. Nobody wants to get old quickly, yet everyone consistently wishes the weekend and the holidays would come sooner. Weird.
One of the main causes of this problem in schools is the cycle of “busyness”. We make our days, weeks, months, terms, semesters, years so frantic, so chock-full of frenetic activity that we are constantly in desperate need of a break. We exhaust ourselves…
Who is to blame? Well…
- school leadership has to take some of the blame. As soon as we step out of the classroom we unavoidably and instantly forget what it is like to be a classroom teacher, so we pile things on with little empathy or understanding.
- the “mould” of schools also has to take the blame – they are expected to be these busy and rather frantic places!
- teachers are also partly to blame, we are not exactly Masters in the Art of Saying No – either to ourselves, to our students or to our colleagues. As a result, we take on more, and more, and more, and more, and more, and more… and then we struggle to put our finger on the exact reason why we are so busy (except, that is, for those who are able to simply point their finger at school leadership and say “its their fault we’re so busy”!)
The funny things is… you know who isn’t to blame?
If they could, they would hang out, relax, play, be creative, come up with ideas, start their own little projects, socialize and probably do a massive amount of learning!
Some things to ponder:
- Make clearing out your school calendar a regular and rather therapeutic process. If nobody really knows why things are done, chuck ’em. If events don’t go right back to your school’s vision, chuck ’em. If there doesn’t seem to be learning involved, chuck ’em!
- Find ways to break the mould, to seek more time rather than seek more activity. Instead of filling time with things, take things away. Instead of valuing “busyness”, value being purposeful. Instead of trying to do too much and ending up not doing it well, do a few things and do them well. Instead of segmenting your days into little portions, spread things out to create bigger portions. Instead of creating huge, ever-evolving to-do lists with your students, sit back and see what they come up and then decide how and what to teach. Just try, and keep on trying. It is the only way to break these stubborn and damaging moulds and traps we consistently find ourselves in.
- Be kind to yourself. Keep things simple, don’t try and do everything that comes into your head. Empower your students by letting them know anything is possible, but keep your own agenda for teaching short and simple. If there are things you have to do, do them – it is amazing how much time can be wasted sitting around moaning about the things you have to do instead of just doing them!!! If you believe you shouldn’t have to do them, be part of driving for change – suggest alternatives, do the research, stake a case.
So… there you go. Believe me, I am equally prone to all of these things and equally guilty of falling into all the same traps. I am writing this as much for me as for anyone else.