Becoming a Connected Teacher, Part 2

The year is now 2016.  Your humble narrator has made it through MTT (Mike The Teacher) 1.0: Going Through the Motions during his first 12 years in teaching high school, and then been jolted out of apathy by MTT 1.5: The Wakeup Call.  (Read the first part of this blog post if you want the story.)  

My colleague Libby, whom I resented for spoiling my easy-peasy teaching practices, suddenly resigned; her husband had taken a high paying medical job upstate.  Now I was left without the motivating menace she had been. The question was, at the risk of throwing out a cliche: could the genie of professional development now be put back into the bottle? Or would I just relax into a complacent style again without Libby looming two classrooms away?

MTT 2.0: Connected. The process of getting my Google Level 1 Certification was assisted by a series of “bootcamps” that my district put on for us during the fall of 2016 and the winter of 2017.   I attended these after-school session faithfully, and in doing so, I discovered that not only was the Google Suite (or GAFE, or whatever they were calling it back then) brilliantly designed for student success, it was elegant and easy for teachers to use.  Even the timid ones like me, who swore they would never use any technology in class until they had mastered every single nuance, could implement Docs, Sheets, Slides, Keep, Calendar, Gmail, and the rest of the apps in the classroom almost immediately.

As the school year went on, I started using those technologies, but I also began to quietly poach some of the lessons that Libby and others had put in the shared Google drive we had established for our teaching cohort.  We had put materials there with the idea that anyone could use or not use whatever was in there, no questions asked and no egos involved. As it turned out, not only was I not ashamed of helping myself to what others had worked on and been successful with, I was pleased to have widened my palette and tried a few new things with my students.  And the kids like a lot of the new stuff as well!

Then came the fateful Saturday morning in April when I got up early, made myself a cup of coffee, and logged onto a Twitter chat for the first time.  I was irrevocably changed by what I experienced that day.

Not only were the people on the chat (and I couldn’t tell you what the hashtag was) totally enthusiastic about their teaching in a way I had never seen before, they were amazingly welcoming.  They were very patient in showing me how to participate in the chat, how to use the hashtag in statements to the group, how a Q&A session functioned…the works. I came away from that chat with not only some practical ideas about the classroom, but also with a totally new perspective on my career.

I learned that day, and in the dozens of chats that I joined that summer, that this job was, and is, nothing like I thought it was.

Teaching isn’t about facts.  It’s about faith in students.

Teaching isn’t about content.  It’s about connecting with kids.

Teaching isn’t about tests.  It’s about tenacity.

Teaching isn’t about grades.  It’s about growth.

Teaching isn’t about procedures.  It’s about progress.

And the lessons haven’t stopped.  Every time I join a Twitter chat, I come away with new connections to fellow teachers, who are struggling and learning right alongside the kids they teach, and who are willing to share their experiences and their wisdom with me.  And, I’m gratified to say, they also ask me for my experiences and advice!

Since that day of connection, I’ve told several colleagues that they need to get on Twitter, that there is a treasure trove of connectedness and wisdom in those chats and in the PLN that gets formed there.  

The response has usually been something like, “I have enough professional development resources right now, so I don’t need to be in an online chat room.”  

Bull.  Every teacher ought to be on Twitter.  Or, if they don’t like the specific medium where our President bloviates dozens of times a day and Kim Kardashian shows off her latest plastic surgery, they should form some other connection online with a community of other educators who can sustain, encourage, motivate, and reinforce them.  

I don’t agree with everything George Couros says, but he’s spot on when he says that teachers who shut themselves off from every possible resource for their professional development are dooming themselves to irrelevance.  The days of being the lone figure in the classroom, working in isolation and coming up with brilliant, cutting-edge lesson materials with no help from his/her counterparts, are gone and gone forever. (If they ever existed.)

So, by 2017, I’d finally (and it was very late in coming) become a reflective educator.  I had become a connected educator. But there was one more stage in my journey that I needed to take.

Part 3 coming later this week.

 

Becoming a Connected Teacher, Part 1

I guess you could call this “A Midsummer Night’s Scheme.”

Being the good Silicon Valley child that I am (born in Redwood City, raised in Los Altos, and now a resident of Mountain View), it’s natural for me to think of my  development as an educator as a progression of updates. So for this journey I’m going to talk about, I’ll refer to myself as MTT, short for Mike The Teacher, and to the three stages I have experienced so far the way many would refer to apps or software as it is improved and changed.

MTT 1.0: Going Through the Motions.  I started teaching full-time at a public high school in 2004, with no real idea of how all-consuming the career would be.  I’d taught part-time at local colleges for a while, but those were hit-and-run gigs where I rarely developed a rapport with students and fellow teachers.  In fact, it’s fair to say that I treated my college students the way I had been treated by my own professors — brief, impersonal encounters, where names weren’t exchanged and where the prevailing attitude was “I said it in class and it was on the transparency (!); if you didn’t get it, that’s not my fault.  Go and read the text again.”

For the first few years of my high school teaching, that was more or less how I acted.  I hadn’t learned that the teaching profession was an all-consuming, 24/7 ministry; that it was based on relationships, not content; that to take the attitude of the adjunct professor was to abdicate the role of teacher; that the kids I had in my classes were not abstractions, but real, vulnerable adolescents who needed to be listened to and honored for what they were.

I was a fair instructor at that time.  I knew how to manage a classroom, how to deliver a lesson, how to make sure the kids learned the content.  I fulfilled my duties on campus, stayed in the good graces of my administration, and got along pretty well with my colleagues.  But I wasn’t a well-informed professional. I didn’t real education-based books other than Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, preferring to read thick historical tomes that were great intellectual exercises but had no bearing on either my relevant knowledge base or my in-class practice.  I spent too much time online, but it was never with the idea of connecting with other educators or finding out what the best practices were for high school teachers.

And from time to time, I felt a nagging sense of discontent.  It all seemed too easy, as if I was just turning keys and getting the same product.  To paraphrase Betty Friedan, I looked at my teaching every so often and murmured to myself, “…is this all there is?”

That was, I am sorry to say, the first 12 years of my teaching career.

MTT 1.5: The Wakeup Call.  In 2015, a new colleague came to our school after a good friend in our department had suddenly quit the profession to get married.  I’ll call this new colleague Libby for privacy reasons.

Libby, quite frankly, scared the s**t out of me.  Not only was she vivacious, efficient, and enthusiastic, she did all the things that I myself had shunned.  She read the books on education that were hitting the shelves; she put in the hours outside of school time to help her kids; she made an effort to know each one of the students by name and by interest; and she was treating her “job” as something that took up her entire existence.  (Okay, she had a husband and two kids, so it wasn’t her entire existence, but you get the picture.)

Libby had ideas for an improved curriculum, she could back up everything she wanted to do with both practical experience and research, and she loved every minute of her job.  And the students and faculty adored her.

Where did that leave me — the safe, detached, disengaged jobber who leaned on what “had always worked,” who resented this interloper coming into “my” school (from which I had previously graduated, no less!), who heard that murmuring louder and louder every day inside my head?  Well, it left me inwardly seething and mentally grasping.

What do I have to do to be as cutting-edge as Libby?  How come I can’t be that teacher that is poised to change lives, instead of the one who checks the boxes and collects the pay?  What is it about this sassy, carefree teacher that makes her so confident? Where do I even start in changing my practice? Those and other questions paraded through my head all that year.  

(Before I wrap up this section of the story, I hasten to add that I probably should not have let Libby get under my skin the way I did.  To compare yourself to another teacher, I know now, is not only unnecessary but can also be harmful to your own attitude and your own practice.  But the MTT 1.0 mentality I had when Libby came to my school wouldn’t permit me to respond to her example with anything but insecurity and self-criticism.  I know better now.)

My first tentative steps towards MTT 1.5 included consulting other teachers, outside of my school, for their recommendations of innovative books on teaching.  I cruised over to the local Barnes & Noble and bought up an armful…Today I Made A Difference, 22 Habits That Empower Students, The Happy Teacher Habits.  And I started reading.

Maybe more important, I took a deep breath, logged onto edtechteam.com, and started looking at this new thing called the Google Certified Teacher program.  This might be a start on being more relevant and more technologically savvy, I thought. This might be the step I needed.

It turned out to be a start, all right…of a journey I never, ever anticipated.  Stay tuned for MTT 2.0 and 2.5, coming later this week.

Summer (Can’t) Breeze (By)

My apologies to Seals and Crofts for that title, but there’s a larger point here.

As a teacher, I’ve always had trouble with the summer.  I have generally figured that those 9 or 10 weeks were more or less mine — to read, sleep in, catch up on movies and TV shows, spend time with family, and generally recharge my batteries.  And the thought of doing anything related to my classroom before I absolutely had to — not counting the summer school class I taught, of course — was absolutely anathema to me.

When I would try to force myself to work on stuff for the upcoming school year, it was like wading through an ocean of peanut butter.  The thoughts weren’t well formulated, the process was agonizingly slow, and my mind was just not focused on the task at hand.  After all, why sweat over something that is almost two months away when the Giants are beating the Dodgers on TV, my son wants to build a Lego project, and the latest Ace Collins book just arrived from Amazon?

This summer is going to be different.  I’ll still get plenty of sleep (including naps), and I will not short-change my family time.  But my Google Keep list is already full of things I plan on doing to make next year better than this one has been.

Some of the professional objectives I have are:

  • Plan out all my units for both Civics and US History
  • Make a playlist of all the walk-in and walk-out music I will be using for both classes, and to save it on YouTube
  • Participating in all the Twitter chats I couldn’t consistently do during the school year
  • Make a list of pledges to my students to be given out on Day 1 of the new semester (watch this space for more of those)
  • Do some experiments with EdPuzzle and FliGrid
  • Incorporate hyperdocs into every unit (and use ones I made up this year with my colleague)
  • Watch “The Vietnam War” series and try to implement it into the corresponding unit of study

My dear PLN, hold me to this: This summer will be the offseason for Mike the Teacher-Athlete. The day after graduation, at sunrise, I will be up, sucking down some much-needed coffee, and attacking this list with gusto.

Okay, maybe I’ll wait until the Monday after graduation.  But no later!!

My One Word

When I first heard about the “One Word” theme on Twitter, I have to admit that I dismissed it as kind of a pointless exercise.  After all, who could possibly encapsulate their entire year into one word, no matter how ambitions or appropriate it was?

But then I figured, why not?  After all, most of my PLN doesn’t have time for long explanations of what I want to do as a teacher.  (I know, you’re reading one right now, but this is considerably more than 280 characters long, and besides, if you’re reading this, you are part of my PLN and care about my progress as an educator to some degree.)

So, I settled on a hyphenated word.  I want to be…a door-opener.

What I want is to create opportunities for kids to succeed.  Not always in terms of superior classroom performance — but maybe.  Not always in terms of winning a business competition — but maybe.  Not always in terms of writing an essay that wins them a trip to New York City — but maybe.

I want kids to see me showing them there are opportunities to grow intellectually.  

I want them to see that improvement in the course of a year is vastly more important than a 4.0 GPA, no matter what a single test or a college may say.

I want them to see that success is, as John Wooden put it, “peace of mind which is a direct result of…knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

I want them to know that a single missing assignment doesn’t mean the end of their grade, nor does it mean they can’t learn anything from the material they missed the first time.

I want them to be able to come through my open door to ask for help, and to know they will get it when they need it — even if it’s at the last minute.

I don’t want them to have another experience with a teacher who gives no quarter, who slams doors on growth, who demands constant perfection, who doesn’t forgive, who is overly stringent with kids with the justification of “This is how it’s going to be in college.”

Some teachers have said, in my hearing, that they shut off chances for students to learn because “They have to learn responsibility.”  Bull.  Most of my students know they have to be on time for a theater rehearsal, or that they have to make sure their little sister is fed while Mom and Dad are at work, or that they have to get to work on time to keep their after school jobs.  Or that they have to lift their weights, or run their sprints, or practice their scales, in order to succeed.

To be the kind of teacher that I’ve just described is to be a door-slammer.  Well, I’ve had the door slammed in my face as a student.  I’m sure you have too, at some point.  It didn’t feel right, because it wasn’t right.

I resolve, this year, to open — and prop open — doors for my students until there is literally no time left for the door to be open.

Gonna go make some doorstops in the workshop now…wanna come with?

Hello, one and all!

I’m venturing into the world of blogging!  Those of you who know me well know that I am already on Twitter quite a bit and that I post to a football blog a few times a month, but I decided to develop my own blog based on my profession.

I’ve been a teacher since 2002, when I stepped into a classroom for the first time as an  instructor at Skyline College in San Bruno, CA.  I hadn’t taken any teaching prep courses before that summer, but I knew from the very first time I delivered a lecture that I was home. I’ve been at Skyline part-time/adjunct since that summer.  I have also been full-time at Los Altos High School (my alma mater) since the fall of 2004, and my career has been spent balancing those two venues since then.

What will follow in the next 12 months will be an experiment:  how to express the victories, struggles, and other events that go with a public education career.  I will be discussing my own experiences and will do my best to keep people anonymous when I do mention them at all.

I also intend to ask for feedback from you, dear readers, rather than simply rant about what happens to me in the classroom.  I do not want my blog to be simply self-aggrandizement, or one more person who blogs just to show off to his peers.  And I absolutely want to make this a conversation as much as I can, not just a monologue (monoblogue?).

So, off we go.  Climb aboard, there’s room for everyone!