Saturday, August 31, 2013

Making the Grade?

Lately I have been reading "Drive" by Daniel Pink. The book focuses on what motivates people and how this has an effect on how productive they are. The automatic assumption is that people who have more money as an incentive, will be more productive. In other words, if you offer someone a bonus to be more productive, they will in turn yield higher results. This seems logical and we can probably cite many cases where this is true. However, research show that there is one missing ingredient here: passion for the job and feeling like what you are doing is important. Without these, studies show that people are less productive even when given a financial incentive.

One of the best examples that Pink talks about in his book is Wikipedia. Microsoft spent an exuberant amount of money, time, and resources developing "Encarta," their digital encyclopedia. They had experts in all fields contribute and had paid programmers working tirelessly to perfect it. However, just when it seemed that Encarta would "hit its stride" along came something called Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a site that is home to information on any topic imaginable from sports to trees. Is is free to the public and the people who write each page do not get compensated. In 1995, if you told someone that the popularity and effectiveness of Wikipedia would dismantle "Encarta"and help start the free sharing revolution that has happened today, they would not believe you. The same goes for the many websites and programs that followed in its footsteps.

This example is the perfect connection to the concept that people must be intrinsically motivated by what they are doing, to operate at their full potential. To find companies that are using this research to improve their production, you need look no further than Google. Daniel Pink talks about this in "Drive." Google gave its employees what they call "20% time." This was a time period where they are able stop working on day to day projects and focus on projects that are creatively inspiring to them and could be used by the company. In other words, its a time for employees to be passionate and explore their creative side, while potentially helping the company through invention. And it did. This was the birthplace of gmail and google maps, among many others. Google employees felt like what they were doing was meaningful, so they were more productive as a result.

So how does this relate to our students and teachers? Well the connection is easy. We have all been in classrooms whether it be as a student or a teacher. Likewise, we have all seen the variety of students that sit in each class. So we know that not all students are motivated by the grade. You can have two kids who respond completely different to an F. One student may nearly pass out for fear of their parent's reaction, while the other will think nothing of it. As teachers and schools, we must realize this and in the words of Mike Niehoff, "transcend the grade."

We need to provide opportunities for our students to be creative and use their talents. We need our advanced students to work to their own high set of standards rather than just enough to get the A grade. We need students to have the kind of relationship with their teacher that makes them strive to make the teacher proud. We need a classroom environment where students are motivated to be successful despite the letter on their report card. We need kids to feel that what they are doing is relevant and meaningful. This is sometimes a very difficult task, but one we must pursue. I can look at students at our school and point out concrete evidence of success without knowing their current GPA. That doesn't mean that GPA doesn't matter. In fact GPA should be taken seriously by all teachers and students. It just means that GPA isn't the only thing that matters.

Rigor should never be compromised. In my opinion, ideas like 20% time, make a rigorous environment more likely. If we teach kids to work hard for an A, some will do that. If we teach kids to work hard and find meaning in life, that will stick with them for a lifetime. Leading is Teaching.

“Greatness and nearsightedness are incompatible. Meaningful achievement depends on lifting one's sights and pushing toward the horizon.”
-Daniel Pink

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Everything I Know I Learned From My Mother

As I prepare to embark on the new school year I feel it is important to remind myself why I am passionate about education. Not only that, but I should remember the roots of my passion. With that being said, I don't have to look any further than my mother.
My mom has been an early education phenomenon for over thirty years. She has poured her heart and soul into the hundreds of kids that have passed through her doors. One of those students was me. So the question is, what did I learn from being a teacher's kid, that has impacted my career in education? Well my initial response would be, what haven't I learned from my mom that has impacted my career as an educator? But for the sake of this blog, I will narrow it down to three.

1) Being an Educator is not a job, it is a lifestyle. I could always find my mom reading the latest research on brain development or speech therapy. I remember her planning through the summer and having conversations with tons of people about what they can do at home to further their child's learning. She always had time for family but she never turned off teaching mode because that's just who she is.

2) Each child is unique and it is our job to meet them where they are. Many teachers struggle with students and say, "they should know this." My mom was never like that. She had kids who were very advanced in the same room as students who didn't speak yet. It didn't matter because she always focused on meeting the students where they were and taking them as far as she could.

3) There are good days and bad, but if your students know that you care about them, learning will always prevail. My mom had some pretty rough stories from her years in the classroom. But she never showed any signs of giving up. No matter how bad the home life was, or how angry the child was, she loved them. That stuck with me so much so that I often find myself choking up when talking about my students.

I say all this as if she were finished but the truth is she is still teaching and working to perfect her craft everyday. I look at kids who graduate from the high school and smile because I know that some of those same students started with her.
So as the year starts, remember those three lessons I learned from mom. Because at the end of the day, we work to improve the lives of kids. Leading is Teaching.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Data and Assessment

Benchmarks, Data, Standards, Teacher Observations. Somewhere along the way these terms have been related to the death of creativity and independence in the teaching profession. Although we are professionals, we also like to think of ourselves as artists in a way. After all, isn't the "art of teaching" the definition of pedagogy? When we think of good teachers, we can easily consider them artists or entertainers in their own right. The teachers I remember most were charismatic, funny, exciting, and generally enthused about their line of work. So the question is, in the age of high stakes testing and standards based instruction, can we still be artists while maintaining professional practices in the classroom? I believe the answer is yes.

Now think of any professional that is considerably "high profile." For the sake of brevity lets just examine surgeons, lawyers, and professional athletes. Now, in all three of these careers one could easily come to the conclusion that there have to be some inherent characteristics for a person to be successful in each specific career. There is no arguing that you can't be a professional athlete without some key ingredients. I would say that successful teachers also match that description. Not everyone will be a successful classroom teacher in their life's calling. However, talent alone is not what makes surgeons, lawyers, athletes or teachers successful. There is a lot of practice, data review, professional development, and collaboration that goes along with success in these careers.

Does a surgeon not consult other surgeons in his field when he or she is confronted with a new experience? Does a professional athlete not review film to see how he or she can improve? Does a lawyer (please release your mind of stereotypes) not look at precedence from other cases before standing in front of the judge? I believe we all know the answers to these questions. That brings me to how this relates to teachers.

As educators we are professionals who have a clear goal of providing a quality education to all students who walk through that door. Some can argue that this is THE most important profession because it directly relates to the future of our planet. This is why it is so important for us to understand that in order to perform at the highest level, we need to hold true to professional practices. Notice that I did not say we have to because it is mandated by the state or federal government. We need to evaluate, research, and collaborate on a regular basis to make our schools more successful.

In everything that we do we should be able to show proof of effectiveness and be able to determine strengths and weaknesses. This is just as true for  project based learning. We should be given feedback from teacher observations. We should have some sort of benchmark regularly to see if we are growing and if we are effective. We should have guidelines of what we are teaching and I am not necessarily talking about state standards. This will not destroy "the art of teaching" as we know it. Instead, it will improve our ability to be true artists.

As this year is ready to begin, keep in mind that it is not against our creative nature to embrace the aforementioned practices. We need to balance our professional practices with our artistic practices. So when your administrator or department chair is pushing for benchmarks and data, make sure that you let them know that you will not compromise your art, but you will be accountable through professional practices. Because in the end, our sole objective is to provide our kids with an excellent education. Leading is Teaching.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

New Beginnings

As I cleaned out my classroom and moved my items into a tiny office, the memories of teaching hit me. All of those moments in class that have shaped me as an adult more than my students will ever know. The moments when students inspired me, when they made me crack up, and even when they made me angry. All of those moments are what mold educators into the strange, but passionate people they are. Here we are working so hard to positively influence students and set them up for a successful tomorrow, all the while being impacted by them just as much as they are by us.

In many ways it will be difficult for me to move on from such a great experience. It is hard to wrap my mind around the fact that I won't have that everyday face to face with the same group of kids over time. Now, my replacement will have all of those opportunities to connect on a deep level with each student that passes through his door. However, as sad as it makes me to leave that chapter of my career behind, I have to look at what makes my new opportunity so exciting.

All of that work in establishing my positive classroom environment will be applied towards establishing a collaborative environment for my teachers and an inspiring atmosphere for the student body. All of that work planning the projects my students would create will now be dedicated to supporting my staff in becoming the best teachers that they can be. All of that work looking for resources and funds for projects in my class will now be applied towards providing more opportunities school wide for all of the students.  All of the personal connections with students will be applied to the whole student body whether it be through the teachers or myself.

When I think about my new role in these terms, I am thrilled to take on the challenge. I want to treat every student just like the student who I connected with so well in the classroom. I will put my full energy into doing what is best for kids and working towards providing seemingly impossible opportunities for students and staff. Because in the end, the passion that makes good teachers, also makes good leaders. Leading is teaching.