Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Importance of Being Approachable

Have you ever had a supervisor that strikes down your ideas when not aligned with theirs and makes you feel foolish when you have questions? I had one of those bosses prior to being a teacher. I often cried on the way home and he did nothing to help me grow professionally except make me feel like a failure. Conversely, I've had administrators that help me fix my mistakes and learn from them. They can disagree without making me feel incompetent and help me view errors as stepping stones, not setbacks.

This happens in the classroom as well. Teachers who pride themselves on rigidity and compliance may have orderly classrooms and may even produce amazing quantifiable results. But if our students are more intimidated than inspired, even if they are producing good scores, are we paving the way for continual learning and growth? Not necessarily. 
For the most part, I agree with Rita Pierson when she said that kids learn best when they like their teacher (if you've never watched her infamous Ted Talk, please check it out). But more than just being likable, I believe teachers need to be approachable. Likability often impacts behavior and compliance, which can certainly impact learning. However, when students are stumped, we want them to feel safe expressing their confusion so we can address the gap. Otherwise, we won't find out until they earn a low score on an assignment or assessment. Learning is accelerated when they are comfortable admitting they are puzzled. Moreover, it's also feedback on our practice. Student comments and questions tell us as much about our instruction as an administrator's observations. Our job is to ensure our students are really learning, not to ensure that all the right boxes are checked off on the evaluation instrument.
Image Source: Pixabay
A student once described me as a good cop and I took it as a huge compliment. Good cops are sympathetic, supportive and understanding. Conversely, bad cops are aggressive, intimidating and overall negative. A police officer's role is to promote safety in order for the community to thrive. Communities thrive when their residents feel safe. Likewise, students are likely to thrive in a safe learning environment. We need to have good relationships with students not only for their social and emotional well-being but most importantly so they can assimilate the content. When I earn students' trust, I demonstrate that I am in their corner, not to be their buddy, but to bridge gaps that are keeping them from achieving their potential.

But what does being approachable look like in the classroom? Here are some ideas:
  • Be transparent and authentic. Teachers are humans and we shouldn't pretend to be perfect. We weren't born experts in our content and we are all still learning. Sharing our struggles and imperfections with our students fosters a growth mindset. Some students will thrive quickly while others will take a while, but all students can learn and grow. Being honest and real simply lets students know that every child belongs in school.
  • Make questions an expectation of all. I was one of those kids who never asked questions. Not because I didn't have any - I had a ton - but because I was too afraid to ask a silly question and look foolish in front of my classmates. Rather than ask "do you have any questions", ask students to think, turn and talk with a partner and develop one or more questions. This sends a message that questions are normal and part of learning - not about being less smart.
  • Ask them what they're thinking. Acknowledge and validate their thought process, prior to correcting an error. I've used this approach with writing. I ask students to tell me what they are thinking as they write so that the emphasis is on the message rather than the mistake. This can be done in any subject area. It's a more strength-based approach and builds momentum. 
  • Foster a culture of self-advocacy.  It's crucial for students to look out for themselves as they navigate the learning journey. Rather than waiting for a grade, encourage students to speak up when they don't understand or may need some scaffolding. People who speak up and are proactive will generally accomplish much more than those who sit back and wait for things to fall on their lap. But most importantly, focus on learning more than grades. While scores are very important, sometimes they measure test-taking skills and memorization more than learning. If students don't retain what they learn, it will be disposable after the term. An approachable teacher helps students feel safe speaking up for their academic needs. Moreover, a culture of learning and self-advocacy helps students focus on their growth and worry less about everyone else's.
I frankly don't care if students like me - I certainly don't need to be part of their social circle - but if students aren't comfortable approaching me when the content is challenging, they won't progress. Being approachable is about removing barriers to growth and setting them up for success in our classrooms and beyond. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Finding Contentment in the Present

If only.

If only my students would talk less or speak up more. If only they were more motivated and engaged. If only they'd stay off their phones and be more focused. If only I were at a bigger school or a smaller school. If only the demographics were different. If only I could teach another grade or subject area. If only parents were more involved or less involved (both extremes can be challenging). If only I had more resources or more support. If only.

It's easy to be present when things are good. But when you're not content with the present, if you're like me, you may just want to run away. While we can't always pick up and leave, it's easy to run away mentally and emotionally and the "if only" thoughts kick in. And while this may seem benign, it may actually be destructive. In running away, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to impact the present and make lasting change.

Whether your challenges are unexpected, underestimated or consequences of our choices, the only way to get through is to go through - to be present in the moment. Here are some questions that I ask myself to help find contentment so I can stay present and live out my word for 2020.
  • What's good? No one or nothing is all bad. We can usually find something good in even the worst situations. If it's not obvious, dig. I find that when I force myself to find something positive, I'll usually see lots of good things I've missed out on because I've been focusing on the negative.
  • What small changes can I make? Is there a routine or strategy that can be tweaked? Is there something you can start doing, do differently or stop doing? If those research-based practices that worked in the past no longer produce results, it may be time to ditch them. Reach out to your colleagues and don't be afraid to try something new. But think small. One small change can make all the difference. Watch "212 - The Extra Degree."
  • What must I accept? Work with what you've got and pick your battles. We can't always control our circumstances, but we can control our approach and our reactions. As educators, we need to be flexible. There's lots that happens in and around school that is beyond our control and there are some things we have no choice but to accept. Will it matter in 20 years? If not, move on.
Contentment helps us to give our best even when life is not. Like corrective lenses, it helps us see things a little bit more clearly and helps us make the most of today so that tomorrow is a little brighter for ourselves and others.

Friday, January 3, 2020

30-Second Talk & Listen Name Activity

Are you good with names? If you are a secondary teacher with 100+ students in your classroom every day, learning names is no easy task. There are lots of tips and shortcuts out there to help with learning names, but today I'd like to share an interactive activity I opened our first CTE department meeting with back in August. With the new semester quickly approaching, this is a great way to start new classes. Or even if you're not starting the new year with new students, it's a great way to regroup after the winter break.

For this activity I used prompts developed by the My Name, My Identity Campaign together with the “30-Second Talk About” teaching strategy, developed by CTE Teacher and Instructional Coach, Sandra Adams, to engage participants in conversation about their names.

Here's how it goes. 
Participants will talk with a partner about the background and uniqueness of their names. This activity is different from other similar name icebreakers in that one partner will have the chance to speak for 30 seconds and during that time the other partner cannot utter a word. They should maintain eye contact and can nod or smile, but they cannot speak. Once time is up, the listener will share what they learned with the entire group. Once all listeners share out, the roles are reversed and we repeat the process. 

Before we began, I gave my staff the following directions:
1. Find a partner - ideally someone you don't know well.
2. Choose a "Talker" or "Listener" Role.
3. Talkers will share the "story behind their name*."  During this time, listeners cannot utter a word. They should listen actively, affirming the talker with nods and smiles, but no talking.
4. Once 30 seconds is up, the listener will paraphrase what he/she heard with the entire group.
5. Switch roles and repeat.

Roles and/or partners can be assigned, if appropriate.  Also, be sure to provide prompts or talking points. I gave the following talking points from the My Name, My Identity Campaign resources.
  • Is there a story behind your name?
  • Were you named after someone?
  • Where does your name originate?
  • What does your name mean?
  • What is something positive about your name that makes it easy to remember?

This simple, engaging strategy forces participants to actively listen to a partner and while 30 seconds may seem brief, listening intently even for that short time is not easy. Most of us jump in with a comment as soon as someone starts to speak. In her blog post, Ms. Adams described the exercise as a review activity, and while it can be used to foster any sort of academic conversation, using the name story prompts made for a wonderful icebreaker.

A couple of months ago, I modeled this strategy in a Business Law class to build background as students were starting a unit on Credit Laws. Students embraced the process and with an odd-numbered group, the teacher stepped in as well. It was very effective. 
Talking and listening are essential skills for everyone, but they are crucial for our digital natives who are connected virtually through social media but lacking the soft skills needed for the workplace and beyond. This activity will not take much time, but it can greatly impact learning and help students prepare for job interviews and other social interactions they will have in their post-secondary life. I encourage you to try it and if you do, drop me an email or a comment. I'd love to hear how it goes. 

Have a great year!