Sunday, January 3, 2016

Reform or Revolt?: Confessions of a Teacher in His Fifth Year

Not long ago, I came across an idea in some reading that has really been sitting with me, especially as it pertains to my career as a public school educator.  It's the idea that in any time of massive change, there are really only two types of people - reformers and revolutionaries.  Reformers work within a system in an attempt to create changes, to modify or adjust the system to the necessities of contemporary times.  Revolutionaries see no other choice but to step outside of the system and to create an alternative that challenges it.

Now, obviously this is a familiar story if we were talking about government systems.  Our own country was (relatively) recently borne of a revolutionary movement that advocated for a drastic shift from the British colonial empire of which we were previously a part.  But few people think of these types of scenarios when they think of schools or school systems.  I do think, however, that this is the dilemma of our time as public school educators.

We are experiencing what most consider to be a revolutionary time in the world of education.  This is a time that will change the face of how we educate; that will shift us away from this 150 year old paradigm of institutionalized, industrial education, into something that is reflective of the world that we live in, and of the citizens that we hope to create as we move into the future.
But, you see, the challenge here is that in times of revolution, you need people with vision.  You need people who are driven and inspired to create change.  So when you tell me that 50% of teachers quit within the first five years of being in the profession, I wonder, what type of talent, of inspired and motivated individuals who just can't "do this"are leaving?  What are all those people then going and doing?  How do we breed a culture within our profession which encourages our people to be creative and thoughtful, and that challenges the existing paradigms of how we all know school to be?

I once had a conversation with a person who was talking about entrepreneurship in public schools; talking about, specifically, how we want to create these inspired, out-of-the-box thinkers who would drive our future and our economy forward.  His argument was that the majority of the people that they are learning from (teachers) are not the types of individuals who have cultivated those skills and dispositions.  Simply put, teachers are not creative or entrepreneurial in nature, so how can they ever inspire their students to be so?

I don't think that it's the people that are the problem... I think that it's the system.  It's not that the wrong type of people are choosing the profession.  It's that the right type of people are choosing to leave because its a system that they can't work in.  For those that stay, it is hard to continuously bring a creative and progressive vision to your work when it seems like there are always so many boxes that need checking.





And while I only have 5 years of perspective and experience with these "boxes", I've heard from countless colleagues, and my own parents (both with 30+ year careers in education), that each year seems to bring more and more to the plate of educators.  I know that, personally, there is no possible way for me to fit the amount of work that I am expected to do into my contracted time.  I also know that I'm not alone in this feeling.


You see, I want to be a public school teacher.  I want to bring my ideas, and passion, and energy for working with kids to schools based upon the fact that they often don't have the opportunity for the types of experiences that I think are fundamental to an appropriate education in this day and age.  But the more I try to bring these changes to the system, the more I feel like I'm spinning my wheels; that I'm getting burnt out. Sometimes its the bureaucracy of it all; other times its the lack of a shared, collective vision for where we want to go.  Most of the time, it is also a result of the countless things that we have to do as teachers that take away from our creative expression, passion, and inspiration.


I'm in year five of my public school career.  Before that, I worked for 7 years as a wilderness instructor and international travel guide for high school students.  In that time, I saw that the kids that I was working with (who often came from money) had so many opportunities and so many resources at their disposal. I began to feel that it wasn't fair that they were the ones who got to hike into Macchu Picchu at dawn, or swim with sharks in the Galapagos, or to take life-changing backpacking trips through the red-rock canyons of southern Utah.


I thought that every kid deserved those same opportunities; chances to explore themselves in ways that the public school system has never allowed for.  For the past five years, that is what I've been trying to do in my own program, and to inspire in other teachers and programs around my state.  But it is getting hard to continue to fight this uphill battle.  Maybe this egalitarian effort, to close the achievement gap of opportunities, is just a vision that isn't shared by enough people to actually put into motion.

But maybe there are more people who share this vision.  Maybe there are people out there that desperately want to change the way that our schools work?  There are clearly models.  But the question that has been itching in my brain ever since I went to Finland this past year is, how do we make these changes scalable?  How do we create systemic change that is real, and that doesn't just add another thing on the plate of teachers?  When do we finally start looking at the education system as a whole in a way that allows us to finally think open-mindedly about what it could, and should be for our children?

All of these thoughts can be summarized most easily by the wise words of my friend, and 2013 National Teacher of the Year, Jeff Charbonneau.  In a deep philosophical conversation about education, he rhetorically asked,
"If we could design a school today, given everything that we know about how students learn best and what they need to thrive, would it look anything like the schools that our students currently attend?"
Unfortunately, I think the answer is no.  But I think we have the moral imperative to do something about it.


When do we start taking into consideration all of the brain research and best practice that we are now aware of, and begin applying that to the school system?  Why do our high schools continue to start at 8 am, when the empirical evidence of science says that their brains are not ready to learn until 10 am?  These very simple questions are just the tip of the iceberg, but they are going to challenge everything that we have grown to know (and some of us to love) about our public education systems.



You don't need to look very far to realize that the problems that we have are big, far bigger than even our education system can address.  Across the world, at least for countries that we have data for, adolescents in the United States are the second most depressed in the entire world!  When it comes to professions, teachers are often one of the more stressed, and also one of the more disillusioned and disenfranchised.





When we think about a place- our schools- that we want to help grow and develop our future generations, do really want a bunch of depressed kids cycling through a bunch of stressed and disillusioned teachers?  I don't think so.  I think we have a much bigger problem that goes beyond our education system and right into the culture that we currently live in.

I've always been the type of person to think that the grass is always greener.  For many years, I've battled this part of my personality, which thinks that there always must be something bigger and better out there.  Some other project or idea where I can utilize my time and energy more effectively and efficiently.

I also firmly believe in a quote from Mother Theresa, which says, "The grass is always greener where you water it."  I'm trying to set down roots; I'm trying to water my grass.  But I'm struggling.  I'm struggling because, many days, I show up to work feeling optimistic, energetic, and hopeful.  But by the end of my work day, I'm feeling beat down, frustrated, and tired.  That's not a way to live a life.

For someone who has always prided himself on being eternally optimistic, this is really hard, because I feel like I'm losing that part of myself; like toiling in this system is taking away my positivity and enthusiasm to create change for the better.  And this is a part of myself that I'm not willing to lose or to give away.  That's a part of myself that I will keep for my wife and for my kids, for my community and for my passions.

Simply put, for this teacher, in year five, right on the threshold of committing to this career, or possibly turning my back and walking the other way, I have to wonder - do I reform?  Or do I revolt?  Do I continue to toil in a system for an entire career, potentially never making the impact that I so desperately want to make?  Or do I seek other opportunities to respond to the challenges of a revolutionary time?

This question keeps me up at night.




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.