Support: What’s Your Definition?

My head has been spinning lately. I’m approaching the end of my admin licensure program and I’m in year two of a new position at my school. Year one was easy: make some simple changes and get big results. Year two is a different story. A very different story.

I’ll spare you all the details that have made this year a challenging one, but one thing that has come up over and over in the past few months is the idea that administrators need to support teachers. I don’t disagree. Everyone wants to be supported in their work, particularly teachers because teaching is hard.

But I’m starting to wonder if perhaps teachers and administrators are working off of different definitions of the word support. The dictionary says that support means “to bear or hold up, to sustain or withstand without givingway, to undergo or endure, to sustain, to maintain.” For what it’s worth, it also lists some synonyms for support: to suffer, bear, stand, or stomach. I’ve worked with some colleagues over the years where I’m sure my principal felt like those words were more applicable in dealing with them. ūüôā

I posted a question about this on my Facebook profile a couple of months ago. The responses were not identical, but there were definitely some trends. Most of the answers centered around the things that principals can do to make their teachers feel warm and fuzzy: writing them notes, asking about their weekend, being visible in classrooms, etc. Some also talked about their administrator defending them to parents or other stakeholders.

One concern I hear a lot from teachers is that they don’t get much feedback in their day to day. For me, once I achieved tenure in the district, I got observed (and thus got formal feedback) once every three years. If you ballpark that each school year runs about 180 days, that means my principal saw me teach and gave me feedback on approximately 0.2 percent of the time. Not even one percent! In fairness, this was the system we were expected to work in and my principal was actually in my classroom more than once every three years. Many of my non-teacher friends get evaluated annually; people who stock shelves in a retail store get feedback once a year but people educating our kids don’t? (No offense to retail folks! My point is that teachers need more feedback.)

So, if a teacher definition of support means connecting with them and telling them they did a good job, is that it? And does that work for everyone? And if a principal does those things, does that still allow them to have hard conversations when necessary and give critical feedback as well? Are there other necessary elements of the teacher-principal relationship that are missing.

What else do you need from your administrator?

Jump Start Your Workout (And Your Classroom)!

A couple of months ago, I started working out again. I’m one of those people who works out a lot for a few weeks, then loses interest and doesn’t work out for six months. It wasn’t a New Year’s thing; I started in December instead of with everyone else in January. It wasn’t a weight loss thing either; I just wanted to be healthy and strong.

Part of being successful and consistent in working out is finding a routine that works for the individual. Some people are early morning gym rats like my husband. Others race to the gym after work before picking up the kids. Neither of those worked for me. I found my best time is right after putting my son to bed. I’m awake, I have energy, and nobody else can bug me.

I also had to discover that I hate cardio.¬†Well, I already knew that actually, but I found out that what I really enjoy is lifting weights. Not only that, but just walking or jogging here and there didn’t give me the results I wanted. Now, I still get some cardio mixed in there, but my program is much heavier on weights than anything else. And you know what? My body is not¬†the same as when I started. Most people probably don’t notice, but I notice a difference in how I look and (more importantly) how I feel.

Anyone who has ever tried to lose weight or get in shape will tell you that they struggle with plateaus, those points where they seem to stop making progress. No matter what they do, they can’t seem to lose another pound. The body has gotten used to whatever it is they were doing and has refused to budge. Many trainers recommend cross training and changing things up to continue to see results. Surprise the body with changed routines and it will respond.

In many ways, teaching is the same. It’s easy to fall into the same “plateau effect” where things might feel in control but aren’t really going anywhere. While it’s okay to pause to take a breath during those times, it’s dangerous to get comfortable there. Just like we have to surprise our body with new workouts or foods to jump start our metabolism, we have to jump start our teaching with new ideas and strategies to keep us moving forward.

Teaching on autopilot and expecting results is the same as those people you see at the gym who do the elliptical on a low speed while reading a magazine. Yes, they’re moving, but if they’re really trying to improve, they’re going to have to be on that thing 24 hours a day. Yes, your kids are learning something, but are you really making progress?

If we don’t defeat the plateau in the gym, we keep those last ten pounds in perpetuity. If we don’t defeat it in the classroom, we keep our kids from reaching their highest potential. But remember, just like we can’t just keep doing the same thing in our workout routine and expect to see results, we can’t keep doing the same with our students. If you’re not seeing the results you want, change your routine.

What’s the “ten pounds” in your classroom? What are you hanging on to even though it isn’t working? Take a hard look at what you do in your classroom (and your workout) and only keep what is truly effective. The next time you plan a lesson, stop and think: what am I trying to accomplish and is this the most effective way to get there?

For the record, those are not my arms in the photo. Maybe someday?

Wise Words from the Wayward Son

Those of you who know me personally, know my musical tastes are very eclectic. My favorite time to listen to music is in the morning while I’m getting ready. In any given week, you could hear anything from “Piano Man” to Pitbull coming through the door. Earlier this week, my Spotify mix featured the classic tune “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas¬†(I’ll pause while you get that one¬†stuck in your head).

I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times before and I know most of the lyrics, but for some reason I heard a new line this time. In the second verse, the line goes, “And if I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know.” This struck me because of everything I’ve been reading, thinking about, and working through the past few weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Stone Mountain, Georgia (home of 30 Rock‘s Kenneth Parcell), for a training dealing with building capacity in teachers. The biggest priority for these trainers was building awareness and reflective ability on the part of the teacher. They described four stages that the reflective practitioner goes through as they develop.

We begin as unaware teachers, practitioners who are doing the best we can with what we currently know. We aren’t aware that there are more efficient ways to do things, better ways to get our kids to learn. As we progress through the next stages, we (hopefully) ultimately end at the refinement stage. This is the “sweet spot” of teaching and learning. Refinement teachers are responsive to their students and their curriculum and can pivot on a dime to adapt to their needs right then in the moment. Every child gets what s/he needs when they need it.

As you can imagine, this takes time and practice to get to this point. It’s important to note, however, that the four stages of reflective practice don’t exactly correlate to years in the profession. I’ve worked with first year teachers who are closer to refinement than some twenty year veterans. It really comes down to how intentional we are in the classroom.

So, back to my bathroom jam. What struck me the most about the lyric was that it reminded me of so many teachers I’ve worked with over the years. The teachers who we view as “experts” often doubt their own expertise. They are constantly growing, learning, changing despite getting better results than many of their colleagues. On the other hand, the teachers that self-identify as¬†experts, or perhaps more accurately, see expertise as an “arrival point” rather than a state of mind, often have much more work to do.

Nobody’s perfect, especially teachers who are fighting an uphill battle to educate children despite difficult home lives, unreliable political climates, and full moon/lunar eclipses/barometric pressure changes. Every year is a new battle with new players and new challenges. None of us can afford to get complacent and think what we’re doing is “good enough.”

I challenge you to find an area, no matter how small, where your teaching could improve and take some solid steps to go there. Not sure where to start? Find a coach, a principal, a colleague who you can process with. Have them watch you teach and give feedback. Pay extra attention to your students and see what needs you discover.

And then go listen to some sweet tunes and dance in your bathroom…

Lessons Learned at Preschool

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my son’s preschool for the first time. An almost 3-year old, he’s been attending the same Montessori center since he was an infant. About a month ago, he transferred into one of the preschool rooms. Last week, they invited parents into the classroom to see what the children had been learning about.

When we arrived, each child had their own space in the room, marked by a small name tag. Some were sitting at tables, while others were on the floor. He came over to greet me when I walked into the room.¬†Then, he grabbed a small rug, laid it out on the floor and went to find¬†his first “job.”

Yes, my toddler¬†has jobs. They are different activities that he can choose from to practice a variety of skills. He goes to the shelf, chooses his job, carries it carefully to his mat, then starts to work. When he decides he’s done, he cleans up, returns the job to the shelf and grabs another one. This process repeats until time is up.

At his age, my son’s tasks help him practice colors, shapes, matching, stacking, letter sounds, and motor skills. In the shape sorting activity below, he has to sort the shapes. Some of them are quite small, which helps him practice fine motor skills as well.


H working on shape sorting and fine motor skills with squares, circles, and triangles of various sizes.

Another activity appears to be a simple stacking activity, but the blocks are weighted. This allows him to not only working on the coordination of stacking, but helps him learn body control while carrying the blocks. He can stack the blocks in any sort of configuration, but the classroom rule is that the towers are not taller than the builder (H is still working on this one as the best part of building towers is still destroying them).

I have been consistently impressed with the things my son learns at preschool. ¬†Did you know that both the¬†Mona Lisa and¬†The Last Supper were painted by DaVinci? My son does. Or that you can show him a painting and he can tell you it’s the¬†Purple Robe by Matisse. I don’t share this to show you how brilliant my son is (though I’m sure he is and likely gets that from his mother, right?), but to share how impressed I’ve been with his Montessori experience.


H and the weighted “brown stairs” blocks.

The most astounding part of this experience? The fact that my almost 3-year-old was working side by side with a 5-year-old who was ordering numbers from 0 to 20 and working on single digit addition. Multi-age classrooms are a trademark of the Montessori approach, the idea being that social learning is vital and children teach each other. How is my son able to blend in with the rest of the class even though he’s only been learning the routine for a few weeks? Because he watches his peers and copies what they do.

Every single one of the 18 students in the class is working on a different activity simultaneously. Every child works on what they need to work on to develop their own skills. There’s no “lesson plan” for the whole class during Montessori time. Children work independently, so teachers are able to circulate throughout the room to help them as needed. As they notice that the children are mastering certain tasks, they can give them new ones to push them forward.

As I watched the kids working, the parent side of my brain was so amazed and proud of everything my son can already do and excited to think about what he’ll be able to do very soon with the help of his classmates and teachers. The teacher side of my brain was reeling at the implications this has for K-12 education.

Imagine what a classroom would look like if every child could work independently on what he or she needed right then. Because they’re not tied up teaching whole group instruction, the teacher gets to circulate to observe and interact with every child. Teachers wouldn’t spend time preparing lesson plans in the traditional sense, but would develop activities for independent skill practice. Students wouldn’t be held back or dragged along to keep them on pace with their peers.

Some classrooms utilize learning centers or stations that do something similar. But¬†often times they’re missing some of the elements that I witnessed yesterday: individualization for each child rather than for groups, a quiet working environment, students fully engaged the entire time, and one-on-one time with every child.

Perhaps K-12 education could benefit from taking a page out of the Maria Montessori playbook. What elements of Montessori education could you incorporate into your teaching?


This blog post only describes a fraction of all of the amazing things Montessori education provides for kids. Want to learn more?  Click here!

Two Months In

Well, I’ve officially been at the new gig for two whole months now. ¬†It’s been a bit of a blur, but in mostly good ways. ¬†A big piece of that time has been preparing for back to school workshops: 3 days for new teachers plus 6 additional days for all staff. ¬†Most people in my position likely start getting to work on planning August events in late spring or early summer, so I had a bit of a disadvantage in that sense. ¬†Still, I pulled it off (while planning and teaching workshops at two other schools that I had arrangements with previously).

So, now workshops are over and we’ve had students for a week. ¬†I had a couple of “slow” days where I spent most of my day either jumping in and out of classrooms to watch my teachers in action or preparing paperwork for the next few days worth of teacher meetings. ¬†In the last two days, I met with 18 teachers to start getting to know them a bit and start setting some initial plans for our coaching process (in case that doesn’t sound like many teachers, fear not; I meet with the other 30 next week!).

I get a lot of “so how’s the new job?” and “do you like your job so far?” ¬†And the answers are “good” and “yes.” It was a bit intimidating at first to jump into a new place and try to figure things out for a position that’s never existed before. But I’m always up for a challenge! ¬†And the teachers and staff have been extremely welcoming to me in the past few weeks. Several have personally reached out to me and have shared how excited they are that I’m here. ¬†I feel the same way!

I read an article (read it here) not long ago that talked about finding the work you were meant to do. ¬†While I don’t know if I have been working here long enough to know if this is really my “calling,” it definitely feels like a move in the right direction. ¬†The author says your calling happens at the intersection of 1) doing something you’re good at, 2) making people’s lives better, and 3) feeling appreciated (see below).

I still have a lot of work to do and I have a lot to learn, but I’m heading down a good path. ¬†I can’t wait to start spending more time in the classroom watching teachers and helping them to discover their best selves. ¬†And if I can channel my inner musical nerd for a moment, I’d like to quote little orphan Annie and say, “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here.”

The “Other” One in 1:1

I’m sitting at the airport waiting for my delayed flight home from the Leyden Symposium near Chicago. I’ve just spent the past three days filling my brain, meeting new people, and exhausting myself thinking about all of the possibilities for how I can apply it all. The Symposium started a few years ago as the folks at Leyden were¬†forging ahead with their 1:1 device initiative. Educators from several states come to West Leyden High School to talk technology and best practice.

One thing stuck out to me though. While there was definitely talk of technology at the Symposium, there were more sessions that started to shift the conversation a bit. More and more, conversations centered around innovative teaching and learning and how technology supports it.

We are beginning to realize that our 1:1 initiatives might not be enough. It’s not about the devices, but rather the opportunities they provide for access and collaboration.¬†In fact, the organizers of the Symposium know this, too. This year’s event was billed as the Innovative Teaching and Learning Symposium, as opposed to previous years when it was a 1:1 Symposium.

And the change isn’t unique to Leyden. Earlier this summer, I attended an EdCamp and noticed the same thing. Gone were the obligatory tech tool sessions of EdCamps past. Now, teachers were asking for ideas for project-based learning, student centered classrooms, and student voice and choice.

We’re starting to pay more attention to how students learn, what skills they will need to survive in the world after high school, and turning the tables on educators who refuse to adapt to the times. Suddenly (but really not so suddenly), the way we’ve always done things or the way we learned them in school is not enough. This change can be difficult, particularly for those teachers who’ve never been shown another way, but some districts are trying to help the process along.

Some districts, including Leyden, are changing the roles of their instructional coaches. In years past, they may have had specific technology coaches in addition to math or literacy coaches. Now, those positions are merging to¬†one instructional coach position that focuses on good teaching as a whole. Despite the fact that I’ve worked as a technology coach (though under a different title), I like the change.

When I would work with teachers, I would often notice other issues in the classroom that merited discussion, but they didn’t fit into the category of “technology.” I also believe that the title of “technology coach” implies that technology is somehow separate from the rest of the teacher’s practice. Instead, I believe instructional coaches need to be skilled (or at least resourceful) in all areas of pedagogy, including technology, to be able to serve their teachers.

One of my favorite takeaways from the conference came from a session about innovation facilitated by Jason Markey (@JasonMMarkey). One graphic he posted (originally credited to Molly Schroeder, @followmolly), encouraged us to remember the “other” one in 1:1. It’s far too easy to focus on the device and all of the neat things it does. However,¬†the device will change as will the tasks it can perform. What doesn’t change? ¬†The “other” one.Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 4.36.43 PM

What IS the other one? The kid using the¬†device. ¬†The students are¬†why we do this job, why we have these conversations, why we attend these conferences. Ultimately, everything we do should make the educational experience better for them. We have to let go of our old ideas and biases about what education did or should look like and continually ask ourselves one question, “Is this really what’s best for kids?” ¬†They’re the ones we need to worry about.

Preparing For That First Year

Think back to your first year of teaching. ¬†For some of you, it’s an easy request as it wasn’t long ago. ¬†For others, you may have to dig in the memory a bit. ¬†I don’t remember my first day of teaching,¬†probably because it was a nerve-wracking blur. ¬†I do remember highlights, though, and that will suffice for now.

As I write this, I’m taking a break from planning a new teacher induction program. ¬†My job is to take brand new baby teachers and help them have a successful first year (and hopefully come back for a second). ¬†I’m calling on a lot of my own knowledge of things that were good and not so good from my own first year (perhaps it’s fortunate¬†my first year wasn’t that great, so I have lots of ideas for what NOT to do), but I’m also consulting outside sources.

One such book is called Your First Year: How to Survive and Thrive as a New Teacher, written by Todd Whitaker along with his two teacher daughters (Whitaker is also the author of books like What Connected Educators Do Differently, School Culture Rewired, and a handful of books talking about what great teachers, principals and others do differently).  The book is a quick read (a must for me) and gives some pretty solid advice for newbies to the profession about how to not only survive but even thrive in the first year of this crazy job.

The authors give a great deal of emphasis to relationship building and classroom management for the new teacher and spend very little time talking about curriculum and instruction. ¬†While some might see this as odd, I think it’s brilliant. ¬†Not that teachers don’t need to plan great lessons (actually, they do), but if you don’t have the respect and cooperation of your students, you can’t expect much magic to happen in that classroom.

Behavior management is one of the most difficult things for first year teachers, though I actually like to think of it as behavior¬†prevention instead. ¬†If I invest time up front with structure, procedures, and respect (not necessarily in that order), I will have very little behavior to “manage.” ¬†There was a running joke between¬†my behavior para and I when I was in the classroom that if I ever sent a student to the office, they must have really screwed up in class! ¬†There were many years I could count the number of students I removed from class on my two hands. ¬†And that¬†was¬†teaching 400 kids each week.

Why? ¬†Because I had routines in place for students to follow so they knew what to do most of the time. ¬†I had lessons planned that kept my students moving and engaged to keep them from having down time (what’s the saying about idle hands….?). ¬†My students knew if they messed up in class, I wasn’t going to tolerate it but I would let them try again when they had pulled themselves back together.

I know the time I have with these new teachers is invaluable.  I also know their minds will be spinning a hundred miles an hour with excitement, anticipation, and honest to goodness fear as they think about everything that is coming their way.  What do I leave them with that is a good use of their time and helps start the year off on the right foot?

What do they need to hear in August and what can wait until later in the year?  How do we give them as much information as possible while not making their brains explode (in a bad way)?  But how do we make their brains explode in a good way because of all of the mind-blowing discussion or ideas?

I’ll be tackling some of those questions and others over the next few weeks. ¬†In the mean time, what would have been the most helpful for you in that first week as a new teacher?


Note: Clicking on any of the links in this blog post will take you to for purchase. 

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!

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…

Out With The Old…

Think about your favorite lesson to teach. ¬†We’ve all got at least one; the one we look most forward to teaching every year and can’t wait to dust off. ¬†When did you first start teaching that lesson? ¬†Last year? ¬†Five years ago? ¬†More?

Does the lesson look the same now as when you started teaching it or have you made changes? ¬†Most likely, the first time you taught it, there were some bugs. ¬†Maybe a direction was unclear or there was a step missing that, once added, made the student’s work go much more smoothly. ¬†The great part about accumulating experience is that we get the opportunity to revise our work and continually make it better.

Here’s the thing though. ¬†If that favorite lesson is more than, say, five years old, there are so many things we’ve learned about learning and teaching that your lesson is most likely in need of a revamp (and very possible that it might even if it’s newer than that). ¬†Much research has shown us that the way many of us were taught is actually relatively ineffective. ¬†That’s not to say we didn’t have great teachers; in fact, it’s likely one of those great teachers who inspired you to pursue this career in the first place. ¬†Even our best educators need to update their material once and awhile.

Think of it this way: how¬†likely would you be to go to a doctor who hadn’t gone to a single medical conference or medical practice seminar in the past twenty years? ¬†Would you want them using outdated medical tools, practices, and procedures on you or your loved one? ¬†Of course not! ¬†With medicine, we want the most up to date knowledge so we can care for our health effectively.

Education is very similar. ¬†Though the stakes may not seem quite as high as in medicine, using practices that don’t support what we know about how students learn actually makes it that much more difficult for our students to learn. ¬†We need to use what we’ve learned about education to make better choices.

Before you teach your next unit or lesson, consider the following images:

What do you notice? ¬†What do they have in common? ¬†All of them shift the focus from the teacher as knowledge bearer/giver and student as passive receiver to a model where the students are actively learning with the teacher as facilitator or guide. ¬†You’ll also notice that there is an increase emphasis on personalizing learning for the student (and using technology to help with this as needed). ¬†Kids don’t need the same things, so they don’t get the same things (I will grant that this gets a little stickier¬†to understand¬†when we have a push in education for “standardizing” everything – more on this in a later post). ¬†In the 21st century classroom, the teacher’s role becomes more of a coach, guiding kids to the outcomes while pushing them to do the real “work” of learning.

I hear a lot of teachers argue that these ideas don’t match what was when they attended, and they’re right. ¬†Schools in years past prepared students for jobs that already existed. But schools today must prepare students for jobs that can’t even be imagined yet. Kids today have unprecedented amount of knowledge at their fingertips within seconds. That changes the type of information they need to know going forward, and the type of skills they need to have to be successful after graduation.

This is a hard concept for some¬†teachers to get behind. We are trained to be in charge of the classroom and make all of the decisions about student learning. ¬†But don’t worry; giving students choices is not the same as letting them be in charge (My two-year-old gets to make choices, too, but he is certainly not in charge). ¬†In fact, I would argue that allowing for student voice and choice actually requires¬†better classroom management skills because those things can only happen within a strong classroom structure so students can feel safe and free to learn and explore.

Again, remember we are preparing students for life after our classroom. ¬†Life is full of¬†making choices. ¬†If we want our students to make good ones in the real world, they need practice. ¬†And what better place to practice making decisions that probably aren’t life altering than in the classroom with the support of a great teacher/coach?

These changes likely won’t happen overnight. ¬†I don’t expect you to overhaul your entire curriculum over the weekend. ¬†But as you sit down to plan your next week, consider the following and see where you can make a tweak or two:

  • Is there room in your lesson plan for a chance for students to make a choice or two?
  • How can you allow them to be creative, collaborative, critical thinkers with strong communication skills?
  • How can you provide differentiated learning for students of varying ability or readiness levels?
  • If your lesson includes lecture, how can you shorten, minimize, or toss it out altogether for something more engaging?

You just mind find your changes addicting.  I can guarantee your students will!


All Learn and No Play?

Think about your school when you were a child. ¬†Did you like going to school¬†or dread it? ¬†Do you remember being happy there¬†or was it all hard work? ¬†I honestly don’t remember much from those early school days, but I remember my mom telling me I was excited the first day and then came home and said I was bored. ¬†That being said, I remember many good things about my elementary school days. ¬†A few bad things, of course, but I was generally a good kid and did well in school so it was a pretty positive experience.

I remember having recess at least twice a day (and playing on playground equipment that would likely be banned today), having special events at school, and making all sorts of crafty things that I still have in scrapbooks in my basement. ¬†As I’ve become a teacher myself, I wonder what that experience will look like when my own son gets to be school age. ¬†Ask anyone who teaches kindergarten and they’ll tell you that kindergarten is not what it was when I went.

Kids are expected to be reading before leaving kindergarten, yet many of them enter it without knowing any letters or sounds. ¬†It’s setting up a five year old with a pretty unrealistic expectation. ¬†The learning that used to happen in first grade has now been bumped down to the younger ones, regardless of whether those learners are prepared for such a load.

Kids are coming to school younger and much less prepared than ever before. ¬†Daycare is expensive and school is free. ¬†Many families require both parents to work outside the home, and often multiple jobs, to make ends meet so there isn’t a parent home all the time to read to them. ¬†Then on top of all that, we cut down on art, music, physical education, and recess and then expect them to sit still for eight hours. ¬†Anyone else not surprised by the growing number of ADD/ADHD labels¬†in schools today?

Today, I read an article from this past fall that talked about the vast differences between kindergarten in the United States and Finland (read the article here). ¬†The Finns take¬†a very different approach to learning with the little ones. ¬†The vast majority of their day is spent at play and “real learning” happens when students are ready (though really, they’re learning all the time they’re playing, just not in the traditional sense). ¬†In more and more American schools, however, children are expected to spend up to half of their day in reading instruction with minimal amounts of time for free play and physical movement.

A study from New Zealand cited in the article said that children who learn to read at age seven catch up to their peers who learn at age five, and by age eleven the two groups have comparable skills. ¬†So why the big push to start so young? ¬†Not only do our younger “readers” not come out ahead in the long run, I’d venture to guess that many of them actually come out behind. ¬†If reading is drilled into you for 3 hours a day, will you ever learn to love it? ¬†Will you ever think of school as a place to learn and grow or will it always be the land of rules, worksheets, and no fun?

I feel fortunate that so much of my own training has been centered around teaching children through play. ¬†My approach to musical literacy has always relied on kindergarten to lay the foundation of sound and experience and never begins true “reading” until first grade. ¬†My lessons centered around play and experience; often students wouldn’t see what we were doing as “work” or even learning because they were having so much fun (on a side note, I also had very few behavior issues in class because the students were playing and moving all the time).

According to the article, the Finns have a saying that goes, “Those things you learn without joy you will forget easily.” ¬†Read that again. ¬†Now think back to your own days at school, both as a student and as a teacher (if you are one). ¬†How much of what you did was done with joy? ¬†And how much do you remember?

I can already hear some of the teachers I know saying, “School¬†isn’t supposed to be fun. ¬†Kids are there to learn, not have fun.” ¬†Why can’t it be both? ¬†Is there some unwritten rule that says you can’t have fun while learning? ¬†Or some thought that if your class is fun that the kids aren’t learning anything?

We need to let kids be little. ¬†In case you don’t believe me, consider these:

‚ÄúPlay is the work of the child.‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Maria Montessori

‚ÄúPlay is the highest form of research.‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Albert Einstein

‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.‚ÄĚ¬Ě ‚Äď George Bernard Shaw

‚ÄúDo not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.‚ÄĚ ‚Äď Plato

‚ÄúPlay is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.‚ÄĚ ‚Äst Fred Rogers

They will learn, no matter when they begin.  But they can never go back to being little.

Ditch The Textbook! Find Your Passion!

This past week, I participated in the #ditchbook Twitter chat.  Named after the book by Matt Miller (see on Amazon here), the chat focused on moving students from being consumers to creators and pushing teachers to be creators themselves, particularly when it comes to their own curriculum and resources.  The teacher side of the discussion particularly challenges the traditional way of thinking of curriculum and resources in the classroom.

Many districts still spend time and money on traditional curriculum review cycles, which ultimately result in the purchase of some sort of textbook and related resources. ¬†The thing is, though teachers spent a fair amount of time and district money to choose the textbook, they are almost always dissatisfied with their purchase. ¬†But by then it’s too late; there’s not usually a return policy¬†for a mass purchase of textbooks.

Then once the books arrive, teachers are always so excited because they think that this book might just be “the one;” the one-stop shop that allows them to just teach and not have to scramble putting together extra resources when the book doesn’t meet their students’ needs. ¬†Yet time after time, they eventually come to the same realization that they will still be hunting and gathering to get the job done.

So why do we keep doing this? ¬†If we have been buying textbooks for decades only to be continually disappointed, why haven’t we figured out that¬†the only way to fix it is stop buying them?¬†Even when some teachers are on board with not purchasing textbooks, districts often say no and force them to purchase them anyway.

One reason I hear from teachers who cling to textbooks is that it would take far too much time to curate or create all of the resources they’d need to teach their course. ¬†A fair point to some extent. But if you’re already scrounging for extra resources to fill in the gaps of a textbook, why not just start there to begin with? ¬†Start with the standards you are expected to teach and then select the best resources available to teach them.

Textbooks are boring.  When was the last time anyone was at all excited about the content in a textbook?  This is particularly true when I look at texts for English/Language Arts.  I have yet to see a textbook that can remotely compete with the excitement of a good novel or short story.  How on earth do we expect to create kids who are passionate about reading if all they ever get to read are the awful, canned stories from the textbooks?  Why not teach using the latest YA novel that kids are raving about anyway?

On top of that, textbooks in some subjects, such as science, are virtually out of date the moment they’re printed. And since many district don’t purchase new texts for at least seven years, there could potentially be drastic changes to the information before a new purchase is made.

Guess what else? ¬†Teaching boring materials is boring. ¬†Remember how most teachers got into education because they were excited and passionate about teaching kids? ¬†It’s pretty hard to be passionate about textbooks. ¬†Textbooks don’t make subject content come alive; passionate teachers do. ¬†How much easier would it be to spring out of bed each morning if you knew you were teaching a concept you were absolutely nuts over using resources that were exciting and engaging? ¬†Now compare that to your excitement about teaching chapter 5, page 12.

A word of caution here: teachers sometimes confuse teaching with passion with just teaching whatever they want and throwing standards out the window. ¬†That doesn’t work either. ¬†But good teachers can use something they’re excited about to teach virtually any concept by the connections they make with the material and the resources they support with learning. ¬†In fact, they might even become more efficient because they will realize that they can tackle multiple standards with a particular resource.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that some teachers might feel compelled to use the resources provided by the district. ¬†It’s as if the teachers need to hold up their end of the bargain in exchange for the district pulling out its wallet. ¬†That needs to stop right now. ¬†Yes, I know there are districts that mandate textbook use; some even go so far as to designate what is taught on a given day in each classroom with the excuse being high numbers of transient students. ¬†I actually do see the benefit of some consistency in what standards are being taught when, but I believe it should be up to the teacher to determine how that happens.

Finally, what works with one group of students doesn’t work with all. And what is relevant one year might not be in five years. Creating or curating your own curriculum resources ensures that the person who knows the students best is choosing materials specific for them, rather than some generic textbook that is supposed to “fit” students all over the country.

This process I’m suggesting here is not an overnight fix. ¬†Building these types of resource collection takes time and effort. ¬†So start small. ¬†Choose one standard or group of standards¬†that is presented in a particularly terrible way in your current textbook and completely transform it. ¬†How could you teach it so it would absolutely blow your students’ minds? ¬†What resources would you choose? ¬†Where could you allow students some choice in what or how they learn? ¬†How will you have students show you what they know? ¬†How might technology fit in? ¬†I promise, if you take the time do really do this well, it will likely grow to be your favorite unit all year. ¬†Imagine if you worked up to all of your units being taught that way – you’d have the best job ever!

Full disclosure, I haven’t even read Matt’s book yet and I know I’m totally on board. ¬†In nine years of teaching, I never used the textbooks provided to me by the district (unless you count using one or two to prop up a projector or flatten something). ¬†The material wasn’t great quality, the books themselves were not great quality, and the book didn’t support the sequence of concepts and skills set forth by our district.

If any of this resonates with you, join the #ditchbook Twitter chats on Thursday nights at 7pm CST and follow Matt Miller on Twitter!

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.