Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Musical Chairs of Responsibility

Musical Chairs...get it?
My students want so badly to be responsible kids. They want to take responsibility for their behavior and own their choices. They want to know themselves and be proactive with that knowledge.

And now they're realizing just how complex all of that is when you try to put it together into a workable whole.

At class meeting last week a student raised his hand. I threw him our Talking Vader (some classes have a talking stick or some other bauble, I've got a little stuffed Darth Vader). He said, "I feel like I'm tempted to talk too much in the group that I'm in and I think I should be moved."

Some background before we go on- I do not create seating charts or assign seats unless absolutely necessary. From the first day of school my students choose where in the room they will sit and who they will sit near. This is because our classroom runs on choice and that can't just be lip service. If you say you do student choice, you gotta lean into it and make it a reality. Just because a student chooses a place to sit doesn't mean that's where they will always be, however. They know this, we talk about it a lot. "I'm letting you make this choice, but the most important part of my job is allowing you to be in an environment where you'll learn. Some of your seating choices might not be the best for your learning or the learning of those around you, so I will occasionally have to move you." That's my job as the teacher. Their job is to make a choice that precludes me from having to take any further action. They're nine. So some of them don't. Not at first, at least. This is to be expected and fine, it's part of learning the responsibility of having choices.

I will make one or two rules when it comes to seating- I do not want groups that are all students who identify the same way, our groups must be mixed. I do this because students in fourth grade still split up into "boys" and "girls" for one reason or another and I don't like it. Nothing in my class is split down gender lines, especially since binary gender lines don't exist. The second rule is anyone who wears glasses needs to choose to be near the front because I need you to be able to see the board even if you forget your glasses. That's it.

Back to my student who is trying to make the good choice by being reflective and asking to be moved to a group where he won't talk. He's in the front of the room because he's a student who needs that little extra proximity sometimes and because he has already been moved at least once for being distracted by and distracting those around him. Hey, he's nine. It happens. I'm here to help. He asked me for help. "I need to be moved."

Here's what I did not say- "Ok, how about you and this kid switch. Sweet, problem solved. Moving on." You, dear reader, are a teacher who is on it and I bet you know why I didn't say that. I bet you can even guess what I said instead. Let's see if you're right, shall we?

I said, "I am glad that you are asking me to do this. It shows strong reflective abilities and a willingness to be responsible. What group could I move you to that has no one you will be tempted to talk to?" You see, dear reader, this problem is not mine. It's the student's. Let us watch as he looks around the room, along with everyone else, and they all realize for the first time that the groups are divided in a very specific way, almost as though by letting them make their own choices, and then making small adjustments, we've engineered a relative balance in the room. Let's watch as he looks at one group and thinks, "I could go...no, he's there." To another, "Oh! Here. Wait no, then I'd be across from..." And so on. Yes, my child. You have friends at each of the other five groups, don't you? Whatcha gonna do?

He looks back at me with an idea in his eyes and I can say it along with him. He's about to suggest not just a two person switch, but a wholesale realignment of the classroom. He's about to set up a scenario in which I've got to pull up two diagrams, a graph, a map, and a horoscope in a futile attempt to somehow balance the room so no one ends up next to or near anyone else they will talk to. Newp, I think not.

Finally we get to the meat of the issue. Finally we get to have the conversation that we need to have about this.

"It is not up to me to keep you from talking. That is impossible. I can help, absolutely. And I will. I move you away from friends that you cannot resist talking to to the detriment of your education. However, there are too many of you to keep you away from anyone you're likely to talk to. I refuse to move you out of groups and into rows just to solve this problem. It won't work, for one, and for two, I despise rows with a fiery passion. And you will too once you think for a moment about how much group work we do, because if you make me put you into rows it won't be a sometimes thing. Instead, this is the point at which you need to choose what kind of a student you will be. We talk about responsibility all the time. We only have four rules in this class- Be Respectful. Be Responsible. Be Safe. Make Good Choices. And we often boil those rules down to the One Big Rule- Be Cool.

"Responsibility is easy when there's nothing pulling you in any other direction. But that's not the world you live in. You'll always be tempted. I'm tempted. I like the teachers I work with and we have to sit in some long meetings. You think I don't want to talk instead of listen sometimes? Of course I do. But I don't* because that's the mature, responsible choice. It's time for you to start learning that lesson for real."

We have a good talk about it. We talk about how it's hard and how they will fail. We talk about how I'll still move students who need moving for whatever reason. But it's vital that this is the point that they realize I'm not a superhero, here to swoop in and solve their problems for them. Some of them have already realized that when they asked me how to spell or define a word and I go off on, "If only there was a book...a book with all the words in it. A big red book..." or a similar riff but for Google or the glossary in the back of the book or whatever other academic problem that is not so major they can't solve it for themselves, at least partially.

Now, if you're near someone who is making you feel unsafe in some way, that's different. I'll help solve that problem right away. That's serious. Temptation to talk is not. I will not move your seat just because you're near someone you think you might talk to. I will be glad that you know you're near someone you might talk to. I expect you to take that information and use it. This lesson in a microcosm for literally everything in our class.

*mostly. Shut up, you do too.

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.

Monday, November 11, 2019

I Failed...I Think

I will start this blog post with a caveat and an excuse- It's going to be vague. Or at least the details of the inciting incident will be vague, and I'm doing that on purpose. Sometimes in education the stories we are a part of are not ours to share. This is not one of those. The details of this particular story will be kept vague because I'm not looking to drag the main character out here on the internet. I'll also admit that subtle is not something that I'm known for, so my attempts to make a point while keeping the details of why that point is on my mind might be clumsy.

This year I started a journey that I've taken a few times in the course of my career. It's a very important journey to me, so much so that I've spent month and months and tens of thousands of words talking about it and sharing my outlook on it. I think it's the best kind of professional development a teacher can undertake because it forces you to reflect openly and honestly on a constant basis. I took on a student teacher.

I've had many student teachers, and they've ranged from absolutely wonderful to simply very good. To this point I've worked with three university programs. I go into mentor teaching with a positive outlook and a servant mentality, ready to give of myself and my time because growing new teachers is a vital part of a veteran teacher's job in my opinion.

I am, if I may say so myself, good at being a mentor teacher. This is not my ego talking (though you'll have to trust me on that). My student teachers leave my classroom ready for their own, and many of them have stepped from my classroom straight into their own without having to go through the long process of subbing and applying and applying and applying like many, including myself, had to do at the start of our careers. Part of my identity as a teacher is closely tied to being a good mentor teacher. Yes, I'm a good classroom teacher. My kids love coming to school, they learn a lot and in creative ways. But I'm also good at translating that for another adult in the room who is watching and learning how to do it.

Teaching is a hard job. Student teaching is an exceptionally hard job, because on top of the expectations of the student's placement there are the expectations of being a college student. It's a lot. But, in my mind, our students should always take priority. Above anything else, a student teacher is responsible for the learning of the however many kids that are in that room with us. So while I'm exceedingly flexible because I understand the difficulty of the learning process, I also feel very strongly about this. I don't think I understood exactly how strongly I feel about the job until this year. I've never been pushed like this before. I've never had to grapple with the emotions that I felt this year in connection to my student teacher, so I spent a lot of time reflecting on them. I needed to understand why I was getting so worked up when I never have before. Now, I run hot a lot of the time, especially when it comes to this job. I'm always Up. But there's a difference between being passionate (buzzword bonus points) and being angry. I was angry. A lot.

Without going into detail, so you, my dear reader, are going to have to decide how much you trust me and how unreliable of a narrator you think I might be, a lot happened in my classroom and outside of my classroom since the start of the year that made me feel that I was not respected and my students were not respected. There was no isolated incident, there was only a near constant piling on of issues, some big, some small, but most things that on their own could have be handled.

Handling things, though, is a two-way street. While I'm sure that the other person's story would be different, it always is, my issues were never dealt with or treated with respect. I don't think they were actually heard. There is a level of maturity required in education that was not present, and this lead to a regular series of issues that snowballed at the end into a few Very Big Poor Choices that should never have happened. Feedback was never taken on-board in a meaningful way. Occasionally, and after the fact, the words were said that made it sound like feedback was heard, but actions never reflected this.

You see, part of being a mentor teacher is you tell me something, I give you feedback, you choose to act on it or not. I expect that you act on it because I'm rarely going to say something that won't work. I am, as I said, good at this. Been doing it for a while. Doesn't mean I know everything, I'm not perfect, but I am good. What a student teacher shouldn't do is turn that feedback back on their mentor teacher.

Here, I will be specific about one incident because I do want you, reader, to understand what I mean. Right at the end I gave a piece of feedback that went like this. "You are still too sarcastic with the kids. It doesn't work. You sound like a dick sometimes." The context for this is it's a conversation that had taken place previously and it was during a conversation initiated by the student teacher asking the very good question of how to deal with challenging students, one in particular. This is a good question, or would be if the person asking it wanted to hear an answer. So I said, "You're still too sarcastic with the kids." The immediate response, and I mean immediate, there was no moment of reflection, no thought, the immediate response was, "Well so are you."


I want to be clear- I'm not too big to take feedback from anyone. I've got a sign on my door asking for feedback. However, this wasn't feedback. This was an excuse. It was a retort jumping up to defend a fragile ego. It also wasn't the time to do that because a lot of other things had happened surrounding this moment to make that an even worse choice that it might sound like to you.

"Well so are you."

Yes, I am. Because I know my kids and I don't use it as a weapon. Because I've been doing this long enough that I know the difference between gentle pushing with certain kids and using it for control. And maybe that's how I should have responded. But I didn't because I was knocked on my butt by the gall it must have taken to respond like that. "You asked me for feedback, I gave it, and we're not talking about me. We're talking about you. The student teacher." He went on, digging deeper, trying to say I modeled the behavior and he learned it from me.

This was one of many things. It wouldn't be the first time or the last time I'd be put into the Bad Guy position that day. That day, by the way, was his last day.

I've never dismissed a student teacher before. This one had been told not to come in at least once previously and warned that is something didn't happened they wouldn't come in another time. This was the last straw. And then later that day he added three more tons of straw on top of it. That recess was a bad scene.

I'm not here to vent about him though. I needed to use at least one specific example even though I said I'd try to stay vague. I'm here to talk about how I felt leading up to that.

I felt like I failed. Like the problem was on me. I knew the problems were coming from him, but I thought there was things I wasn't doing. But I also can't do the job for a student teacher. That's not the job of a mentor teacher. I prepare, but they've got to be prepared. And up till now, they have been. This one never was. Not even when given the smallest direction. It was this moment, "Well so are you" when I fully internalized that there was nothing I could have done this year to prepare the person for teaching. Their choices were beyond me.

I understand ego protecting ego. I get that. I get being defensive. I get making excuses. I get being insecure and compensating in bad ways. But I do not get letting that happen with my kids. My responsibility to them outweighs everything else. You can't make someone mature.

I think I might have failed at being a mentor teacher. And that hurts. But I'm pretty sure I never had a chance.

Or maybe I succeeded as a mentor teacher because there are people who are not ready to be teachers, or should never be, and the unpleasant job of a mentor teacher, the part of the job I've never once had to think about before now, is preventing those people from entering their own classroom. My job is not to protect an ego.

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.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Threat of Vanilla

It's November. The month of giving thanks. But sometimes in order to give thanks for thinks you have you have to look to the flip side and see what makes you angry. Anger is often conveyed as a bad emotion, something you shouldn't feel or express. That's unhealthy, anger is human and anger is fuel. It burns hot and fast and it's not sustainable, but it works. Anger can focus you if you're mature about it.

You know what makes me angry?

How many teachers seem to take snake oil salesmen seriously. How many people can continue to be fed the meaningless gruel of "Be positive and ignore the negative", "Just love your kids", "In the 'Real Word'", and the like and eat it up and ask for like an orphan in Dickens. These messages are vanilla at best and dangerous at worst. They perpetuate a system that upholds the status quo while pretending at revolution where none exists. They pander to the safest, easiest impulses of ourselves rather than do any pushing at all because you can't push with cotton candy.

There is nothing risky in saying "You know what teachers need to do? Love their kids." We are sold it like it's this revolutionary concept. Holy crap, man! Did you hear what he said? Love the kids! Like love is all you need. He should write a song. It would be a hit. It also puts an incredible amount of pressure on teachers. "You know what's wrong with you? You don't love your kids enough." Screw that, I'm working hard. Frankly, my job is to teach my kids first. I do love my job. I do love working with my kids. But putting "You gotta love your kids" on someone creates deeply unrealistic expectations.

Loving the kids is also the language of those actively trying to hurt public education. It plays right into the hands of people who want to continue to pay us an almost living wage with one hand while calling us valued professionals with the other. Every time there's a strike or a walk-out or a protest, LOVE YOUR KIDS is the first place those who want to hurt us attack us. "Look at these teachers. They say they love their students, but if they did would they be walking out?" We're immediately back on our heels having to argue from a place of "I do love my kids! But..." This is a tactic sold to us as pedagogy. You know someone really loves something when they're forced to defend it loudly. Just like you know someone really loves students when they tell you you should be doing it all the time. Especially people who don't have students but love telling you how much you should love yours.

It's not a risk. We should be angry that "risk" is reduced to such bland, tasteless vanilla.

I'm angry that thought leaders won't be bothered to respond to critical responses to what they say and their fans don't care. We should be scared and angry that those who style themselves as leaders in our community call any questioning of their ideas "bullying" or "trolling" or "rude". We should wonder what they are so scared of. But when I push my mentions are filled with people asking me why I'm so mean instead of wondering why the person who presented the idea in the first place won't support or defend it. My mentions are filled with people telling me to talk to the person I disagree with in private rather than in public. Let us ignore that they're ok with disagreeing with me in public. And I'd prefer that anyway. I have the strength of my convictions, I'm not afraid of being wrong, of being challenged, of standing behind what I say. Question it and let's see if the towers I build stand up under high wind. If they don't that's good, I can build them better next time.

A popular thought leader who gets paid a lot of money to spread his ideas and cannot handle being questioned at all ignored my pushing him on something ridiculous he said until he finally bravely said that he would only only talk to me about it I would follow him, DM him my phone number, and then he would call me, and then we could talk about what he had to say. This was his "I'm putting all my cards on the table" move. He was so brave, so unafraid of defending the ideas that he puts into public, that he was willing to defend them only in a situation of his total control and in completely privacy. And when I called him on that too he said he guessed I wasn't the one willing to have a conversation. The conversation I'd been pushing for hours. The conversation he would only have if his specific demands were met.

Such brave. So risk. Much positive.

I'm angry about what's hailed as leadership and good ideas. There's a dude out there who thinks he's a dynamic professional developer, an author who writes about discipline. A white dude who used the n-word is his book but thinks it's ok because he was trying to make a point. A guy who talks about "mouthy kids" (code word alert) and suggests that instead of being "mad" at the kid (the "mouthy" kid) we should be "sad" for that kid. And people are like, "Yeah! That's the way to deal with it! Pity the child. Like Mr T, except with our students." Why shouldn't I be angry that these are the ideas that gain traction?

Books full of quotes Jack Handy would have left on the cutting room floor get published and pushed like their the Next Big Thing even though they're actually the Same Old Thing all over again. Mouthwash swishing from cheek to cheek. We should be angry that this is what passes for leadership, for risk, in some education circles. We should wonder who wants this big bowl of nothing and can't wait to order another.

I wonder at the writers who assert that teachers should just use technology better, more effectively, to reduce student stress, or increase engagement, or solve some other ill, while ignoring the lack of technology in schools. Yes, your solution would totally work if A, B, and C were also true. I want to rally against that. Against notions like the rate of change happening inside of classrooms is not keeping pace with the rate of change outside of classrooms. According to who and what, I wonder. Where does this data come from? Is it anecdotal? There's always someone out there willing and ready to talk about how bad education is. There has to be, you can't sell a fix to something if you don't talk about how broken it is first. And there are parts of education that are broken, to be sure. But loving kids, teacher evolution, effort of students and teachers, professionals who push the boundaries and do it while doing everything else we do, that's all happening.

There are so many great education writers out there. So many good authors writing important things. So many people in and out of the classroom who still have a realistic view of education. Who know that platitudes solve exactly zero problems and are the Möbius strip of the education world- you use them, they do nothing, and then you can suggest them again as a solution, round and round ad infinitum. We should celebrate them and every time a nothing sentiment gets thrown around like it's something, we should throw it back. "Sorry, this is too small. Bring it back when it's mature enough to catch and use."

I'm angry at being disrespected by those who want me to do better and claim to be positive while doing it. Hiding isn't positive. Creating a bubble, an echo chamber isn't positive. Rushing to defend your favs without wondering if maybe there's a point in the pushback isn't being positive. Using "But he's nice/trying hard" isn't actually an argument in favor of any idea. It's a cult of personality.

Why aren't I calling any of these people out specifically? I would like to do that. But I would also rather focus on the idea than the person. I don't think most of these people are bad people, though a few are hacks and thieves and frauds. I do think there's a lot of meaningless-to-dangerous ideas being put forth by good people who are just trying to help. But intention doesn't actually count for anything, result counts.

Please stop calling yourselves thought leaders. No one's thoughts need to be led, and most of your thoughts aren't so original that all of ours are clambering to fall in line.

Leaders stand behind their words. Leaders do the work rather than talk about the work. Leaders act in specific ways. Leaders are brave enough to put their chins out in the air. Leaders fail in public, admit it, and move forward stronger and better.

We should be angry at those who pretend to be leaders, and we should celebrate those who actually lead.

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.