Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The heroism of everyday teachers

Teachers - those who work with students every day, who develop relationships, who care deeply for their students - take the long view. The long view is not necessarily dramatic or adrenaline-filled or prone to immediate results.

But it is effective.

Atul Gawande in The New Yorker discusses the power of incremental medical care and the tendency in society to avoid addressing problems:

until they are well upon us and unavoidable, and we don’t trust solutions that promise benefits only down the road.

Teachers are the masters of incremental care. Teachers recognize that students did not fall into their situations overnight and that students will not be rescued from low performance or low achievement overnight. It is through constant care and support, establishing a positive relationship, finding ways to connect and encourage that change will come.

Teachers recognize that it takes time to make a difference.

Paul Tough, in his book Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, identifies the crucial impact this long view makes. Tough states:

When kids feel a sense of belonging at school, when they receive the right kind of messages from an adult who believes they can succeed and who is attending to them with some degree of compassion and respect, they are then more likely to show up to class, to persevere longer at difficult tasks, and to deal more resiliently with the countless small-scale setbacks and frustrations that make up the typical student's school day.

The long view. Building relationships, paying attention to each child, finding ways to connect. It is not dramatic, it is not the overnight transformation; but it is effective.

I understand the need for schools to demonstrate that they are making an impact. I understand the need for schools to improve a student's life. I understand that we need to hold schools accountable for making progress.

But it is through building relationships with students that teachers know and understand how to make an impact. Assuming that change will come quickly misses the point of teaching. Teaching is a series of incremental acts that work together to have a tremendously powerful influence.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Read books: It's important

How important is it that we take the time to read books?

It's a good question. In the times that we find ourselves, we often find excuses not to read books. We tell ourselves that there is just too much information out there for us to take the time needed to read a book. We have Twitter and Facebook. We watch TV. We scan headlines on our phones. We are sent links to articles from across the internet.

It is probably true that we have easy access to more information than probably at any time in history.

In a world like this then where does reading a book fit in?

Recently, President Obama, in an interview, eloquently stated that books helped him through his:

sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.  

Books, President Obama, said have been a sustaining source of:

ideas and inspiration, and gave him a renewed appreciation for the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition.

It is easy to get so busy that I believe, incorrectly, that I do not have time to read. From early starts to late meetings, a day can slip by rather quickly. Days become weeks and weeks become months and then, before I intended, I have failed to make time to read.

I have become more intentional about reading books. I snatch minutes before I go to sleep. I read while I wait.

I read because it is important.

Reading books gives me perspective and ideas. Reading books connects me to people who may be different than I am. Reading books helps me slow down and think.

Here are books that I have read recently. These titles are good for students in grades 4-7. Each was good in its own way. I'd start with "Wish."

For those wanting to think about our work with students, try these. I read each of these last fall. I'd start with "Teach Your Children Well."

Read. Read books. Read whenever you get a chance.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

When the right answer feels and looks like the wrong one

It was 4:30 AM. I was on the phone with Superintendents from around the county talking about our favorite winter subject - snow. At 4:30 AM the snow had just started. The weatherman on the call with us indicated that we would receive only 3 - 4 inches. Later in the morning the snow would turn to rain with a high temperature of in the upper 30's.

So we all agreed - no snow day.

I hung up the phone, got ready for work, and started in.

My commute lasted twice as long as normal. It was slow, slow, slow! The slower my commute became the more I worried that perhaps I had not made the right call.

My Novi students didn't think I made the right call. Novi students took to Twitter and let me have it:

Clearly getting to school was difficult this morning. Teachers were late. Buses were late. Students were late.

It was messy.

But was having school today the wrong call?

It depends.

When the call had to be made it was the right call. There was little snow on the ground at 4:30 AM. You can't plow snow if there is no snow to plow. The call has to be made early so that staff and parents can be notified.

But 3 - 4 inches of snow coming when staff and students and parents and buses were competing with people commuting to work made teachers late to school, made buses run up to 30 minutes late, and made high school student drivers nervous and frustrated.

I have learned that there is no perfect answer on a snowy day in Michigan. I try to err on the side of student and staff safety. But there does come a time when I have to decide whether it is safe or not. Today I decided that it was safe. I know that there are people who would argue that I was a fool. 

Today I made what I thought was the right call. Even though it took a long time and even though people were upset and even though it tested our nerves and our patience, in the end, I think this was the right decision.

But, to be truthful, at times, it felt like the wrong call.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In 2017, kids . . . not tests

As the new year begins, those of us who work with students, who teach students, who see students every day need to remember that those students are the most important part of our lives.

It is tempting for us to focus on things that, while very public, are, in the long run, not that important. State assessments, top-to-bottom rankings, online school reviews. We want those rankings, those scores, those public pronouncements to show us in the best light possible.

But what we need to focus on is our students. Each and every day.

Don't misunderstand me. I realize that our responsibility is to ensure that students learn. We need to make sure that students can read, write, do math, solve problems. We need to make sure that our students can be critical thinkers and problem solvers.

But . . . students come first. I will learn names. I will say hello. I will listen to them. I will treat them with respect. I will make sure that they know that someone cares.

I will commit my work this new year to my students. I hope that you do as well.