The Call of the Wild

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.21.44 PMI was born and blessed, as are each of us, with a natural curiosity. There was a great wildness in it. As a child I’d see a shaft of sunlight illuminating a world of dust and delicate objects floating in air and I’d stop whatever I was doing and begin to explore this tiny universe. It was magical. I was called to learn. Curiosity was my birthright. It was in my DNA. It’s in yours.

My natural curiosity was like a wild animal and it hunted where it needed to in order to satisfy its deep hunger. As a child, I awakened each day with an insatiable appetite to explore, to discover, to learn. In my early years I was a voracious “wolf of learning”.  I believe deep in our DNA there’s a relationship between curiosity, learning and survival. We might call it “the burning relevance of an empty stomach”, because in past millennia our ancestors needed to be voracious learners in order to survive.
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Over the centuries, learning has become institutionalized. Vast school systems and local and national curricula are now the norm. And as these institutions have grown, they’ve pushed aside much of the wildness of our natural curiosity. Looking back I realize that as I worked my way through the educational system I became more tame and more timid. I can see now that in many ways I was being domesticated. I was no longer a “wolf of learning”.

How did this happen? To start with I had virtually no control over my education and whatever natural curiosity I had was replaced by a structured and scripted curriculum. I was rewarded for following directions and doing what I was told and reprimanded if I let my curiosity wander too far from the prescribed lesson. I was chewing on someone else’s agenda and not mine so I simply worked in “compliance mode”, putting forth minimum effort. Fear of retribution and bad grades become my prime motivators, not the excitement of discovery and learning.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 12.26.02 PMThus I became a ward of a system that trained me to expect to learn without going on the hunt. Like a domesticated pet I was offered bland processed learning, laid out in prescribed amounts, at certain times of the day. A pre-set curriculum guide that had little to do with me, my interests, my needs, or my gifts, decided what I was fed, how much, and when. I rarely experienced learning by my own wits, my natural curiosity, or even the magic of serendipity. I was no longer the wolf who’d gorge on learning and fight over the scraps until my belly was full.

I became so domesticated that I would’ve rebelled if asked to use the natural gifts for learning with which I was born. It would have been like releasing a pet house dog into the wilderness…the odds of survival would’ve been small, and within hours I’d have been back in front of the door begging to have my master serve dinner to me in a dish.

Now, rediscovering my own power, wildness, curiosity, and love of learning is my lifetime pursuit.

For the sake of our students,

may each of us find our own ways to foster the wildness and thrill of learning…

…and answer the “call of the wild”.

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Secret Conversations

images-8Our classrooms are full of secrets. We have ours and our students have theirs. In each of our hearts there are dreams, quiet yearnings, silent fears…and always there are whispered doubts. Great teachers cultivate hearts warm and strong enough to hear these secret conversations, both our students and our own.

Eduardo is pulled out of class by his teacher, Rebecca, because he’s disrupting the class. In the hallway he breaks down crying and says through his tears, “I hate people making fun of me! People are always making fun of me. They say I’m fat, and maybe I am but that doesn’t give them the right to tease me all the time!”

Rebecca hadn’t noticed the teasing and felt awful. Eduardo had hidden his suffering well, for he always seemed confident and fun loving. The fact that he trusted Rebecca enough to let her know what was really going on and how much pain he was in was startling to her.

If it weren’t for Eduardo’s breakdown in the hallway Rebecca might have gone on disciplining him without ever understanding what was underlying his behavior. Because Eduardo trusted her enough to confide in her, Rebecca discovered that he was sensitive about his weight and had become the target of bullies. No matter how brave a face he put on, school had become unbearable for him. Armed with this new information she was able to take steps to curtail the bullying and make her classroom a more safe environment for all her students.

When you take the time to actually listen, with humility to what people have to say, it’s amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children.” – Greg Mortensen

If we ignore the unspoken conversations that are taking place in our classrooms they will fester and stand as impediments to trust, relationships, and learning. As we work to build trust, and our relationship with the class grows, we’ll find more opportunities to bring these unspoken issues to the surface, for we know that they won’t go away on their own.

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Students yearn to be heard and understood, even those that are too shy or disengaged to speak. Listening to what is being communicated by their words, their tone, even their silence, is an important element of understanding the “person”.

The most basic of all human needs is to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.  – Nichols and Stevens

Pete

Summer Renewal: The Exit Interview

The school year is winding down. Many of us are saying good-bye to our students, to our colleagues, and to another year in the classroom. For some, the year was long and difficult, for others it may have gone by in a blur. No matter what kind of experience we had during the year this is a perfect time for a reflective practice. Why not take a few minutes before you leave for the summer and do a personal exit interview

Here are some sample questions you might like to ask yourself:
On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the highest how would you rate your own performance for the year?

Purpose and Calling
Do you feel successful and proud, or just happy to have the year over?
Describe 3-5 of your most happy moments during the year.
What was it that made them stand out for you?
Did what you accomplished this year match your expectations?

Stress and Overwhelm
Describe 3-5 of the biggest challenges that you faced this year.
Describe how you responded to each of these challenges.
What kind of stress, if any, did these challenges create?
How did this stress manifest itself- professionally and/or personally?
Is the stress still with you?
Is there a more effective way to handle the stress and anxiety of these kinds of challenges?

Strengths and Gifts
Looking back on the school year, what would you say were your greatest personal characteristics and strengths?
If you were going to build on one these strengths for the next school year which would it be?
What practices can you create to help strengthen this area?

Areas for Growth
What were some of the personal characteristics/behaviors you think were holding you back from even greater levels of classroom effectiveness?
What practices can you create to help you address these characteristics?

Student Feedback
Think about your students for a moment.
Did they have anything to teach you this year?
If you think of them as a mirror, what did they reflect back to you about yourself and your teaching?
Was there a student that you particularly liked? What was it that drew you to them?
Was there a student that you particularly disliked? What was it about them that you disliked?
Is there anything about yourself that your feelings about these students reveal?
How would your students rate your performance on a scale of 1-10?
What would they list as your greatest personal strengths?
What would they say was the area in which you need to improve?

There’s no better time for professional (and personal) reflection then the waning days of a school year and no better place to do it than an empty classroom. The purpose of this reflection is not to beat yourself up. It’s not meant to be “I should have done this.” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” guilt trip. It’s simply meant to allow us to step back and look at the year and our performance with some perspective (a perspective that’s hard to maintain during the year). I suggest you write you answers in a journal. Come back to them over the summer and before the start of the new school year.

A few suggestions:
Look out for burnout. At some point we can let our purpose and calling drift into a job. It takes work to keep reminding ourselves of the special work we do with children.
Be on the look out for the effects of stress on our thinking, our health, and our family life.
Be specific about our strengths and weaknesses. We all have them. We can build on our strengths, we can learn to address our weaknesses.
Students offer us a wealth of information on our classroom effectiveness if we’re courageous enough to look at the cues and clues they provide.

The questions I’ve presented are just suggestions. Your heart knows what questions are right for you. If you’re quiet and allow your inner teacher to come forward, it’ll guide you in the right direction.

Good luck and have a great summer!

Pete

Relationships, Relevance, and Rigor: The Keys to Classroom Effectiveness

I agree with Willard Dagget, founder and President of the International Center for Leadership in Education, that the keys to classroom effectiveness are the three R’s…Relationship, Relevance, and Rigor.

Daggett’s point about relationships is that learning is personal. When teachers have strong, trusting relationships with their students, they work harder and achieve more. We may have lot’s of ideas about what we’d like to do and teach in our classrooms; but without trusting relationships, we’ll find ourselves charging up San Juan Hill…alone!

It’s not unusual for us (teachers) to get excited about what we teach. For many of us, sharing our passion is why we entered teaching in the first place. The challenge comes when we’re so enthusiastic, we plunge right into teaching without building strong foundational relationships with our students.

There are lot’s of ways to build trusting relationships with our students (we won’t go into those today), but the most effective teachers go about creating it consciously and deliberately. It takes a little time, usually early in the year, but once trust is established and relationships are strong, teaching and learning are much less stressful. After all, students work harder for teachers they trust and respect. Teaching is more difficult when kids hold back because they don’t trust the environment enough to participate, or because they feel disconnected…their needs pushed to the back burner.

After we establish Relationships (trust) we can move to Relevance. The more students understand how what they’re learning is relevant to them, to their community, or to the world at large; the more motivated they’ll be to learn.

As teachers it’s important to create narratives that address Relevance. The most powerful narratives address Relevance in two ways: 1) How is this new learning or way of doing things going to benefit YOU, as an individual? and 2) How is this new learning or way of doing things going to benefit the world outside yourself?

Teachers who can create narratives that express the ways learning will take care of the students’ personal concerns, and at the same time explain how learning will be making the classroom, school, or world a better place; have set the scene for great things to happen

Relationships and relevance make rigor possible.

pete

Getting Out of the Way and Blending

The experienced practitioner of Aikido learns to blend with his attacker. Physically, it involves getting out of the way, then ‘blending’ or ‘shadowing’ (looking in the same direction as your attacker for a moment), while feeling the energy, power, and momentum that they’re bringing to the situation.

Blending allows us to move without direct conflict. We don’t overreact and add ‘fuel to the fire’, but use only the energy and power required for the situation, and nothing more. No one gets hurt. Once again, when we’re in the classroom, ‘blending’ isn’t a physical move, but a psychological one.

Several years ago, I watched in awe as a veteran principal blended with a disgruntled teacher who had been challenging some of the ideas being discussed during his school’s staff development program. The teacher was clearly frustrated, and eventually blurted out angrily,

“I’d like permission to leave. This program is stupid and it’s not relevant. I’d rather go back to my classroom and do some lesson planning.”

The presenter reacted as if he’d been punched in the stomach, and the entire staff looked stunned. The principal, who was sitting in the back of the room, broke the ensuing silence and spoke in a measured and sincere manner,

“We’re not asking for you to adopt every idea that’s being presented in the program. But why not give it till the lunch break and see if there might be a few things that you can use to help you?”

The teacher protested, “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

The principal continued to blend, “You’ve already brought a lot to the program by challenging some of the ideas (the presenter) has brought forth. I think you surfaced a few thoughts that some in the group may have been thinking about, but weren’t willing to verbalize. We need people like you, with different points of view, to be active and vocal so that the learning here is real. The worst thing that could happen is we leave this session and have the real discussion and questions relegated to complaints in the teachers’ room.”

The principal sat quietly looking at the angry teacher, who was surprised by the principal’s openness. His face began to soften and the moment opened in possibility.

The teacher nodded his head, “If you think it will help, I’ll give it a try.”

The veteran principal smiled warmly, “It will. Thanks.”

I’d never seen a ‘blend’ done so well anywhere outside of an Aikido dojo.

The principal was clearly a master teacher.

pete

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Soft Skills and Personal Development Are Key to Teaching Mastery

It should come as no surprise that great teaching has many components, and while schools are good at focusing their professional development efforts on the trainable aspects of teaching…knowledge and skills; the opportunities for us to focus on the more complex aspects of teaching…attitude, self-awareness, authenticity, and trust, are almost non-existent. These, and other personal attributes, are often referred to as ‘soft skills,’ inferring their lack of importance. However, extensive research (as well as our own experience) indicates that it’s our personality and presence that makes the greatest impact on learning in our classrooms. In essence, soft skills are ‘essential skills’, and our development as teachers challenges us to consider personal development as an important component of professional development; part of the path to professional mastery.

It’s who you are, your personality, your soft (essential) skills, that are the keys to teaching mastery; and it’s by bringing your best self to the classroom that you’ll experience the most success. Why? Because, by taking care of your own mind, body, and heart (your inner ‘self’), you’re also taking care of your students. After all, as Parker Palmer says,

“You teach who you are.”

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.

gratitude,

pete

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A New Focus

As you can see by the new header for the site, I’ll be changing the focus of the Ed Tech Journeys blog, from leadership and technology, to the teacher’s path.

At no time in my life has teaching been under such pressure. To me, teaching is more than a job, it’s been a calling. Education has always been about teaching the whole child, heart and mind. The great teachers and coaches I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life have always made me feel special, connected, and loved. They encouraged me, and nurtured me; as they’ve done with all their students.

But times have changed and we’re in the midst of downsizing the educational workforce, while adding the demands of high stakes testing, the Common Core Curriculum, new professional evaluation processes, more mainstreamed students, more paperwork, more angry parents, and more professional development with initiatives from anti-bullying to new technology. Stress levels are at an all-time high. Even the best teachers in the best schools are feeling the weight of an educational environment that is permeated by a culture of scarcity, a fear-based system of accountability, union demonizing, and teacher bashing. Add a growing number of students with emotional, language, and behavioral challenges and it isn’t hard to see why nearly 50 percent of teachers leave the field within their first five years.

We can do better. We can maintain teaching as a path with heart without abandoning academic standards. In fact, the research shows that it’s a teacher’s personal attributes, ’soft’ skills, and presence; not their IQ, that makes the greatest positive impact on student achievement. So, by focusing less time on the external elements of teaching, and more time on the inner life and well being of the teacher, we can create classrooms that produce academic success AND nurture our students’ personal growth and special gifts.

This blog will be the first of several endeavors I will launch to support teachers as they walk the path to mastery. If you’re one of those on the front lines feeling the pressure, hang in there. What you do matters! It’s important…and so are you!

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