Uncensored thoughts…

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My classes are still looking for volunteers to help us with a neat project–you have no excuse volunteer to help us out!

This marks the 20th year I have been teaching…I can smell retirement…and with each standardization of my teaching and test I have to give it smells sweeter and sweeter.   During those 20 years there has been a single mentor that has driven me to change, grow, open myself up to criticism, and focus on being a learner first, teacher second. Traditionally I consult with my mentor informally throughout the year, and formally about twice a year–once half way through, and once at the end.

No person, no book, no video, no professional development, no staff member that I have ever worked with has had an impact as meaningful on my teaching that this mentor has had.  What is so awesome is that my mentor is also available to “consult” with you, and get this, there will be no charge.  Here is a picture of my mentor:UntitledMy students have been the greatest influence on my teaching career.  I “consult” with them every day.  I ask questions, I take comments, I watch body language, and I listen to the tone of their voice.  Sometimes it is very subtle, like last week when I asked a question I consulted with their eyes, I knew that six kids in the class had no idea what I was asking and so I quickly changed the wording of the question.  Or two weeks ago when I started to introduce a new project half the class told me with their feet that they were starting to feel overwhelmed and so I altered the directions and broke them down differently.  And Thursday when just as the class was about to do their presentations a student raised their hand.  “Yes, Jerry what is it.”  “It’s not fair.”  “What’s not fair?”  “It’s not fair that you only gave us one night to answer the question, it’s an opinion question and we need more time to come up with an opinion and figure out how we are going to answer.”  Of course there are the smiles and frowns that relay messages, but I also do formal consultations with them.  I always give them this form during the last week of school, and usually half-way through the year.  The form has changed greatly over the years.  I think I used to just have the kids take out a piece of paper, and then it was a few opened-ended questions.  One thing I always noticed was that the girls wrote short novels for answers, and the boys were barely putting down more than their name.  So I decided to include the grid to appeal to the kids who weren’t going to spill their guts on open-ended questions.  One thing I found is that the boys started writing more after I started including the grid.

The quality of their reflections also started to change as I slowly figured out how to introduce it to them.  Handing it out and saying please do this because it will help me wasn’t good enough.  I spend a minimum of five minutes introducing it and explaining its importance and how I use it, and how it will influence future students.  Also building the relationship with the kids all year leads to more constructive reflections from the kids.  The closer I am to the class, usually the more “honest” they are.  They will take it as seriously as you take them. If you don’t take their thoughts and ideas into consideration during the year, they will not take your written evaluation seriously.  Here is a simple test for you…you are in the middle of a class and a kid tells you that the lesson is boring.  What is your reaction?  That reaction will determine how seriously they take your evaluation.

On the last evaluation, they usually let it rip.  I always tell them I will not open the envelope until after they have left school on the last day.  They do not have to fear my reaction if they want to tear me apart, but also they don’t  have to feel embarrassed if they want to gush with good stuff.   I do tend to dwell on the ones that mark me as “average” or below. I think I talk about that in this old podcast.

It is an eye-opening experience to be “graded.”  It is really reminds me of what the kids are going through every day, multiple times everyday.  I have tried to get other teachers to let their kids evaluate them but I really haven’t been that successful.  I think it is just too darn scary for some people–I get it, because I am scared too every single time I do it, and I have usually already heard much of  what they write during the course of the year. It is a big, huge step to take to ask for your students uncensored thoughts, but it is so worth it.  I feel the need to just say one thing again.  The better the relationship with your kids, the better the quality of the feedback.  You want uncensored thoughts, feelings, and suggestions.  That only comes with trust.
Joy Wright James Moran Middle School Wallingford, CT

This year we have a new principal Joy Wright.  She sent the staff an email Friday that shocked me.  It included a survey that included the nine questions below:

1. Where do you feel you need more support as an individual teacher and/or team leader?
2. What would you offer as suggestions for responding to your needs as a teacher?
3. What can the principal do to support our students more effectively?
4. What would you offer as suggestions for responding to student’ academic/behavioral needs?
5. What deserves better attention?
6. What deserves less attention?
7. What can the principal do(irrespective of budget) to encourage/support your professional growth and/or team?
8. If you haven’t done so already, please identify one to three suggestions you have for me for the remainder of the year in my role as principal.
9. Please feel free to add anything else that might be helpful.

I wrote back to her telling her she was a bit crazy, and maybe should get a good bottle of wine for when she reads them, she suggested a sleeve of Oreos instead…hope she takes them with raw milk.

This was brave.  A perfect example of a principal modeling what teachers should be doing.  I really can’t think of another time in my twenty years of someone asking for my opinion on how things are going.  I hope that the staff sees this as a lesson in growth and change and personalize it in their classrooms.  I hope it is not seen as an opportunity to complain.  I hope it is seen as an opportunity to effect change.  I hope that the issues that are brought up bring us forward, too many changes in our system are bringing us backwards.  I hope that the staff fills the surveys with how we can move to a school that celebrates learning instead of test scores, innovation instead of standardization, letting teams and classes and teachers treat each kid as an individual instead of being “consistent” with them, promote student choice and responsibility instead of more emphasis on teacher controlled classes, let teachers grow as individuals and flood their minds with creative thoughts and ideas as they follow their passions instead of making them only focus on one or two areas of a standardized test.  I hope suggestions don’t bring procedural changes, but cultural changes.  No new rules will impact my students’ growth.  Only my growth will.  Suggestions that bring more standardization and rules to our teaching staff will not help the teachers who need it, but place a chain on the teachers who want to leap forward.  I hope suggestions are made on how she can foster us all to be learners who are constantly growing and changing, because ultimately that is what we want our kids to be.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

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