Sunday, December 30, 2018

Goal for 2019: Simpler Teaching

The teaching profession is in a dark place right now. Teachers across the United States often use terms such as "stifling," "overwhelming," "panic-inducing," and even "soul-crushing" to describe the teaching life. I, too, have had my fair share of negative feelings from time to time. At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, I decided my teaching life had gotten completely out of control and it was time to do something about that. I made a career choice that I never thought I would make in the hopes that this move would bring my teaching life and my personal life into balance. Since then, I have been actively working at simplifying my teaching life so that I have time to truly enjoy all of the other aspects of my life. I'm calling this series of purposeful actions my Simple Teaching Movement.

When I reflect on the last eight years of my teaching career, it is a busy black-and-white blur with some standout memories, moments that are completely clear, in technicolor, and tightly focused. Those memories are the most meaningful in my career, and they stand apart from the rest for one reason: those moments were simplified. The times in our teaching careers that come into perfect clarity, the times when we can catch our breaths and bask in the power of being in the moment, of simply enjoying our teaching lives... that's what I'm after. I want more of those snapshots in 2019.

I think that there are two key things we must internalize before we embark on the journey of simplifying our teaching lives.

1. Simple is subjective.

Simple may be defined as "easy to understand, deal with, use; not elaborate or artificial." Using this definition, it seems to me that "simple" will be different for everyone. A cool tech tool that is easy for you to understand may not be easy for me to understand. A lesson that might seem very elaborate and overly complicated to you may not be that way in my eyes. The notion that simplicity is subjective frees us to realize our own vision for a simplified teaching life. My simple may not look simple to you, and your simple may not look simple to me.

2. Simple ≠ Easy

While the two terms are often used synonymously, simple is not always the same thing as easy. When I write about my vision for a simplified teaching life, I'm not necessarily saying I want it easy. Simplifying is difficult work. It requires making hard decisions and living a proactive life. While I do believe that, with time, simplifying my teaching life will make things easier, I think it would be naive to say that "simplifying" is easy.

What will Simple Teaching look like for me?

When I began envisioning a simpler teaching life, a life where I give up the excess in favor of the essential (thanks to The Minimalists for the phrase), these were the ideas that came to mind.
A simplified teaching life must...
  • allow me to leave work at work the majority of the time
  • allow me to leave work within an hour of the contracted school day ending
  • allow me to arrive to work within fifteen minutes of my official start time
  • eliminate the extra "stuff" that clogs up my day in the classroom (mental stuff, physical stuff, and emotional stuff)
  • focus on creating a meaningful classroom experience for my students
  • focus on creating a meaningful classroom experience for myself
  • have no "unitasker gadgets"
  • allow me to carry everything I need for work in one satchel
  • focus on a small number of quality assignments rather than a large quantity of ineffective assignments
  • take the slow-and-steady approach to progress
  • energize me rather than drain me
  • be a life I look forward to living every day

My Teaching Manifesto for 2019

In the spirit of being Totally Extra, I wrote a manifesto!

What is your teaching goal for 2019? Will you be joining me in my journey to simplify my teaching life?

Happy Teaching!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Letter to Experienced Teachers

Nearly six years ago, I wrote a letter to first-year teachers. At the time, I was two-and-a-half years into my teaching career, so the pains of being a new teacher were still quite fresh in my mind. I also had come up against enough challenges to offer some survival advice. You can read that letter here.

Now, I am enjoying the winter break of my ninth year of teaching. A lot has changed since those early years, and I feel confident enough in what I know to be true in the life of a teacher that I am going to attempt to help out the group of teachers who may need it most this time of year - the experienced teachers. While I absolutely hope that anyone who runs across this letter will be able to take something away from it, today I am writing specifically to those teachers who've been in the game for a while now but who are not yet sure enough of themselves to say they are "impactful teachers."


Dear Experienced Teacher,

You are wonderful. You are amazing. You are a saint. Thank you for what you do.

You won't hear those words enough, so I thought I'd start out with that.

Have you read The First Days of School by Harry* and Rosemary Wong? I expect you probably have, or you've at the very least skimmed the chapters during your education training in college. Guys, I've had my hands on a lot of books for educators (some by force thank you very much college, but also many by choice thank you very much teacher nerd brain), but this one and Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess are my go-to books. Seriously, if you've never given First Days more than a cursory glance, do yourself a favor and find a copy of this book (the more used, loved, dog-eared and annotated, the better). Read it cover to cover. Process. Do it again.

There are so many highlights to this book, but the part I come back to time and again is from the first chapter. The Wongs describe the four stages that any teacher goes through in their career. I'll paraphrase.

  1. Fantasy a.k.a. If You Love Them Enough Then Everything Will be AMAZING - the belief that, in order to be a successful teacher, all you have to do is be your students' friend and entertain them. If you cover your lessons in enough glitter and the kids bask in the loving glow of your presence, you have done your job. If you are at this stage, your teaching life is like a unicorn fart. It's a lovely puff of color and smells like candy, but is unsubstantial and will dissipate quickly. Also, it's not real.
  2. Survival a.k.a. Keep Your Head Down and Pretend Everything is Fine - after the reality of teaching punches you in the face (repeatedly), you figure the best way to handle this career choice (I mean, seriously, what were you thinking??) is to keep the students busy and quiet. Worksheets and Frickin' Packets and Videos For Days and Silent Seatwork... you feed your students the educational equivalent of Kraft Easy Mac and Ramen Noodles because it is easy, prepackaged, and keeps them quiet.
  3. Mastery a.k.a. This is the Part of the Movie Where the Hero Realizes She's Got to Get Her Shit Together so Cue the Pumped-Up Inspirational Soundtrack - I think that Mastery happens after some sort of Educator Epiphany. The Epiphany will vary from teacher to teacher, but the outcome is that teachers realize they need to have the all the love and ooey-gooey feelings from Fantasy stage combined with the effective practices that make real learning happen. Now you're turning up the heat on your classroom management, feeding your students the whole foods version of educational material instead of the processed stuff, and the goal is student learning, come Hell or high water.
  4. Impact a.k.a. The Mr. Feeny Effect - This, right here, is #teachergoals. If most of us go into this field to make a difference, then this stage is what you've been after all along. This is when your teaching is so, so good that students will come back to you years later and thank you for affecting their lives. Do not be fooled, though. Like our idol George Feeny, you will still have some rough days. Your impact may not been seen until years later. You may even find yourself occasionally dipping your toes into the stagnant waters of Stage 2. However, once you hit the Impact stage, the ebb and flow between the other stages will be temporary. A bad week, a bad semester, or even a bad year may cause you to wallow in the muck briefly, but an Educator Epiphany will drag you out, dust you off, and put you back on your feet. As a teacher of impact, you know it's going to be okay. You have combined the enthusiasm and sparkles of stage 1 and the kicking-ass-and-taking-names of stage 3 and, like a beautiful Pok√©mon, you have evolved into something extraordinary that would be difficult to defeat.
You, dear experienced teacher, could be at any of these four stages in your career. Every teacher's path will vary, but it is a guarantee that all of us will at least hit Stages 1 and 2. The problem arises if we decide to set up camp and stay in Survival stage. If we do this, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are dooming ourselves to a miserable teaching experience that will lead to burning out and leaving the profession, or worse, burning out and staying in the profession. Stage 2 teachers - and I'm not talking about dabbling in Stage 2 for a short-time, but the long-term Stage 2 teachers - are toxic. Survival-mode teachers who have been in this stage for years are like carbon monoxide - you won't notice them seeping into your classroom, your building, your school culture, but a high concentration of this poisonous gas is deadly.

My dear experienced teacher friend, if I could offer you only a single piece of advice, it would be this: reflect. Reflect on your practice all the time. Do it every single day. You can do this informally - a stream-of-consciousness deep think during your commute, talking shop with a Stage 3 or Stage 4 colleague - or you can do this formally - write in a reflection journal, keep a blog. You need to take your own temperature regularly and figure out which stage you are in. Ask yourself these questions:
  • (Before school) How do I feel about going to school today?
  • (At lunch) How do I feel about this day?
  • (After school) How do I feel about how the day went?
  • What good things happened in my classroom today?
  • If I used that pain scale hanging in the doctor's office to rate my teaching life, what pain level am I at right now?
  • If I was a student in my class, how would I feel about class today?
Reflection leads to growth. We ask our students to show what they know and to reflect on their learning. We should do what we ask our students to do.

So here's a question: what do we do if we are not in the stage we want to be in?

One of the best things about teaching is that it is never too late. To quote another teacher who is quoted in First Days, "Teaching, unlike most professions, gives us the opportunity to start fresh each and every day, each and ever year" (The First Days of School 8). If you need a fresh start, I'd like to share some advice I've picked up along the way.

If you are in Fantasy mode...
  • Keep your joy! Find all the things you love about teaching and cling to them! I so frequently look back on the joys on my day or week and think, I actually get paid to do this?! You must zealously guard your happiness and do not let toxicity steal it from you!
  • That being said, you've got to add some substance. You are living in a shimmering cloud of unicorn fart. That cloud will eventually be replaced by the repugnant smell of Reality. How are your lessons? Are they all superficial awesomeness with no real learning happening? There are some core questions teachers can ask themselves as they lesson plan. I'm a big fan of "What do we want students to know and be able to do?" I find this question (especially the "be able to do" bit) to be very useful in focusing my lessons.
  • Check yo self before you wreck yo self. How's your classroom management? No, really. How is your classroom management? There is an Official List of Top 5 Teacher Mistakes Of All Time and Crappy Classroom Management fills all five slots. You may be thinking, "Well golly, my classroom is such a paradise I don't really need a management plan," to which I say, "Oh, that's so nice, but remind me again what you will do when Tommy Terrorist Who Has Been Expelled From Four Different Schools comes in on the first day at his new school and draws a phallic likeness on your whiteboard."
If you are in Survival mode...
  • Unpopular Opinion #1: Pinterest might be enabling your Survival mode. Get off of Pinterest. Pinterest is not a good place for Survival mode teachers to go because so many teachers are posting their very best survival gear! "My students spent six weeks on this 107 page Frickin' Packet!" "This stations activity consisted of five different busysheets! Students rotated from one station to the next every eight minutes and silently completed the paper. They did so much today!" You guys, over the course of the last year I have come to hate the word "busy." Being "busy" does not equal being productive! Ever heard of the guy who walks around very purposefully with a wrench or a hammer in his hand? No one will stop him to ask for help, because clearly he's "busy" with something else, when in fact he is doing nothing productive at all. He just "looks busy." Take a break from Pinterest and start finding quality sources to help you out instead of wading through the internet's equivalent of a junk drawer because, to be honest, if you are in Survival mode, you don't know what tools to look for in that junk drawer! Go to the really excellent resources, like The Cornerstone for Teachers, Ditch That Textbook, Cult of Pedagogy, Shake Up Learning, and Alice Keeler. You can also check out the (sorely outdated) More Ed Blogs tab at the top of the page.
  • Unpopular Opinion #2: Fancy font does not equal quality resources. Be very choosy about your Teachers Pay Teachers purchases. There are some truly wonderful resources on Teachers Pay Teachers. But, real talk again, there are some truly awful resources with little depth that are just so, so pretty. You know what else is pretty? All the pretty labels on all the pre-packaged food at the grocery store! I cannot more highly recommend following the Classroom Chef approach to structuring your lessons. These guys are math teachers, but this can apply to any content area. (John and Matt's book is on my to read list.)
  • Add joy to your day. You guys, I've already passed through the Survival mode stage, and it sucks. It is sad and scary and completely debilitating. It can be hard to feel happy when you are drowning. You must find ways to add joy to your day. Sit down and make a list of everything that brings you joy, and be specific. It does not have to be related to the classroom. Some of my joys include GIF wars with my husband, watching my two boys play together, my Pandora stations and Spotify playlists, eating, art, Googley stuff, and solitude. Once you have your list of joys, make a list of the things about teaching that are sucking the life out of you. For me, the worst parts of teaching are tedious tasks and chaos. Guys, I'm an INFJ. I don't like routine maintenance or paperwork, which are two things we must do as teachers. It's part of the job. So, when I must do something I find boring, I add one (or more!) of my joys to it. Know what I hate to teach? Active reading strategies, because active reading comes very naturally to me and I find the process of teaching "how" to read incredibly tiresome. Know what I love? Cookies and Jolly Ranchers and intriguing photography. So my lessons on active reading strategies include these things because it brings me joy, and when I'm a joyful teacher, my joy rubs off on my students. Know what I hate to spend my prep period doing? Filling out forms of any type. Know what I love? The 80s Cardio station on Pandora and the Songs to Sing in the Shower playlist on Spotify. And Flair pens. I love Flair pens. So if I'm going to spend my prep period doing paperwork that feels completely pointless to me but is mandatory, you better believe I'm going to be screeching "Video Killed the Radio Star" while wielding a Flair pen.
If you are in Mastery mode...
  • Order yourself your favorite beverage and congratulate yourself! You have come out the other side of Survival mode and you are now actively working on being the best teacher you can be. #killingit
  • After you finish that beverage, it's time to do some digging and some serious reflection. What will move you from Mastery mode to Impact mode? By now, you likely have gotten very good at finding all of the pedagogical resources you need. What needs to be done to make your ripple effect bigger? My advice: stay in Stage 3 pedagogically, but it's time to revisit Stage 1 when it comes to building relationships with your students. If you read my last post about my visit to The Ron Clark Academy, you'll recall that RCA strongly believes in balancing the serious stuff with the fun stuff. You absolutely must master the serious stuff - the discipline, the structure, the standards, the academia. But in order to move from Mastery to Impact, you must balance that out with the fun stuff - the creativity, the passion, the joy, the love of students and teaching. Some things to consider doing:
    • Add joy! (See the above section on Survival mode)
    • Be your students' #1 fan, especially for "that kid." Cheer them on, support them, congratulate them, love them even when they are super unlovable. (Real talk: this is so difficult to do, and I'm no master at it. But when I do this right, the impact is immediate.)
    • Conversely to the above point, don't celebrate when students meet expectations. An expectation is, by definition, something that you believe will happen. We are expected to pay our electric bill, and no one gives me a trophy for that. To quote Ron Clark, "Not everybody gets a cookie." We should be celebrated when we go above and beyond expectation.  I expect my students to master the content (80%) on a summative assessment. It goes beyond my expectations when they get a 90% or higher, so we celebrate those As. I expect my students to follow classroom expectations. It goes beyond my expectations when students go out of the way to help each other, so we celebrate that. 
    • Make one-on-one connections with your students. Eat lunch with them sometimes, not out of obligation, but out of interest in their lives. Write them positive notes and emails. Go to their ballgames, concerts, and competitions if you get the chance.
    • Offer them comfort. Work to create an inviting classroom atmosphere (it does not need to look like the world's most expensive bag of Skittles vomited in your room, but that's a blog post for another day).
    • Respect them as people. When possible, let them use the restroom as needed. Allow them to have water. Take a few moments to talk to them about non-school stuff. Remember, you are in the business of making people, not products.
If you are in Impact mode...
  • Can you extend your reach beyond your students? Find another group that you can positively impact! Would one of these roles be appropriate for you?
    • Become an ambassador of sorts between your school and your community, bridging a divide or supporting an already strong connection between the two. 
    • Take a Stage 1 or Stage 2 teacher under your wing and guide them in the right direction.
    • Mentor student teachers and first-year teachers.
    • Assist in coaching teachers by leading meaningful PD. Use my principal's guiding philosophy: feed the hungry.
    • Reach out to students that aren't in your own classroom by leading an organization, starting a new club, or coaching a sport.
    • Be a positive teaching voice online! Spread your impact by joining educator groups in social media, starting a YouTube channel, or keeping a blog (no matter how sporadically you post!).
    • Share the wealth. While I agree that teachers should be compensated for the time and effort they put into quality materials, sometimes the best thing you can offer struggling teachers is a free resource.
My dear friend, I hope this letter finds you in an amazing season of your teaching career. But even if this is not your best season, even if you realize that you are in Survival mode, I implore you to remember this:

It is never too late to make a change.

I made the biggest change of my career (thus far) this year. I have come out the other side a much better teacher and a much happier person. It is never too late.

Happy Teaching!

*Harry Wong. Still funny.

Friday, December 14, 2018

5 Misconceptions About the Ron Clark Academy (and the 5 Things I Found to be True)

This time two weeks ago, I was in a car with three of my new coworkers making the drive home from Atlanta, Georgia. We had just experienced what was promised to be the professional development of a lifetime (five words I never thought I'd string together), and even four hours into our drive we were still riding this incredible teacher high (at least I was!). If you've ever heard of The Ron Clark Academy, you likely know that there is a special tone of voice educators use when speaking of this school, some complex mix of reverence and excitement tinged just around the edges with envy. Some have described it as Disney World for teachers. Others call it Teacher Nirvana. Many just can't seem to find the words to truly describe The Ron Clark Academy. Like witnessing the miracle of life, falling in love, or tasting Marmite for the first time, The Ron Clark Academy is something that must be experienced before it can be truly understood.

Have you ever had Marmite? I mean seriously...
I've been talking about my own RCA experience for two weeks now to pretty much anyone who will stand still, and I haven't quite found all of the words I need to really make sense of it all. The only way I can wrap my brain around this experience is to tell you about everything I thought to be true about RCA and how those things weren't really true at all. It is my hope that by sharing with you the five misconceptions I had and the truths I learned, you will be able to get a firmer grasp on what this place is really like. 

Misconception #1: They're that school that just dances and listens to music all day long.
There's a lot of fun stuff going on at RCA. This is undeniably true and a part of what makes RCA such a unique school. Have you seen this video? Or this one? But to say that this is what they do all day long is a gross hyperbole. The naysayers of the world seem to think you can't be learning in the same environment that you are having as much fun as you see in these YouTube videos and on the RCA social media, but au contraire. In fact, it is the environment that makes this school a hive of academic rigor and success! The folks at RCA are constantly striving to achieve a balance between the fun stuff (creativity, passion, enthusiasm) and the serious stuff (discipline, rigor, high expectations). They can get their kids to work so hard for them because there is also fun happening in their building. This is a seriously academic school, and it would be an egregious error to believe otherwise.

Misconception #2: They get such great results out of their kids at RCA because of all of their funding, corporate sponsorship, and other resources.
It is undeniably cool to walk into this beautiful building and see an enormous dragon skeleton, a hall with a fireplace, a mirrored wall, and the absolutely stunning classrooms. The Promethean boards and tables found in the classrooms are undoubtedly useful tools, and the journeys these students are able to take around the world are the "field trips" of dreams. However, after my day at the school, I am convinced that the truly magical part of RCA lies underneath all of the flashy stuff. They get great results because it is a tightly run ship and the teachers are the best I've ever had the privilege to observe. I am absolutely convinced that you could scoop up the ten RCA teachers and the philosophies that make this school tick, drop them off in any under-performing middle school in the U.S., and they would have that school turned around in four years. They have it figured out here. They know what is most important in a child's education, and that is what they focus on. Ron himself spoke so passionately about how his school is teacher-centered. The most important part of his (and Kim Bearden's) job is to hire in new educators, and they settle for nothing less than extraordinary. Then they clear the plates of their teachers and give them two jobs: building relationships with the kids and creating amazing learning experiences. If we poured as much into our public school teachers as RCA does, we would get incredible results too.

Misconception #3: The professional development days hosted by RCA  are all for show. 
It really seems too good to be true, but I have it on the highest authority (the kids themselves) that this is absolutely not the case. Throughout the day, we had many opportunities to speak with students. We ate lunch with them, they helped guide us to our observations, and they would occasionally interact with us during class, depending on what their teacher had asked of them that day. I made a point of asking multiple students at different times throughout the day what the difference was between their typical school day and the days that there were guests in the building. They all said the same thing. The only difference between the regular school day and the PD day is that there are teachers there watching them. That's it. Now, it would be remiss of me to glaze over the fact that there is no such thing really as a "regular" day at RCA. There are no bells. The schedule is different every day, depending on the needs of the teachers. It is safe to say the school day is atypical, but they don't put on a special show for the days that there are guest educators in the building. It's just part of their "normal."

Misconception #4: Everyone who visits RCA leaves feeling completely reinvigorated.
I think this is probably true for the majority of educators, but there are some teachers who leave RCA feeling bitter, jaded, or even cheated. I think it can be really hard to see past the pizzazz of RCA. I have heard more than one teacher say of the RCA experience that "it's nice and all, but we can't do that" and "there's no way we could ever do anything like that school does." Some teachers seemed to feel endlessly frustrated by the constraints of their own building and administration, so seeing the freedom and professional treatment of the RCA teachers leaves a sour taste in their mouths. Other teachers deeply feel their own school's lack of funding when walking the beautiful halls of RCA. I am so thankful for the advice given to me by my own building principal. She said to think of going to RCA like a trip to Sam's Club. Go to RCA knowing that you can't bring it all back with you, but find something that you can put in your cart. I know that I will likely never be in a position to take my students to Greece as a culminating activity after studying Greek mythology. I can't get all of my ELA students a free 23andMe DNA test to kick off a research project. I doubt I will ever get Promethean or Oprah Winfrey to sponsor my classroom. But there are amazing things happening at The Ron Clark Academy that I can take back to my classroom. Why can't I combine the visual arts with my language arts classes like Susan Barnes? What's stopping me from crafting my own silent lessons with sign language like Ron Clark? Why not try a room transformation like Hope King, or teaching with music like Wade King? Can't I hold my students to an incredibly high standard like Dr. Camille Jones, or build a love of reading in my students like Korey Collins? I may never have lots of money to pour into my classroom, and I don't have the luxury of selecting the students I teach, but I can use movement, music, and magic to create an amazing learning experience and a career in which I will thrive.

Misconception #5: A visit to The Ron Clark Academy will bring joy back into my teaching.
This is the understatement of the century. I have been to professional development that made me feel good, that lit a fire under my feet, that made me feel enthusiastic about going back to my classroom. The feelings inspired by RCA are so much more than that. I didn't feel good; I felt valued. I didn't just feel enthusiastic about going back to my students; I felt a sense of urgency, a need to start making positive changes to my classroom culture. RCA didn't just light a fire under my feet; it lit a fire in my soul. A visit to RCA is great for learning teaching strategies, but those were not the biggest takeaway for me. I left with the spirit of revolution in my heart. Ron talked about how politicians are not going to change public education. No one is going to make public education better for us. If we want to improve our education system, it must start with the teachers and the administrators and the work we do in the classroom. I felt so inspired to innovate! I left RCA feeling braver as an educator than I ever have before. I feel brave enough to raise the bar on model behavior and to come down harder on discipline, because I've seen that you can have incredible results when you set those incredibly high expectations. I feel brave enough to be more creative, because it should not matter what the teacher across the hallway thinks of you. I feel brave enough to trust myself as a professional, because I am one!

If you haven't made it to RCA and you love the hell out of dynamic learning experiences, get thee hence! You can't pour from an empty cup, and my own cup was overflowing when I left. Two weeks later, and I find that my cup keeps refilling itself every time I take my newfound bravery into my classroom. I turned up the heat on my discipline, and my students actually said thank you. I started teaching ASL in class when appropriate, and my students learned types of figurative language faster than ever before. I tried a (mostly) silent lesson, and I had 100% engagement because the kids had to pay such close attention and were so surprised at the novelty of it all. I quit teaching to the bottom kid, and I started teaching to the top kid while offering support to the kids who have a long climb to get to the top. I assure you, if you go in with an open mind, an open heart, and an empty grocery cart just waiting to be filled, you'll leave satisfied and ready to revolutionize your classroom.

Happy Teaching!