A Year Cut Short

I came home from work early today, hoping to fit in a short run. The sun was shining for the first time all day. I decided to run without my iPod to enjoy the sounds of spring. About 1/4 mile from my house, the rain started. “Stop!” I yelled at the sky, thinking today the universe would listen to me. But it didn’t.

By the time I returned home, after running for 16 minutes and 58 seconds, I was soaked: My run was cut short.

I feel the same way about this school year–it has been cut short.  Why?

  • I haven’t taught my students all that I think I should.
  • I haven’t covered everything that’s in the curriculum.
  • I should have taught a few things much differently than I did.

Then there’s the perpetual echo: Have I prepared my students sufficiently for the PSSAs?

As a teacher, I criticize myself all the time. I didn’t grade any essays today. I forgot to speak to John today. Oh no! I forgot to call the guidance counselor about Kelly’s grade. Why can’t I remember to take care of everything? Why didn’t I say this or that to a student? These are the thoughts that wake me up at night and remind me that I’m not yet good enough, and I’m not accomplishing as much I should. I am often too hard on myself. I don’t forgive myself for being imperfect, for being human.

Today I am thinking differently. Today I am taking some time to contemplate what I do well. Today I am going to transcend self-criticism. Here are a few things that I have done well this year:

  • My students know how to annotate all kinds of texts. I am not kidding about this one. I taught this skill with gusto this year, and if there were an Annotating Text Championship, my students would win.
  • My students wrote every day. Every day that I met with my students, they wrote. It may have been a reflective paragraph in their writer’s notebooks. It may have been a sentence that they modeled and made their own. Some days they wrote essays. No matter what, they had time to think, process, and record their ideas on paper. Of this accomplishment, I am probably most proud.
  • My students read books that they chose. For the first time in several years, my students chose novels that they wanted to read, not ones that were prescribed by the teacher or curriculum. They discovered new authors, new styles of writing, and I believe they also learned that they are not alone.
  • I made the choice to align myself with leaders. I decided midway through the year that I was going to surround myself with like-minded people who believed in positive change and forward movement. This decision has made a notable difference in my practice, my attitude about my job, and my interactions with my students.
  • I allowed my students to teach me how to be kinder and more compassionate. Every year I learn from my students in many ways, but since I began teaching 8th grade, I’ve gained a greater realization of the power of empathy. Empathy can move mountains.

I encourage all my colleagues to take some time once a week and think about what you do well. When you reflect on your day, forgo the readiness to criticize; take some time to praise yourself. Silence the inner self-critic until tomorrow.


Control vs. Conversation

Control is the enemy of authentic conversation.

Just as perfectionism (another form of control) is the enemy of creativity, honest and productive conversation cannot occur if one party is wedded to maintaining control.

As a teacher, I think of conversations with my students. I may have a goal in mind when I enter a conversation, but ultimately, I am not the one in control. I must actively listen to the other parties and validate their ideas. If I don’t, the conversation is counterproductive, and one party inevitably leaves feeling unsatisfied. I think most everyone agrees that effective leaders are good listeners. Even if they don’t immediately act on the feedback they receive, they hear it and consider it.

On Sunday afternoon I listened to Hacking Assessment tltalkradio hosted by Randy Ziegnfuss and Lynn Fuini-Hetten. If you have not yet listened to this podcast, I highly recommend it. You can find it on the website and on iTunes. In season 2, episode 3, Randy and Lynn interviewed Starr Sackstein author of the book, Hacking Assessment, volume three of the Hack Learning Series. I have not yet read the Sackstein’s book or the other two volumes in the series, but since I am an Amazon Prime member, volume 3 will be in my mailbox tomorrow.

One of the main points Ms. Sackstein makes in the podcast is that the most difficult change for teachers is relinquishing control. (You can read more about this topic on Sackstein’s blog.) Letting go of control is uncomfortable and even distressing, but once teachers begin to entrust their students with the power to make decisions, the real magic begins to happen. When I was first learning to play baseball, my father said that every bat has a sweet spot. I believe that every classroom does as well, and it’s the teacher’s job to find it and use it. But the only way to optimize the power of the student-teacher relationship is to experiment, take risks, and ultimately, have fun with the learning process. It can be done. It requires lots of hard work, shifts in mindset for teachers and students, and support from administration, but it can be done.

The most interesting part of the podcast for me was Sackstein’s discussion of grades. She believes that ultimately she allows students to assess their own work, based on the standards, and provide the teacher with evidence to support their evaluation. Sackstein admitted that she still sometimes struggles with giving some students the grades they think they deserve, but ultimately, it’s about the process, not the grade. The grade isn’t as important as what was learned.

I intend to write a follow-up to this post once I start reading Sackstein’s book, so stay tuned.