What is wrong with public education? The response will vary depending on who you ask. The fact that most of us whether we are new educators or veterans can think of something we would like to see changed opens the door for powerful conversation.
I recently posted on being a cheerleader for change discussing how we engage with out students. The main focus is to build positive relationships with students and seek opportunities to be their champion and biggest supporter. We have so many opportunities to be a positive influence in their daily lives and help shape their view of school and the world. The same holds true for other groups in education.
To create a positive learning culture not only in your classroom, but throughout your school and district you have to be surrounded by positive passionate individuals who have a vision for greatness. These people have a growth mindset. A belief that we aren't there yet, but we know where we want to be and are constantly working to get there, we will take risks, make mistakes, and fail. However we will learn together and achieve amazing things.
To make true cultural change a reality, we have to embrace those who are willing to take risks and push us to new ways of thinking and doing. We have to take risks ourselves. We most definitely have to cherish every opportunity we have with students and strive to be positive influences in their lives. If we want a positive school culture we have to be willing to put in the time effort and work to do the extraordinary. We must challenge others when they are content to live in mediocrity or in Negativeville. It is our duty to be supportive of students no matter what- dislike the behavior - love the child.
Finally the group that we sometimes overlook when talking about supporting change is our administration. There are too many great administrators out there who stepped into a leadership role because they wanted to make positive change in education to name here. They took a risk in doing this and in order to allow them to achieve their vision we need to be their first followers. We need to sometimes carry the burden for them and step up to maintain that vision.
What are the top 5 things you would like to change about education? - Go list them now!
What are the top 5 things you would like to see change in your own school or district? Name those!
I bet it didn't take you long to come up with a list of 5. You may even have been an overachiever and come up with 15 things without blinking. Why is it so easy to come up with the things we don't like about our current reality?
Now that you are hopefully pondering the potential for change, let's talk about making change!
Changing Student Behavior
If you have been in education for any amount to time I am sure you have experienced some issue with student behavior that you wanted to change. These things could be very minor things to potentially defiant behavior.
During my career I have found myself in this situation, and at times I struggled to find the proper response. I share my failings because I want to be very clear when writing these posts that I am not in a position to judge others. As the saying goes, to err is human, and honestly I am very very human. I have not always lived up to the ideas I am going to share in these posts, but I at least realize that the way I have done it in the past were not best practices.
What I have realized in my own reflection of situations is that we need to ask better questions. I have many times asked the easy question, and what I mean by that are the questions that led to my expected answers. The questions we really need to ask are those that challenge our current practices and force us to evaluate and modify our beliefs and values.
There are a few scenarios I have encountered in my career that allow us to investigate and find out more about our students and our classroom environment.
Scenario 1 - Student Behavior
There is a student you are struggling with in class whose behavior isn't inline with your expectations. We can fill in the details for what those behaviors are. The behavior has prompted your decision to contact other teachers who have this student enrolled in their class. This is the critical point in your quest for making change.
Potential Pitfalls - Asking the wrong questions
Don't ask if the student is a behavioral issue for others! Asking if others see bad behavior is a negative question. Whether the response is yes or no doesn't help resolve your issue with the student. To Illustrate this, if the teacher responds yes, this potentially reinforces the belief that it is the student alone who is creating this behavior and that you can write this off to the student being a behavior issue. This leads to little or no change in the teacher and also tends to create a strained relationship between the teacher and this student and could result in broader negative classroom consequences.
If the teacher responds NO, you still don't have insights into what motivates this student to behave in this manner. You are still searching for the resolution to your issue and a way to connect to this individual student and help them feel connected to your classroom environment.
Potential Resolution - Ask better questions
In the above scenario, the teacher made an effort to learn about their student, however as pointed out, the question likely doesn't result in the information necessary to create a successful resolution. When inquiring about student behavior whether with another teacher, guidance councilor, administrator, coach, or others we need to ask better questions. I also think we need to enlist people beyond school personnel to help us get to know our students. We should contact parents, they know their kids and have tremendous insights into their own child's behavior. Also think about their peers when beginning your inquiry. I put this group last because I think you need to choose both your questions and those you ask those questions carefully.
Focus on the positive
Why are students behaving the way they are in my class? We looked at a potential question that tends to lead to validation of the idea that the student is a behavioral problem. How do we avoid that pitfall? Ask questions that seek to learn more about the student.
When meeting with the teacher, parent, etc. ask them "What are some good things you are seeing of this student?" Imagine the difference in potential responses compared to the previous inquiry. This changes the focus to being positive and something you as a teacher can use to build a relationship with this student. If you find out they like to hunt, bowl, read, run, whatever it might be, you have information you can now use to explore this interest with the student. If it isn't an interest to you, let them teach you about it. I have had many conversations about engines, video games, stereos/electronics that were well beyond my on knowledge level. Each conversation let the student showcase their interest and let me peek a little more into their personality.
Another aspect of this conversation is that your questions could be directed to both academic and behavioral performance. In both cases the responses provide more detail to help us resolve poor behavior or academic issues because we can utilize this information to build a positive relationship with our students.
Scenario 2 - Student Engagement
I have seen students who don't speak a word in my class laughing and telling stories with their friends in the stands of a sporting event or at the lunch table. I am overjoyed at seeing that they have a group that they feel comfortable enough to share themselves with. At the same moment I am struck by that ominous notion - If they are so gregarious in laughter and storytelling here, what is the obstacle for them in my classroom? What do I need to change to assist them in their journey to be confident and comfortable in my classroom? How can I make them feel like they belong in OUR classroom?
My initial response to this situation is that I need to build a relationship with this student. I need to look at the actions I describe in scenario 1 to begin learning about this student. I also know this must include creating opportunities to spend time with the student in conversation. I know it is easy to say get to know your students, and that is the most important thing. I say this with the understanding that we are all faced with lots of expectations and demands that pull us in different directions. However if we put student relationships above all other things in our classroom environment, many other things take care of themselves. I also say this honestly admitting that I didn't always put this first in my classroom and didn't always break down those barriers with my students. I don't have all the answers but can speak to the fact that not making relationships my first priority had negative consequences on my learning environment.
1. Give up your stage! - Being the sage on the stage where you dispense information to students with few or infrequent opportunities to participate does not bode well for relationship building. You hold the keys to who and when can have a voice in your classroom. I am not saying that Direct Instruction has no place in education, but it can't be the one and only format.
You need to put the students in situations where they are collaborating or working independently. This provides you with opportunity to observe, and jump into conversations with the students.
2. Meet them where they are! - Catch them at the door and engage them as they walk in. Sit with them at least a few minutes at lunch. Anything you can do to show them you are interested in who they are. This is not about academics, but about them as a person.
3. Genius Hour- While I definitely gave up the stage and tried to do more to engage with students outside of class, the greatest game changer was Genius Hour. I instituted this in my class, and it provided so many opportunities to get to know more about students and their interests and passion. I can't say enough about giving students an opportunity to follow their passions. They will shine and the insights into who they are is priceless.
4. Give Students Choice! - Much like Genius Hour, give students opportunities to decide how they will demonstrate their learning. I have heard teachers say, my students have checked out- My response, how can we check them back in? Why aren't those students interested in our classroom or our activities? Provide students a variety of products to choose from. This could include a choice board where you have skits, songs, essay, movie, advertisement, art work, etc. that students are able to adapt to their personal learning strengths.
The other important aspect is to create meaningful learning activities. Students will engage when they believe the activity is valuable to them.
Scenario 3 - Homework
Homework has become a debatable topic in the past few years. Some think homework is key to learning, others that there are multiple obstacles to student completion and so we shouldn't assign it. I started in the camp of assigning homework because I was told it was an expectation. Students were expected to work to earn credit. I was also told that if students didn't do it they weren't being responsible. To not do homework was showing insubordination to class expectations. I heard and likely even said, well they wouldn't be failing if they would only do the homework. What I learned was this mindset created a barrier between myself and my students. I battled with them about doing their homework. What was lost in that behavior on my part was that by giving students a zero for not doing homework didn't show their level of understanding of the concept. I have found many issues with how I had dealt with homework during my early career. I share those failings in hopes that you will engage in the conversation to find a better solution for you and your students.
What if when students don't do homework we ask not only why they don't do it but go further - what is the purpose of homework and am I assigning meaningful authentic work?
1. Don't Grade Homework! - If homework is a part of the learning process, but not the end result, then why grade it? I stopped grading homework my last year in the classroom. I provided students opportunities to engage in the material outside of class, but used it as formative assessment. Students would come to class and we would discuss the learning task. The task showed up in the grade book but counted as 0 points and 0 percent of their grade. I just recorded it to help track their progress and provide more details to aid in the discussion of student progress.
2. Assign Meaningful Authentic Work- This can be the most difficult to change to achieve. However it is also the most important to truly change the dynamics in your classroom. I am not claiming to be good at creating meaningful tasks on a regular basis, but I have seen the tremendous positive response by students to these tasks. I have heard of teachers having students spend hours working on what they called side quests, and my students have demonstrated similar as part of non-graded Genius Hour projects. When students are interested in the task and see value in completing it, they will do amazing things. They will put in extraordinary effort and the results are phenomenal!
3. Don't Assign Homework- If you struggle with homework, and it hasn't provided the educational benefits you were looking for, then don't assign it. If students can do well on your assessments of learning, cumulative projects and tests, but don't do the work, then is the homework necessary?
I struggled with homework for a long time. I described this struggle earlier. I must admit that I only made it to suggestion 1 in my transition. I was working on reinventing homework to fit suggestion 2, but definitely had not embraced number 3.
I am not here to tell you that there is one perfect view on homework, but rather to challenge your thinking on the topic. I have freely admitted my shortcomings in all of these areas and decided to write this post to generate conversation. I wish others had challenged my thinking earlier in my career. I have always found that when others question what I am doing or why I am doing it as an opportunity to reflect on my practices. Sometimes I have been justified and strengthened in my professional practices. Many times the challenge has lead to change in my methodologies that have helped me grow and improve as a professional but more importantly as a person.