Thank you for making me cry

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My first year teaching was one of the best and worst years of my career. I was hired to teach 7th and 8th grade gifted humanities in a small suburban community just north of Chicago. The teacher that held this role previously, Diane*, had been promoted to Director of Engaged Learning for the district. In her new role, Diane was to work with ALL teachers (veteran and new) on their instruction. Diane was beloved by students, parents, teachers, and admistrators. She was a living legend.

I on the other hand, like most 22 year-olds, thought I already knew everything.  I mean, I had a lot of educational experience. I had just completed 17 years of school as student and was still taking grad school classes.  I knew what to do.  I taught my students the way I was taught. Since the students were high-achievers I simply gave them “harder” and “longer” assignments. I did not tap into Diane’s expertise. I was FINE on my own.

Then, November came and I experienced my first parent/teacher conferences. I spent extra time preparing to meet with the parents of a student who I believed was not putting forth effort and was misplaced. Frankly, I had no idea why Joey* was in the “gifted” class. I remember sitting across from the parents of this 7th grade boy and telling them that their son could benefit from putting forth more effort, completing his homework, and being more respectful to his classmates and me.

I expected the parents to apologize on behalf of their son.  I expected them to feel embarrassed by his performance. But, this is not what happened. Instead, the parents started asking me questions like: “Is it possible that Joey isn’t completing homework because the homework is not useful? Do you think that Joey would be more respectful to you if you were more respectful of his needs?”  As I stumbled over my answers trying desperately to defend my professional actions and authority, the father of this child interrupted me and said:

“You have some big shoes to fill and from the looks of it, you will NEVER be able to fill them.”**

Ouch! What a blow to my ego and a test of my emotions. I bit the inside of my cheeks as to to not break down and cry in front of them. Finally, the conference ended. But, my journey was just beginning…what was I going to do now?

Luckily for me, conferences directly preceded a 5-day Thanksgiving break. During that break, I spent two days crying, two days being angrily defensive, and on the fifth day something changed. I asked myself:

“Could these parents be right?” 

Perhaps the homework I assigned was irrelevant. Come to think of it…I hadn’t ever thought about student learning needs; I was simply focused on covering content. Then it hit me.

Maybe, just maybe, I was the one who needed to change and not the student.

This was a very scary realization. I had absolutely no idea what this change would look like or where to start. I knew I wanted to teach in a way that would best meet the academic and social emotional needs of each of my students, but how in the world would I do this? Plus, what if the other parents didn’t agree with my new approach? What if they were upset that I was no longer going to give homework for the sake of giving homework? What if they were upset that their child was assessed using a different method than one of his classmates?

The following Monday, I arrived at school early. I knew Diane (my predecessor with the big shoes to fill) would be there early as well. I told Diane everything that happened at conferences. I rallied off all of my fears and questions. Diane listened and asked insightful questions in response. Diane acknowledged my concerns and said:

“These are the experiences that mold us as educators. You can choose to try something new or you can continue doing what you are doing and see what happens.”

I chose to try. This was the best decision I ever made. Diane partnered with me to ensure that I was able to meet all of my students’ needs. This was in 2002. This was a time before terms like instructional coaching,  mindset, and differentiation were commonplace. But, that is exactly what this experience exemplified. I had a growth mindset. I set a goal regarding differentiation with an instructional coach. I spent time and put forth the effort to complete successful coaching cycles with Diane as my partner.

Although change occurred rather quickly, I did not complete just one coaching cycle. I completed many over the next several years because learning in this capacity was invaluable for me.  With Diane’s coaching, I set goals around instruction and assessment. I aimed to meet my students’ cognitive needs and ability levels. I was determined to do this by offering appropriately challenging content without sacrificing student interest.

I was also able to see why Diane was so revered in the district. Diane was a visionary who was able to affect change by engaging others in the process.  I never felt that Diane was judging me. I never felt like she was competing with me. All Diane wanted was to see every student benefit from high-quality instruction. I was so fortunate to be able to learn from her.

Last week, my instructional coaching team and I gathered for two jam-packed days of learning facilitated by our coach/Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Becky Fischer. We participated in a storytelling activity, and I told this story. I prefaced my story with an apology for anyone who had heard the story before. When I finished telling my story, Becky, like she always does, asked me a thought-provoking question.

“You mentioned that you have told this story in the past. Why do you keep coming back to this story?”

Becky offered me an opportunity to reflect. I took some silent think time and here is my answer.

I tell this story because it is my “why”.  This story explains “why” I am a proponent of differentiation.  This story describes “why” I wanted to become an instructional coach.  

I learned to differentiate because doing so was emotionally compelling to me. I hadn’t read about it in a book. I didn’t differentiate to comply with the district strategic plan. I had an experience that was so poignant I saw no other option.

I needed to differentiate and reevaluate instruction, homework, and assessment.  I needed to differentiate to avoid future conflict with parents and more importantly, I needed to differentiate because that was what my students deserved. Above all, this story reminds me that we are all capable of change and sometimes the most difficult changes garner the best results.


*not their real names

**Joey’s father apologized to me for his statement at the end of the school year. He also said that my feet were growing.

 

Where I found my “balance”

karate kid quote

Heads up, this post is going to be about “working out”. Six years ago, as a reader that would have been enough information for me to decide to stop reading this post. In fact, prior to 2010 I hadn’t worked out in 5 years (unless you count endless trips to my kitchen to refill my cereal bowl with Lucky Charms) and I really didn’t want to hear about anyone else’s exercise routine. So, I get it. But, bear with me, this post is different.

I had many excuses as to why I didn’t exercise…I was pregnant, I was trying to get pregnant, I was too tired, I was too busy, etc. In reality, the reason I didn’t workout was because no workout resonated with me. That is until March 2010 when I was reluctantly dragged by a friend to a Bar Method class. After one class I was hooked. If you would have asked me then why was I hooked I wouldn’t have known the answer. But, now I know exactly why: The Bar Method has given me balance literally and figuratively. The Bar Method has made me stronger physically and it has made me stronger professionally. 

You may be wondering, “Professionally? The Bar Method has made you a better educator?” 

Yes, that is correct. The Bar Method has made me a better educator. 

The Bar Method has given me first-hand experience as a recipient of effective instruction and assessment. As a student at Bar Method classes, I am certainly concentrating on my form and my goals, but I am never able to completely turn off the Instructional Coach part of my brain. The upside is, I am not thinking about my to-do list while I am in class.  I am constantly noting how the The Bar Method demonstrates the hallmarks of high-quality instruction and assessment.  In fact, I think Jim Knight would say that the Bar Method has got the Big 4 down (for anyone who takes Bar classes…pun intended:)

Simply put, The Bar Method reinforces:

The importance of clear expectations, consistency, and modeling: all classes follows the same pattern. The teacher briefly models each exercise. Then, she continues to instruct while simultaneously assessing and correcting students. The class is structured so that the muscle groups are worked in the same order each class. The variety comes in with the type of exercise participants will be engaging in that day. Students are easily able to adapt to changes because there is flexibility within structure (again, Bar students, pun intended). 

The unwavering need for differentiation: ALL exercises have challenge options as well as options for modification. Notice I said ALL exercises as opposed to students being on a challenge track or modification track for the entire class. Similar to K-12 schools participants are often stronger in one area than another.  They may need a challenge during one exercise and a modification during another. Plus, some participants have special considerations: pregnancy, prior injury, etc.

The positive effect of goal-setting: The instructors are always asking participants to set personal goals. Some studio owners offer incentives for reaching goals. Having tangible, measurable goals makes reaching these goals compelling to students. You will often times seeing participants converse with others about their goals, “how many classes do you aim to take this month?” “Have you been able to do push-ups on your toes yet?” “Can you give me any pointers about how you raise your legs during flat-back?”

The power of immediate, actionable feedback: This is my absolute favorite item on this list. The instructors give each individual participant (sometimes upwards of 20 in a class) applicable feedback throughout class. Students taking their first class receive as much feedback as students taking their 1000th class. Bar Method teachers and studio owners get feedback when they take class. The power lies in the timing of the feedback…in the moment. “Lisa, straighten your arm and step your right leg out more….” That feedback is helpful to me during the exercise. If the teacher told me that after class it would be too late. And, because the teachers give honest feedback, when they give non-attribute praise (rather than, “good job, Lisa” they will say, “excellent form, Lisa, your shoulders are perfectly aligned”) the recognition is that much more credible and meaningful. 

The necessity of being reflective in our practices: I have been taking class for 6 years. Many of my instructors have been instructing this entire time. I have watched them reflect on their teaching practices by implementing changes over the years. Some of these changes are systemic (exercise set-up has changed) or personal (musicality of the instructor has improved). The founder, owners and instructors at The Bar Method model a growth mindset as they are constantly showing their learning even if that means a change in a past practice.

Quantifiable results: The Bar Method works.  I promise.  I am not a before/after picture person, so you’ll have to take my word on this one.:)

This post is not a sales pitch for The Bar Method. Yes, you may like this workout and you should absolutely try it, but this post is about teaching and learning. Regardless of the content, excellent instruction and assessment remain the same. Think about classes you have taken as an adult student (academic or otherwise). What about the classes made them effective? What could have been improved? How can you apply these reflections in your own practice?


Footnote: Why The Karate Kid reference for this post? 

  1. Mr. Myagi is my favorite coach.  I had to have a coaching connection. This is an instructional coaching blog after all.
  2. I like the quote. The best “lessons” do more than cover content, they stick with us for life.
  3. On days I don’t go to The Bar Method, I go for long walks.  The theme song You’re The Best Around is one of my favorites. True confession? I often listen to it on repeat for the duration of my walk. Go ahead and click on this link…see if you can only listen once:)

Do as I say, not as I do. 

In-house professional development (otherwise known as instructional coaching) is gaining popularity in the field of education. There is quite a bit of buzz as to what constitutes quality PD leading to systemic and lasting change.  Last week EdSurge published a thorough and provocative report that identifies the top five requirements for effective PD according to teachers and administrators. This list includes the following: personalized learning, interactive activities, learning that is sustained over time, and respect for participants.

What a great list!

Does reading this list cause you to have the same realization as me? The realization that regardless of age, all learners want to learn in similar ways. The human brain physiologically needs to receive information that is relevant. Additionally, humans crave hands-on experiences, need spaced practice to fully understand new material, and want to be treated with respect.

However, something about this realization is really bugging me. As adult professionals, we treat other adults with respect. We practice confidentiality, act discretely in sensitive situations, and focus on our colleagues’ strengths rather than weaknesses. For many schools this courtesy extends to students.  However, I have visited some schools where this is not the case. Specifically, I am referring to punitive public behavior systems that take on a variety of forms: stoplight charts, red/green cards, and magnetized boards with movable student names indicative of how individual students are behaving at any given point in time.  Thinking about this classroom management practice got me thinking…

What if we used a card change system for adult professional development?

Let’s pretend we are at a PD session.  For ease, I will make myself the presenter.  Mrs. Jones walks in late to my session.  So, I move her to yellow. Mr. Smith and Mr. Anderson continue to be on their phones even after I said, “no phones”. So, they each go to yellow, and then, to the dreaded RED. But, the other 15 participants comply with my rules, so the system is working!  Right?

Wrong.

The card change didn’t affect Mrs. Jones. She left my session early. It turns out she had a family emergency. Mr. Smith wasn’t too concerned about his red card and continued to use his phone.  Turns out he didn’t care because he had nowhere to go but down.  I did feel kind of bad for Mr. Anderson….turns out he was on his phone so he could tweet comments that resonated with him.  That is until I gave him a card change and he was forced to stop sharing.

In this fictional scenario, consider the negative implications for staff morale and school climate. We can probably all agree that nobody would want to work in this environment.

The human brain is only able to receive new information when it feels safe. This ridiculously exaggerated account of a punitive behavior system with adults illustrates how asinine it is to use this type of system with students.  These systems do not make anyone feel safe.

At best, public shaming systems encourage compliance amongst those students who can easily comply. The “good” students.  These systems do not take into account that “bad” students may have difficulty complying.  Perhaps, a student has ADHD and can’t control certain behaviors. Or, maybe a student is savvy and questions something his teacher said in front of others. These behaviors would typically result in a color change. The “bad” students are “punished” and the message is that they are not accepted for who they are. These students need to change to be more like the “good” students.  Interestingly enough, public behavior systems do not benefit the “good” students either.  These systems simply show a level of compliance. Compliance is not an indicator of learning.  Compliance is an indicator of fear.

Moreover, what are we doing to the student versions of Mrs. Jones, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Anderson? Is a constant public display of their inability to stay at green helping them to change? Or, is it giving them a self-fulfilling prophecy that will stick with them throughout their career as a student?

When public shaming systems are used for classroom management, educators are missing out on an opportunity to build authentic, trusting relationships with students. Educators can use the “less than desirable behaviors” to engage in meaningful conversations to help both parties uncover what the other wants and work together to produce a healthy learning environment.

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Looking for a proactive alternative to card change systems? Visit the “Put me in, Coach” archives and read this post on tracking student behavior using PBIS.