The Importance of Being a Mentor & Having a Mentor

Mentoring is a very important part of what we “engage” in as educators. Whether we serve as a mentor to a colleague or a student, or perhaps we seek out a mentor to help us with challenges or simply to have a system of support in our personal and professional lives, it has a tremendous impact. Whether or not we even realize it at times, we are all serving as a mentor to someone.

Recently a colleague stopped in to talk and confided in me that they were experiencing challenges with classroom management, student behaviors such as disrespect and keeping up with the responsibilities of teaching in general. Without a doubt, teaching can be tough sometimes. I’ve been in that same position more than once during my teaching career.

Having taught for the last 25 years, I’ve had a lot of experiences, some good, some bad, and some in between. At times in a position where I needed to improve, fearing I would possibly lose my job, and felt like no matter what I tried, that I just would not succeed. There were days that I left school feeling helpless and alone. I was embarrassed to confide in anyone that I was struggling. There were people who impacted my life, not because they were assigned as my mentors, but because they just took the time to listen, care, and support me to keep pushing through. Because of their impact on my life, I learned the importance of relationships, of being available to listen and to support, but also to give pushback and critical feedback when needed.

The Roles of Mentors

Mentors have a pivotal role to play in education. Whether you are enrolled in a pre-service teacher program, working as an intern in a school, new to teaching or to a new school, you often have a mentor to help guide you through any transitions along the way. Most of the time the “mentorship” is formed between a more veteran teacher and a newer teacher, to help to lessen any feelings of being overwhelmed when starting the teaching journey. Mentors can help newer teachers find their place in the school, establish their classroom presence and get into daily teaching practice. While I believe that mentoring for new teachers is critical, I think that an area that is often overlooked is that veteran teachers need mentors as well. For many years I thought that teachers were only assigned mentors as part of a school induction program, part of an improvement plan, or simply because it was part of the pre-service or teacher preparation program.

Teaching can become an isolating profession if we let it. Isolating in the sense that we don’t have enough time to connect with colleagues. We have many tasks to keep up with, but the most important part of our work is making time for our students. We must be available and invest our time to help them to succeed. Whether specified or not, everyone is a mentor and I believe that sometimes we don’t even realize it.

We mentor students. We don’t know everything that they might be experiencing when they leave our classroom. Students need a constant in their life, a relationship based on trust and support that they know is there when they need it. Our colleagues need to establish these same relationships as well. But how do we find time to seek out a mentor or to act as a mentor to someone else? For these mentorships, the relationships are critical for our personal and professional growth. We need to be intentional in serving as mentors for those we lead and lead with. Finding mentors for ourselves will help us continue to learn, grow and improve our practice each day.

Mentorships Today

Mentorships typically involve a mentor and mentee, with clearly defined roles. A mentorship is defined as a “wise and trusted counselor or teacher.”  However, I think the definition has evolved and within mentorships today, an individual can be both a mentor and a mentee. New teachers paired with more veteran teachers both bring unique skills, experiences, and knowledge to their mentorship. They each have something to teach and a lot to learn, which is why finding time to be part of a mentorship is critical for professional growth.

Colleagues within the same school can serve as mentors to one another, or even connect with a colleague from a neighboring school. However, finding the time to sit down in the same space or have a quick conversation can be a challenge on most school days. The lack of time is one of the most common problems facing educators. When we think about all of the tasks that we do in a given day whether, in school or home, there can be little time left for mentoring. But there are many options that can solve this problem of lack of time and assist you in pairing up with a colleague or creating small groups of educators to serve as mentors to one another.

And finding a mentor does not require, at least in my opinion, that pairing of a new teacher with a veteran teacher. Everyone has something to offer and as a teacher of 25 years compared to a teacher early in their career, there is a lot of knowledge and skills that can be shared between us. But how can we find time to connect? When used with purpose, technology can make a difference. The purpose being professional growth, avoiding isolation or having somewhere to turn when feeling frustrated or in need of support.

How to Connect

  1. Social Media – Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, enable educators to connect and share stories, ask questions, and to interact whenever is convenient. These platforms offer educators a space to learn about issues educators are facing and brainstorm ideas for making changes in their practice, or engage in conversations and foster some connections on their own. There are even focused communities available on Facebook to connect based on the content area, grade level or even topic.
  2. Book studies and Voxer groups – There are many book studies happening, many of which are announced on Twitter or Facebook, and focused on books related to education or specific trends in education. Personally, I have made some great connections with educators from around the world, simply by joining in a Voxer book study and building relationships in a supportive environment. The book study of “Four O’Clock Faculty” by Rich Czyz led to a #4OCFPLN, which has become a large part of my professional growth and reflective practice every day.
  3. ISTE: The International Society for Technology in Education is a worldwide Network that includes more than 20 Professional Learning Networks (PLNs). By getting involved in these networks, you have access to thousands of educators and can engage in conversations, post questions, and make your own connections that will help you to keep building your practice.
  4. School committees- Schools can offer different activities for teachers to engage in whether it be a health and wellness committee or a leadership council which gives teachers an opportunity to talk, share ideas, or bring school concerns to light. By bringing teachers together in a meeting like this, it is an intentional way to create time for teachers to collaborate and form those valuable relationships.
  5. Clubs –  Another option for establishing mentorships in your school that can be beneficial for teachers and students, is to create a club which has mentoring, building leadership skills and student confidence as its purpose. One possibility is creating a Ted-ED Club. where students get to know their peers, explore passions, build confidence and become mentors for their peers. All schools need to have mentoring in place for students and give students the opportunity to serve as mentors for their peers.

We all need mentors whether in our first or thirtieth year of teaching. At times it might be someone assigned to us, a friend or a member of our PLN. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are in a “mentorship,” we are just supporting one another on our teaching journeys. Veteran teachers need to seek out mentors as well, and that might mean connecting with a teacher who is new to your building or to the profession. How can we expect our students to interact and understand different perspectives, and to be accepting if we ourselves do not do the same thing and go beyond that? It starts with us. It always starts with us to take that first step.

 

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Keeping What Matters Most

 

Our son, Nick, sees an occupational therapist each week who does amazing work with him to help strengthen his core, quicken his response time to questions, practice his social interactions, and work on his fine motor skills. The best part is that she does all of that while he rides a horse around an arena. The horse provides sensory input and forces him to focus his core on maintaining balance, which allows his brain more freedom to work. As Nick rides, he plays Pictionary with a whiteboard, sprays water guns at targets, moves cones from side to side, identifies letters, and has conversations with the therapist and the other assistants as they walk next to the horse to make sure he stays safe while riding around. At the end of each session, he takes responsibility to prepare a bowl and feed the horse a snack to thank him.

His skills have grown tremendously since we started this therapy. We have missed going while we have been home, so we were so relieved that he was able to return last week. They had all kinds of new safety rules that we had to follow. His therapist met us in the parking lot; he had his temperature taken and had to thoroughly wash his hands as soon as we walked in. We all wore masks. We stayed distanced from one another as best as possible. They shifted the options for therapy so there were fewer clients in the facility at one time. We didn’t do some of the classroom-based exercises before he got on the horse, and he couldn’t prepare the bowl of snacks on his own. The most significant shift was that I was suddenly the volunteer walking alongside the horse. It helped to limit the number of people in the arena, but also allowed me a new opportunity to understand more about what he is working on in therapy and how he responds to the staff and the horse. I am not convinced that I am the best guide as it was much harder to hold the materials, keep an eye on his safety, and not get distracted by the beauty of the horse than I thought it would be, but we made it work.

I didn’t realize how much I needed to do something that felt “normal” to our routine until I walked through the doors of the arena. It was so comforting to do something that we used to do even though the process of doing it was different. Nick was excited to see the therapist, and I had the chance to help him share a little more about himself as we did the exercises and walked around the arena that she wouldn’t have otherwise known even though she has a great relationship with him.

As we start planning for school to look different in the fall, the first week of therapy had me feeling hopeful about what we can maintain when the process and school system may look really new for a while. A big question for me has been how to explain the shifts to staff, learners, and families. I read a great article by the Harvard Business Review that helped me to start thinking about communicating what’s to come.

The first point in the article is to acknowledge your own anxiety. I am nervous, very nervous about how we will make the process of school work in the fall while following the safety guidelines and still meet the needs of our families that need childcare. I am nervous about the gaps in learning or experience that may be happening for our learners. I’m nervous that they will miss out when we can’t give the reassuring hugs and high-fives we are used to. What I am not nervous about is our ability to maintain our relationships with our learners and grow them in new ways. We’ve bonded during this time at home, which has deepened many of our relationships with learners and families. Those get to continue and get to keep growing no matter how we provide schooling.

Nick’s relationship with his occupational therapist was not different. His ability to complete the tasks and work on his skills was not different. We just did it differently. He was super quiet in the arena, which honestly surprised me and helped me to learn more about him in that setting. He still talked the whole way home about his horse and the experience just as he usually does. I know I will be anxious as we drive there and as we walk in again this week, but I am hoping that goes away with time.

“Listen for the need underneath the question” is something I have practiced a lot recently. When a parent, staff member, or school leader gets frustrated, it sometimes takes asking many additional questions to get at the root of the concern or the reason behind the issue, which is almost always a genuine fear about something. To help build our skills in understanding one another and ourselves, we are working on summer professional development options for our staff that include having critical conversations about challenges, trauma training, mindfulness, and compassion resiliency. We all need to be able to see one another through an empathetic lens more than ever and give each other grace. Our stress as a collective society is high, and our composure tends to fail us when we are stressed. We need to prepare as best as possible for strategies to reduce stress in our schools, for and with our staff, as well as learn how to have more open communication about what is happening so we can acknowledge our fears and build hope whenever we can.

We have seen some absolutely inspiring efforts by our staff and learners that we continue to try and capture and share. It is hard to always stay focused on those positives, but they are also ways to find strength as we move into our next steps. I have seen teachers doing evening bake-offs with learners online, daily video announcements to celebrate birthdays and accomplishments, safely going to homes to drop off supplies or check-in, creating videos with shared books, songs, and poems, writing personal notes, sending “flat teachers” to each learner, and many, many more. We have worked to support our community and help our learners find their passions during this crazy time. I get to ask our leaders and staff about those moments to help them see all the positives and make sure we recognize the impact of those remarkable connections. The Harvard article said, “Asking, “What’s one of the worst things you’ve ever overcome or endured?” helps people tap into sources of hope and fortitude from their own stories.” Our stories of what our staff has done with learners and families during this time, as well as what our families have done on their own, are perfect sources of hope and fortitude to carry us forward through our next challenge.

As I start to find my way back to social events and daily activities, I think a lot about one of my favorite quotes from Maya Angelou, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” I certainly feel changed by much of what has happened and what I know is coming. Some days it really gets to me, but it has not reduced my desire to do the work we get to do each day with learners and families as I know how much it matters no matter the setting or the format in which we do it.

 

 

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Distance Learning, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly!

Serenity, Courage, Wisdom

Guest post by Charles Williams (@_cwconsulting)

I do not profess to be a religious man. A man of faith, yes? But not a man of religion. I could dive into my reasons but that is not the purpose of this reflection nor do I believe this is the proper space to have that discussion. Maybe another time in another place.

There are, however, three words that have consistently presented themselves to me during this pandemic. Three words taken from The Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian, Niebuhr (nee-bur), around 1932. Despite various renditions curated by various groups for their unique purposes, all centralize on three concepts.

Serenity. Courage. Wisdom.

I recently took my daughter to pick up her high school graduation items. It was a surreal experience as we drove along a nearly empty roadway through the school’s campus to various stations returning books and collecting items. Aside from the handful of teachers at each station, there were no crowds, there was no cheering, there was no … celebration. And, nearly as quickly as it started, it was over. The whole process lasted maybe 5 minutes.

Four years of high school. Four years of studying. Four years assignments and exams. Four years of late nights and early mornings. Four years culminated in five minutes.

As we drove away, my daughter sat in silence. When I asked if she was okay she replied that she never imagined that this is how it would have ended. She had held onto a feeble hope that maybe, somehow, this would all go away and that she would have a real graduation. After all, she had already lost prom and senior banquet.

I drove along contemplating how to best respond. Knowing my initial logical response void of emotion would only make the situation worse, I kept quiet while I attempted to formulate the right words. During that time, those same three words returned.

Serenity. Courage. Wisdom.

With them in mind, I delivered a response. I don’t know if it was the right one. I don’t know if it could have been better. She gave me that smile, you know the one. “Thanks Dad, I know you’re doing your best.”

So I will do my best to share those words with you. I know that there are other seniors out there dealing with the same frustrations, hurt, confusion, and sadness. I know that there are adults experiencing similar emotions for their respective situations. This is for you.

Serenity, the state of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled.

Seek to find peace in your troubles by letting go. I know that this is easier said than done but when you attempt to control the uncontrollable, you will find nothing more than additional stress. Accepting this fact is not easy. I know. As a leader it was one of the toughest lessons that I had to learn.

A story I share is one when I was still in the classroom. I was attempting to teach a lesson to a group of students who were particularly talkative that day. Few were paying attention and I was quickly growing aggravated. At some point, someone decided to stick a small piece of chalk into the automatic pencil sharpener resulting in a persistent drone. I attempted to remove the chalk by tapping the sharpener on the desk. Nothing.

Chatter, chatter, chatter. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Tap, tap, tap.

Nothing. I tried again. Harder this time.

Chatter, Chatter, Chatter. Buzz, Buzz, Buzz. Tap, Tap, Tap.

Nothing. I tried again. Even harder this time.

CHATTER, CHATTER, CHATTER. BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ. TAP, TAP, TAP.

Silence.

The students stopped. The buzzing stopped. The tapping stopped. I had smashed the sharpener on the desk.

I was embarrassed and ashamed. I had allowed my emotions to take over. I focused on something over which I had no control. And I failed myself and my students.

I encourage you to reflect on your situation and categorize the various aspects as controllable or not. What you will quickly realize is that a majority of the external factors are uncontrollable. You cannot control what others think or do. You cannot control the passage of time. You cannot control the outcomes of your actions. Your best hope is to influence.

What you can control is how you respond to situations. You can control your thoughts and actions. You can control your beliefs and attitude.

Find peace in focusing on those aspects over which you have control.

Courage, the ability to do something despite the presence of fear.

Fear takes many shapes and forms. It is present in many situations. It has the power to control us. It is imperative, however, that we find the means to not only face our fears but to overcome them.

For so many right now, there is a huge fear of the unknown. We don’t know what to expect in terms of this pandemic. Are things going to get better? Is it safe to begin reopening? Will we be returning to a sense of normalcy?

My daughter has been sitting on a huge decision. Should she attend Purdue or IU. She has been accepted to both. She has wonderful opportunities at both. She has friends that will be attending both. Outside of distance, the two are virtually identical. And yet, she has yet to make a decision. Why? Because she is scared. She has no idea what the future holds. She was accustomed to the fairly predictive nature of high school. This is different.

Stepping into courage is the first step of battling fear.

I sat on my podcast for years. I was scared that nobody would listen. I was scared that I wouldn’t have the knowledge or skill sets. But as I listened to other educators, I slowly grew more confident. I can recall listening to Jennifer Gonzalez from the Cult of Pedagogy and finding episode 130 – Tips for Starting a Podcast. I started getting excited. This sounded very possible. Then I started listening to Tim Cavey’s Teachers on Fire Podcast. I found elements of myself in nearly every guest and started realizing that I too had something to share. Then I connected with Mike Earnshaw from the Punk Rock Classroom. He and his co-host, Josh Buckley, shared their experiences from their unique perspectives as punk rock educators.

That was it. I sat down. I started recording. And now The Counter Narrative Podcast exists. I have no idea where this will go but I challenged my fear by stepping into courage.

Wisdom, the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment.

Both serenity and courage rely on wisdom. You need to be able to identify situations over which you have no control and those in which you need to step into courage.

Wisdom requires experience. Knowledge in the absence of experience is little more than facts.

Unfortunately many students, like my daughter, have not yet had the opportunity to gain the wisdom that comes from making mistakes. Instead, they must rely on family, teachers, faith leaders, or others to guide them in the right direction. Even as adults we do not always have wisdom and must rely on the counsel of others.

It is a humbling experience to admit that you do not know and even more so to ask for assistance. It means that you are vulnerable and thus you should seek out this advice from someone you can trust.

In time, you will gain enough experience to differentiate between those situations in which you need to let go and those in which you need to step forward.

For all of you reading who are experiencing times of difficulty, know this. It is okay not to be okay (thank you Traci for that one). Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What is not okay, however, is to give up. Giving up is not the answer.

Find peace with those things that you cannot control. Find the courage to deal with those things that you can. And find the wisdom so that you may know the difference.

Until next time.

_______________________________________________

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Using a Lens of “Gratitude”-

Guest post by Debbie Tannenbaum (@TannenbaumTech)

This past week was probably the best week I have had since schools closed for COVID-19 on March 13, 2020. I have felt more productive, more centered and most of all, more focused. As I reflected on the week, I identified lots of things that I did differently this week, but one really stood out.

During my morning walk with my dog Monday morning, I was listening to an episode of George Couros’ podcast, The Innovators’ Mindset. In this episode, number 18, he shared five ideas for improving mental and physical health. Idea #1 was to approach life with a lens of “gratitude,” but he shared gratitude using a new approach to me. He explained after reading an article by Tim Denning called the Most Important Way to Measure Your Day, he modified what Denning shared to identify three simple questions to ask yourself daily.

  1. Did I learn one new thing today?
  2. Did I help or inspire one person:
  3. Did I show gratitude to someone who had a positive impact on me?

Prior to this , I had been recording 3 things that I was grateful for each day in my journal. So I decided to experiment with this practice this week and from Monday on, I answered the three questions above. I have to admit that I was amazed by its impact. Suddenly, I looked at each day as an opportunity.

  • What was I going to learn?
  • Who was I going to help or inspire?
  • How would I show gratitude to people who had a positive impact on me?

It is shocking how when you specifically focus on or are more aware of something how it reveals itself more often. That’s what happened to me this past week and it was transformational.

What did I learn this week?

I began the week by learning about the idea of framing gratitude with these three questions. This led me to be more conscious of other things I learned. The biggest thing that I learned this past week was the awareness of how it felt when you needed to persevere through a hard task. As my Monday blog post shared, this helped me have not only more empathy for my colleagues as I asked them to try new things this week during trainings, but more patience. It made me more reflective as I worked with my colleagues and increased my sense of gratitude as many took risks and tried new things using technology.

I also learned this week how much I missed interacting with students. I had not seen any students since March 13th, but this week, I was invited in to model technology into three classrooms. Yes, I was happy to share new ways to use some of my favorite edtech tools, but seeing those faces I missed so much, it made me realize how important my interactions and relationships with students are.

Who did I help or inspire this week?

This past week, I provided four trainings and had eight hours of virtual office hours. I knew that I had been busy, but writing down who and how I helped people made me feel so grateful to have the opportunity to help and inspire some many people.

This past week, fifteen people attended one of my trainings. Nine of them learned about Pear Deck, while three learned about EdPuzzle and another three learned about Flipgrid. In addition, sixteen people came to my virtual office hours. But two people specifically shared feedback that warmed my heart.

  • “You are a life saver.” One of my colleagues shared as I helped her learn how to trim the end of her synchronous learning session.
  • The band teacher at my school shared at our CLT how she was using Flipgrid to have students share their instrumental practice in a moderated grid and then was able to give them individualized feedback!

How did I show gratitude to people who made a positive impact on me?

This question helped me to ensure that I shared appreciation for those who had a positive impact on me. As a result, I ended up sending emails and tweets that I might not have sent otherwise.

The first group of people I thanked for their positive impact on me were the teachers who invited me into their synchronous sessions to model edtech this week. I wanted them and their students to know how much it meant to me to connect with students again. I also wanted them to know how much I appreciated them giving me some of their valuable synchronous minutes.

I also thanked some people who had made a positive impact on me through their suggestions of healthier habits. Last Saturday at a WW meeting, a friend suggested taking more movement breaks. I ended up adding circles to my journal and filling them in as I took more breaks. This Saturday, I thanked her for inspiring to add this healthy habit to my day. In addition, last Saturday, during a #crazyPLN chat, Matthew Joseph discussed training as a way to be more positive. I used to train- last year, I trained for my second half marathon. But since then, I have stopped running. Until now- this week, I began and completed Couch to 5K Week 1. I am so glad that I did this.

Lastly, I want to let George Couros know the positive impact that his blog made on me this past week. That is one of the reasons I wrote this week’s blog post. Like George, I am a work in progress. His strategies, especially the first one, really helped me this week and I hope me sharing this will encourage others to listen to his podcast and be as inspired as I am. As I begin this new week, I plan to continue these practices. I can’t wait to see what else I discover as I view life more using a lens of “gratitude.”

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

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Words

Guest post by Dr. Kalum McKay (@DrKalumMcKay)

Opinions expressed are those of the guest contributor.

Words matter. 

Words aren’t just words, they are building blocks or a wrecking ball. Many things in life are made or destroyed by what we say. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This is straight-up false! Words are powerful. Broken bones heal, I’m not sure emotional wounds ever do. This isn’t just a message for kids, although it is an important one for them as well. This is a message for us all. The words we use determine so much of the successes or failures in our lives. When rolling out a new initiative, the words you use to present the idea can go a long way to determining buy-in. The way you handle a “growth” opportunity with a teacher or student determines how the information is processed. If you correct in a positive manner, you promote growth, if you correct punitively, you promote resentment and have taken a sledgehammer to the relationship. Our words verbally, in written format, and digitally have the ability to change the world. They can aid in growth or demoralization.

In today’s digital, social media-driven culture, our words can reach farther than previous generations could have imagined. This can be amazing and powerful. It can also be dangerous and harmful. Before you send that email, tweet that tweet, write that Facebook post, we must determine the consequences of our words. In Spiderman, there is what is widely known as the “Peter Parker Principle” that states, “with great power comes great responsibility”. Our words have great power, this comes with great responsibility. This is verbally, digitally, and everything in between. All of our words have power. Everyone. From the CEO of a company all the way to the intern. From the Principal to the PreK student. Our words matter. The tone, the context, the content, all matter. It is important to be purposeful in our choice of words. How many times have you seen a “leader” come in and completely demoralize an entire organization? On the flip side, how many times have you seen one energize and uplift an organization? This includes teachers in their classrooms. The words and the tone they use shape the entire atmosphere of learning in their classroom. Is it going to be an environment of love, connection, and growth? Or is it going to be one of compliance, fear, and resentment?  It is our responsibility to use our words as building blocks, not as the proverbial wrecking ball.

The wisest thing we could learn to do is to watch our words. We can learn to speak when it’s helpful and needed and choose our words wisely. We must take seriously the impact of our words. The right words can mean the difference between misunderstanding and enlightenment. They can mean the difference between being hopeful and supportive or judgmental and condescending.

The words you use are a choice you make constantly, as always, Choose to be GREAT!

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

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When you feel like you’re not getting anywhere

Sometimes it’s difficult to figure out what the problem is or where to start when you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. What I mean is that as teachers, we may have days when we might feel like we’re just not connecting with the students. Sometimes when trying to create a lesson or some new experience for students, we are met with less enthusiasm than we had hoped for, and sometimes, it might even be nonexistent.

About two years ago, I really struggled with finding ways to engage my students in learning. I reached out to my PLN to ask for advice, I tried Twitter, pretty much anywhere that I could think of to gather ideas from other educators who might be experiencing the same thing. That’s probably the most important point if anything out of my thought process, is that had it not been for those connections and knowing where to look to find help that I greatly needed, I would have been working through it on my own in isolation, as I had been for many years of my teaching career.

It’s not easy to ask for help especially when as teachers, we feel like we are supposed to be the experts when it comes to students and learning and teaching. There may or may not be assumptions about our abilities to manage our classroom, deal with student behaviors, to be flexible in our instruction, and to balance so many different things every day. But without having a way of connecting with others, we would be stuck doing the same things we’ve always done. While in some cases that might be good if the experiences went well, often times it might not be that great. And that is how it was for me.

Last year is what I considered to be probably my best year in teaching and it came to be because of relationships I had formed over the years and also because I got away from doing some of the same traditional things I had always done and pushed the limits a little bit and tried some different things in my classroom. There were some things I just didn’t appreciate any more like standing in the front of the room and talking at my students. It was exhausting trying to think of ways to spend 42 minutes leading the class and keeping the students “busy.”

I had reached a breaking point early in September two years ago when I just decided to get rid of the rows in my classroom and see what would happen. The combination of these actions and everything in between is what I believe led me to have the best year yet. I felt connected with the students, I could see them learning and that they were more engaged. Students would come in throughout the day and say how much they liked class better than the prior-year. I just felt that there was a different vibe, I sensed a more of an excitement about being in the class and while at times it was uncomfortable worrying about if my class was too noisy or if students were off task on occasion, I really felt good about it

So I decided to keep the same kind of methods and habits in the new school year, making changes here and there, but I was not seeing the same results. I had different students than I had in the past and so it kind of led me to go back and rethink what I had been doing. What had worked so well last year was not working as well this year. I did not expect that because I was assuming that things would be the same as they were the year before. Thinking like this, the “way we’ve always done it” is what gave me some trouble in the first place. I taught the way I had been taught using methods that worked for me as a student and even as an adult, but these methods did not work for all of my students. So by doing that I was doing them a disservice. Flash forward to this school year, trying to use the same methods and strategies should not work because I had different students than the year before.

There have been days that I left school feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, a bit uneasy because like I said, last year I had a great year. And I had not experienced that type of struggle in several years. so trying to figure out what the problem was and how to work through it has been something I’ve been working ever since. I felt some moments of success and other times I thought I just couldn’t do it anymore. Sometimes I became so frustrated at the behaviors, whether it be lack of respect or lack of wanting to work or negative attitudes that instead of trying to better understand the students and focus on having conversations, I responded to their behaviors and the reactions. I lost my “cool,” I lost my composure, my eyes filled with tears of frustration and I didn’t like it. I even told them that it was something that would bother me the rest of the day and for days to come, because that was not like me but I had “had it.” I had been doing everything that I thought I could to help them and I was getting nothing or the bare minimum in return. I just wanted them to hear me and to understand that their behavior matters. Being respectful matters, and that it doesn’t matter how great your grades are or what you have in life if you are not a nice person. If you do not show respect and you don’t take time to listen to others and give them their attention when they ask for it or when they deserve it, that makes it very uncomfortable.

I thought it was just me, I had convinced myself that it was something that I was not doing. There was something wrong with me that I needed to fix within myself. But the more that I talked to people I was connected with locally, nationally and even around the world, I soon realized it was not just a problem that I was facing. Again, if I was still in isolation staying in my room and not connecting anywhere in my school building, I would feel exactly like I did. It’s just me, I’m the problem. Because I had those connections, I was able to recognize that it isn’t just me it’s a struggle other educators face and there are different ways that they deal with it that may or may not work for me.

I had lots of recommendations, great ideas, stories of how changes in different classrooms made a big difference for different friends of mine and for every suggestion they offered I felt terrible telling them that know it just would not work for me. While I may not have all the answers, I know my students well enough to be able to figure out what might and might not work for them. So while I did not come up with a magic solution to any of the challenges that I feel like I’m facing, which in the scheme of things in the rest of the world they’re not that big at all. But there are bumps in the road, a road which prior to this year had finally been mostly well paved with occasional potholes along the way.

But a new year, new challenges changes just to show why we can’t teach every year the same way that we were taught. You can’t do things the way you’ve always done them and as Don Wettrick’s dad said: “Don’t teach the same year 20 times.”

I guess I felt that because my methods worked so well last year, that I should just do the same thing again this year. I was wrong. New year, new beginnings, some changes, a bit of discomfort, challenges, through all of it. Yes, please. That’s what keeps us moving, what keeps us active and engaged and although sometimes you feel like you’re becoming disengaged from the profession when you sit back at the end of the day or in the middle of the day or whenever it is that you reflect, you must stay focused on your why. The why is your purpose, your passion for what you do and why you’ve gotten up early every morning and worked through weekends, holidays and even summer vacations. It is when you come full circle and realize that you’re there to make it work to find an answer and a solution because it might be that you are the problem

And sometimes you might be the problem creator, it’s never the same. It’s always changing, it’s uncomfortable but it’s how we grow. And if you don’t share your experiences with others then you are going to be limited to only growing in your own space. To put yourself out there, be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it, that is not a sign of weakness it’s a sign of tremendous strength. When you can identify that you have a need, a weakness, an area of struggle, you show that you are vulnerable and that is more than okay. Because as many times as I’ve said it, I will continue to say it twice as much:

I’m not an expert.

I don’t know everything.

I make tons of mistakes every single day.

I’m willing to try and I’m willing to grow.

I’m willing to get up no matter how many times I’m knocked down and go for it again.

I am a work in progress and I am learning as I go. 

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

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Metacognition and Why it Matters in Education

Some of my thoughts during this remote learning time.  Image created by Kitty Tripp for my book In  Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking.

An important part of learning and teaching is the art of reflection. As teachers, we need to be reflective in our practice so that we can continue to grow, be prepared to meet our students’ needs, and evaluate our own skills and growth. It is important that we model this same practice for our students so that they can develop their own reflective practices and build skills of metacognition in preparation for their future. Metacognition enables students to reflect on who they are, what they know, what they want to know, and how they can get to that point. I’m not an expert but this is a topic that I’ve become more interested in so I started to look into multiple resources to learn more.

What is metacognition?

Metacognition, a term that was first defined by John H. Flavell in 1979, is basically thinking about thinking. With metacognition, we become aware of our own learning experiences and the activities we involve ourselves in our paths toward personal and professional growth. We are better able to understand ourselves in the whole process of learning and can develop skills to think about, connect with, and evaluate our learning and interactions each day. But how and why is metacognition important in education?

It has been identified as an essential skill for learner success. Therefore, do we need to design specific lessons focused on metacognition for use in our classrooms each day? And if so, how can we make this happen?

From the beginning of the school year, I noticed some responses from students when it came to learning, the struggle of learning, and making mistakes. I also noticed that many times students were okay with avoiding an answer or accepting that the answer given was incorrect and did not push themselves to understand why or how to improve. It made me wonder if we need to be more intentional about working with our students on metacognition each day and how can we include it in our teaching practice.  My initial reaction is that it does and while I feel as though it is something that I have been doing, I need to be more intentional and consistent about doing more to promote metacognition with my students.

It starts with us

As educators, we need to be able to identify personal strengths and weaknesses in our teaching practice and think about them so that we can best provide for our students. We need to guide students to develop these same skills by modeling it for them and then by supporting them as they build their own metacognitive practices. With an increased focus on the importance of developing skills in social-emotional learning (SEL), metacognition plays an important part in the SEL framework. Through resources such as CASEL, which sets forth the five areas of focus for social-emotional learning, we can now learn more about how to find the right resources and the best strategies for helping our students develop these essential skills.

For our students to be successful in the future, they need opportunities to develop skills that are transferable beyond high school to do whatever it is that they ultimately decide to do once they graduate. They need to be able to self assess their needs in learning, areas of potential weaknesses and identify their strengths. Students then need to know how to use this information to plan their next steps. While the world of work will continue to change, some of the essential skills that students will need the most will stay the same. Skills like the ability to set one’s own goals, to problem solve, to analyze the tasks that they have before them, and to evaluate any challenges that might come along the way. These skills are in alignment with the three phases of metacognition: planning, monitoring, evaluating. Each of these is essential in the learning process and students need to learn how to reflect and to self-direct to the next steps.

What does it look like in the classroom?

In my classroom, something that I have noticed more each year is that students often possess self-doubt and lack of confidence in responding in class. When called upon to respond, students try to avoid answering by saying “I don’t know, I won’t get it, I can’t do it.” Any of these statements are often followed by “please call on someone else.” By avoiding the chance of being wrong, or extending the conversation, it does not help students to understand exactly what it is they don’t know, why they don’t know it, and how to push through to figure it out. I’ve been there. Even as an adult and educator, I struggle with this at times. But the difference is that I can push through it because I think back to my own experiences and try to relate to my own students that it is in our control to take the steps we need to go beyond the “I don’t know.” We have to say “I don’t know…yet.”

Following the “Power of Not Yet,” by  Carol Dweck, we need to place emphasis on adding that one word to the end of those statements and helping students to self-assess and determine how they can get there.

Strategies to promote metacognition

  1. Relationships: I believe that it starts with building relationships that are supportive and which promote two-way conversations in the classrooms. Creating a space where students feel comfortable answering and making a mistake, where failures are expected and welcomed as a boost to the learning experience, and where teachers model the same for students.
  2. Think aloud: Sometimes I have just talked one-to-one with the student and asked them to share what they know. Giving students the chance to think through it with you, or by rephrasing the question, can be a simple way to help them push through that productive struggle and develop their own strategies for when they feel that same sense of doubt.
  3. Share ideas: I try to share learning strategies and ways to help students question their learning process, figure out how they learn best, try different strategies and then take time to think through how a particular one worked for them or didn’t. Sometimes helping students to identify their learning style will lead to a quick boost in confidence and build self-confidence in learning.
  4. Resources: There are many strategies for metacognition. Catlin Tucker shared four strategies for metacognitive thinking and how to get students to think about their learning. These are easy to get started with and provide a way for students to build comfort in sharing their learning and help us identify some areas they might need some help with. Ideas include SMART goal setting (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely), weekly exit slips, video response or reflection tools, and ongoing self-assessment documents. For these, I think of using things like Google Forms, FlipgridSynth, or a tool like Kidblog for student reflections. There are many strategies available for educators to get started.
  5. Visible thinking: Help students to make thinking visible. Whether using an outline with questions or prompts and having students fill in their thoughts or trying a strategy like sketchnoting, where students can jot down ideas and make connections to learning, these can be beneficial for all learners. Some other strategies like Think, Pair, Share, or “I used to think…but now I think…” and others that have students interact with peers and also build on prior knowledge are helpful for students to build metacognitive skills.

Regardless of the method we choose, the end goal is the same: to empower students to drive their learning, build student agency, and foster a growth mindset in learning. We start by providing the right support, share our own experiences whether we struggled or we’ve had success, and showing our authentic selves to our students.

There are resources available like Benchmark Education, or posts which share example prompts we can use to get started. It is important that we help students understand that who they are now does not define them for the future; meaning that mistakes or areas of weakness in learning are just starting points for our learning journey.  Metacognition is critical for helping students work through these challenges and when we model and integrate self-assessment,  look at prior knowledge, and then evaluate what we need to know and determine our next steps, we build those metacognitive skills.

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

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Guest post: Teachers have earned the benefit of the doubt

Be patient during the COVID-19 pandemic

As schools throughout the nation close for the remainder of the year, take a minute to consider what this will mean for thousands of teachers who are doing their best to educate our children. School leaders and local officials are scrambling to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is our top priority, and as we retrofit our education system on the fly to meet the needs of millions of students, we ask for your patience and understanding.

Schools are not designed to adapt quickly

Be kind to teachers who are on the front lines navigating school closures in an education system that is, like so many institutions, incapable of meeting the demands placed upon it by the outbreak. At best, the expectations for most teachers right now are loosely defined by school leaders. Many teachers are trying to patch together inadequate distance learning programs without guidance. This is not the time for parents to use social media platforms to compare teachers or to publicly complain about a teacher who is slow to adapt. Our nation’s teachers have earned the benefit of the doubt, so please show some grace if you are irritated.
During normal times, school districts take several months, even years, to institute changes in curriculum and instructional methods. Expecting teachers to do this at a high level, with no time to prepare, during a national emergency is ridiculous. If you feel the need to share feedback with an educator, consider what would be helpful before you hit send. Negativity toward a teacher at this time will bruise deeply and could limit the creativity of teachers trying their best to meet student needs. A measured tone is imperative if you feel discouraged as a parent and wish to share your frustration. Trust me, teachers wish they could meet the needs of every student and family they serve.

More than the internet

Connecting and teaching students in a distance-learning environment is not akin to a teacher simply jumping online and presenting academic material to students. Conducting meaningful virtual instruction requires dedicated professional coaching for staff, and it also requires significant training and practice for students and families. Most teachers have never been expected to integrate remote learning into their curriculum. The instinctive knowledge teachers have spent their respective careers amassing has a vastly different application online, and most educators have never been trained to deliver robust instruction in that format. In addition, the inequity of student access to technology and broadband internet service is woven into the challenge of teaching students remotely.

Teachers are pros at building relationships

Teachers are well versed in building relationships with students so be grateful for the teachers who are trying to maintain their connection to students. This connection — virtual or in-person — is critical for academic and social-emotional growth. Our best educators specialize in making those human connections and they are experts at molding positive relationships, devoting their talent to create a culture of learning, and contributing to the school culture. Those indelible skills for expressing care and demonstrating a commanding presence may translate online for some teachers, but it is unfair to expect it to happen naturally.

Teachers are stuck waiting

Many of our teachers can’t share with you that they are at the whim of school leaders and state mandates that are not always communicated to them effectively. While teachers are on the front lines of most communication with parents and students, they are not always armed with the information parents seek. Your child’s teacher understands your concerns about assessments and grades, your child falling behind and your desire to have access to more resources. Teachers are trying to be flexible and they do not want to throw their school leaders under the bus by voicing their misgivings to you and fueling the anxiety parents are feeling.

Uncertainty and sadness

Educators lament the loss of the celebrations, getting that last high five, hug or final word of encouragement to students. Teachers have been working hard to get your child to the finish line, and in a career that has always included clear beginnings and ends each school year, this new reality is bewildering. Many educators are helping their own children cope with the loss of a traditional school year while they also cope with the same reality as a professional. Not being able to grieve the loss of the school year together is tough on the children and the adults who serve them. Teachers wonder if their current efforts are making much of an impact on students. In some cases, only a handful of students are still connected to school and that is disheartening. Teachers are used to receiving regular feedback from students and adjusting their teaching strategies accordingly.

Moving forward

The best thing you can do to help teachers is to unite with them and let them know you appreciate them. If you feel the need to share your concerns about school district policies and local programs, reach out to school leaders. Our educators are committed to serving all children and we know that we’re in this together. Teachers and school leaders throughout the country care deeply about the health, safety, and engagement of their students. Right now our teachers need your support.

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

 

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

Dealing with Child Anxiety Stemming from Coronavirus Crisis

Guest post by Simon Choi, a mental health advocate and small business founder. He foundedStandout Bands which supports Beyond Blue and allows him to write for his mental health blog, Healthy Minds. Simon is particularly passionate about supporting those experiencing depression. Currently, Simon is supporting those struggling as a result of COVID-19 related mental health issues. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

*Opinions expressed are those of the guest author.

Times of Uncertainty

 

The Global Coronavirus Pandemic has been ongoing for months now and there is a great deal of uncertainty among government and society. Adults are dealing with loss of work, changes to daily routines and possibly even sick relatives. However, the uncertainty is not only limited to adults.  

The Effects on Children

Children are not immune to the fears that this global pandemic has produced. Their lives have been greatly affected as well. Children are not only out of school, but they are not able to visit their friends and family as well. For example, fear of the health of the elderly means most grandparents are not advised to see grandkids in the present environment. Parents and educators can try to help and reduce some of this anxiety. In the following article, we will discuss seven ways that any educator or parent may be able to help those they care for and teach:

#1 Keep Their Usual Schedule

For a child, it can be difficult to experience many external changes. Since they have no control over being out of school and not seeing their friends and family, it is best to stabilize the things that can be stabilized. In order to give your children stability, do not change their sleep time, their school hours or other regular activities. Even if your child has to practice their sport in their own front yard or get violin lessons over Zoom, try to keep up with their previous schedule and activities as much as possible.  

#2 Don’t Let Kids Watch Too Much News

The news can be informative, but it can also be full of unwanted scenery and troublesome for younger viewers in particular. Since that is the case, you do not want to let your kids watch too much news.

#3 Talk to Kids Openly

Kids need to feel like they can openly express themselves with adults. You want to ask your kids questions about their feelings and give them age appropriate answers. Children are inquisitive by nature, so this process could require some patience, but it will help to dispel some of their fears.

#4 Watch Their Associates

If your children are spending a lot of time talking to virtual friends, make sure that you are aware of the other kids who they are talking to. Other children can have a big influence on your children’s feelings, so you want to monitor or at least be familiar with their friends.

#5 Play with Your Kids

Make sure that your kids are getting exercise. Each day, make it a practice to add an exercise routine to your kids daily work. Just like gym class at school, exercise should be a healthy part of their at home learning journey. Try to play sports with kids as well; this is especially true if your kids are involved in any extracurricular sports. That way, they can keep up with their skills and get out some extra energy as well.

#6 Talk to A Professional

If you think that your child is having an extra hard time dealing with the stress of COVID19 and you notice that the stress is interfering with his or her daily activities, you may have to contact a professional who can give your child a consultation over the phone and provide professional advice.

Make the Best of a Difficult Situation

It can be stressful to deal with an unknown situation, but this stress can also build resilience in a child. Even in a global pandemic, you can help your child to make the best of the opportunities that staying at home can present or as an educator if over teleconference. When a child is taught to deal with difficulties in a healthy manner, he or she will be well prepared for whatever life throws at them. With the right support from you children can build resilience as a result of this time.  

 

**Interested in writing a guest blog for my site? Would love to share your ideas! Submit your post here.

Looking for a new book to read? Many stories from educators, two student chapters, and a student-designed cover for In Other Words.

Find these available at bit.ly/Pothbooks  

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