Every year, pressure builds up in schools as people become more and more busy.
This is quite inevitable. What is not inevitable, however, is the stress that grows around it. Teachers tend to start getting frantic and “overwhelmed”. This is often due to the belief that every single little thing is critical. This is not true, in fact the vast majority of things that happen in school are not critical at all. We just allow them to seem more important than they are because, really, we lack perspective in schools.
We all need a few reminders, from time-to-time, that there are many more things in the world that are more important than getting a report out on a particular day, that there are more serious issues out there than a printer not working, that other people out there are exhausted and won’t get six weeks holiday, that there are people out there teaching with no resources at all, etc…
If you find yourself becoming caught up in a downward spiral and starting to believe that everything that happens is critical and worthy of your emotional investment… remind yourself that not much of it really matters. Not really. Not if you really think about it.
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
All the teachers I know need at least two weeks to become “de-schooled” and relax into their holidays. They finish each semester in such a frenzy of busyness that they are desperate for a break. They depend on adrenaline and the last reserves of their immune systems so that they may get sick only when the holiday starts.
This seems to be an accepted part of our profession. But why should it be? Isn’t the fact that everyone, including students, is so exhausted and depleted by the time holidays come around that they barely have the energy to enjoy them rather an embarassment for our schools? Exactly what is it that we are doing that demands so much energy and overwhelms us all so much?
Not much, really.
Let me qualify that. We are doing lots of stuff, thousands of things, a mountain of routine tasks. Countless pointless formalities. Endless inexplicable traditions. In my school, for example, there was a whole load of things going on that nobody could rationalise. At one point, as all the classes did “transition day” and rather pointlessly went up to the next grade for 40 minutes, one teacher looked up at me with exhausted eyes and shrugged. The gesture said it all. It said this was another in a long list of things we’re doing without knowing why. It said this was turning into another experience that will have little or no impact on the students themselves. It said that we were, once again, caught in that familiar trap of doing, not being.
I suggest that all schools carry out an experiment for the next couple of years. If everyone reaches the end of each semester exhausted and ready to be out of there then consider that as a serious warning signal that there are problems with the school. Then, and this is the clever part, act on those findings! Discuss what makes the place that way. Simplify. Remove things. Rethink formalities and traditions. Try your absolute hardest to make school a place you feel sad to say goodbye to for a while, not somewhere you can’t wait to get out of!
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.
We need to stop talking about the 21st Century as if it is the future, we are already in it.
We need to stop trying to address new situations and challenges with old models and moulds.
If we are in any way serious about moving education forward, or even just catching up, we need to be in the business of breaking moulds. If we keep using the same old moulds, it doesn’t matter what we put into them… the end product will always be the same.
Here are some educational moulds that could do with being broken:
- Leadership – Leadership roles in schools tend to be very restrictive as there is usually only one possible way to advance if we are ambitious and wish to expand our scope of influence. The career path usually takes us further away from kids, further away from learning. This will inevitably make leaders less relevant! Why not break a few of those moulds and create alternative career paths for people so they can continue to be their best?
- Homework – For all the talk about homework, there is still remarkably little change. Thousands of teachers are still handing out homework to thousands and thousands of students that is still in the same mould as it was 5, 10, 15 and 20 years ago. We have moved on so…. let’s move on. We could even go so far as to break that mould and then simply not replace it!
- Reports – Another mould that we continue to use even though we know it isn’t the right mould. Break it, rethink it, redesign it, discard it… anything but carry on with the same.
- Classrooms – It is such an uncomfortable feeling to walk into a classroom (for any age) and find it to resemble classrooms we endured when we were kids. It is so refreshing, on the other hand, to walk into a classroom that breaks those moulds. Imagine a classroom with different seating options, different shapes and heights of tables, different lighting options, different smells and sounds… Teachers need to have a daily routine of asking themselves “would I like to be a student in my own class?”
- End-of-year class parties – just adding this as our school year comes to an end and I have been around every classroom and found mountains of junk food, packaging, throw-away cups and plates and wide-eyed over-indulged children who ate lunch only an hour beforehand. Time to think again people! Have a pool party like we did in Year 6 at NIST, have a class sports day, go out somewhere, bring someone in to do something different with them. Or, at the very least, cancel lunch on that day.
- Technology – Funny isn’t it, most of us actually think 21st Century leaning actually means using technology. We are mistaken. It actually involves, but doesn’t mean, using technology to make learning different to how it was before, not simply replicating what is used to be like but using a computer or other device instead. Use technology to break a few moulds, then it may serve a purpose. Be careful, we are in danger of creating some rather dull new moulds in the way we currently use technology.
- Committees – Instead of creating a few of those dull old committees and populating them with people who have to be in a committee, how about using an inquiry style of leadership and letting teachers determine what needs to be done to improve their schools and then empowering them to take action and make those improvements happen. Teachers who feel empowered to create change have a much better chance of nurturing students who feel empowered to create change.
- Timetables – The fragmentation of the school day is often done with little thought about the flow of learning or the time needed for genuine inquiries to take shape. Discrete lessons, certainly in primary education, may be close to obsolete. In fact, in my teaching practice over the last few years, I would struggle to give an example of a lesson that actually ended – many began, many had middles, but I can’t think of any that had an end. And, I wouldn’t want them to!
- Meetings – Any time any person is running any meeting, they should consciously try to make it unlike a meeting. This is really hard, the meeting is a very strong mould! But, if we can just approach them with the determination to chip away at the mould we will start to create something different.
- Professional development – Throw some money at it, get on a plane somewhere, sit and listen to someone, take away one or two things, implement one of them, share nothing. All too often, PD falls into that trap. Great for getting around the world, meeting people and making connections… don’t get me wrong. Hopeless for moving a school forward. Even bringing in big names and filling rooms with teachers can sometimes have little or no impact. Good professional development should have a sustainable impact on a school’s culture of learning and to do so it needs to be dynamic and multi-faceted. A model that we are experimenting with and getting a lot of success is bringing in practitioners, people who still teach, and setting them up to have an effect on the teaching and learning in the school in multiple ways – team-teaching, demonstration teaching, helping with planning, working with parents etc… there’s lots of ways to do it. Give it a try!
- Learning – Yep, even learning is stuck in a type of mould. While doing a teacher appraisal today, I snapped a photo of this image that was on top of one of my colleague’s files – it pretty much represents the mould of teacher/student relationship that is being broken and needs to be broken more!
Anyway… enough from me. What moulds are you breaking? What moulds would you like to break?
Image from OKFoundryCompany on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jamesoneil/
It is extremely powerful to change classrooms in order to reflect the kind of learning that is taking place at the time. So, for example, they become art studios during creative units, science labs during scientific units, museums during historical ones and so on. Students should be encouraged to think about how their physical space can enhance learning and how it can be adapted to help them do their best.
- Do teachers disagree yet remain friends?
- Do students learn to disagree and yet remain friends?
- Are students taught the skills of disagreement?
- Do leaders encourage disagreement?
- Do people have the time to disagree?
- Is disagreement valued?