Friday, April 26, 2013

You Changed the What?!?!?

We have a constant need to do better—or we should.  If we don’t try and do new things better than last year then we are not ‘good’ teachers.  We become stagnant in our work.  We become the washout of the school, the teacher no parent or kid wants to be subjected to for a whole year… 

It is your first year teaching fifth grade.  You have taught third grade for four years but you are now moving up in the world to fifth grade.  The last fifth grade teacher retired with much fanfare and many tears from adoring students and parents—and look at that here you are. 

The material you received from him was a jumbled mess.  You know there is a method to his madness, but you cannot for the life of you figure it out.  You do see the big file called “State Projects.”  Youknow about these state projects, they are famous, legendary.  Fifth graders have been completing them for centuries.  There are model projects in this folder from at least 10 different years!  As you plod through the planning of the year you realize a really cool way to integrate this years state project with your science unit.  ‘This is going to be so cool.’ You think to yourself.  In fact, it takes the project to a whole new level.  You spend months building it up in your head and in the minds of your students.  They cannot wait to start.  Finally, in February, you hand out the assignment, rubric, and timeline.  The students have to bring it home to review with their parents and bring it back with a signature that they all understand what is expected. 

Monday morning one student brings it back with a post-it note from his mother “I would really like to speak with you about this project.” The note says.  An email is waiting in your inbox from another parent about your ‘new idea.’  And yet another approaches you at pickup.  The message is the same from each of them:

How can you change this treasured tradition of the fifth grade project?

By now, I am sure you have a similar story from your own experience in mind.  Whether it is changing an assessment, book choice, unit of study, or routine I am sure you have heard people resistant to your change.  Change is uncomfortable, it is unsettling but yet we know we need to keep evolving to thrive in our jobs.

How can we reach a balance with this tension?  When do we need to drop what is comfortable for something new and challenging?  When do we need to maintain routine and structure for the sake of our classes and ourselves?

I think we need to ask ourselves the biggest question of ‘why?’

In the scenario I painted above the new teacher had a need that she was trying to meet.  She was entering a world of unknown trying to make sense for herself—to own the classroom she was about to guide.  Her need was strong and real and she wouldn’t have been able to teach the students well if she didn’t feel in control of the classroom material.  Had she just taken over the jumble of files her year would have been a jumble of lessons. 

Many new teachers starting out feel one of two things.  One new teacher needs to prove to herself and to those around her that she can ‘do it on her own.’  She wants to separate herself from the person who had been there before and prove that she is just as worthy of the position if not more.  She may abandon what has worked in the past for the sake of being ‘different, innovative, creative.’  The other new teacher clings on to what he has seen.  He anchors himself in the known even if he knows it isn’t was is best for his students.  He knows what he would like to do, but is uncomfortable making any changes for fear of failure.

As you can imagine, neither of these teachers are ideal.  As with almost everything in life we teachers need to balance.  We need to balance the old with the new, the innovative and the routine and most importantly we constantly need to be asking ourselves ‘Why am I really doing this?  Is it best for my students?’

So let’s go back to our new fifth grade teacher.  Was she wrong to change the project?  Is she expecting too much changing this beloved project too soon?

She needs to listen to the parents and understand that change is hard and uncomfortable but ultimately if she can answer the ‘why’ with confidence and compassion she is off to a successful start.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring has Sprung

It is spring! (sort of)  Although the weather may not be cooperating, in the life of a school it is definitely spring.  Children know it, parents know it, and we as teachers definitely know it.  Springtime in schools is when we begin to think about next year.  What will I be teaching?  Who will be in my class?  Will I be in the same grade?  Will I have to start a new math curriculum—again?  I want to challenge you to also ask yourself this spring: “What can I do better next year?”

It is very easy to get stuck in a rut.  When we find something that works, we often stick to it, and move on to ‘fix’ something different that needs fixing.  We never revisit the first fix and it just becomes something we do because it works.

I recently visited a beginning teacher’s High School English class.  She had never taught the Great Gatsby before, but she told me she wasn’t at all concerned about beginning the unit.  Curiously, I wondered why she felt so confident about this book.  “Well I still have my notes from tenth grade.” She told me. 

You may be laughing--even outloud--at this naïve comment, but this new teacher is not alone.
Ever met a fifth grade teacher who is suddenly shifted to kindergarten because the numbers have shifted in the school?  Ever been handed a ‘brand new amazing’ curriculum in August and told that you need to teach it? 

We are often thrown into situations that we are ill prepared for, sometimes we know how little we know and sometimes we don’t.  The new teachers’ naïveté is humorous, but her situation is not unique.
So lets go back to those ruts I was talking about before.  I can picture this new teacher in five years. 
In one scenario she is still using her tenth grade notes to teach the Great Gatsby.  She is clinging to what she knows and what feels comfortable no matter the value.  I can see that fifth grade teacher who is now a kindergarten teacher still adapting her fifth grade routines and activities for her younger version of her former students.   

The next scenario shows a fifth year teacher who has reevaluated the way she teaches different units.  She has a method and a philosophy that she applies to every book she has her students read.  She is ready to tackle any new piece of literature that may come her way because teaching literature is an art form.  The kindergarten teacher has a shelf filled with literature on early childhood education.  She has an early childhood guru who she often turns to with new ideas she has been wondering about. 

So here we sit at the beginning of Spring, counting the days until summer vacation.  We are all thinking about next year and what new challenges it will bring.  I want to challenge you to take this opportunity to also think about how you are going to tackle these new obstacles in a strategic and proactive manner so that next year you will be able to answer the question

“What am I doing better this year?”