Monday, November 12, 2018

Oh, Oh, Mr Robertson!- A Weird Teacher Mailbag Post


I've wanted to do a Mailbag-type post for forever, but part of doing that is assuming that people have questions they want to send to you. In short, it depends even more on how important you think your opinions are than a normal blog post. But they're also a lot of fun if the questions are good and the answers are either funny or sharp. It was with trepidation that I posted the above tweet, hoping it wouldn't go unresponded to for three hours. Great for the ol' ego, that. But I should have trusted the community. It looks like I got a couple of pretty serious questions, so there's probably not going to be much tomfoolery. We'll see what happens.
 Absolutely! Especially because I don't see it as embracing my weirdness. To quote Frank Zappa, "I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird." I honestly still don't see it as being weird when I'm looking from the inside out, I only see it as weird when I'm trying to see it from the eyes of others. I'm just being me. Now, I want to be super duper clear here that I'm not drawing a straight line from "I'm kinda weird to other people" to "that prevents the bullying of gay students", nor am I calling being LGBTQ "weird" in any way. It's just the place I start when I think of things like this because it's where I get placed by others, and it's something I embraced. But it's pretty easy for me to embrace. Straight white guy, so yeah, call me weird, oh no, I'm so persecuted. You got me right in the privileges.

All of that said as kind of a preamble, I hope it does. I hope that in being comfortable in my own skin, and in talking about that with me kids, I am modelling a mindset that my students can take as their own. And part of that weirdness is decentering things that are "normal". Specifically, openly. Letting the kids say what they think and then talking about it. It starts as simply as when my boys come into the class and someone calls them my daughters, another kid will correct him and he'll say, "Well they've got long hair!" Then the whole room looks at me, then back at the kid, and he corrects himself. If there's time we chase that conversation a little longer. And hopefully that changed an attitude.

I think what really helps set the class tone of acceptance and tolerance is that I say, on the first day, and on the regular after that, that everyone is welcome in our class, everyone is cool, and anyone cutting someone down for being "different" will not be tolerated. It's the quickest way to have a Very Serious Talk In The Hall™. And then I back that up by being as who I am as I can be and encouraging the kids to do the same. Fourth and fifth grades are wonderful for that, they are learning who they really are.

I'm in a unique position with this question, which I think is a very important question that all teachers should think about. Because once you're settled in to a place it's hard to leave. And I don't mean that in a dismissive "You're too lazy to try to move" way, but in a "moving across on that pay scale is hard to give up because pay ain't great as it is" way.

I've taught in three states, four districts, five schools. I learned a ton from my time in Southern California, Hawaii, Southern Oregon, and Northern Oregon. I wouldn't trade any of it for anything, even the two truly awful years, one in Hawaii and one in Southern Oregon. Neither of those, it should be said, were because of the students. Hawaii was because of the team I was on (read more about it in He's the Weird Teacher), and Southern Oregon was because of the worst vice principal you've ever seen.

This much moving has given me an incredible view of the grass on the other side, and it's not any greener. Every school has issues, every district has issues. Some are worse than others, and they all have their own special weirdnesses that are more or less tolerable. But, after all that moving, I feel justified rolling my eyes when someone complains that the district is doing "the worst thing ever" because they've got no idea how good they have it. Seeing the world of teaching helps you see all the ways kids and teachers are the same yet different, how communities work with schools, and gives you, I think, a much deeper pool to fish from. Moving makes you more flexible. It forces creativity. It's also super hard. I've been the new kid five times.

And it's really cool to have kids excited to be in your class, to watch them move through the grades, to see them grow up. I'll never see the students I had my first year again, probably. Which sucks, because I really want to know how they ended up. I've got students in Hawaii graduating high school, going to college, and I don't get to be there when they come back and visit Kaleipouu and marvel at how small everything is now. I worked with a guy in Hawaii who purposefully changed schools every three to five years. Great teacher. But I also worked with people who'd been in their grade level, in their class, for fifteen years. As long as you're still growing and adapting, whether you move or not is up to you. I love moving around. But I'm also now a homeowner for the first time, my kids are entering school, and I absolutely love the school I'm at right now. I have no urge to move. Now, if my principal ever leaves that might change.

So my short answer to that question is- New teachers should move a bunch if they can. Teachers who feel themselves getting stale should move a bunch if they can. But I get why that isn't feasible.

Oh man, I'm getting easy questions, aren't I? Whew, this is a question I think all of us struggle with all the time. I have had this exact conversation with the brand new teacher on my team this year, because he's having a rough time with it to.

Here's my take- I think 90%+ of teachers are breaking their asses for their students. I think a lot of professional professional developers make it sound like a lot of teachers aren't working as hard as they can because it helps them justify what they do or how they talk down to us. I think some people are working harder, not smarter, but most teachers want what is best for every kid in their class. I hope. To tie this into the last question, I've worked with a LOT of teachers now and I have known very few who did got give half a care and were counting days. When most of us see the kid being asked about, we exhaust every avenue we can think of. Maybe it comes down to how many barrels you're willing to reach the bottom of? But they've all got a bottom.

I think teaching and learning is a two-way street. We, being the trained adults, are in the driver's seat. Most of the responsibility rests on us, but the kids gotta wanna. We have ways to help them wanna, to motivate, but, to quote Robert Heinlein, "You can lead a child to knowledge but you cannot make him think." When I have a student that I just can not reach I will not stop trying, but I will also try to accept in my head that I have done and am doing everything I know how. It's like being in a bad relationship. Before you've broken up with That Person, you run through what you have done, and if you decide that you have done everything in your power to help the relationship work and it still doesn't, it's time to break up. Like all metaphors, this falls apart on closer inspection because I wouldn't break up with a student, but I would try to know that it's not my fault. It's a reflection process. Have I done everything in my power to help this kid? Will I continue to? If those answers are yes, then it isn't your fault.

That's why I started this answer by talking about how hard I believe most teachers work- I don't think there are many of us that would just give up and cut kids loose. I know I've got rose-colored glasses on when it comes to that, but I'd rather not think all of us are like that goddamn school where the teachers dressed up like The Wall, because you know they're cutting kids loose mentally left and right, and they were an outlier who should be fired and stripped of their licenses. I'm much more willing to declare an adult a lost cause than a child and cut them loose with no compunction.

Short answer- You know yourself, and I know it's not an easy conversation. Trust yourself, don't ever stop trying to help the kid, don't give up hope, but know sometimes other other person has to choose to open their hand.

I have a hard time with this, I'll be honest. I try to be intentional. The fact with my blog is that it's a one man show. Over 200+ chats, maybe ten or fifteen have been written/moderated by someone other than me, and all of those times have been because I invited the person or they volunteered. I take full responsibility for the chat topic, the questions, and how they run.

The audience I write chat for can be summed up as "people who think most chats are staid echo-chambers". They come, I assume, because they like what I've got to say and want to participate in the conversation. I don't shy away from hard topics. The ninth chat talked about guns and school safety. The nineteenth was about Ferguson. By not tying the chat to a grade level, a subject, or my books, I have the freedom to pivot to whatever I feel is important. When it's a topic I don't know if I should cover as a white man I'll reach out to a friend for their voice instead, not to be a Good White Man Helping Others, but because they know better than I do and I want to learn and listen. Sometimes that involves the other person writing a post and I write a post about the same thing and posting them together. And sometimes, like with the Kavanaugh post from a few weeks ago, I was intending to ask a woman to write about it and then realized they were doing all the talking and really it should be a conversation from a dude to dudes about the behavior of dudes. I need to be constantly intentional about what we're talking about.

I know my regular chat consists of white people, but that means I can have these conversations knowing they're here for it. They've stayed for "What If Narwhals Were Students In Your Class", they've played along to "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", but they don't run when "Ferguson", "Stick To Teaching", "#MeToo", and "Charleston" come up. I think, and I'm not positive about this, it works because the fun ones help create a community of safety and trust, so that when things get heavy everyone knows everyone else. The chat has never been a quiz, and when someone tries to give an answer that would be acceptable in some other chats, I and others push them on it. We don't get to be safe be quoting other people and calling it good. I think it works like that in a classroom too. I can get things out of my students that are harder because they like being in the class. Part of the fun stuff built a foundation we can put harder things on top of securely. I will also listen to feedback about the chat without taking it personally. It's mine, and it's a community that has built up around it that I'm proud of, but I in no way think it's perfect. Valid criticism is valid. Disagreement isn't the opposite of positivity.

As far as ensuring people show up to the chat, I've got no idea how to do that. I just write about what's interesting and hope, after 200+ chats, others do too. And I'm proud of who comes, I think it speaks to what we're building. I won't tweet out specific invites because literally no one likes that except for people who are so self-important they think they should be invited to a chat, and no one needs that attitude mixing in.

Mostly, I pay attention to what I'm writing about and who is coming to talk about it, and try to push myself which often leads to pushing others. And if it has pushed some away because that's not their kind of chat, I will wave if I notice they've gone. Because there's a lot of chats out there that avoid anything that could damage The Brand and screw that to the moon.

One more, I think.
 Shut that nonsense down right away. This is a great question, because people will hide behind, "It was a joke man, lighten up". So it's all about point of view and the butt of the joke. It's actually a pretty good writing lesson if you spin it right, and an even better empathy lesson. "Why do you think this is funny? What was the purpose of the joke? Why do you think he didn't think it was funny? Now listen to his reason, and don't argue with him about it." It's amazing how many people will hear someone say "That joke was hurtful" and respond with "No it wasn't." This ain't a Python sketch.

My class humor has to boil down to Laughing With vs Laughing At. Which are we doing? How intentional is it? This is important, because a lot of my fourth graders just want to be funny, but funny is hard and they don't know how the machine works and a lot of people end up getting sprayed.  Kids have to be taught what's funny and when. We can't expect them to just know. That doesn't mean I'm the final arbiter of funny, nor does it mean the ways different cultures deal with humor has no value, but there are lines, and that first sentence in this paragraph draws them pretty plainly- Are we Laughing At or Laughing With and does everyone agree on your answer?

I've got to be aware of it myself because I am not above cracking a joke at someone's expense. It's probably gonna be someone who is so far up their own self-serious bottom end that a fart will clear their sinuses, or a Nazi. But I can't do that in front of my kids. A lot of my jokes in class are self-depreciating, or self-aggrandizing. Either way, I'm the punchline, and no one gets hurt. Until the kids think it's ok to mock Mr Robertson because he does it, and then we talk about tone and purpose and respect.

Like a few of the other questions here, this one really comes down to explicit conversations about respect and empathy. Humor in the classroom works only if everyone understands that we're all cool here, and being cool means not trying to hurt anyone else. We're all in this together. We can have a few laughs, get some learning done, get the serious work done, and mix it all up into a complicated classroom stew that probably smells a little funny, but what else do you expect when you cram 33 fourth graders into a room after PE?


Well that was fun. A low question count meant I could take time and go into them with some detail. And these were some heavy duty questions. If you, dear reader, have a response that differs from mine please throw it in the comments section and let's continue the conversation. Also, if you think this Oh, Oh, Mr Robertson! concept has some legs and you have a question you want answered in a blog post email it to me at theweirdteacher@gmail.com with Oh Oh Mr Robertson in the subject line.

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.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Watch Me Work

https://mythoblogy.com/argus-panoptes/
Why would the vampire make a terrible teacher?

Because he has no reflection.

*pause for laugh*

I recently was given the opportunity to observe a second grade class and a kindergarten class, and those two teachers observed my fourth grade class. The three of us are a core group of teachers trying to implement a program at my school, one that is being implemented all through the district, who's aim is to help teachers improve not through evaluations but through observations and reflections which are driven by and asked for by the teachers themselves. It's completely voluntary and teacher-guided. There are no evaluative aspects to it aside from those the teacher chooses to put on themselves. Nothing goes to admin. It's purely a way for teachers to work with other teachers to improve practice. I think it's a great idea, which is why I'm a part of it. 

There are two possible ways to go about this. The first is the teacher videos themselves teaching a lesson, and then that teacher and one of the three of us take some time and we watch the video. The teacher sets out what their goals for the lesson were, how they think it went, and so on. Our purpose is non-evaluative. We ask guiding questions only, helping the teacher reflect. 

The second is observations. And this can be split into three types- either the teacher is observed with the purpose of reflecting with the group after the observation and in that way learning about their practice. Or the teacher is observed by other teachers who want to learn from that teacher, after which a reflection still occurs but with a slightly different goal. Or the teacher observes others with the goal of stealing ideas to better improve their own practice. OR some combination of those three, which is predetermined by the teacher with the help of us, who are guiding the observations.

Now, personally, I prefer the first way. I feel that the best way for me to get better at teaching is to actually see myself teach. This, I think, best allows me to strip away any ego or artifice and see what I'm doing while having to explain to myself and someone else why and how it worked. With all the evidence right there in front of me. But that's me, and I know myself well enough to know that it's unsurprising that the one that speaks to me is the one where I get to watch myself. Read into that whatever you please. I know who I am. 

That is in no way to say I don't see the value of observations, be they to learn, to demonstrate, to reflect, or to steal. This can be just as powerful a tool. But the observation I did with the second grade and kindergarten teacher had me wondering something based on the conversation we had afterwards. The conversation, by the way, is equally as important as the observation, if not more so. How often has someone come into your room for some reason, watched, left, and all you got was a nice note, "Thanks for letting us come in! It was great!" Yeah, that's not helpful at all. You were there, give me feedback. Feed me, Seymour! 

In our conversation both the second and kindergarten teacher mentioned that, while they enjoyed being in my room and observing me teach, and the conversation helped me, they felt there wasn't as much they could take from my room to apply to their own. At least not directly. And that makes sense, especially for the kindergarten teacher, I think. There is a multiverse of difference between how a kindergarten classroom has to be run vs the myriad ways a fourth grade classroom could be run. My room is very loosey-goosey, especially compared to many other rooms. I'm working hard to instill a sense of independence in my kids and, as such, there's a lot of freedom practice that simply isn't developmentally appropriate for kinders. Yes, I can see you in the back waving your hand to tell me that kinders can be independent and I know that. I live with one. But a room of 30 of them needs a level of structure that is not as necessary in fourth grade. I don't think this is that contentious a position to take. So while she liked what I was doing, they specific things she was looking for during that observation, like routines, did not jump out as brightly to her as things she could adapt to her own room. Certainly not like things we saw in the second grade room. 

And the second grade teacher also had a harder time seeing routines in my room she felt she could adapt to her own room. But, and I want to be clear there is zero judgement in this statement and I have the utmost respect for how this teacher does her thing, she and I are very different teachers. Her room is super organized and clean and there are expectations in her room that are not important to me in mine. Doesn't make me better, doesn't mean that I'm suggesting she's not a good teacher. We're different. 

I, however, saw things in both the kinder and second grade rooms that I thought I could adapt to my own. They both had incredible transitions. The kids were on top of it. Not that mine aren't. Mine are just...louder about it. After fourteen years of teaching I've accepted that is a Me thing, not a My Students thing. The kinder teacher, thirty seconds after we got into her room, told a student who was trying to tattle/tell another kid what to do, "I boss myself, I help my friends." As soon as she said that I, out loud, said, "Ohhhh, I'm using that tomorrow!" Then I got shushed by a five year old. The second grade teacher's room had a station rotation that I've always wanted to do, but never felt organized enough to truly put into practice deeply. I saw how she did it and it started the old mind a bubbling about how I could break it and rebuild it in mine own image. 

The second grade teacher and kinder teacher, however, said they saw a lot in each other's rooms they could use. 

This is my question. Or series of questions and subquestions. And I'm not sure there are correct answers.
  • Is it better to observe up or down in grade level? For example, if you teach 4th grade is it better to observe 5th or 3rd? 
    • At what point, if any, does the gap become too large to be useful? Could a high school teacher mine things from a kinder teacher, and visa versa? If the answer to that is no, then at what point working backwards would the gap be effective?
  • Even with the ability to see your bias, call it out, and know it, are there some rooms or teaching types that you simply would not get much out of? For example, if you are a hyper-organized fourth grade teacher and you come into my room, and you're a mature adult who is able to see the value in things done differently than your way, would that be more or less effective for you than coming into a room taught by a teacher who aligns closer to your own style? 
    • (My initial response to this one is it's better to see something very different to get as wide a view as possible so you know as much as possible, but is that actually better for my practice? Wouldn't it be easier, and therefore easier to implement in my classroom, if I watched someone who was closer to my own style?)
  • Is it better to observe or be observed in order to improve your practice, assuming the conversation afterwards is open, honest, goal-driven, and reflective.
I think teachers talking to teachers about teaching is the best way to get better at teaching. It's better than any expert or professional development could possibly be, with the caveat (which I may have disagreed with as recently as last year) that first the teachers have at least some training in how to have those reflective conversations. Yes, I know how to talk to teachers about teaching, I know how to help student teachers become better, but reflective conversations with peers, conversations with specific purposes and goals, those are harder than they sound. 

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.