Tag Archives: teaching

Forgiveness or Permission?

principal_revised

ecastro/flickr

My career has offered me many unique perspectives. First I was a teacher, teaching students in every grade from 7-12 for 13 years. Then I was an assistant principal for two years, and now I am an Educational Technology Integration Specialist (the title has a lot of syllables I know). In each of those roles I have been able to view public education from a different point of view and they have all honed my current thinking about the state of school.

When I was a teacher I distinctly remember being frustrated by speed at which things moved. I was always excited up to try new things in the classroom, particularly when it came to technology. I got to a point where I would consistently ask forgiveness rather than permission from my administration when it came to pushing the envelope with technology in my classroom. One example of many was when blended learning was brand new I saw its potential right away. I found an LMS platform that was free called EDU20 (now called NEO). I brought the cart of laptops into my room and had all of the students create accounts for the service. I tried to have the kids use all of the safety measures that I knew, ensuring that they did not use their full names or birthdays. But I did not consult with my principal about it, I didn’t explain to him why I thought it was powerful and what it was going to do for the learning in my classes. He did not even know that I was using it until he saw it in an observation of my teaching. Because he trusted me and he could see its value he was not terribly upset with me, but he did have privacy concerns that I did my best to assuage.

When I was a principal I got to encounter a similar situation when one of my teachers was interested in using Minecraft in the classroom. He came in to have a conversation with me about the research that he had done on the program and how he was specifically going to use it. I remember thinking how grateful i was that he had come to me before starting the program so that I could be a part of the process. I had to think about the legalities of the matter, both in terms of protecting the students and the teacher, and we worked together to hash out a way to use the program in a way that was copacetic for everyone.

No matter where I go I am still saddened when I see a confrontational culture between administration and teachers. Public schools are a huge organization with many stakeholders, and everyone has skin in the game. If I had to go back and do it again I would surely have a conversation with my principal before I used the program with my students because I understand that I am a part of something very big and that transparency and communication are an important part of earning and retaining trust, especially those of use that are pushing the envelope with educational technology.

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The Problem with Push and Presence

I suffer with anxiety, I have my whole life. When I was a teen I remember being physically ill with anxiety (mostly related to school). Recently my anxiety level reached a point that triggered intense panic attacks and major depression. This was a bittersweet experience for me. Of course it was terrible feeling that way and my teaching suffered greatly. I was no longer able to look my students in the eye as I just went through the motions of trying to keep it all together. With the help of my wife and my doctor I have been able to regain some semblance of control over my mind and have begun the real hard work of fixing the problem. When I take the time to reflect I can see signs of my anxiety level rising long before now. I actually had a panic attack this summer and nearly missed my first moderating responsibility at the Reform Symposium.

So what has happened? What has pushed normal, everyday stress to completely absurd levels? I wish I could say. I wish I could pinpoint it so I could eliminate it. But the truth, if I am honest with myself is that it is not a thing… it is everything. I am complicit in creating a life filled with tiny little things, each of which I grant a modicum of importance. Each of these things require a bit of my concentration until I am not able to concentrate at all. What I’m recounting here isn’t groundbreaking, in fact this phenomenon has been explored with reputable research. My brain has changed and I am going to fight to get it back.

What does any of this have to do with education you might ask? I think that the issue of presence, and how it has been robbed from us is at the fundamental core of what is simultaneously wrong and right with education. What I mean by presence is the ability to be truly and wholly in the moment, engaged in what you are doing at the moment you are doing it. Think about the simple ways this applies in the classroom. All of us have the desire to be truly invested in what we are teaching but many of us have been asked to shoulder a greater burden as staffs contract. Many of us are teaching four or maybe even five classes in a row. How many times do we think of what is coming up in the following period as we are teaching? This momentary thought pulls at our concentration and robs us of presence. I often ponder these smaller, unintended consequences that have come about as the educational system is gutted by short-sighted bureaucrats.

But I digress (I am an English teacher after all). For me he biggest metaphorical poster boy for this intrusion into presence has been my phone. I happen to own an iPhone, but I am certain the metaphor holds true for other smartphones as well. When I first got the phone I was transfixed, as apparently the rest of the nation was as well with how connected you could be. As the phone evolved I began to ask what I was being connected to. The phone was beeping or buzzing or dinging or boinging every other minute informing me of something. Each sound was connected to a unique event and my brain was trained to recognize the difference. When the email alert would go off it would activate my brain, and I would begin to ask questions like “who could it be from”, or “what could they want”. Once my brain was activated in that way I was pulled out of presence.

As a symbol of wanting to reconnect in a real way with my students, my wife, my children, myself I deactivated all push notifications on my phone. Beyond that I turned all notifications to manual. I’ve done the same with my computers as well. Now the only time my phone makes a noise is when it rings. I know what you are saying, why not just get rid of that iPhone? Have you played Angry Birds? But seriously… baby steps. Lets get back to sitting next to our students, or crouching next to their desks until our legs burn. Let’s take the time it takes. If those things that are interrupting you are so important… why aren’t you doing those things? This is how we will learn to love what we do again, because when you peel away all of the crap that is thrown at us teaching is about relationships. It always has been, and those damn noises and what they represent are keeping them from us.

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Don’t Forget About Modeling: It’s Money!

I knew I would lure you in with that title, but I am not talking about fashion week here. I am talking about a tried and true teaching technique that I sometimes forget – modeling. I had an experience this week that reminded me of its importance.

We have been studying and writing various forms of poetry in my creative writing class. Normally this would elicit collective groaning from students, but this is an elective and students are generally motivated to write. But this group was having a hard time becoming inspired and expressing themselves with their writing. Remembering how I adored my creative writing class as an undergrad I dug out my old marble notebook and brought it into the class. I put the class in a circle and began to read from the ancient tome, each angst filled verse was like a snapshot of my past. The students giggled as I told them the story behind each one (if I could remember it), but some of the poems were pretty good. What was more important though was that the students saw me as a writer and a learner in that moment, they saw the evolution of my writing over time, and they saw that I practiced what I was preaching. Show your students a little bit of yourself, you will be surprised how far it will get you.

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