Monthly Archives: March 2014

Reflecting on this morning’s #sunchat

This morning’s #sunchat focused on the topic: If you could go back in time knowing what you know now, what advise would you give to your new teacher self? I loved this topic both for the opportunity to reflect and the opportunity to share my hard-earned wisdom with others. Most of the participants were actually educators with more years of service than me, so the chat may ultimately have been more therapeutic than instructive.

I thought I’d archive my tweets here and process what I said a bit more.

“Advice to younger teacher self: Organize all documents you make more systematically. You won’t have to recreate them every year.”

  • Over the years I’ve been terribly lazy about organizing Word documents in folders and sticking to a clear document-naming system. I can usually find an old handout, quiz, or test pretty quickly with a little searching, but it would be much better if I showed an ounce of discipline in this area. Also, I’m not consistent about moving old content I’ve created to new platforms. I’ve lost things when I’ve bought new computers or started using a new cloud service, etc. I can see a very useful summer project developing here.

“More advice to younger teacher self: Work at boarding school and live in free housing. Double retirement savings.”

  • This advice is mostly lost on the audience of a typical Twitter edchat since they are mostly public school teachers who would never dream of going to work at an independent school, never mind a boarding school. I’ve been working at boarding schools my entire career, but I foolishly have done the housing thing backwards. I lived off-campus and paid rent for the first seven years of my career, and have been living in the dorm for the last eight. I would tell any 22-year-old considering a career in teaching to go to work for a boarding school and live rent-free for the first ten years of their career. You can double your retirement savings and put away money to eventually buy a house, too. Living in-dorm keeps you flexible and mobile, too, in case an opportunity comes up somewhere else. Young teachers have so much to offer to the students in the dorms, as well. Those kids need positive role models who are in their 20s.

“More advice to younger teacher self: Your boisterous classroom is okay. Students’ engagement is better than fear of punishment.”

  • I spent a lot of my first couple of years as a teacher feeling inadequate because my room was noisy. I was totally wrong about that. It didn’t help that the walls between classrooms in my old job were paper thin! Students who are engaged and working with enthusiasm make noise. They don’t just sit in quiet rows, silently taking notes. The teaching style that I knew I wanted for myself was the right one, and with experience on my side, I don’t worry about this issue any more. By the way, I’ve learned (from reading Approaches to Teaching by Fenstermacher and Soltis) that there are highly effective teachers out there whose students do sit in quiet rows, and I shouldn’t judge them. I have my style, they have theirs. I shouldn’t assume that my style is the only way.

“More advice to younger teacher self: Be direct and honest with parents. They’ve known their child has weakness X since kindergarten.”

  • And a Twitter interlocutor, @Kathgate, replied to this tweet to tell me that, as a kindergarten teacher, she knows that parents have known about their child’s weaknesses long before kindergarten! I was using “kindergarten” as a metonym, but her point is well taken. I’m usually worried about how parents will take the news when I have to tell them that either a) Their child speaks out of turn too often in class, or b) Their child isn’t getting his/her homework done. (Those two items are almost always the bad news I have to communicate). Parents don’t bat an eye at receiving such news. By the time their son or daughter enters my ninth or tenth grade English class, they’ve been hearing this from teachers for over a decade. They usually chuckle and say, “Yup. That’s Mikey for you.”

“More advice to younger teacher self: Don’t measure your success compared to college classmates. Teaching is a noble profession.”

  • That was my last tweet for the chat, and I was intentionally trying to be a little uplifting and fishing for retweets. (I’m not perfectly selfless, I confess.) But I also stand by the point I was trying to make. My 25-year-old self in his first year of teaching was still trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. I had friends from my elite high school and my elite college who were working on Wall St., in med school, close to finishing law school, etc. And so what? There may be other professions that are as satisfying as being an educator, but I can’t think of too many. As teachers, our work is always challenging, always meaningful, and always relevant. If we do our jobs right, we make the world a better place. Long after we are gone, the ripples of the pebbles we throw into the metaphoric pond continue to spread outward. If first-year teachers consider quitting the profession because they are miserable, exhausted, and struggling, I completely understand. I would exhort them to give it another year; it gets easier. But if a first-year teacher is considering quitting the profession because they are jealous of their friends who have more glamorous or high-paying jobs, I would encourage them to spend some time reflecting on what is truly important. That isn’t a bad suggestion for long-tenured educators, too. 



Student blogs are up and running

I asked the students in my one section of Sophomore Literature and Composition to establish blogs this week. We’ll be using them for several upcoming assignments, the immediate one being “Thinking Across Disciplines” (a.k.a. the sophomore project). I suggested my students use one of three platforms: WordPress, Blogger, or Kidblog. So far I’m very pleased with the results. The students who chose WordPress selected a variety of excellent themes, and they all look great. The Blogger blogs have a more dark, machine-y, old-school internet 1.0 feel to them, but if they reflect the tastes of their creators, that’s great. Because I haven’t paid up for premium service, the students using Kidblog don’t have any opportunity to personalize their blogs. Nonetheless, they are working fine, too. I was able to leave comments for all of the students who have at least one post up, and there were no snags.

I’m not sharing links to the students’ blogs yet, but in a month or two when they have more posts up and more confidence in their work, I may want to promote their blogs a bit. Of course they are all helping me out by serving as guinea pigs for my plan to remake our summer reading program into a big reading + blogging concept. It will take time to develop the habits of reading and commenting on classmates’ blogs, but we’ll get there. Things are looking good.

Don’t build your brand

Over the years I’ve met a lot of new teachers who haven’t decided that they are committed to the profession. Especially when it comes to English teachers, it seems like most recent college grads who have been hired are just thinking of it as their day job while they work on what they view as their true calling: playing music, writing poetry, etc. I’ve got no problem with that; everyone should have a dream and chase after it. However, teaching isn’t the same as waiting tables. It’s a career. And it is enough.

Teaching is enough to occupy one-hundred percent of your intellectual energy, keep you challenged and growing, and express yourself creatively. At some point (age 30?) the dilettante wanna-be-rockstar teacher turns into a career teacher, and the band turns into a hobby. Perhaps that’s a tragedy, or perhaps it is part of the transition to true adulthood, supporting a family, and so forth. I don’t mean to insist that it’s an either-or choice. I’ve known some mid-career teachers who devote superb energy and attention to both their teaching and their artistic pursuits. They are organized people, and they use their vacation time well. 

What concerns me today is the pressure being put on teachers who aren’t very driven to be teacher/rockers or teacher/poets or teacher/authors to “build their brand.” This involves maintaining a blog, promoting it/oneself, “curating” media on Twitter or Pinterest, becoming a “thought leader,” etc. I’ve been traveling down this road myself, and I’m worried about what I’ve seen both in terms of the pressure it puts on me (to produce original content, to read every trending article in the education sphere) and on young teachers trying to establish themselves. Again: teaching is enough.

There are lots of reasons why teachers might want do some of these activities other than “building a brand.” Blogging is a good outlet for your intellectual activity and it’s therapeutic. If you are assigning blogging tasks to your students, then leading by example is de rigeur, too. Sharing great posts or ideas on Twitter is generous, and I wholly embrace the PLN concept. But frankly, if every teacher is online producing original content and building their brand, who is going to read all of this stuff? If we are all broadcasting and no one is receiving, what’s the point? If everyone is a general, where are the soldiers? 

Some of the pressure must surely come from the lousy economy. Teaching jobs are harder to land today, and people who have them might be nervous about losing them. Building a personal brand that serves as a kind of portfolio during a job search makes sense. But my experience serving on search committees for the school where I work leads me to believe that what schools are looking for is not human brands, but employees with excellent technology and communication skills. If your personal brand seems unduly strong, then as an employer I would worry that you are narcissistic and spending too much time online updating all of your social media platforms. In the independent school world, our personal brands are subordinate to the school’s umbrella brand. If the school is doing well, I am doing well.

There are those (literally) one in a million teachers who have something original, brilliant, and important to share. Rafe Esquith (of the Hobart Shakespeareans) and Dave Burgess (of Teach Like a Pirate fame) spring to mind. They inspire me, and I’m endlessly grateful that they’ve shared their work with the world through their books and other efforts. Who am I to say that the teacher down the hall from me isn’t another Esquith or Burgess? Perhaps they are. Just as I would never discourage a student from chasing his or her dreams, I wouldn’t want to discourage my colleagues or teachers anywhere who are reading this from chasing theirs. Still, my message remains: teaching is enough. You aren’t a failure if you aren’t Rafe Esquith or Dave Burgess. Teachers are heroic in their everyday efforts; regardless of whether or not those efforts bring them acclaim or publishing royalties. You don’t need a thousand Twitter followers; you need twenty young learners who are on the edges of their seats in your class, four or five times a day. That is enough.

Teaching: an art or science?

If there is one thing you’re sure of, it’s that teaching is an art. Engaging young minds, finding ways to inspire them: these are tasks for an artist. What works for one student doesn’t work for another, and so you must have an artist’s eye to find the right dab to apply here or extra shadow there in order to teach your students most effectively. Lesson planning is an art form, too, much like writing a one-act play, and the teacher is the playwright and artistic director of the entire drama company. There can be no doubt that teaching is an art.

But sometimes you must admit that it is a science. An article comes out praising some innovation in instruction that takes advantage of the latest brain science, and it’s clear that you should start every unit with precisely this sort of formative assessment, and if you drill your students on the skill using the research-endorsed techniques, there is no question that they will retain the information better, and there is lots of academic support for that, and testing to boot. So forget teaching as an art and accept reality: it is a science and that’s how it ought to be.

Only something will happen in your class one afternoon, and that will convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt that teaching is an art. A student will come up with an unexpected response to a prompt about the literature, and in a serendipitous flash of insight, you’ll connect it to something another student said eighteen minutes earlier, and then — holy cow! — synthesis is happening right before your eyes. Students are making new connections, and they’re turned on by the material, and when the bell rings you realize that nothing you could have written down in your lesson plan could have accounted for that. It was avant garde jazz, and you are Ornette Coleman, and there is no question that teaching is an art. Otherwise, how could that have just happened?

Still, a month later, you’ll see an article linked to a tweet about what they are doing over in Finland or Japan or Singapore to make sure that the best lesson plans are being used universally in every classroom in the country, and it will be backed up with lots of data proving that that approach is a major reason why their students are outperforming our students on those important international tests, and there you go again: teaching is a science. That moment you had in your classroom with the jazz is small potatoes compared to the clear evidence that is piling up from all of this data, and you need to get on board with the scientific approach! What do you mean you are still teaching comma rules using that same old sad lesson plan you concocted eleven years ago? Did you even read the latest research on commas when you wrote that plan? Have you read any of the latest studies since then? What business do you even have calling yourself a teacher, then? Teaching is a science, and if you aren’t using the best proven methods, you must not care about the kids. 

But then you read an article about how homework is killing the joy of childhood, and you realize you don’t want to be one of those joy-killers. No, that’s where all of this science leads, isn’t it? To killing childhood? The teachers whom you remember best from when you were a student were the artists. The funny ones, the mad ones: that’s the kind of teacher you always wanted to be. And that kind of teaching can’t be taught in some Masters program, because art can’t really be taught, can it? Clearly, some teachers are artists, and some aren’t, and you are an artist, and that’s why you reach such a variety of learners so well. Teaching has always been an art, and the proof doesn’t come from academic studies, it comes from the evidence you see before you as you hear your students talk about who their favorite teachers are and how they are so funny and engaging and inspirational. How foolish you ever were to think that teaching might be a science! You’ll never fall for that trap again.

And then your colleague shows you that really cool thing she’s doing where she’s gamified her chemistry class with an app she heard about at that conference. And so you begin to wonder anew.

On the eve of spring break

This has been a devastatingly busy, enervating winter term. The challenges brought on by weather disruptions caused constant juggling and too many late nights. I’m still processing everything I’ve learned and find myself limping towards the finish line that is spring break.

The news about changes being made to the SAT is most welcome. Democratizing test prep and refocusing the content (such as it is) will make the college preparatory school world a slightly more sane place. Bravo. Of course we’d all be better off if the most selective colleges and universities showed real leadership and completely abandoned the SAT.

The ongoing crisis in Syria paired with new developments in Ukraine reminds those of us who teach at boarding schools of the importance of our work. This morning’s #sunchat was a conversation about how schools can connect their students with their surrounding communities. As usual, my boarding school perspective left me feeling like an outsider. My school’s immediate community is Newtown, PA, but we spend more time thinking about the ever widening concentric circles of town, state, country, and globe when we consider where we fit in. Unexpectedly, one of my contrarian tweets almost went viral (“School should be center of local community. Not just sending students out, but bringing people in for sports, arts, lectures, etc.”). I suppose I was thinking about work we are doing in the English department to create a lecture series that will bring poets and other writers to campus for events open to the public. It seems that many teachers and administrators out there, both in the public and private school worlds, are putting as much thought into how they can make their school campuses centers of community as they into their plans to send their students out to do service learning.

While I’m trying to relax over break, I also need to keep working on my plans for the English department’s summer blogging assignment. I’ve got documents to produce, processes to troubleshoot, and colleagues to email. (I hope they are all on a beach somewhere and don’t respond for a while.) I’ll be teaching Sonia Sotomayor’s My Beloved World for the first time when we return from break, so it would be worth my time to begin writing lesson plans, quizzes, prompts, and so forth so that I’m not scrambling every night in April. I’m thinking about doing the old reverse-flipped-class concept for a week in there. That would involve my students reading the book in class and blogging about the reading at night. I haven’t tried this before, and I have a variety of concerns. Freshmen aren’t great about bringing their books to class, so I’ll need to have spare copies available (and maybe use a little carrot/stick action, which I detest). I need to correctly judge how much reading they can get done in class, and I’ll need to get the prompts just right to inspire good results. I need to plan a communique to go home to parents as well. These are easily surmountable obstacles, but they loom large in my exhausted end-of-term state.

What should I read over break for my own enjoyment? On the top of my list are Roddy Doyle’s The Guts and Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure. What could be better than new books from two of my favorite authors? Do you have any spring break reading suggestions for me?