Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Listening to students
Shane Safir recently wrote an article for Edutopia on "Becoming a Listening Educator." In it, she outlines "four traits of the listening educator." 

I have always believed that it is crucial for every student to have "a person" at school whom they feel they can go to with whatever they need. On my small campus, we teachers talk a lot about who they feel sees us as that "person" so we can make sure no one is left out. Sometimes, there are kids nobody really likes (terrible, but true) and those are usually the kids who need a "person" the most.

So how can I be that person? With some kids, it's easy. We click. We like the same TV show or music. We have some connection. With others, it feels darn-near impossible. It is for those kids, we need to practice the traits Safir discusses. First and foremost, we need to ask questions.

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What did you have for dinner last night?
  • Have you ever __________?
  • Did you hear about (recent news story)? What did you think about that?
These types of basic, simple questions help us build relationships and open the door for kids to talk about deeper things. When kids are talking, we need to stop and listen. 

Seriously. Stop. Stop looking at your computer. Stop passing out the mindset. Just stop. Look at the kid talking and listen.

I teach these kinds of listening social skills to kids who really need to learn them and it has made me realize that teachers can be terrible models of good listening skills. But we can fix that. We can slow down. We can stop.

Safir asked me in a comment on Edutopia, "What has to "give" so that we can listen to and grow to know every child? How can we release ourselves from the tyranny of tasks to simply show up and listen to students, parents, and colleagues alike?"

I have been wrestling with this question and I think this is the answer:

Recently, I had a student become visibly frustrated when I asked him to make some changes on a formative assessment he'd taken. I asked him what was frustrating him. He bravely, calmly, maturely asked if he could talk to me about it after class. Instead of pushing it and forcing him to fix his errors right this minute, I respected his wishes and waited. 

After class, he, a student who rarely speaks up, unleashed the details of some big family issues. With tears rolling down his nearly-grown-up face, he told me that it felt "so good to just talk about it" because he "hasn't felt like he could talk to anybody." 

This wasn't the kind of thing that needed to be reported to CPS or administration. It was the kind of thing that just feels huge when you're 14. He just needed a person to listen.

I now feel confident that I could get this kid to do any massive amount of challenging work because he knows I am here for him. He knows I believe in him. He knows I will listen. 

So, that's how I convince myself that it is worth my time to listen. This kid will work. He will not blow things off. I won't need to spend whole class periods nagging him to do his work. 

Now, I live in the real world. I know that just because I've connected doesn't mean he will always stay on task, but it sure helps a whole lot. Trust me. 

This is a cultural shift but it's we teachers that need convincing. Investing time in kids is more valuable than investing time in curriculum or planning or grading or whatever other tasks we have to do. It saves time in the long run. And afterall, it is the whole point to what we do, isn't it? 

What do you think? Are there other ways we could make time to listen?

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

10 Tips for Staying Sane When It Seems Like Everything is Changing

Cha, Cha, Cha, Cha, Changes... I think I like David Bowie's song better than I actually like change. Most of us aren't big fans of change. In education, things are certainly changing.

It's easy to get overwhelmed as a teacher. Kids change. Standards change. Administration can change. We can be moved to a new subject or grade level. We are being asked to do more and more. High-stakes testing is raising the stakes for us by involving scores in our evaluations. There's a lot going on.

My district has had an override fail, so we know more changes are coming. We are implementing relatively new College and Career Readiness Standards and we've implemented Beyond Textbooks this year. I'm seeing my colleagues (myself included) feeling more and more overwhelmed about work, so how can we chill out especially during this busy holiday season?

  1. Remember, there's a change curve. Give yourself a little break. Things aren't going to be perfect. It takes hard work and time for changes to take effect. Try to be patient and go easy on yourself, your colleagues, and your students.
  2. Set realistic goals and refer to them frequently. My principal had me write down three simple goals for the year. I refer to them daily and prioritize my to-do list according to those goals. Having realistic goals is important (see #1).
  3. Stay Organized. This is the toughest one for me. I'm not naturally organized and I really have to work at it. But I know that if I let grading and clutter pile up, I'm going to be more stressed.
  4. Collaborate. It's hard coming up with new ideas for new standards and new expectations. Bounce ideas around with a colleague and see if you can divide up some of the work load if possible. 
  5. Have fun! Teaching is about kids. Lighten up and smile and laugh. It's good for the kids and good for you. If you "waste" 5 minutes of class joking around and laughing, you've probably saved 5 minutes of redirecting grumpy kids. Build relationships with your students and enjoy your time with them.
  6. Be positive. Complaining about change won't stop it. Putting off complying with new expectations can only hurt you and your students. I'm being a little tough and frank here, but I am speaking about our own personal happiness about work. If you want to be less stressed, try to avoid complaining and procrastinating
  7. When possible (and I know it isn't always), leave work at work or at least designate time at home for work and time at home for family, friends, hobbies, and leisure. You need to still have a life outside of work or work will consume you.
  8. Relax. Drink some tea or coffee. Listen to music. Take a few breaths of fresh air on your prep hour. Try to stop and smell the roses even while you're at work. 
  9. Be humble. I don't know what it is about us teachers but we are fiercely independent and often hate to ask for help. If you are struggling with something, ask a colleague for help. 
  10. Last but definitely not least... Go with the flow. The world of education has become a world of constant change. Gone are the days when we could use the same lesson plans year after year. We need to accept that this is the way it is and just go with it. 

What would you add? What helps you stay calm when you're feeling overwhelmed? Please comment below.