Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Finding Balance": 5 Challenges for Teachers During The Holidays

It's the Sunday before Thanksgiving week, and, like many teachers across our nation, I'm gearing up for the next few days.  I know that it will likely be nearly impossible to get much "academic" work done in the two days before Thanksgiving.  And when we return from break, the month of December seems to get lost in a flurry of growing excitement.

Now, being teachers, we are naturally driven to make the most of every moment that we have with our students.  Given the current state of affairs, many of us are feeling pressured to not lose these next few precious weeks so that we can still meet our deadlines, stay on track with our curriculums, and check the seemingly endless number of boxes that are required in our profession.  All of this gets further complicated by working with a population (kids) who are only going to get more distracted and excited as the next month ensues.

Beyond the classroom, there are countless other stresses.  For some reason, our culture in America seems to feel more stressed, anxious, and depressed during the holiday season.  When we should be taking a step back to reflect upon the past year and everything that we have to be grateful for, we are running ourselves ragged instead.  So I've created a short list of challenges for teachers in the hopes that each of us will take a moment to step away from the madness, and to embrace everything that is truly wonderful about the holiday season.

Get Outside the Classroom
Are the kids in your classroom "bouncing off the walls"?  Why not get rid of the walls, then?  As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, it can be challenging to take the time to get your students outside of the classroom.  But this can also be the perfect remedy for kids with too much pent up energy.  Take some time outdoors to observe and experience the change of seasons.  Sure, you can work it into your ELA or science curriculums, or you could just blow off some steam and give the kids a chance to exercise.  We all know that their brains become more active when their active bodies lead the way.  Even a five minute "brain break" can help the kids check into their learning, and will help you maintain your sanity.

Design a Service-Learning Project
Remember when this time of year was about gratitude and giving?  The holidays present an incredible opportunity for service-learning projects in our communities.  Not only are there countless organizations who would benefit from the support and energy of school groups, but there is also a wonderful opportunity to tap into the creative hearts and minds of your students by allowing them to design a project that helps out someone else in your community.  Not sure where to start?  Contacting your local Senior Center, Homeless Shelter, or Food Shelf can get the process rolling.  But there really is no limit to how far these projects can go.  Have your students think about problems and challenges in your community, then allow them the space to "design" solutions to these problems.  You might just be amazed with the ideas that they come up with.

Have a Conversation with a Colleague, And Don't Talk About School

I know in most workplaces there is the water cooler, where people come together to talk about the news, last night's game, or just to take a break from work.  As teachers, most of us run around all day, never really stopping to have a "real" conversation with our friends and colleagues.  So, rather than rushing around, making copies, or tracking down that student who owes you a missing assignment, take a moment to appreciate the other people in your building.  Don't feel guilty, either.  One of the most important factors in workplace satisfaction is collegial relationships.  And let's face it, a happy teacher makes for happier students.

Sit Spot/Quiet Time
Ever want to escape from it all?  Well, this is your chance to do just that, if only for a few minutes each day.  Find a quiet place where there are no distractions.  Turn off your electronic devices and just sit.  I prefer doing this outside and I use this time to draw my awareness to the natural world around me.   I also use this practice with my students.  We are all living in a world where we are under a constant barrage of information.  How often do we just sit with our thoughts and draw our attention inward?  Maybe you want to meditate or journal instead. That's fine, but make sure you prioritize some quiet time.

What's Your '5-to-9'?
Everybody knows what a '9-to-5' is?  It's the workday of the average person in America.  As teachers, our days are often a little more like 7:30 to 3 with students. Then emails, paperwork and meetings from 3 until 4:30.  Later on in the evening, there's planning and grading.  Let's face it... we don't do a very good job of "leaving work at work".

So what's a '5-to-9'?  It's what you do with your time when you aren't working.  Your '5-to-9' represents your passions, interests, loves, and all of the "others" that we sometimes neglect as teachers.  This is an opportunity to find some balance and to remember all of those other things which help make you, you!  My '5-to-9s' include playing with my kids, having a glass of wine with my wife, running, reading, and getting outdoors.  What are yours? Let's all remember to take some time for ourselves and our families, lest we forget what this season is really all about!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Agents of Change and the Greatest Stories Never Told

It was a Tuesday, and I can still remember it being the kind of spring day that tricks you into thinking that summer is right around the corner.  As a student, it was the kind of day that made it hard to focus in  on anything in a classroom.  The sun is shining outside and the creeping sensation of summer approaching inspires daydreaming more than it motivates academic engagement.

Like most teachers, I fear these days, not because I don't like the warming weather, but because I am at a point in the year where I am freaking out about all of the things that I haven't covered, yet.  With the end of the year fast approaching, I'm also expecting a barrage of "extras" that will steal away even more of my precious time with the kiddos.  I can't lose this day to the sunshine... I've got to do something dynamic and engaging, something that the kids will dive into and forget about the birdsong drifting in our open windows.

So I plan this lesson around a news article discussing the "modern serfdom of American agriculture".  We've been working hard in school gardens, and shining a light into the dark places of American food culture, so I think this is the conversation that will really help solidify some of the concepts we've been building up towards.  In my mind, I envision the emotional and intellectual process my students will go through - shock, then anger- and from this anger will come a boiling resolve to do something about the injustice they are learning about.

Instead, this is what I get.

"This stuff always pisses me off!" 
"It's just so depressing."  
"It makes it seem like the world is going to end and we are all powerless to do anything about it!"

Now, this isn't the first time I've heard this.  Usually, I elicit these types of responses when I present the "Big Problems" facing our world today.  It doesn't have to be the growing discrepancy in wealth in America; it could just as easily be climate change, cutting down rainforests, persistent racism and social inequity... take your pick.  The big idea here is that these are exactly the challenges which we should be preparing our students to tackle once they get into the "real world".  Instead, this is often the response I am met with.

This is scary talk!  We have created a world (and an education system) where our youth feel disempowered to tackle the problems of their generation... of any generation.  Through the constant barrage of negativity, violence, and cynicism expressed in our popular media, to the lack of relevance in many school curriculums, students not only feel bored by school, they feel apathetic about the future of our world.  Our youth have become numb to the need for real "heroes- the type of heroes that will shape the future world in which we will all live.

So, earlier this year, when I was approached by the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes about a potential fellowship, my curiosity was piqued.  The "Center" helps teachers cultivate a curriculum in which students are challenged and inspired to uncover the greatest stories of heroism that we've never heard.  Sparked by a high school research project that unearthed the moving story of a woman who saved thousands of Jewish children during the Holocaust, the idea is that students will look for the most inspiring, powerful, and moving stories in history that never reached textbooks, or newspaper articles, or any other medium of popular culture.

And, to be quite honest, the most important thing for many of our youth might just be the exposure to stories of real heroes- the kind that don't don the cover of a magazine or show up on a Wheaties box. We need the stories of everyday people, like you and me, who have done something extraordinary to create a better world.  In a day and age where the world is in need of young, inspired agents of change, what better way to convey the message that one person truly can make a difference. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Myth of "Summers Off"

I don't do bulletin boards.  I don't do fringy patterns, big calendars, fun seasonal flair, or anything of the like.  Plenty of teachers do; I'm just not one of them.  There's good reason for it, you see.

As a child growing up with two teachers for parents, I remember summer days when our whole family would "go to school".  My brother and I always hoped that this meant hours spent in my father's gym, shooting hoops, swinging from ropes, or horsing around on gymnastics mats.  The other option, always to our dismay, was working in Mom's first grade classroom, methodically and tediously picking each and every staple out of all of her numerous bulletin boards (and she was one of "those" teachers).  This is why I don't do bulletin boards.  By age 10, I'd hit my lifetime quota.

Twenty-five years later, my parents are retired from teaching, but my wife and now have classrooms of our own.  And several days a week during our "lavish" summer vacations, we end up "going to school", often with our two small children in tow.  Instead of gyms or bulletin boards, my work goes into school gardens, service learning projects, constructing trail networks, and building the best possible curriculum that I can conceive of.  My wife, recognizing the importance of learning environment, spends hours creating a magical learning space where her pre-schoolers forget that they are even in a school.

And this is just the time spent in our classrooms, don't forget.  There is a reason that I'm just now (July 23rd) getting around to writing this blog, meant to be a signal of the end of the school year. So far this summer, both my wife and I have attended multi-day conferences, workshops, and fellowships.  We've given presentations, coordinated fundraisers, planned projects for the fall, and revamped curriculum to meet new standards.  She's been reading up on the latest research in classroom and behavior management, and I'm taking new technology for a test-drive, seeing what will work with our planned projects in the fall.  We both spend hours each day of our "summer vacation" working to make sure that next year is our best year, yet.

We're not the only ones.  Our colleagues, and countless educators across the nation, are spending their summer vacays preparing for your children next fall.  Soon, you'll probably receive a "Welcome Letter", and maybe a list of school supplies.  The letter might include a link to a website, classroom blog, or Twitter handle that your kid's teacher has been working on over the summer.  In the weeks before the school year starts, teachers around the nation will be at school nearly every day, pulling together all of the final details that we all know matter so much.  And on the first day of school, when kids around the nation put on their favorite outfit, grab their lunch boxes, and make their way to school, we'll be at the door, greeting them with a smile, and helping to set their young minds at ease.

So forgive me if I take offense to the idea of teachers having summers off...many of us have just worked too hard.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Bowl of Fruit

Education is like a bowl of fruit.  From a teacher's perspective, each piece of fruit represents a task, responsibility, or initiative, often on top of what one would assume are normal teaching duties. This bowl of fruit is endless; teachers always have more work than can reasonably be done in a work day, week, or even year.  And as soon as we feel like we're making progress on our bowl of fruit, well, another piece of fruit gets added to the mix.  With each day, another orange or apple gets added to the bowl... but what happens to the kiwi that rolls off the top of the pile?  How about the rotten banana buried at the bottom of the bowl?  With the number of programs and projects in your average public school, there is no chance that educators, as motivated and determined as they might be, can ever realistically accomplish all that is set before them.

Where does the extra fruit come from?  One of the main issues in education is that so many different groups have strong opinions and ideas for what public education in America should look like.  For this reason, schools are often susceptible to the influencing powers of various entities, most with good intentions, who are hoping to shape the future of education in our country.  Unfortunately, all of these separate groups, with their differing agendas and ideas (as good as they may be), end up competing for the little space, time, and energy that teachers have to give them.  Even within the structure of public education, there are influences felt from the US Department of Education, state departments of education, local school boards, individual administrators, and community groups - each with their own independent vision of what school should look like. 

Want to be a teacher?  How good is your balance?
To be fair, many teachers are gluttons for punishment; gladly taking on tasks and projects far beyond what they are paid for.  These responsibilities are often well-intentioned.  It might mean working late with a student who is struggling, joining a committee for an initiative that we feel particularly strong about, or stepping in to coach a team since no one else will.  Sometimes we're compensated for these duties; but even if we are, it typically doesn't compensate for all of the additional hours we'll put in to see this project through.

This dynamic presents a problem.  How many other "professions" offer their services for free?  Sure, there are pro bono law cases, or the Hippocratic Code in medicine, but there isn't the same expectation that lawyers and doctors will do more than they are paid for on a consistent basis.  Even if they do take on additional work, look at their salaries in comparison to your average teacher... there really isn't a comparison.

So what happens if teachers stopped performing all of these "extras"?  Schools and students would suffer.  Every teacher, administrator, and parent knows that school is about so much more than just the academic parts of the day.  Each student has their reasons for showing up each day, and, believe it or not, it most often isn't learning quadratic equations.  There are social, emotional, and physical reasons that students show up for school, and these are the arenas of childhood development that many "extras" specifically target.  So many of the responsibilities and initiatives vital to creating a welcoming, supportive, and engaging learning environment often pile up on top of the academic instruction that is the foundation of what most people think teachers do.

The functionality of our school system relies upon the exploitation of the good will of our teachers.  These programs and opportunities are important - to students, parents, teachers, and administrators- but they ask educators to consistently do more than what they are paid for, or even what is humanly possible.

And in taking on these additional projects, previous initiatives are cast by the wayside, effectively communicating to teachers that all of the hard work that went into designing, planning, and facilitating those efforts was discarded in favor of the newest vogue trend- a shiny new "piece of fruit".  This creates a dangerous dynamic in which teachers feel like they are doing work for work's sake, without ever seeing the projects come into full fruition.  This process is disheartening, leading to the frustration and disillusionment that drive many young teachers into leaving the profession. 

Now, you're not going to see me casting my additional responsibilities aside.  I will continue to stay late after school, hoping to provide support and opportunities for my students.  However, I hope that people are beginning to take notice of the changes that are necessary to the vitality of our teaching workforce.  Projects, programs, and initiatives need to be streamlined and teacher-directed.  We need to have a voice at the table when decisions are made about educational policy at all levels of government.  Ultimately, the future of American education should reflect the dreams, desires, and vision of our education professionals.  Remember, we are the experts.