Monday, September 23, 2019

Fearing Flash

We're about to get real self-reflective up in here. Buckle up, grab a mirror.

Last Wednesday I got to watch a teacher I've worked with for a few years teach. Somehow in all the years we've worked together and all the things we've done together I've never gotten to watch her actually doing her job in front of students. I wasn't there to observe her. We were supposed to get a bunch of kids together, then split them in half and I take half to my room and she keeps half in her room and we both teach basic multiplication skills. But there weren't that many kids so we quickly agreed to keep them all in her room and divide the work in there. Easier, quicker.

Then she took over the lesson. And within five minutes I was sitting at a table in her room taking notes. It just kinda happened. I didn't abandon her and she didn't leave me behind. It was just immediately obvious that she did not need me. At all. Which didn't hurt my ego, I didn't think she would need me. But the kids didn't need me either. They were 100% engaged with her. Me trying to interject myself into the lesson would have served only to distract them.

I am a great believer in a variety of teaching styles. My way is not your way nor should it be. It's one of the things I constantly preach at my student teachers. "Don't try to teach like me. Teach like you." Sure, part of that for them is copying me but that's how you learn your voice when you're new. You try on other voices until you find one that fits. Just like my teaching style is not best for all students, and it's on me to adapt myself to them rather than on them to come to me. I'm the one getting paid for this, after all. I can't teach like anything but me and they can't learn like anything but them. We meet in the middle, I hope.

Here's the thing about my style- It's real big and loud. There's not much I can do about that. I like puppets and playing music and standing on things and shouting and dramatically draping myself across desks and Using The Space. It's a lot. Which means when you watch me teach and I'm on my game it really looks like I'm doing something. I think I am too. The kids are engaged. They're laughing and on task and we're getting our learning on. We're doing The Work.

But are we doing it enough?

This teacher that I watched was just as engaging, just as interesting, the kids were just as engrossed, and she was a sliver of a fraction as Big And Dramatic as I was. In fact, the kids might have learned even more from her than they would have learned from me had we split the class like we'd originally planned. She's real good. I am stealing things from her. And I'm worried that my "way" is getting in the way.

Which is good, right? I should be reflective about my practice. I should constantly be thinking about what I'm doing to keep the learning front and center and making every other thing that happens in the room about the learning. I'm not the most organized person and doing stations frankly freaks me out because that's a whole lot of planning and organizing and balls in the air at once all the time. I do them, but I always steal those ideas and plans from other teachers because they think those things through much better than I do. (Than I do now? Growth Mindset says I should add "yet" to that statement and be striving for better self-made stations. But play to your strengths and get help with your weaknesses, right? Or be happy with your strengths and work to improve your weaknesses? What if I just don't like planning stations and would rather take good ideas and apply my energy in other places? Am I self justifying not being more organized? Gah.)

I think about this a lot when it comes to reflecting about my practice. I'm good at the Show. And I truly believe that my Show contains all the vitamins and minerals kids need to grow. But I've also had conversations with teacher who, when I explain all the thought and intention that goes into some of my big, flashy projects, say, "Oh! I thought you were building that stuff because it was fun." And it is, but there's more to that. I'm good at this.

I know where my weaknesses are. I still don't use data to its fullest potential, and I constantly struggle with the "it's just numbers" vs "yeah, but we know some of these numbers actually do have value" push and pull. I'm getting better, thanks in no small part to an incredibly patient and helpful principal. I'm getting much better at teaching math creatively thanks to a training last year, intentional session choices at conferences, and stealing from friends who are better than me.

Does being flashy distract from my lessons? Does it let me get away with less pedagogically-sound methods because they look cool and there's so much going on? The kids won't hold me accountable if they're enjoying school, we're too busy laughing to notice we missed another benchmark. Not that they don't want to learn, but it's my job to help them and guide them. I think it would slip through if I let it. If I didn't pay attention and care about objectives and layers and pushing my lessons and my kids to go as deep as I could. Anyone can look good in an observation, and anyone savvy enough to graduate college can write goals that are attainable. This scares me. I don't want to be The Fun Teacher. I want to be The Surprisingly Challenging But In a Good Way That Made Me Love School While Also Finding Learning In Unexpected Places Teacher. (I probably should have made WEIRD into an acronym right then to make my point, but that would have been gross for all of us.)

A corollary to all of this is I worry that on education social media I'm seen often as the funny teacher guy who makes jokes and throws things at the self-important, rather than as someone who does those things but is first and foremost a real good teacher with real good ideas and lessons to steal, modify, push back on, and talk about, and often the blogs (and books) I write that are more pedagogically-focused get passed over because of that. My most popular blog is still the one I wrote making fun of people who got super worked up and grumpy about fidget spinners. It's a great post and I'm proud of it, but I write a lot about the teaching I do in my room too.

I don't need to teach like the other teacher and she doesn't need to teach like me. I'm not better than her and she's not better than me. Teaching isn't a competition and comparing yourself like that, even in your fifteenth year, isn't healthy. I honestly believe that asking myself these questions, questions like, "Am I doing what's best for the kids in this lesson?", "Does this type of teaching work?", "What holes am I letting through?", and "Where are my weaknesses?" keeps me strong and keeps me growing. I've got a student teacher this year and it's important for him to see me reflecting like that even while he's looking to me for guidance in How To Be A Good Teacher. Because honestly asking yourself, "Am I a Good Teacher? Why and What Am I Doing About It?" is part of that.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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