What’s Next?

Up until a few months ago, I had never watched an episode of The West Wing. I know, I know. My husband started watching it on Netflix because he loves that stuff (political science/history majors tend to do that). I’ve only watched a handful of episodes and know almost nothing about the show after the first season, but I’ve already adopted one of the show’s lines as my own.  “What’s next?” President Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) says several times.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, there’s actually a great flashback scene where Bartlet explains what he means when he says it.

He’s the POTUS (or trying to be in this particular scene); he’s a busy guy and doesn’t have time to mess around. Get to the point! What’s next?

I use this phrase quite frequently in my own professional life. In education, we spend a lot of time dealing with issues that are incredibly important; what’s more important than kids, right? But sometimes we spend way too much time deliberating and discussing when we should be acting. The school year often seems to zoom by at the speed of light. Educational change flies at us from every direction. If we don’t keep moving, we’ll get broadsided.

On a more granular level, I adopted this mindset in my classroom even before I heard Bartlet’s words. I was always moving, always learning, always looking for the next great thing for my teaching. It’s not as if I didn’t have enough great material, but I knew it was my job to keep my students engaged and learning despite whatever challenges they might throw at me that particular day. Water that doesn’t move becomes stagnant; teaching is no different.

And more than that, nothing translates to students better than passion and excitement. If you aren’t excited about what you’re teaching, I can guarantee your students won’t be either. Some years, I taught as many as six or seven sections of a particular grade level. While I loved the material I was teaching, after using it seven times in the course of a couple of days, I had to change it up.

Even now, as I’m no longer in the classroom full time, I’m always looking for what’s on the horizon. What’s happening in education? What’s another way for me to hook my teachers? How can I help them grow that much further this year? Always learning, growing, hungry for more.

I’m spending my summer doing just that. I’m going to a couple of EdCamps, presenting a few conference sessions, and reading some great books by educators in my PLN.  What about you?  Summer is the perfect time to gear up.  What’s next?

Time to Stop and Catch My Breath

Well, look at that!  It’s May already!  I’m not sure about you, but this year has absolutely flown by!  After today, my district has 19 days of school left (don’t be too jealous; we get out early because of construction and didn’t a spring break).

For some teachers, this is their least favorite time of year.  We are still in the midst of “testing season,” which seems to span longer and longer time frames every year.  Kids are getting antsy and forgetting behavior norms and routines.  In Minnesota, the weather gets nice (finally!) and all we want to do is be outside.  The list of things left to do is still quite long, but the time in which to do is growing ever shorter.

On the other hand, some teachers LOVE May! Testing is done (or soon will be), classes go on field trips, and teachers get closer to whatever it is they do during the summer months.  And here in my neck of the woods, it’s a lot easier for me to get up in the morning when the sun is out (unlike winter when it’s dark when I drive to work and dark when I drive home).

Love it or hate it, May is here and that means the year is winding down.  This year has been a unique one for me.  It’s my first year out of the classroom and my first year doing “tech stuff” full time.  While there have been days when I’d love to sneak into the nearest music room and bust out a few tunes on the guitar with some kiddos, I’ve really enjoyed getting to work more with teachers in this new role.

I look forward to summer every year.  Not only because I get a much needed break from work and more time with my family, but also because summer is my time to get ready for the next year.  While some teachers completely unplug from their day job for three months, I use that time to prepare things for my classroom.  It’s the time when I actually have the free time and space to create and prepare, which makes me ready and excited to go back to work in August.

I also love to read and summer gives me more time for that.  Sometimes, it’s reading purely for fun, but I also try to get a professional development read in there as well.  I’ll be posting another post soon about what’s on my summer reading list, so stay tuned!

This year marks ten years I’ve spent in education and every year has been different.  I’m not sure if I’ll still be around in another ten years, but who knows? This year has really changed my role in the world of education.  Not only has my job description changed, but I’ve started blogging (albeit sporadically) and connecting with other educators on Twitter and Voxer (seriously, if you aren’t on Twitter yet, you need to stop reading now and go do it).

So, in a few short weeks, you will find me splitting my time between chasing a very busy two year old and gearing up for what comes next in my world in education.  What about you?  How do you spend your summer months?  What are you most looking forward to?

Substitute Struggles?

Preparing for a substitute teacher to teach in your place is rarely easy.  Occasionally, you may have the “super sub,” the one who can teach anyone and anything with very little direction or preparation.  Or better yet, maybe they’re a retired teacher who is familiar with your curriculum and just needs to know where to start.  Unfortunately, all too often substitutes needs a lot more guidance and instructions to be able to keep your classroom running (and learning) in your absence.

Teacher preparation courses are supposed to prepare graduates to go out into the world as successful educators (though I think many would agree that programs need updating).  Teachers in training spend hours planning and preparing for what their classroom will look like when they get that first job.  However, I would imagine that not too many of them think about what it might look like if their first job is teaching in someone else’s classroom.

I don’t have any statistics, but I would be willing to be bet that a fair number of recent grads spend some time substitute teaching before they land that first job.  Many will do regular day to day subbing, but others will land longer jobs of a few weeks or more covering maternity or medical leaves.  This introduces the seemingly endless conundrum: what is the regular teacher’s responsibility and what is the substitute teacher’s responsibility?

Some say that before leaving, the regular teacher should have at least two weeks of lesson plans done.  Others say that substitute teachers should have some lesson plans done for the regular teacher before he or she returns.  I don’t know if there are any hard and fast rules, but it seems like some things should just be basic expectations.

I know when I was on leave after having my son a few years ago, it was the end of the school year and my substitute left nothing for me.  My room was clean, but there were no lesson plans.  If anyone had asked me what my students had learned in the past seven weeks, I would have had no idea.  Similarly, a good friend of mine just returned from leave after the birth of her second child.  She returned to a room that was messy and completely rearranged, no lesson plans for the eleven weeks she was gone, and no idea where to begin when she arrived back at school.  Surely, this can’t be the best way to function!

I’ve been thinking about this the past few weeks and I’ve compiled a list of protocols for both regular teachers and substitute teachers.  I’d encourage districts or individual buildings to adopt some sort of norms for their substitutes and I’d encourage teacher preparation programs to consider spending some time preparing their students for the situation as well.  I’d also love feedback on these ideas – feel free to leave comments below!

A substitute teacher should:

  1. Make sure the room is clean and organized before leaving.  Be sure to leave the room the way you found it or leave detailed notes on why changes were made.
  2. Leave a few days of lesson plans for the classroom teacher.  If this isn’t feasible, try to give him or her a heads up of where the students are at least a few days before you leave to give the regular teacher time to plan.  Also, plan to leave every lesson plan you taught while you were in the classroom.  This can be a photocopy of your written notes or a printed page if you use an electronic planner.  The regular teacher shouldn’t have to guess what you taught.
  3. Provide detailed notes about any student incidents, updates, etc.  If anything happened while you were there, make sure the regular teacher knows about it.
  4. Leave records of any assessments given as well as student scores, parent communications, special events, or other important events the teacher may need to know about.
  5. Keep the classroom routines and procedures as intact as possible.  Remember, your position is valuable but it is temporary.  Keeping routines as the regular teacher designed helps provide continuity for students and parents.
  6. Take mental notes of things you liked and didn’t like in that teacher’s classroom.  These ideas will be invaluable when you have a regular classroom of your own.
  7. Build relationships with the other teachers and administration.  You never know when there will be another job available and it won’t serve you well to make enemies.
  8. Do your best to fix any issues that come up while the other teacher is gone.  If something breaks, do what you can to get it fixed (call the custodian, fill out a work order, etc.).  Some things may be out of your control, but again, help out where you can.
  9. Have other teachers or even the principal come observe you while teaching.  Consider this free coaching and advice that will help you improve your practice.
  10. Consider sending a thank you note both to the regular teacher and the parents of your students (at least at the elementary level) for giving you the opportunity to work in their classroom and with their children.  As teachers, we are in the “people business.”  Leave a positive impression whenever you can.
  11. Dress appropriately for your profession, the building you are in, and the age of the students you are teaching.  Look around at the other teachers in the building.  Are jeans acceptable during the week or only on Fridays?  Are you wearing the same outfit to school that you would wear on a Friday night out at the club (the answer here should be no, by the way).  Believe me when I say that other teachers and principals will talk about you if your outfits are questionable and it will affect your chances of getting rehired.
  12. Ask questions of your teammates and colleagues but don’t be a burden.  Most teachers are genuinely happy to help, but they shouldn’t feel like they are babysitting you.  Ask for help if you need it, but then be resourceful.  Hop on sites like Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers and get your own ideas when you can.

Now, in case you think I’m letting the regular teacher off the hook, here are a few “shoulds” for the regular teacher as well:

  1. Be clear about your expectations.  If there is anything you need them to do in your absence, let them know up front.  Don’t assume they know.
  2. Make sure the room is clean and organized before leaving.  Make sure you leave detailed instructions on how to find materials or make sure you have a colleague who can be tapped to help in case instructions aren’t clear.
  3. Provide details about classroom routines and procedures you’d like the substitute to follow.  This will make things easier for them and help ensure some continuity for your students.
  4. Make sure the substitute knows about any specific student needs in terms of behavior, health issues, parent concerns, etc.  For example, if a student can’t have any contact with a parent, make sure you note that so your substitute doesn’t goof and send the kid home with that parent.
  5. Make sure they know about any and all emergency procedures.  With all of the specialized drills these days, don’t assume they will know what to do.
  6. Leave at least a few days of lesson plans for your substitute as well as curriculum maps or guides to show what should be covered while you are out.
  7. Provide general information about the building (how to make copies, how to request a substitute, when meetings are, etc.).
  8. Contact them ahead of time if you plan to be in the building, particularly if you plan to see your students.  Some substitutes might feel threatened if you just show up unannounced and “steal the show” with the students.  It also could potentially hurt their credibility with students.
  9. Cut the sub some slack.  They aren’t you and never will be.  If you return from leave and the kids are safe and the room isn’t burned down, consider it a win.

Again, I’d love to know what you think!  Am I way off base?  Missing something important?  Let me know in the comments!

What’s On Your Website?

When I first started teaching, I didn’t have a website and I’m guessing many of my colleagues didn’t either.  Since then, I’ve built a handful for my various jobs and roles.  In my current role, one part of my job is supporting teachers as they create their own websites.  I get the same question a lot: what should be included in a teacher’s website?

The problem is, there is no one-size-fits-all answer.  Every teacher’s classroom is different, so every teacher’s website is different.  That said, I have come to believe that there are a few basics that every teacher or classroom website should include as well as several “extras” you can add if you are interested in have time.

Before I jump into the “must haves” and “nice to haves,” there are a few other things I ask teachers to keep in mind regarding their website.  First, what do you need it to do?  What’s your purpose?  Are you simply communicating with parents? Will your students be accessing class materials on your site? Are you trying to advertise or promote your program?  All of the answers to these questions help determine what and how much needs to be on your site.

Second, how much time do you have to devote to updating your website?  Nothing is more annoying to me than going to a teacher’s website that’s horribly out of date.  If I’m still seeing pictures of Halloween in April, we have a problem.  I recommend keeping the bulk of the website static so it doesn’t need to be changed often.  You can incorporate something like a blog or Twitter feed to keep viewers up to date on what’s going on in your classroom.

Third, what other methods of communication do you already use?  This one particularly comes into play at the elementary level.  Many of my K-5 friends still compile and print a paper newsletter each week (and some do one for the month AND one for each week).  Then they also feel the need to update the exact same information on their website each week, resulting in them working twice as hard.  Consider uploading the digital copy of your paper newsletter so parents can see it there rather than retyping the information (or better yet, scrap the paper newsletter altogether!).

Okay, so what should you have on your site?  The most basic info is your name and photo.  Parents should be able to easily tell whose website they’re on and the photo confirms they’re in the right place (you’d be surprised how many parents know their child’s teacher by either name or face but not both, particularly parents with multiple children).

Next, include your contact information and how to best reach you.  This would likely include your email address and/or phone number.  It can also be helpful to let parents know the best times of day to reach you (if including your phone number) or when you check emails.  Even if you check messages more frequently, it’s helpful for parents to know that you will check at 8 am and 3 pm every day (for example).  It will keep them from wondering when you’ll get back to them.  One note: I never included my phone number on my website because I didn’t want parents calling during the day.  My first job is teaching their kids, which I can’t do when I’m tied up on the phone with one of their parents.

Tell a little bit about yourself.  You don’t need your entire life story, but families enjoy knowing a little bit about you and who you are as a person.  Maybe include a family photo or two.  Again, don’t share more than you’re comfortable with.  I also recommend to word your information in such a way that it doesn’t become out of date quickly.  For example, instead of saying I have a 2-year old son, I might say my son was born in 2014 or just skip his age/year altogether.

Finally, include information about your class.  At the secondary level, this is likely a syllabus or course outline.  For younger students, this might include a curriculum map or an outline of the majors units of study for that grade level.  You don’t need every single assignment or lesson here, just the big picture so parents have a rough idea of what’s coming.

Have some extra time?  I know, probably not, right?  Well, if you want to include a few more pieces of information, here are some of my “nice to have” extras you might think about including on your site.  Remember, some of these are only useful if you keep them updated regularly.  If you can’t commit time to do that, don’t include them!

  • Additional resources or websites for students to practice skills at home
  • Student photo gallery (should be updated at least once per month)
  • Student work examples (should be updated at least once per month)
  • Resources for students to use in class (handouts, assignments, links to websites, etc.)
  • Daily or weekly homework
  • Daily class agendas
  • Daily/weekly class blog

I’ve created a handy infographic to help you out:Teacher Websites

What else do you include on your website?

Ready for a Break

Ah, spring break!  It’s one of the things that students and teachers look forward to all year.  Except when you don’t have one.  Tomorrow is my spring break; I get a three-day weekend and it’s back at it on Monday.

Crazy, no?  Actually, this is not the first time I haven’t had a spring break.  My previous district apparently didn’t believe in them or something, so almost every year I worked there, we would get Friday and Monday around Easter as our “spring break.”  This year, new district, but because of construction deadlines, the school year is compressed a bit.  The plus side is that I’ll be done with school on May 27th (though that doesn’t make me feel better right now).

Because of the schedule, most teachers in my district only get two days off between New Year’s and Memorial Day (President’s Day and Good Friday).  Students have a few more days off, but those end up being teacher professional development or work days.  It makes for a long haul, particularly in Minnesota where we’re still waiting for the warmth of spring to fully kick in.  Kids are restless, teachers are tired, standardized tests are looming on the horizon…..all three combine to make school a bit chaotic.

Big deal, says everyone else in the “real world.”  Teachers get three months off, so why should they need breaks during the year?  Well, don’t you have vacation days?  In my jobs, I’ve only ever had (at most) 3 vacation days all year.  Now don’t get me wrong, “regular” jobs don’t have breaks built in like we do in schools (winter break, thanksgiving, MEA, etc.).  But people who work at “regular” jobs also don’t have to do all of their work in advance so somebody else can take their place.

Plus, we all need a break.  Americans are notorious for not taking time off.  Somewhere along the line, we adopted this culture that says taking time off is a bad thing, like it means we’re less committed to our work.  For me, even though I’m a bit of a workaholic, I love getting time away.  Whether I have big plans or none at all, I still need time away to recharge.

As I embark on my luxurious three day break, what will I be doing?  Not much.  Spending time with my family, and honestly, probably doing some work on the side.  Hoping for nice weather so we can enjoy some sunshine.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll even write a blog post or two…

Happy Birthday, Twitter!

Though it seems hard to believe, Twitter is officially a decade old! Ten years ago today the first tweet was sent and the rest, as they say, is history. According to some quick Google searching, there are roughly 320 million people using Twitter as of 2016. Crazy, no?  Even crazier still, another site estimates that roughly 500 million tweets are sent EVERY DAY. Mind blowing!

For myself, I’ve technically had a Twitter account since 2008, but have only been actively using it for just over a year. In that time, I’ve added over 800 followers (most of which are educators) and followed over 900. I’ve made so many new edu-friends that I’d have lost count if it weren’t for that handy little counter on my profile. And the amount of knowledge I’ve gained in such a short time from the fabulous people? Immeasurable!

My second year of teaching (2007)

My second year of teaching (2007)

When I think back ten years ago, Twitter was just in its infancy and so was I. Not as a person, obviously, but as an educator. My teaching career turns ten this year as well. Back then, I was a brand new grad ready for my first job. I spent that first year as a middle school choir teacher, and let’s just say the experience was not exactly a highlight of my career.

Many things have changed since then. I escaped the middle school hormones and spent the next eight years teaching elementary music. I earned a master’s degree, another teaching license, and dozens of post-graduate credits. And now I’ve spent almost a year as a technology integration specialist.

If you had told 2006 me that that’s the path my career would take, I’m not sure I would have believed you.  So what, then, about the next ten years? As someone who wasn’t sure she’d make it to year ten, now we’re talking year twenty?!

I have no clue as to what the future holds. Will I still be in education? Still working with technology? I can’t even possibly imagine what technology could look like ten years from now, though I’m excited about the potential.

Or who knows? Maybe I’ll be off traveling the world on my yacht after my startup/book/blog/____ hits the big time…  😉

Voxer: Professional Development in Your Pocket!

Many educators out there have been touting the merits of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for connecting with fellow educators for promoting ongoing learning and development.  I agree with them, and I’d like to add another app to the list: Voxer.  It’s a free website as well as an app for iOS and Android and it will literally change your professional life.

Voxer is essentially a walkie-talkie where you can either listen to people talk in real time or hear their recorded messages later.  Messages can be sent to individual people or multiple users can send messages back and forth in a group conversation.  The result?  You can listen to colleagues from around the globe asking questions, providing solutions, and offering support in real time.

I discovered Voxer a few months back after joining in on some Twitter chats with some fellow Minnesota educators.  I was added to the group and at first I wasn’t sure if I liked it.  Then I was added to another group that made me almost give up Voxer entirely – the group was huge and I couldn’t keep up with the messages!  But then I found the #TOSAchat group and it has been the best thing that has happened to me as an educator!

The group is active, but they make it okay to come and go as you please.  We use a hashtag system, which allows users to know the topic of the message so you can skip over it if it doesn’t apply to or interest you (this was me when some of them were talking about some standardized testing issues in California when I’m in Minnesota).

Just like Twitter, some people actively participate in the voice chats, while others prefer to listen and lurk.  You can record voice messages or you can write text messages.  You can like another person’s message and you can forward them to a variety of other apps to store them for later reference.

I take advantage of my commute time by listening to Voxer messages while I drive.  Time that would normally be “wasted” in the car is now time I use to enhance my practice and connect with other educators.  No other social media can do that!  Others listen during breaks during the day, others at night during Twitter chats.  Because you can listen to messages any time, you can hop in and out as you please.

Have a question? Throw out a message in the morning and you’ll likely have a response later that day.  Just need to vent?  Throw out an “edu-rant” and get support from like-minded colleagues.  Want to celebrate a major “edu-win?”  Share it with your pocket pals who will be more than happy to celebrate with you!

The friends I have made and connected with the past few months have literally changed my life.  Being the only TOSA in my district can be a lonely life sometimes, but I know I’m not on my own because I have an entire network of fellow coaches in my phone who support and challenge me to grow every single day.

Your first step is installing the app and creating an account.  Next, you need to find the right group.  I have seen lists floating around Twitter of all kinds of groups around a variety of topics.  Many times Twitter chats will also have a Voxer group on the side for continued discussion.  If you’re having a having trouble finding a group, reach out to me on Twitter (@halversonandrea) and I will try to help you find a group that meets your needs.

Overwhelmed by Social Media? Meet Nuzzel!

One of the comments I hear from teachers all the time, particularly if they are new to social media, is how they feel overwhelmed by the sheer amounts of information that can flood your news feed every day.  I’ve often heard it described as trying to take a drink from a fire hose.  I’d say that expression is generally pretty accurate.

The best way to get connected and really learn from others is to follow a lot of people.  When you don’t follow many people, you don’t see as much in your news feed.  On the other hand, once you start down that road, it can become impossible to read everything that comes into your feed.

Some Twitter fans use other sites or apps like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite to organize their feed into different lists or groups, but I’ve never really had much success with that.  I know I won’t be able to see and read everything, but I’ve always felt like I have been missing good information that could really benefit me as an educator.

Enter Nuzzel!  One of my fabulous #TOSAchat colleagues introduced it to me last week and it has CHANGED the way I do social media, particularly Twitter.  Available for both iOS and Android, Nuzzel is an app that shows you the most relevant tweets from a given time period, such as the past 24 hours.

Not only that, but it tell you how many of your social media friends have shared it.  Now you can know exactly what everyone is talking about (or tweeting about) because it shows up first on the list.  You can view the tweet (or connected blog post), share it out again on social media, or export it anywhere (like Evernote where I personally like to store info for later reference – see blog post about Evernote).  There’s also a “friends of friends” screen so I can expand my search out to beyond just my own Twitter circle.

I can still go back to Twitter any time I want and take a sip from the firehose, but Nuzzel allows me to focus my searching and see the best of what’s out there with just a few taps on my phone!  Almost everything I’ve read through Nuzzel has been worth retweeting because it has been just that good.  If you tweet, you MUST use Nuzzel!

Nuzzel Website

Nuzzel for Android

Nuzzel for iOS

Start Asking Why

Why?  I have several friends who have three-year-olds that seem to do nothing but ask this question all day.  It is probably their least favorite word in the entire dictionary.  But the word “why” is powerful, when used in right way.

Toddlers ask why because they are curious.  They want to understand everything around them and they’re trying to make it fit into their existing world view.  Eventually, though, they grow out of this phase.  By the time they hit school age, they are likely still curious, but it isn’t the only word out of their mouth.  By the time many of them get to high school, the only time they likely ask “why” is when an adult is telling them to do something.

What about teachers?  Do we ask why?  I would say that we do, similar to the high schooler above, when administration or some other authoritative body tells us to do something (think one size fits all professional development or state-mandated testing).  But what about in the classroom?  Do you ever ask your students why?

Today I read an article about some new ideas in teaching mathematics (read it here).  The first strategy the author mentions for changing how we teach is asking students why.  In this case, the teacher is specifically asking why students think a certain way or why their answer works or doesn’t.  They don’t just look for the answer, because the answer doesn’t reveal anything about how the students got there.  It could have just been a lucky guess.

If students know that when they give an answer the word from the teacher will be “why,” it forces them to pay attention to their work and be more thoughtful in their response.  This likely won’t happen the first few times, but eventually the students will start thinking in this way and will be able to articulate the why behind their thoughts.

Why is important for teachers, too.  It’s easy to ask when something is being asked of us or imposed upon us.  But what about the things we put upon ourselves?  How much of what you do in the classroom is of your own choice and how much is dictated by others?  The answers to that question will vary greatly depending on the teacher, school, and district, but the fact remains that some teachers do a great many things that nobody is forcing them to do.

Simon Sinek’s 2011 book, Start With Why, talks about how the “why” is one of the most important aspects of a successful corporation (and, I would argue, school).  Everything we say and do should tie back into our inner “why,” that part that really resonates with who we are.  Everything else is distracting background noise.

About five years ago, I remember standing in an Office Max with a friend during workshop week and she was worrying about her to-do list she hadn’t completed and open house was later that evening.  One particular item of concern was a magnet that she had intended to print out for every family that included her contact info.  When I asked why she was worrying about it, she told me she had always done it and the parents would be disappointed if she didn’t do it this year.  Really?  Unless she had retained a student from a previous year, I was pretty sure that no parent would ever notice or care.  So who was this really for?

If you work in a school, your “why” is likely to do what’s best for kids.  At least I hope it is.  And if it is, then your decisions become fairly simple.  Does a magnet with all of your contact info really help kids learn better?  What about creating new bulletin board displays every month?  What about grading every single homework assignment you give them?

None of these things are inherently bad.  I’m sure there were some parents that appreciated the contact info magnet.  But is it worth stressing yourself out over in a week where you’re already incredibly busy?

I’d challenge you to start asking your students why every day.  You might be surprised at how insightful they are.  And maybe, every once in awhile, you might take a look at your own practice and ask why.  Keep those things that are absolutely vital to making learning happen for kids.  If you have time for more, by all means go ahead.  But be okay to take those things off your plate that don’t fit with your why.

Taking Risks = Growth. Try it!

Today, I read a post about the questions all new teachers have (read it here).  As I was reading the article, I thought back to my first few years of teaching and remembered feeling like I had no idea what I was doing.  Sure, I had gone through my student teaching with two amazing educators, but my two experiences had been in a K-6 building and a 9-12 building.  My first job? A 5-8 middle school, working with the age level I found the most daunting and had the least experience with.

Everything I did was a gamble because I had no idea if it would really work with my kids.  I had been trained, but anyone who has been a teacher for more than five minutes knows that teacher prep programs NEVER prepare you for what it’s really like to be put in charge of a class by yourself (Fortunately, my second year of teaching took me to a K-5 building where I really felt at home).

In those first few years, I remember thinking constantly about how nice it would be to get to the point where things felt comfortable as opposed to chaotic.  Lessons would be easier to plan, behavior management skills would be polished, and I wouldn’t be up until midnight or later getting myself prepared for the next day.  I had the idea that once I had been teaching a few years that everything would be better.  And in some ways it was.

I know some teachers who still have a file cabinet of lessons (on actual paper) and they reach for the September folder to start the year.  Their entire year is planned from beginning to end and there’s very little prep work beforehand besides perhaps running a few copies.  But even nine years later, that still wasn’t me.  Every single year looked different for me and I was always working to improve or change what I brought to my students.

Some might see that as inefficient or unprepared, but my situation was different every year.  Some years my first graders would come in having had music in kindergarten, but some years not.  Other times, I had to teach the same grade level six times and I was just so unbelievably sick of some of those lessons that I couldn’t stand to teach them the next year.  Or I had just discovered this amazing song, activity, app, etc. at a conference and just HAD to use it with my kids.  In fact, my kids would get so excited when I went to a conference because they knew I’d come back with some exciting new game for them.  It would have been unfair to teach every year’s class in the exact same way as the previous year.

I guess maybe I just get bored too easily.  But I know if I’m not excited about what I’m teaching, there’s relatively little chance that my students will be.  They usually know when we’re faking it.  Not only that, but there are new things to learn.  I would always be excited to learn a new way to teach something because it was often better than how I was already doing it.

This week, I spent some time with a veteran teacher who took a risk in her teaching.  She tried something completely and totally out of her comfort zone (and after only a little suggestion by me, I promise!).  She tackled a major technology project with her students that could have been an epic failure.  Though I’m not sure she’ll do the project again, it was a step.  Were there things that could have been improved about the project and the experience?  Of course!  But that’s always the way it goes when we try anything new.

I would challenge any of you to look at your curriculum, and I don’t mean your textbook (in fact, go ahead and throw those away now).  How long have you been teaching the same lesson?  Five years? Ten?  If it’s anything longer than three, I’d argue it’s time for a change.  Maybe not the entire lesson, but perhaps a new means of delivery or a new way to allow students to show what they know.

Plus there’s the whole idea of something so familiar allowing us to just “go through the motions.”  Remember that whole thing about kids know we’re faking it?  They can tell when we’re phoning it in, too.  Doing something new and unfamiliar makes us uncomfortable, but it also makes us aware.  It causes us to pay attention to the details and might even get our hearts racing a bit.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you give yourself a heart condition, but a little bit of fear is good.  It means we are taking a risk and it means we are invested in the outcome.  It’s easy to get comfortable in teaching, but comfortable is dangerous.

I challenge each and every one of you to teach something new this month.  Maybe a new unit, or a new lesson, or maybe an old lesson with a new twist.  Do it now.  If you don’t know how to start, ask a colleague for ideas, jump on Pinterest, or find a tech guru in your district or building.  The bigger the challenge, the better.

I’m going to warn you, it might flop.  But you will be a better teacher if you do.

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I Get to Be a Clinician?!

Five years ago, I had never presented at a conference before. I had led staff development sessions and training in my own school, but never on a bigger stage. But some music teacher friends of mine were hosting the regional conference for MKMEA (www.mkmea.com) in Columbus, Ohio, and they encouraged me to submit a session proposal. I put together a session about using technology to enhance music advocacy in the classroom and community. I was excited, but really nervous as I had never done anything like this before.

The first session went well. The feedback I got from participants was generally positive. They were excited to have someone who knew both music content and technology skills who could blend the two seamlessly. If I had to pinpoint any negatives about the first experience, it was that my session was scheduled at the same time as a couple of my friends, which meant we couldn’t be there to support each other.

Fast forward to 2016. I’ve presented at a few different conferences and I’m now working in technology full time. I don’t really get too nervous before sessions if I’ve had time to prepare ahead of time. I’ve even been thrown in as a presenter the day before a workshop and made it work. I often propose multiple sessions to present when I’m planning to attend a conference.

But yesterday, I had another first. I received an email from a music group inviting me to be a clinician in their 2016-2017 workshop series. I’ve never been asked to do this before, and I’m extremely excited. I feel honored and validated that someone values my work enough to invite me to come share my ideas with other people. I can’t wait to work out all of the details and start to plan the session that I will share with the excited music educators in their group.

And in true karmic fashion, the workshop will be in Columbus.

Bury the Guilt: Just Blog!

If there’s one feeling teachers know well, it’s guilt.  The list of things we didn’t get done today seems to grow ever longer.  There’s always one kid you haven’t really connected with, one assignment that hasn’t been graded and handed back yet, one project you haven’t started.  Or maybe there’s another teacher in your building that seems to be planned out for the next five months, while you haven’t planned past the next five minutes.  It’s easy to get caught up in all we HAVEN’T done instead of celebrating all that we HAVE done.

As teachers, there’s so much that we feel like we should be doing, particularly when it comes to technology.  There’s always an app to check out, a website to update, or a digital project idea to share with students.  The same is true, I believe, of blogging.  It’s something that we hear about all the time: all of the “good/connected/21st century/etc” teachers are blogging.  Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but either way, guilt can really get in the way of getting blog posts written.

We set some lofty goal to write everyday, or even every week, but we just don’t do it.  Work and life get in the way and we fall off the wagon.  And once we skip one day, it becomes harder to climb back on.  But why?  Just because we missed one blog post?

I am by no means a perfect blogger.  My posts are infrequent and they often go unread by others.  But I write them.  Sometimes I have writer’s block for weeks at a time and other times I have a list of a half dozen ideas or more that are waiting to be typed.  But whether you blog once a day, once a week, or once a month, the simple act of writing and reflecting is powerful.  If nothing else, it forces you to sit down and think about something you’re passionate about, passionate enough to want to share it with the world.  For me, it is often one of the few times during my day that I get slow down and just think.

So set a goal, or don’t.  Write, or don’t.  Do what feels best.  If writing brings you happiness, do it and do it often.  If it feels like a chore, it’s likely not bringing anything positive to your life.   If you enjoy blogging, then by all means set a goal and work to do it more and do it better.  If not, make like “Frozen” and let it go.  Give up the guilt that tells you that “everybody is doing it” and do what works for you.

I enjoy blogging, so I decided to accept the challenge from Nicholas Keith (@nkeithblend), a blended learning specialist from Texas, to blog for 30 days straight (30 Day Blog Binge, or 30DBB).  I have never blogged 30 days straight before.  I’ve never even blogged 3 days straight before.  Most of the time, I’m lucky if I get 3 posts out all month, and now I’m planning to do 10 times that.

We’ll see how I do.  So far, I’m on day 2 and I still have a list of potential posts ready to be written.  Either way, I’m going to give it my all.  Some days it just might not happen and other days I might have to write two posts to catch up.  Let’s do this.

To see what others are writing, check out the hashtag #30DBB.

700 Followers and Counting…

This morning, my Twitter account reached 700 followers.  While I don’t get too caught up in the number of followers I have, the milestone does give me pause.  I didn’t really use Twitter until December of 2014.  Before this, my professional connections consisted of my colleagues at my school and a handful of friends I had met at music conferences over the years.

When I attended my first technology conference just over a year ago, I attended a session about growing your PLN (and really had no idea what that was at the time).  I started following a few of the folks that presented that day and little by little, my own list of followers grew.  I joined the #mnlead chat on Twitter and my network grew even more. A couple of months ago, I stumbled onto the #TOSAchat group on Twitter, which led me to their group on Voxer and participation in that group is an almost daily ritual for me.

I have always valued connecting with other teachers, but this year it has become particularly important.  I’m in a new district in a completely new role and I am the only one of my kind.  This type of job could easily get lonely and overwhelming if you tried to do it alone.  But with the connections I’ve made this past year, that’s never the case.  In the past twelve months, I have participated in Twitter chats, connected with teachers and their classes over Skype, gotten innumerable ideas and suggestions to use in my classroom, and gotten advice and support from trusted friends.

Today, I was thinking about what teaching might have been like 20 years ago.  Teachers teaching in their own classrooms with closed doors, perhaps collaborating with a teammate or two, but no Internet, no PLNs, no connections to anyone outside their own building.  If this were me, I’m not sure I’d have stayed in teaching as long as I have.  Doing all of the work yourself is exhausting, and having many brains to think through solutions and ideas makes light work.

I know the term “connected educator” is getting tossed around quite a bit these days, but I believe having some sort of network to connect with and support you is absolutely vital.  The department or grade level team you work with is likely great, but if they are the only ones you get ideas from, you’re likely missing out on a tremendous wealth of resources.  Plus, sometimes I just need to talk through a problem or idea with someone with new ears who doesn’t know my situation directly and can give me fresh perspective.

I can’t begin to name each and every one of these people individually, so to the entire group let me say, “thank you!” You have pushed me to learn and helped me to grow as an educator more than I can possibly say.  If you don’t feel supported as an educator, I can’t recommend enough to find a group to connect with.  It WILL change your teaching life.

To Share or To Sell: An Internal Debate Over TPT

Full disclosure:   I do not have a store on Teacherspayteachers.com, but I do have an account for purchasing items.

Remember a time before the internet when teachers had to make everything themselves because nothing else was available?  Hours of designing lesson materials that got used once and were put away in the file cabinet until the following year.  Thinking to yourself, “Man, I sure wish there was someone to do this for me.”

Or maybe you are the one who is always creating those same lesson materials for your whole team, or maybe your entire district.  You probably think to yourself, “I sure wish I got paid for this.”  Meanwhile, your teammates are probably thinking, “I’m sure glad I don’t have to pay for this.”

Enter Teacherspayteachers.com, a website where teachers can post the materials they’ve spent hours working on and make a little money from them.  And other teachers can save themselves the trouble, so long as they’ve got the money to pay for it.  Teachers can post lesson and unit plans, lesson activities, games, classroom decor, and so much more.

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TPT, founded in 2006 by a NYC school teacher, now claims to have 1.7 million resources posted on their site (https://goo.gl/gKwO7a).  They also claim that teacher-sellers have earned $175 million. According to an article on Business Insider, the all-time top earner on TPT earns around $80,000 a MONTH (http://goo.gl/BP8Wtb).  Excuse me?!  I don’t think I know any teachers who make that much in an entire year.

So, what’s the problem?  For the most part, nothing.  I commend these teachers for seeing an opportunity and making the most of it.  I have friends who pay their car payments each month because of their TPT earnings.  Other friends have been able to cut down on their own or a spouse’s working hours because of the extra income.

And I’ve spent plenty of my own money on the site, too.  While I’m certainly capable of creating my own resources, I can free myself up to do other things if a teacher-seller I trust has already made the same thing.  Why recreate the wheel, or in this case, recreate the SmartBoard file?

My biggest issue with TPT comes when it starts to deteriorate a community of collaboration and sharing among educators.  I remember teachers who would never share anything they had created because they wanted to save it for themselves so they would look like some amazing teacher in the eyes of someone else.

But who does that help?  A teacher who might get a better evaluation from their supervisor?  Certainly not the students in the other classes who might have benefitted from their knowledge.  And not the health of the team that may grow to resent the teacher who never shares her genius.  I would be curious to know how TPT sellers handle working with their teams in their own buildings.  Do they share with their teammates?  Or do they expect them to pay up like everyone else?

Having spent the past year on Twitter growing my PLN, it would absolutely change the dynamic if during a chat someone posted a great idea but then wasn’t willing to share it.  Or worse, sent me a link to buy it for $5.00.  And now attending professional development conferences takes a little different tone when you realize the presenter is, in many cases, presenting in hopes that you will go to their store and buy what you see.

I don’t have a definitive answer on this one.

What do you think?  Are you pro-share or pro-sell?  If you’re a TPT seller, do you share with friends and colleagues?  I’d love to know what you think!

Clovers and Corn: 4-H and FFA

This past weekend, I traveled to my hometown of Blue Earth, Minnesota, and visited the Faribault County Fair (for the record, Blue Earth is not in Blue Earth County – don’t get confused).  When I was a kid, I literally spent the entire week at the fair.  I would often come home long enough to shower or change clothes and right back we’d go.  Not because I had an intense love of the fair, per se, but because I was IN STUFF at the fair.

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Yep, I had the jacket (2 of them, actually)!

I was involved in both 4-H and FFA for a number of years.  My entire week at the fair was busy and planned out: 4-H project judging early in the week, Arts-In performances almost every day, fashion revue, horse showing, junior leader/4-H ambassador responsibilities throughout the day, and a shift or two at the FFA Children’s Barnyard.  And all of it within a span of about five days.  Most years I don’t remember even getting to go on any carnival rides because I was just too busy.

But it was awesome.  Going back this week, I walked through the barns and exhibit halls and saw many familiar names but mostly new faces.  Some of my friends from back in the day still live in the area and now their kids are the ones in the show ring.  And I started to think about the kinds of things I did as a kid that I took for granted at the time, but now as an adult, they sort of blow my mind.

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One of my 4-H projects: Model Rocketry!

One of the things that I did quite a bit was help to lead meetings.  As a 4-H’er, I was a club officer by late elementary school.  That meant that at each meeting, I was required to give some sort of report, that is, stand up and speak in front of the entire room of adults and kids.  As my responsibilities grew, I eventually became a 4-H and FFA president, which meant I was leading the entire meeting.

The other thing that intrigues me as an educator is the idea of project judging.  In 4-H, I would sign up for a project area, work on my project independently (with parental help, of course), and then bring my project to the fair for judging.  During the judging process, I would have to explain what I did and what I learned.  The judge would also ask questions about the project.  My overall ribbon (my assessment) was determined by a combination of the project and the judging process.  FFA was no different; horse judging required me to give “oral reasons” where I had to justify why I placed each horse as I did.

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State 4-H Horse Show

How often do most kids get the opportunity to do that these days?  When do we give them a chance to talk about what they know and have learned?  Genius Hour is one way that teachers are starting down that path.  What about explaining their answers?  I see this happening the most in math, where teachers are asking students to explain their reasoning behind their solution to a given problem.  But what about other subject areas?  Kids learn great life skills in athletics, too, but do coaches ask kids what they learned or why they made a certain play or move?

To me, all of these things require communication and critical thinking, two skills that some of our students dreadfully lack but absolutely need to be successful in the future.  One of the best ways we can get to know what our kids know is to get them to talk about it.  It will likely feel strange at first, probably for both student and teacher, but eventually it will become the norm.  And not only that, once students can communicate what they DO know, I’d argue that it will also help them begin to articulate what they DON’T know and that opens the door for learning and growth.  And really, isn’t that the point?