by Julie Brock
Shrouded in blame and punishment, accountability has been twisted into a punitive action versus the rich conversation it actually is intended to spur. To account is to reconcile, balance, see the full picture so future decisions are better informed.
In his Fast Company article, Four Ways You’re Getting Accountability Wrong, Mark Lukens explains why a culture of accountability is vital to the success of any organization. The principles Luken presents ask leaders to:
“Whether you’re looking to fix a problem or to replicate a success, don’t act until you’ve understood why you got the results you did,” says Lukens.
Depending on how many classes of students move through a classroom in a day, it is possible to have three to six ‘micro-organizations’ that look to an educator as the ‘CEO’ responsible for setting the tone and expectations of their collective work.
How, then, do we function as a leader cultivating a collective culture of accountability as well as one of individual progress?
Mark Friedman, author of Trying Hard isn’t Good Enough, created a data framework that helps communities work toward big, shared goals. The crux of his argument is that no one organization can own the results of an entire community. It takes many organizations contributing to get sustainable solutions. Within each contributing organization are departments or programs that contribute to the overall effectiveness of the organization. For example, a large school district may think that they do own the graduation rate for their community, but they do not—they do not have every student who lives in their boundaries attending their school, so they share that result with other education settings.
Each educational setting can contribute to the overall graduation rate; yet, it does not have to look exactly the same. It is why school choice exists. Imagine each of those settings creating a culture of accountability in which students understand the systems serving them and also understand their role within the overall culture. It creates collaboration, cooperation, and communication.
The conversation that data inspires what leads to actionable change. Our educational systems are limping along. The last blow of COVID damaged our barge and we cannot bail the water out faster than it is coming in . And it is all levels. No educational setting is immune. We are a fleet of zero—grad school education settings taking on water and pivoting to figure out if the bucket brigade will work from a different angle.
That’s the thing with pivoting. I think about basketball. Once that pivot foot is set, it cannot move before a dribble. Players are stuck in one place until a pass or a path opens up for them to move. It is stationary, but all the while we keep spinning…thinking something will change.
But it doesn’t.
Instead, I ask…
The state of education can be overwhelming, stifling, and feel futile. But a classroom’s contribution matters. A department’s contribution matters. A building’s contribution matters. An afterschool program’s contribution matters. They matter when we hold ourselves accountable to a shared result. Students want to learn. According to the 2019 Minnesota Student survey, 97.8% of Olmsted County 9th graders (current 11th graders) said “if something interests me, I’ll learn more about it.” In that same survey, 99.2% of 11th graders said they will learn more about something that interests them.
Maybe we need to co-design around standards with students. Ask them how they want to learn the standards, what will resonate, and what will ultimately spur them to learn more within the content area . Results Based Accountability™ (RBA), Friedman’s framework, asks for a community of people to solve community problems together. It isn’t a framework that leaves people behind. If we adopt this framework within communities, new partnerships start to blossom. Youth who move between organizations are more likely to be supported when there is a framework holding us together around the success of youth. Pair RBA and the co-design process with students, and now we have created partnership, collaboration, and ownership for youth over their own education, potentially fueling that 97-99% curiosity students reported in 2019.
The nice thing about RBA is that we can start right now, today, using it in classrooms. We don’t have to wait for the community to get on board: it can start a ripple effect. In fact, we may already live in a community that is using RBA to effect systemic change. Strive Together is a national nonprofit that has seventy communities across the nation doing this kind of work. If you live in Minnesota, there are seven cradle-to-career communities and two promise neighborhoods working for systemic change.
Accountability isn’t about shame and blame. It has to be reclaimed and untwisted from its negative connotation to create space for creativity, for innovation, and a way to get those on the shore to help get those on the sinking barge off and together—find our way into the next wave of education.
Interested in learning more about RBA and using it in your classroom / department / building / feeder system / district? Let me know and we’ll collaborate!
By Katie Miller
I am a lover of words. For the last twenty years I have been surrounded by words in my career as an English Learner teacher and an Instructional Coach for a Spanish Immersion program. I love creating a vocabulary lesson where students get to explore, dig, discover, and use new words. The linguistic side of language makes me quiver with excitement when a student uses a new word in their oral or written language. I even call myself a “walking thesaurus” as I love to have students learn synonyms and antonyms to expand their daily vocabulary and giggle when they begin to imitate my words.
My students have taught me an important lesson over the years that is a step beyond my vocabulary lessons. They taught me that words can be powerful. Words have power not only in the academic world, like my vocabulary lessons, but in the social and emotional world as well. Each word that is spoken has meaning. Even the most simple words, like “hello,” have meaning to both the speaker and the listener. The speaker has a meaning, but the listener may interpret it differently. Our words are powerful to our students, families, and colleagues.
How can we as educators change the way we use our words to make them positive and affirming to all?
Here is an example of where words matter.
As I was walking down the hall to visit a classroom, I noticed a student slithering like a snake down the hallway. I knew this student was not where he needed to be and that his teacher was looking for him.
This student was validated that he was creative and had great imaginative skills, but was redirected to follow the hallway expectations. If I would have said the first statement, he may have felt as though he had no other option and just had to “follow the rules.” Plus, it was a much more fun way to go back to his classroom for him and me!
This is one example of how words can be powerful with adults too (not just our students).
Walking down the hall, or in the staff lounge, one might overhear a conversation about a student. It may sound something like this:
“Ugh, Johnny is driving me crazy today! He just won’t stop tapping his pencil during math! I told him to knock it off and he wouldn’t!
Think about how someone overhearing this conversation now perceives Johnny? How do you think Johnny felt when he was told to “knock it off”? Did that phrase frustrate him more and make it more difficult to redirect him?
What if you heard the teacher say this instead?
“Johnny likes to tap his pencil on his desk. I noticed it was bothering other students. So, I went up to him and said, ‘I bet you are going to be a fantastic drummer someday. Let’s practice drumming with your pencil at recess and I’ll give you a fidget toy to use until then’. He loved using the fidget and we finished the lesson without any more disruptions.”
This teacher validated the student’s need to fidget, along with their love of a good beat, while providing the opportunity for the teacher and class to keep focused on the lesson. Also, think about the teacher who is overhearing the second conversation. Not only did they hear that Johnny could be a great musician someday, but also how affirming and positive that other teacher was with their student.
The article “15 Ways to Bring More Positive Language into Your Classroom and School” from We Are Teachers provides a great infographic with examples of how to tweak phrases to be both affirming and positive.
Words can have power with families as well. I have had many nights where I check my email at home to see an email from a parent who is upset about what happened to their child at school. I have had sleepless nights about some of these emails as to how I was going to handle the discussion with the parent the next day. Then I discovered one of my favorite phrases, pulled from the author Todd Whitaker in his book What Great Principals Do Differently: Twenty Things That Matter Most: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” From the start, this validates the feelings of the parent, student, or colleague, and opens up the lines of communication immediately. No matter what, someone feels something about the situation. It doesn’t put blame on anyone, but rather affirms to the person that you care and are willing to listen.
I ask that you be cognizant of your words tomorrow, next week, and beyond. Treat them with the power they hold and use that power wisely.
The old phrase “think before you speak” is as true today as it was 20 years ago when I started my career in education. I hope you fall in love with positive and powerful words, too!
By Gina Meinertz
The educators in Spring Grove knew the value of authentic learning experiences for students. We found some success with classroom jobs, math problems from real world experience, discussions based around student interest, and student choice in assessment. While these efforts were valuable and necessary in the quest to make learning relevant, they still had not motivated all our students and had not brought together our teachers in a way that broke down their silos. What was the missing link? A community partnership grounded in place-based learning.
A community partnership is a relationship between the teachers and students of a school with an organization that is long-term and mutually beneficial. The participants understand the value of the work together. They also believe and agree on common outcomes and learning objectives from the experience. In Spring Grove’s journey to become a community-based school, we have learned what makes a partnership a bonding and motivating experience.
We have multiple successful community partnerships to use as examples: a farm partnership with our middle school, and outdoor classrooms and a heritage center partnership in our elementary, and business partnership in the high school. We also have partnerships that are ending, adapting, or just an idea. Community partnerships are a living curriculum in which the relationship and experience drive the future, which is what makes the learning experiences deeper and authentic.
A great attribute of a community partnership is that it is available and beneficial to every school and community. Every school has the opportunity to create a relationships with the people and organizations around it. Every student has the opportunity to make decisions, research, and take action for the greater good. And every community has the opportunity to benefit from more educators and students designing, analyzing, and working to improve something they care about.
Now that you are convinced that you need to create a community partnership within your school, how do you start? What steps do you need to take in order to cultivate relationships and spark a drive to work together? I will share steps with you. These steps will look more like building a campfire than walking a stairway. You will need to put the right tools and people together and then wait and support for that spark to build into a flame.
Some of you will choose to finish reading this article here, but others will be looking for some examples of the shifts and changes our teams made in creating these partnerships. You want to hear the story so that you can compare yours. Feel free to look for similarities and analyze different. Reach out to us if you would like. We know collective learning helps us all to move forward to transform education to experiences of deeper meaning.
Our middle school team has had the goal for about two years to break off from our high school programming to create a program more grounded in relationship with more developmentally appropriate growth experiences. We started with a math lab that connected middle and high school students around individual growth experiences in math. This setting was innovative with two teachers in one shared space. The space had breakout rooms, walls we could write on and ways for students to advance in math with flexibility in scheduling. The teachers and students were constantly reflecting and improving their approach, but our data was telling us our students needed more collaboration and more connection of the mathematical processes to real world occurrences.
The pandemic made us shift our programming to pods. We couldn’t have students intermingling, so we changed to a middle school teaming model where our teachers were teaming in instruction. We moved to Humanities and STEM programming with 7th and 8th grade students only. The teachers created a series of interdisciplinary experiences throughout the year including a park partnership where students worked with an environmental educator to map a native prairie and wildflower plan for a city park. They presented their work to the Parks and Rec and City Council Representatives before planting the garden in the spring. This work brought all students, teachers, and subjects together around learning and created an authentic audience, but we still saw a needed to build a sense of belonging, pride, and connection for the students. The teachers knew they wanted to continue to work together but needed something deeper to bring together the standards in a way that is consistent and developmentally aligned throughout the entire year. We used a Montessori article named “Erdkinder” to back our decision to connect our middle school age students to the land an phenomena around them. Research supports students at this specific age needing to take steps away from the cohesive family units to make connections with the land and greater community around them.
This led us to our farm school partnership. We saw an opportunity to bring the learning standards togethers around competencies. We brought in Rose Colby from New Hampshire to help us to map, connect, and create competencies that ensure interdisciplinary learning experiences that extend beyond academics. Our teachers know what life skills they are supporting while also mapping the content delivered in a way that connects and supports the content in other subject areas. Essential questions guide the learning, discoveries, and group projects students will embark on throughout the partnership. Teachers will support projects, deliver supporting content, and continue to co-create the learning with students with each weekly visit to the farm throughout this school year.
Sitting on the front porch at the farm this summer, our educators and farmer engaged in a conversation of inspiration and depth. They discussed how values guide decisions. They compared efficiency, money, power, and happiness affect the decisions we make. They discussed land ownership and the historical inequities that need to be considered as we embark on our journey. We left that front porch understanding the weight of importance this learning journey holds for us and the students. We are entering a multi-generational relationship that includes people, pigs, land, the people before us, and the sustainability of the future. We hope for all participants to question, connect, and build a foundation of decision making that will affect how they impact the world.
Our elementary teachers have been offering multi-age and traditional classrooms as an option for more than five years. Parents, students, and teachers know that giving options for student learning are beneficial for all. As a group of multi-age teachers met in a community of practice during the spring of the pandemic, we wondered how we could adapt our classroom to be safe and engaging knowing that we will be coming back to a very different educational experience than we left when schools went home in the March of 2020. I had worked with an educator from Norway and visited schools and daycare programs in Norway two years before. I had observed how the programming in this cold part of the world engaged with the outdoors much more vividly than the school from the United States that I had observed. We reach out to our Norwegian partners to find out how they were coming back to learning during a pandemic. They shared how they moved meals, classrooms, and learning objectives outside. All participants felt safer, but also more engaged and inquisitive. Our team was inspired and set out to research and create outdoor classrooms.
Our city and parents were as excited as our teachers to embark on this journey. The city funded fixing up outdoor buildings with optional closing sides to block wind. Our teachers started to use a method called storylining to map out and link standards with outdoor phenomena and locations. Students jumped into their outdoor experiences with curiosity, excitement, courage, and preparedness. Teachers co-created learning objectives by helping students to categorize their questions into learning themes.
The three teachers who created outdoor classrooms planned and planted native prairie gardens, community gardens, and improved spaces within our community. They said the experience forever changed the way they will teacher. This year, we didn’t offer outdoor versus indoor classrooms. Instead, this programming will live within our system. We will start more grow labs, start composting programming, and continue to expand on our outdoor learning experiences as an elementary system.
Heritage Center Partnership
Giants of the Earth Heritage Center is an active organization within Spring Grove. They research stories, connect families, help families to understand their history, and create educational experiences and displays. They have created experiences with Spring Grove Schools for years such as a children’s parade for the town festivities, supporting ancestorial research projects for students, and writing grants jointly. These experiences have laid a strong foundation in which to grow a partnership upon. For the first time this year, we have students researching, designing, and creating displays for the community to view. We are also hoping to move our after-school and surround care offerings to this community location this school year. This will allow our two programs to bring more ages together in experiential learning. We will create a weekly schedule in which students will engage in cultural learning activities that will be united with adults, elders, and other community members. We will also spend one day a week partnering with a mental health organization to teach students resilient and caring preventive well-being and collaborative skills to support ethics and values.
We also hope to create a research partnership in which our students work with experts to research the early histories of our community. There are some missing links of knowledge of the people who first lived in our area, and we hope to connect with American Indian tribes and archeological organizations to better paint the picture of the entire history of our community.
Career and College Partnership: Redefining Ready
We have been documenting our high school students’ progress toward College and Career ready indicators as defined by the Redefining Ready goals distributed by AASA. We support our students to graduate with these indicators fulfilled beyond their course and grade point requirements. We having been shifting our schedule to support this whole child thinking such as a restricting of our advisory time to include foci such as connecting and supporting wellbeing, coaching students in the support skills of learning, and focusing individually and in small groups on our career and college preparedness and interests. We have also created a Redefining Ready cover page to communicate more about our student’s growth and potential the Minnesota Department of Education’s report card is able. Next steps will include more individual shift of tracking student’s growth. We are creating prototypes of portfolios to collect evidence of students’ passions, strengths, and experiences that will contribute to their success.
We also created a Business Experience/CEO course where students partner with four to five businesses to use the businesses’ data and vision to implement a design cycle of improvement. Students’ participated in creating newsletter and social media pages, researched the most successful businesses in small towns, and created prototypes used by the businesses in improvement.
The partnerships in Spring Grove have helped us to create a community-based school. Students of all ages get to make a difference within the community around them. They learn from and with people of all ages to dig deeply into the values, history, and future of our small town. Place-based learning helps our students to not only be prepared for their future, but also to be empowered and important youthful members of our current society.
We recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Lazerbeak and Ilan Blanck on our podcast, where we discuss mental health, creativity, curiosity, and a growth mindset. One thread that, authentically or through sheer force of will, pulled these pieces together was the ability to create and foster a thriving community—a talent Lazerbeak and Ilan have proven to be particularly adept at over their many years in the music industry.
The piece that most intrigues me is that students thirst for community and belonging, yet when educators spend time on building a culture and community, it’s often we tend to build it for our students. Occasionally, we build it with our students. In terms of clubs and organizations, we sometimes build it through our students. However, I have yet to see an educator help students learn how to build a community in which they can belong.
In trying to break down the component parts that we may use to help students with community building, we journeyed through several layers of an umbrella process. Ilan represents these umbrella parts by recommending that we:
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Of course, we can teach structure and organization. Through the conversation, Lazerbeak and Ilan elucidated that the organization of a community requires building an organized system that others can easily join. This also requires having a structure to reach out to those we admire or value—a clear system through which we can reach out to others. Structured discussions are wonderful in class, but we need to have the skills to engage in face to face or digital environments—to make calls, send emails, begin conversations, or “send out feelers.”
| 2 |
Following up can include strategies of organization (one strategy they shared outside of this podcast is to keep a list of names and conversations as they take place). We can, of course, also lean on calendar reminders, clock apps, and other technologies to be notified to follow up.
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The piece that may be the hardest to teach—essentially having a tone of approachability—they luckily also had specific ideas for.
So! I am sincerely curious as to who is out there. This is my attempt to reach out and see if we can interact a little more often. I’d like to belong to a community of people who want to grow. I want to be a part of a community that wants to grow together and that wants to help others to grow. What say you? And even if you aren’t interested—thank you for being engaged enough to read this far.
by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
by Andy Johnsrud
The past 18 months of teaching have played out like the crazy “teacher dreams” many of us know too well. But rather than showing up in our subconscious in the month of August, we lived it! We all lived through what felt like a circus funhouse version of distance-hybrid-make-crap-up-as-you-dance-under-a-spotlight version of school. The weirdness of the past 18 months also provided a sustained and sometimes brutal assessment of some of the most basic things I think I know and do as a teacher.
We all struggled and got to see some things about our students and ourselves. Sometimes that view could be truly harsh as it revealed my judgment, lack of control, feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes that view was so very tender and revealed care, connection, empathy, and compassion with my fellow human beings of all ages. Many times this sustained focus kicked my bum and left me so far past vulnerable that I didn’t always know if I had what it takes to do this job. Note: none of these feelings were new--magnified and intensified, yes...but not new.
The struggle and challenge of these past months can be wonderfully fertile soil for me to grow, both personally and professionally. This is certainly not to be read as, “got things figured out now. Check that off my list.” This is the heart of our shared humanity and of being a teacher.
For me, acts of simple honesty to oneself and letting go of what we don’t control can help open a space. In that space we may be able to bring our most open and authentic care to one’s self. This is actually for the direct benefit of one’s students and their well-being beyond school, as well as for YOU.
STOP TO REFLECT
S for STOP
Adult Nervous System IS the Interverntion
A healthy mind-body system can be thought of as having both awareness and hope. Getting to that hope requires action on my part. This is not something we find in pedagogy nor plans nor assessment. My own growth has been helped by daily mindful practices, including meditation.
Pause for a moment to think of someone (teacher, parent, et al.) who had a profound impact for the better. What are two-three words that describe this person? It may be that those descriptors include terms that denote connection, limits, empathy, love and other traits. More than anything I believe that children, as humans (!), learn between the words and academics. They learn through the feeling and presence of the adults in their lives. This is another great hope--and a tremendous responsibility. My nervous system matters in “regular times” or “pandemic times”--the way I show up matters and can be a gift or a detriment to my students and my classes. This takes awareness and provides hope. There is something I can do for myself that will benefit others.
Patricia Jennings' research shows us what we intuitively know and hear: we actually TEACH better when we take care of our own nervous systems. Anyone who has ever taught knows that when one kid is hyper or "off" or whatever, there's a domino effect in the class.
Most of us are self-aware enough to know that that's true of our own regulation as well! These both clearly affect the class. A well-regulated adult nervous system IS the intervention. Simple. Not magic. Not easy. Not instant. It requires work over time. Many people do this through mindfulness or meditation.
Survival of the Nurtured
The psychologist and Pepperdine professor Louis Cozolino studies the social nature and adaptability of the human brain. He has famously said that, “[w]e are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”
Many of us know the misleading claim that Darwin’s ideas can be reduced to “survival of the fittest.” This is contrary to what I know as a teacher. Teaching, learning, and nurturing are not a zero-sum game. Rather, Cozolino reminds us that as we modern humans change and adapt we need social connection. These connections are at the heart of what it is to be a good teacher, parent, person.
A number of good teachers teach about the importance of caregivers taking good care of self first. The notion of “survival of the nurtured” can reframe our work (and self-care!) as something we owe to our students for our benefit and their benefit. The former is an act of caring for children because it gives foundation for the latter. If the “bottom line” or “go-to” is always change/alter/fix, we risk missing a key opportunity for giving our kids what they truly need on a most basic human level.
Paradox is the Name of the Game
We do lots to try to help kids cope and learn about life. Raising resilient kids who think for themselves is a paradox. We know kids have to struggle, and hurt, and fall down, and make mistakes because they are human and this is how humans seem to learn best in the real world. This is how we instinctively know kids need to make mistakes and need us to offer the time and space, within limits, to figure things out for themselves.
The petri dish of 18 really weird months of unexpected conditions gave us a chance to see how we might recast and reconsider what it is we really do daily as teachers. This is a window, an opportunity to look at what I can really offer students as people. Experience has taught me that showing up for my students directly and unguardedly is what I have to offer my students. This is SO hard because we don’t want kids to suffer any more than possible--especially when the world turns upside down. But when I do this I can start to share emotional regulation and offer calm and secure relationships to my kids. This connection and relationships are basic human needs. Just like we preach to our kids, adults need time and practice to develop skills, too. Mindfulness is a tool for basic awareness. Mindfulness can bring greater awareness to my conditions and reactions AND my students’ conditions and reactions.
Control: That's a Funny Dream
It can be painfully clear that we have very little if any control over our students’ lives outside the schoolhouse doors. The weirdness of the past 18 months has put an exclamation point on that for us: thank you very little COVID-19! I think it has also exposed some of the “theatre” of school: all the things we well-intentioned adult-teacher-types are going to “do” to “fix” kids to “learn” them what they need. Now don’t get me wrong, systems, pedagogy, and curricular design are wonderful tools--just maybe not the magic fixes we quietly look for given the desperate conditions some of our kids and families face. Throughout my teaching career, our responses have been driven nearly singularly by notions and ideas of improvement plans, curricular design, and top-down initiatives. These are all fine...but, Maslow before Bloom is a cliche saying for very real and valid reasons.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.