“What was the defining moment you decided to be a teacher?” #Youredustory

“What do I want to do?” I didn’t start off wanting to be a teacher. While I had teachers who inspired, invested, and impacted my life, it didn’t occur to me, especially while I was in school, that I would want to emulate their vocation. I wanted to be doing things – not teaching others how to do things. Yes, honestly, in my early years, that’s how I looked at it.

My list of dream job choices included running a theatre company, delivering the evening news, or writing a best selling novel. However, after I graduated from college, I found myself going in a different direction and re-asking “what do I want to do?” I went back to school to earn my teaching license, but it still felt like a back-up plan. My career path continued with twists and turns and while I did work with kids I didn’t teach in a classroom right away.

In fact, it was not until I had my own kids that I had the “defining moment.” I was standing in the parking lot at my kid’s school talking to the principal and feeling frustrated. The reasons for the frustration don’t matter as much as the epiphany that I had when I realized — I could do this teaching thing and I would be really good at it. I’m still not sure that it was the “right” inspiration, but it was the inspiration that I needed to make it happen. Reflecting on that, it’s easier to understand now who I am as a teacher.

I love the challenge. Bring on the kids that are hard to teach. No excuses – no blaming – let’s figure this thing out and get these kids reading, thinking, and passionate about learning. I never feel like I am staying behind teaching the stuff that other do. Instead I know that I’m doing really important stuff– stuff that’s not all that easy to do– stuff that really makes a difference. It’s not glamorous – honestly, hanging out with middle school kids is the opposite of glamorous, but it is, as it turns out, that answer to “what I want to do?”

My not-so-easy-to-write answer to, “WHY do I do it?” #Youredustory

“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it” – Simon Sinek

Why do I do what I do?

First, what do I do…?

I am a teacher, and mother, and writer and it’s a long list, but within that there must be a something that defines me a bit.

What is it that those who cheer me and those that are frustrated with me would both say?

Perhaps it is that  – I challenge… good or bad – I’ll admit and own it – I challenge…

In my defense, I challenge myself as well. I’m willing to just try something. I experiment. I get in over my head and have to find my way out. I take on too much and I am always on a journey – never feeling like I’ve arrived.

Normally, it’s for want of company or at least understanding that I put out the challenge. “Have you read…?” “What if we looked at it another way…” “I used to think that too, but now I think…”

The words are out before I have time to swallow them back.

Why do I do that?

Wouldn’t it be easier to go along with the crowd? Deflect the blame… make excused… talk about what’s wrong with kids these days…

“Ouch”

I’ve been thinking about it and I can point to a DuFour conference and a Wormeli book, or two, that gave me a push. That graduate program in Instructional Leadership didn’t help. Let’s not even talk about the light bulb moment that comes with my son’s dyslexia…

The “why” does come from all of the above experiences, but if we are going to be totally honest it comes from being that kids in the classroom that never – ever – ever — passed a spelling test. I read every book I could get my hands on, I wrote essays for the fun of it, I was a hungry learner, but I had a glitch that I didn’t understand.

A gap?

A learning style?

A reason for people to laugh.

It was something that didn’t make bubble test easy. It stood in the way of being able to retrieve multiplication facts on a timed test. Most embarrassing – It made me a very frustrated student in a one and done, 20 words a week – we are moving on and you failed school system.

I hated that,

and now, I recognize the precarious a situation I was in. In some ways I hated school, I didn’t trust right away, and I could recognize a “got cha” grader from a mile away.

I didn’t know about learning styles or brain development back then. All I knew what that I was really smart, but not every teacher was interested in finding that out. If I challenged them as a student – they were likely to respond negatively. I can only imagine how kids who provide much more significant challenges feel every time they walk into a classroom. I am not willing to make them feel the way I did just because I am now in the position to do so.

I challenge. I do. I need to learn to be gentle. To respond from empathy. To honor people were they are. Yes, I’ll own that too. I’m working on it.

But if it helps to know why, if it inspires buy in, if it explains who I am… than I’ll go back to that raw feeling of failure and frustration that came every Friday afternoon when the teacher said, “take out a piece of loose leaf paper and number it from one to twenty.”

I don’t want to be the teacher that puts a sense of “no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I will never be successful at this” in the minds of my students.

“Ouch.” I know.

I feel like I can be someone different. Someone who inspires and supports. Someone who keeps hope alive and reminds that “we are just not there yet” – we teachers, we students, we community of learners…”

It’s my belief that we will to get there.

Together.

That answers… why I do it?

Define Learning in 100 Words…

Learning is the process of change or growth that comes from life experiences. Intelligence is malleable – what we focus on we will learn. The life long learning that shows up in mission statements is about creating and maintaining a positive attitude to learning. It’s a passion for learning that comes from deep within. Learning because the learner wants to: it is a deliberate and voluntary act. It’s a cycle of motivation, examination, reflection, and growth that continues beyond the classroom door. As a teacher, I create a culture that nurtures a learning mindset – acknowledging that I too am a learner.

One Word That Inspires Me in My Classroom – “Grace”

When I teach I strive to do it with grace. No, I’m certainly not a ballerina floating about the classroom. When I think of grace I think of a deeper meaning – one that goes with words like favor, good will, mercy, and honor.

Do I have a favorite student? Honestly, I believe that if I’ve done things right they all think they’re a favorite. My goal is to be a safe spot for the kids – a place where they can check in and feel connected. Middle school kids move all day and crave a place where they are unconditionally welcome. I truly believe that if I can make that connection, then I have a chance at growing a passionate learner – which is even more important than any curriculum or content.

Competition in the classroom that makes learning fun and supports healthy motivation is one thing – but I draw the line when it starts looking like sorting students. Good will for me means that I am going to do my best to ensure that all my students learn at high levels, and I will hold myself accountable to that. When the kids know that’s the goal, then the collaboration and support grows as well. We become a community of learners.

Mercy. My own kids are the same age as my students and I can attest that they really don’t have a ton of control over their own lives. Things go wrong– they run out of time – organizational skills fall apart – there is a game or extra practice that they didn’t expect– or even worse I ask them to babysit or insist they actually practice that instrument—there are rarely enough hours in the day. Mercy, for me is recognizing when a student is not there yet – and the reason for the “yet” may or may not sound valid to my ears – it doesn’t really matter. I’m trying to get over the need to judge or snap back with a “got-cha” and instead help them to make a new plan.

Kids learn differently. They occasionally sweat the small stuff and overlook the big stuff. Each comes to my classroom with their own story to tell, their own baggage, their own disappointments, and their own dreams. When I honor them as individuals and their work as precious pieces of learning evidence the tone of my day changes. There is an investment that we are willing to make in each other and the work we will do together. I feel and act more like a coach than a boss and I’m more willing to celebrate their individuality even if it does make record keeping and lesson planning a greater challenge.

This is where I am right now as a teacher. It’s a reflection on my vocation in this moment – a snap shot of my thinking. I have not always been here and I hope that a year from now I am further along on the journey. For me in 2015, I’m feeling the gifts of grace.

Why Do I Grade?

“A grade represents a clear and accurate indicator of what a student knows and is able to do – mastery. With grades, we document the progress of students and our teaching, we provide feedback to students and their parents, and we make instructional decisions regarding the students.”

-Rick Wormeli (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 103)

I attended a two-day conference with Rick Wormeli this week. When I have an amazing growth opportunity, all by myself – it can be really annoying for my peers who are not on the same vibration. So instead of driving them crazy I rushed home on Friday night to try to make sense of it all through writing… Why do I grade?

It’s easy right – I grade because that’s what I am paid to do – it’s in the teacher job description. However, I’m thinking deeper than that, looking at what I hope to accomplish with my grades, and from the perspective of my students determining if am I successful.

At the conference Wormeli identified six things teachers try to accomplish with grades, which he then separated into two categories (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 102):

  • To document student and teacher progress
  • To provide feedback to the student and family, and
  • To inform instructional decisions

____________________________________________________

  • To motivate students
  • To punish students
  • To sort students

He suggests that the top three are useful, but the bottom three are questionable. I totally agree—after all this was my second Wormeli conference and honestly I drank the Kool-Aid the first time. However, I don’t think I always get it right, so I decided to ask my 8th grade students a few questions to find out how I am doing.

In an impromptu Friday afternoon discussion they easily identified documenting progress and providing feedback as reasons to grade. However, the majority pointed to “motivating students” as being the third most significant reason that teacher’s grade.

After thinking on this I began questioning… Do I want students to have intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation? Our mission says “life long learning…” Research says the will to learn (or lifelong learning) is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its rewards in its own exercises. Grades are by definition – if used to motivate – extrinsic motivation. Am I meeting my personal and / or school mission as a teacher if I’m motivating through my grade book?

Okay – it was time to dig a little deeper. I threw together a survey and collected some quick very non-scientific data (wow – those iPad are cool!) Here’s what I found out –

  • 100% of my students understood that if I marked grades down because they are late I am miss-reporting their approximation to mastery.
  • They were split half and half when if asked if the purpose of school is either
    • to determine who is smart enough to go to college, or
    • to ensure that all students learn at high levels no matter what it takes.
  • The majority of students supported the idea that everyone who met the standard should receive credit for doing so. They were not hung up on how long it takes individuals or how many re-dos it would take.
  • When I asked if grades motivated them to want to learn the split was nearly 50 / 50, however after we talked about many students sited that the grades pushed them to do the work in class – they were not actually excited to learn the content.
  • Just for fun I asked them how long it would take them to learn to play the bagpipes. Again the majority answered that there was no way to know how long it would take. Within our discussion they were able to connect that with the idea that there was no way to know how long it would take them to learn how to do anything.
  • The last question was the one that broke my heart as a teacher. After seeing Wormeli the first time I continued to put in zeros but used a four-point scale. Thinking about motivation, I asked how they felt when they saw a zero in the grade book. Here is a list of their words:

Sick * Panicked * Upset * Ashamed * Bad * Stressed * “Shit” * Discouraged * Dumb * “Like I’m not going anywhere” * Discouraged * Depressed * Angry * Disappointed * Scared * Don’t Care * Worried * Exhausted * Grounded for life Frustrated * Like Quitting * Embarrassed * Desperate to get the grade up

Clearly I get a response, however I’m left wondering if it’s worth the cost. The words above hardly sound like that zero is inspiring passionate learning. Instead I can see how much it is actually manipulating the emotions of my students to get their work handed in. Typically a zero is in the grade book because of missing work – almost never because they really are showing no evidence toward mastery. If that was the case I would be quick to go back to my own teaching an figure out what I did wrong, or I would meet with them to set up a re-do before I published the grade.

Again, I go back to the goal of grading, the mission of my school, and my own personal mission as a teacher. I want my students to be passionate, inspired, life-long learners. I’m not willing to settle for anything less than that. If my grading practices promote the opposite feelings than it’s on me to make some changes. No blaming the students.

So where do I go from here? How do I get the data I need without the push of a zero? Thanks to Wormeli I’m on the path to figuring that out, but for now I’m so glad to have students who are patient with me while I continue to learn along side them.