Monday, February 26, 2018

Be the Engine

Let me tell you a story about a time I was disappointed in educators.

Two years ago my school opened our MakerSpace. Another teacher and I had hatched the plan together and in a matter of weeks and months we'd made it a reality. We were, and still are, quite proud of what we'd built. The MakerSpace represented a new dimension of learning at our school, and it was something that no other school in the district, elementary, middle, or high school, possessed. We were on the cutting edge, leading the way. And we were excited to share our journey and bring others along for the ride. As I've written before, when you're a True Fan of something, all you want is for others to understand your passion.

There was an EdCamp at our campus, another thing we'd pushed for along with a few other teachers, and afterwards we grabbed a small contingent of teachers from another school who had heard about the MakerSpace and wanted to see it for themselves. Like the proud parents we were, we showed them everything, talking them through the process and the phases we had planned going forward. "Here's where the bots are, and the kids are coding. And over here is the supplies for all kinds of making. Over there, of course, is the Lego stash. Every MakerSpace must have Lego." They nodded and smiled and made all the appropriate appreciative noises.

Then they killed the mood.

One turned to the other two and said, "I wish X and Y were here, they'd love to do something like they. They'd be all over it."


They'd do it. Yeah, it's really cool, and I can see the value in it for the school and the students. Someone else would totally be all over this.

There's a cliche that's often given to the Big Bad in action movies, something he says near the end when the Good Guy has torn through all his henchmen like so much wet toilet paper. Because it's given to the Big Bad I guess we're supposed to assume it's a thought that exists in the realm of the negative. It's not something you should think or say if you're trying to be a Good Guy.

"If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself."

Admit it, when you read that you pictured some generic villain getting decisively up out of his comically evil throne, grabbing a ridiculous weapon, and marching out the door to almost, but not quite, defeat the Hero.

Teamwork is the name of the game in education. Together we are strong. Baddies work alone so they can claim all the power to themselves.

Both things can be true. If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. You can't wait, or assume someone else will do it. This is more akin to the kinds of bullying lessons we give students. "If you see something, say something. Step in, be a friend."

There's always someone else more qualified. Someone who knows more. But their plate is just as full as yours. And everyone knows a teacher's plate is never quite big enough for the serving we're given. So what if we put our plates together? Share the spill over some?

That makes this is a delicate line to walk. How to encourage teachers to take the initiative and take things upon themselves when they're already so full up? My best answer is Trust Yourself and Be Honest. Make priorities and, sometimes, sacrifices.

Today me school culminated a Right Brain Initiative program with a giant school-wide celebration. We'd had someone from the Obo Addy Institute at our school teaching each class traditional Ghanian drumming for a week. To end this, my grade level decided we'd turn our end of the hall into Ghana. Kids were grouped into specialties, time was taken every other day for a few weeks at the end of the day for research and work, and today we opened the classrooms to every other class in the school. It was amazing, and it was all thanks to the other two teachers on my team. I came along, but they were the engines. As always, it's more complicated than I just made it sound. Our administration saw the value in what we were doing and she let us take that time, and she gave us all of today. She knew the learning the kids were doing would be long-term beneficial.

It took my team members standing up with a great idea and charging forward with it. It took an engine.

What if every teacher picked one pet project every year? What if every teacher decided to be the heart and engine for one thing? Something they didn't think someone else should be in charge of. It doesn't have to be a massive project. But something. A school driven forward by sixteen engines running their own classes but also more. To be clear, I'm a working teacher and I know the extent of what I'm asking. I know we've got families and responsibilities and the job is enough as it is. Teachers get very prickly when asked to do more, for good reason. We're taken advantage of enough.

I guess the difference is, this isn't taking advantage. This isn't someone else adding something. This is choosing a passion project as a person or group, and being the heart of it. Getting others involved, sharing the work but taking the lead. Risking it and standing in front of your staff to present a Big Idea.

We're already the beating heart of our classrooms. I'm not taking away from that. I want to stress my deep understanding of that because I'm legitimately worried some will read what I'm saying as "Teachers aren't doing enough." That's not what I mean. We do enough.

But if you could pick one thing, big or small, to do more than enough with, what would it be?

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 TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released 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


  1. It isn’t the size of the plate. It could be multi section plates. We could add a side dish too. To those that isn’t in the clasroom with students on a day to day basis, the plate is never full enough. Teachers work hard, specifically classroom teaches work hard. Nonclassroom teachers are another thing. They do little to impact the learning of students. They don’t work with students every day like a classroom teacher. They are coaches. They are curriculum coordinators. They tell teachers what to do with little understanding themselves what they’re instructing teachers to do. They take up space in schools. They make the teacher student ratio look good but the truth is nonclassroom teachers hide the true numbers. Real teacher student ratio is always higher. Nonclassroom teachers only care about their numbers. They crunch data of students scores on tests that are flawed in many ways. When scores are low, as they always are, teachers are blamed for not doing much. Classroom teachers know their students but that doesn’t matter because it is not measurable. It can’t be put into data. Most classroom teachers do want to do more for their students but it would be refreshing if nonclassroom teachers also do their part in actually teaching students too. A coach could assist a teacher in small groups. A coordinator could help plan a lesson or provide real teaching ideas. Nonclassroom teachers could step into a classroom regularly and offer their plates as well. If all teachers support each other, then the whole school engine will be unstoppable.

    1. I know everyone's experience is different, but taking down coaches like this isn't productive and is awfully diminishing of their contributions, in my experience. Many coaches are former classroom teachers, and are back in the classroom at some point. That job is hard. The good ones absolutely impact the learning of students and do more than take up space in schools.

    2. Doug, I absolutely agree with you. I’ve seen great coaches and curriculum coordinators in my years of teaching. In fact when I first started in my career, these coaches were the ones to lend me a hand. Though lately, we’ve have coaches that haven’t ever been in a classroom or years since they were classroom teachers. There’s no indication that they’ll ever return to the classroom. What’s troubling for me is when my grade level turns to a math coach asking for clarification on a math standard, all we were told by this coach was, “I’m sorry I can’t be of assistance. I’ve never taught your grade before”. Yet at the same time we’re being monitored by these coaches on our teaching practices. I feel if you’re hired as a school wide coach in a specified subject, you best make an effort to learn the very standard you’re supposed to be coaching. There’s so much push for raising test scores at my school that only the two subjects that are tested is all that matters. If a student is among the lowest 15% of the class, this student will NOT receive science, social studies, and arts because time is dedicated to help this student bring up his/her achievement scores on tested subjects. Admin has told the teachers that anyone found not following the school’s agreement for RTI will be reprimanded. Who monitors the teachers for implementing RTI? The coaches, curriculum coordinators and non classroom teachers. It is an admin directive but I don’t feel this is good use of time of the coaches and places undue stress on the classroom teacher.

  2. Today I was talking to our superintendent about the work we are doing to transform education. We were discussing how important it is that we provide teachers with the same experiences we want them to provide students. For example, we are really focused on building student agency, collaboration, and personalization. But a lot of our teachers did not have those opportunities as students, so I need, in my professional learning, to model those experiences by giving them agency and such. I can't just say "go do this"... that, to me, is building the engine that sustains the movement.

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