Thursday, April 24, 2014

Flower now: Lessons learned from nature

I recently visited Seattle.

On April 5th I was able to walk - in shorts no less (if you live in Michigan as I do you know what a pleasure it was for me to be able to walk in shorts) - and I stumbled up on this:

It had been so long since I had seen a radiant red flowering plant that I stopped to take a picture.

Yesterday - April 23rd, at my home in Michigan, I took this picture in our driveway:

If you look closely you might see a hint that this tree is getting ready to grow some leaves. Eighteen days after I took the picture of the beautiful red flowering plant in Seattle, the magnolia tree in my own yard has barely begun to think about spring.

Most of us understand. Plants flower and grow at different times. Seattle's weather, its latitude and longitude, its proximity to Puget Sound - all of that and more create conditions that encourage growth significantly before plants in Michigan are ready to grow.

While we understand that in plants and are willing to accept that in plants, it is much harder for some to grant the same degree of understanding to people. More to the point, it is hard for some to understand that just as plants grow at different speeds and at different times, so do our students.

As I looked - really looked - at the magnolia tree (I think it's a magnolia tree) I thought about the students in our classrooms.

I visit classrooms every week. Just this week I was in a first grade classroom and I saw a young man who was having trouble focusing in class. He was the same age as everyone else. He looked the same as everyone else. But he was not ready to flower just yet.

The "weather and conditions" in his life have not prepared him to grow at the same rate and the same time as the other students in his class.

Don't interpret what I am saying as suggesting that we should just give up on this student. That is not what I am implying.

The point I am trying to make is that our students, much like the plants in our world, will grow and flower when the conditions are right.

Our responsibililty is to create great conditions for growth for every child in our classroom. Our responsibility is to take every child where they are and move them forward. Our responsibility is to honor the life of every child every day.

But we also need to understand that just because we say "grow," just because we demand growth, the conditions in a child's life may not have prepared that child to grow right at that moment.

If that is the case we need to continue preparing that child to grow when the conditions turn more favorable. We cannot give up on a child. But we also cannot force growth.

I believe that our responsiblity is to help every child grow and mature. I believe that every year a child can make progress.

But I also believe that some children will grow more quickly. The conditions in the lives of our children are different. Some children have an environment that encourages growth. Some children do not.

Our responsibility is to focus on every child. Our responsibility is to care and nurture each child. Our responsibility is to make sure that we don't turn our backs and give up on a child.

Our passion and skill as teachers can create favorable conditions for growth. We can and do help children blossom - at times much before a person would think that a child would be ready to grow.

But we also need to remember that at times our job may be to prepare the soil and get the student ready for growth that we may not see.

It will happen if we tend to the garden. Just like it will happen for our magnolia tree in Michigan. Eventually, it will bloom - just like this!


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Monitoring your every move

UPS has begun monitoring a driver's every move. It is done, the company says, to increase productivity.

UPS monitors when the truck doors open and close, when the seat belt is fasten or unfastened, when the truck is started.

Data, some say, is king!

More data has led to increased productivity. Increased productivity saves money and increases profits.

And, not surprisingly, the company has the reserach to back it up. Deliveries per driver have increased. Pay has gone up as well.

There is a downside. Drivers complain of "big brother."

But, I am sure, drivers' enjoy their larger paychecks.

Can schools adopt and adapt the same process to educating students?

Can schools measure their productivity?

Schools can, and probably have, began to measure how long it takes to learn the alphabet, how to read, know math facts, learn economic principles. Schools can measure how long lunch lines are, if bus stops are too far apart, and how often the lights are left on in a classroom that is empty. The list of targets to measure in schools is endless.

Clearly it is not a question of can schools measure productivity. Perhaps the question is should schools measure productivity?

Some things in schools clearly should be measured. Bus stops wait times, how much electricity is wasted.

But can and should we apply productivity principles to classrooms?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why teaching is difficult

Bryce Harper was (is) a can't miss prospect.

At 16 he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Bryce Harper, Baseball, Las Vegas Wildcats

He left high school early so he could get to college to accelerate being drafted.

He was the number one draft pick in Major League Baseball's 2010 amateur draft.

He signed a multi-million dollar contract. Less than two years later he was a regular in the outfield for the Washington Nationals.

He was the youngest position player ever selected for the MLB All-star game.

Yet at the beginning of the 2014 regular season, just days ago, he said, "I'm pretty lost right now."

Bryce Harper has all the tools. He trains relentlessly. His whole life it seems has been devoted to becoming a great baseball player.

He just spent six weeks in spring training getting ready for the season. And yet, he feels lost!

Imagine, if you will, if Bryce Harper had to worry about 23 kindergarten students or 27 8th graders or 25 high school seniors?

Bryce Harper has to worry about himself. His success is connected to the other players on the field but ultimately he is judged by how well he does. He can be an All-star even if his team is not successful.

But teachers. Sure they have to worry about what they do.

Are my lessons plans good? Am I using the right strategies? Do I know my content? Do I know the answers to these questions? Can I connect the lesson to real life? How much time should this lesson take?

Teachers also have to worry about their students.

How is Joe feeling today? I know Robert gets lost some times so how can I make sure he keeps up? Jan's dog died yesterday - how will that impact her mood today? Tim had a tough time on the bus - how can I get him refocused on school? Bob knows this really well but Tracey struggles - how can I keep them both interested and moving ahead?

In addition, teachers have to worry about school.

When is the fire drill? What happens if an intruder gets in the building? When can I call Steve's parents? There is an assembly today - how can I modify my lesson?

I know baseball is a difficult and demanding game. But teaching - now that's a challenging career!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why teach?

It's a simple question:

Why teach?

Every aspiring teacher is asked that question in one form or another.

I asked it today. I was part of our school district team at a teacher job fair. Every interview started with a variation of the question: Why were you drawn to education? Why did you want to become a teacher? Why did you choose to be a teacher?

In short, why teach?

The answers were mostly the same.

"I always wanted to be a teacher."

"I enjoy working with kids."

"I was successful coaching and it seems that is a lot like teaching."

"I'm good at math."

"I like kids."

The question is, most of the time, intended as a set-up question. An ice breaker if you will. And the answers were all appropriate. But none completely satisfactory.

Why teach?

Because it is important. Because it can make a difference. Because it opens up doors. Because it teaches people how to think and solve problems and grow.

Because it helps people discover who they are. Because it gives kids confidence. Because teachers  prepare students for their life.

Because it changes lives. Because teachers get to see five and eight and thirteen and eighteen year-olds struggle and work and think and change and grow.

Because teaching matters!

When I ask someone the question - why teach? - I want to hear an answer that convinces me that she understands the power of education to transform a life.

Why teach? is not an ice breaker or a set-up question. It is the question. And I want my district to hire people who understand the importance of that little question.