January 30, 2009

The Spark?

When I reflect on the events that sparked my teaching career and the success that I have experienced in both teaching and in life, I can point back to one person, David Schlitt. David was my middle school drama teacher. Not only did David cast me in a play when I was a seventh grader, opening up a whole new world that encouraged me to discover who I was, but David also mentored me as a baby teacher, opening the door for my first job by shifting teaching assignments. The following two paragraphs are lifted from a 2006 blog post.

David, my middle school drama teacher, had a unique and very positive relationship with his students. In David’s class it was Ok to be yourself without being judged, a rare experience in middle school. In fact, you could be silly and make people laugh at what you were doing, not at who you were. David was the first teacher I had ever met who did not condescend to his students, but met them were they were emotionally, and could spar with them mentally and at their level. It was a unique and valuable experience. I gained confidence in who I was and began to trust my skills, my abilities, and myself however unrefined.

Our teacher/student relationship developed into a friendship after I went on to high school and college. When it became time for me to student teach, I knew exactly for whom I wanted to apprentice. I knew that David would allow me to not only “get my feet wet,” but also actually teach solo in his classroom. And he did. In fact, after my student teaching time was complete, David decided that he was ready for a change, and the principal offered me his assignment, which I gladly accepted. I knew that David believed in me from the time that I was 12 years old. I knew it because of the way he treated me with respect, and supported my decisions. David was a great teacher.

After a decade long pause in our conversation, David and I recently spoke on the phone. He is now teaching in his 38th year, and planning on 2 to 6 more in the classroom. David still teaches and inspires 7th graders to reach beyond their comfort zones and grow into who they will someday become. His students are lucky beyond their understanding.

It is important that ALL teachers strive to open up doors for their students and seek to draw out the strengths of each individual pupil. Clearly David recognized something in me way back when and if it were not for his guidance, and taking the time to work with me personally, I would not be the person that I am today. I can only hope to return the favor to a young person in one of my classes who is struggling to find their way. Thank you David for drawing me out, igniting the fire within, and for your friendship.

January 26, 2009

Confident Teaching?

Teachers must teach with confidence. We must not only be sure of our subject matter, but expert in relationships, management, and organization (at least in our classrooms). When we speak to our students we must do so authoritatively, while at the same time, maintaining a level of approachability that allows our pupils to view us as both wise and accessible. In addition, we must be consistent in our message not only adhering to our own classroom rules, but more importantly, embodying that which we teach. A confident teacher builds confident students who are prepared to go out into the world.

There are many excellent examples of confident teachers throughout history and I want to use an example from my favorite one.

From Mark 1:21-27 (The Message)

Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.

Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, "What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you're up to! You're the Holy One of God, and you've come to destroy us!"

Jesus shut him up: "Quiet! Get out of him!" The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out.

Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. "What's going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!" News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.

Jesus had the benefit of being holy, we can only aspire to such a position. Jesus was a confident teacher because he knew what he taught to be true and presented it to his followers as truth. Jesus did not stumble around with his lecture notes, misspell words written in the dirt, or pause to check his facts. He knew what his message was and he delivered it plainly and clearly. And check out that classroom management! How cool would it be if one of us could tell Johnny Obnoxious to sit down in his seat and be quiet and he actually did it the first time without protest? The whole school would be buzzing over that, no after school detention required.

Jesus lived what he taught. His message was of salvation and he acted appropriately. Our message, whether it be in English, math, history, science, or the electives, is that our subject matter warrants our students attention and that what we teach them they will actually use in their lifetimes. Of course, that means that we need to actually use what we teach in our daily lives. If we are teaching writing, we need to write; if language, we need to speak the language daily. We must teach our students confidently so that they will be confident of what they learn.

January 22, 2009

No Apologies!

At the risk of over-reacting I have to share my irritation with Kaplan’s advertising and what it claims about educators and education. The second half of this video is right on the money, education needs to change, and it will. I will write later about my vision for more student-focused learning and how I think public education can and will step up to the task. I won’t fault the marketing department at Kaplan for their shot at the current state of education, it’s broken. However, I will not, nor should any teacher, ever apologize to any student for “failing” them.

Teaching is one of if not the hardest jobs one can choose. I don’t know a single teacher who does not pour their hearts and souls into their work. Sure, some are more effective, and some others are more dynamic, but no one who stays in teaching past the first few years is there for the “great pay,” or, “summers off.” Working with students to develop their skills and abilities takes immense patience, careful and accurate lesson planning, a compassionate and caring heart, an above all, a willingness to reach down and help up those in need regardless of circumstances.

Do teachers fail their students from time to time? Of course. But the proposition that today’s educators have “failed” to educate this generation is simply offensive to me. I suppose that it is easier to blame educators for the problems today’s young people are having in the world. After all, today’s students spend on-average 6 to 7 of their 24 hours at school mostly participating in instruction. The balance of time, upwards to 8 or 9 hours daily are spent, with friends, at home, completing homework, or with family. Unfortunately, school is falling lower and lower on their priority lists.

Perhaps this advertisement for a commercial educational institution is aimed more squarely at the colleges and universities, and not so focused on K-12 public education. Perhaps I am too sensitive. If you read my posts here then you know my heart. I just hate it when educators are blamed for the failings of their students. Ideally every child taught by every teacher would excel in every subject ever taught. But this is not what happens. Thankfully, the American public education systems has been part of the backbone of the success of our country and will continue to grow and thrive.

I’m sure that I have now ruined my opportunity to ever become a Kaplan instructor. Well, that’s ok. I will continue to implement my own educational reforms from within my own classroom with my own students every day that I stand in front of them and teach. And to be clear, I will never, ever, apologize for not bringing my best to the classroom and not teaching every student I am assigned to the best of my ability. I will draw out their talents, and educate each individual to confidently venture out into the world and be wildly successful.

January 14, 2009

Hope for the Future?

I enjoyed a conversation with a baby teacher recently that encouraged me is these uncertain times. She came to me with a video tape of one of her lessons that she needed copied to DVD. No problem. As she waited, and my students worked, we spoke of many things both educational and inspirational. Her ambition is to teach early elementary, perhaps even kindergarten (God bless her). She is focused on a suburban school in a needy area where she has already spent a few years subbing, and is currently student teaching. She spoke with passion and care for her students.

I asked about the mood among teachers looking for contracts in the current environment. Early the same morning I shared with some colleagues about the 4.2 billion, the impending budget cuts, furloughs, pay cuts, or perhaps even layoffs. Our district is encouraging (read pushing hard) for those both administrative, classified, and certificated who are even remotely close to thinking about retiring (anyone over 60) to heartily grasp a "golden handshake." The baby teacher shared her concern and explained that over half of her fellow teacher candidates in her cohort of the credential program had already left the university. Very sad.

The young teacher shared with me her passion for the school where she is currently a student teacher. She admires and appreciates the students, feels supported by the staff, and the principal has already hired her for a handful of long-term substitute assignments. It seems to me that, budget allowing, she is well aligned to be hired there when the opportunity arises. I remembered when I was offered my first teaching job at the campus where I still work. I felt like it was an honor and privilege just to be invited to take a seat at the table.

We spoke about the challenges of substitute teaching and value of her teaching credential program (she is participating in the same program at the same university that I attended way back when). Having learned all about classroom management through subbing, she is now focused on how best to deliver curriculum, how to juggle the standards, and how to develop appropriate relationships with the students. She shared her recent joy when a student that she was teaching experienced an “ah-ha” moment. We agreed that teaching is not only the most fun profession to choose, but also one of the most important.

Her boyfriend is also a teacher and has recently found employment in the district. The two plan on being a teacher couple, eventually getting married, and having a large family. It is so refreshing to hear about the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the young adults who dedicate themselves to the education of our children. Although we face turbulent times, I am confident that the teachers with an appropriate focus and attitude will endure the cuts in resources and continue to serve the students well. Our numbers may dwindle, but the internal fire that ignites teachers will never burn out.