Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Students Speak Out: Weapons of Mass Instruction

I've been thinking about incorporating student voices on my blog. So last week I invited some recent alumni to be a 'guest blogger' on this blog. I asked them this question: "How did the digital tools you used in grade 11 enhance your learning experience?" What follows is the first student voice that I bring to my blog and hopefully, not the last.

The guest blogger is Loa. She was a student in my Sociology and Psychology classes in 2009/2010. As you will see, she is a gifted writer and easily communicates her ideas and feelings. Loa shares an experience that I think is common among many students. Our beloved 'digital natives' are comfortable with some technologies and not others. This might surprise some teachers who mistakenly believe that all teens are techno-savvy. They might text faster than most adults but they still need their teachers to introduce them to the powerful collaborative learning (digital) tools, such as the ubiquitous Google docs and Diigo. Here is what Loa had to say:

From Darren Kuropatwa's Flickr stream
“Technologically incompetent.” That was a label I proudly wore for years. Up until my graduating year of high school, surfing the web was just about as daunting a thought as surfing with sharks, and Google was an ocean of information I felt I might drown in. If unfamiliar with the World Wide Web, the idea of entering a tech classroom is both terrifying and overwhelming.
Last year, I was introduced into a learning environment where the chalkboard remained untouched and textbooks weren’t even purchased. Our arsenal of learning weaponry consisted almost singularly of a laptop- and our ammo a wiki, a personal learning network, online bookmarking, and a plethora of other programs and concepts I was unfamiliar with. My fear was that amidst all this unfamiliarity, I would be the only one unable to tread through my tech troubles. Little did I know that within a couple of months, my classroom of less than two-dozen students would form a coalition, an online community, but most of all, a support system.    
First semester, in order to make the transition from textbook classroom to going digital easier, we worked mainly with wikis and blogs. This was the perfect platform to help learn and implement, for the first time, the idea of collaboration. Not only were we able to share our assignments and view those of others, giving us a much broader range of knowledge than one would normally get from simply handing a project in to a teacher, but we could constructively criticize and push each other to reach our full potential. Each classmate became an important resource vital in each other’s success.
Second semester, we branched out and created personal learning networks that were specific to our individual research needs. It soon became obvious that google (most student’s go-to search engine) only provided a fraction of the basin of information that is offered online. There were tools and applications available that were beneficial to virtually any type of learner. And by sharing our PLN's with one another, every student was fully equipped with dozens of promising resources.
In effect, using digital tools greatly enhanced my learning experience this past year. Not only was it a fun, interesting way to learn, but I would walk out of every class feeling fulfilled at having learned things that were relevant and up to date. Being tech-savvy has given me the confidence to become an independent learner, knowing that the tools that will guide me to success are but a click away.
“Technologically incompetent” is label I’ve long since discarded. Now, I’m “digitally remastered” and proud of it!

Thanks to Loa for sharing her experience on this blog.  Her insights might be an important motivation for teachers who are fearful to take the leap into the digital learning space.  Teachers don't have to know everything and be masters of every learning tool.  If we can model excellence in learning (and that might mean humility and learning with/from the students) then we've been of service.  I encourage teachers to make the move from the learning place to the learning space by incorporating digital tools that can revolutionize your teaching and their learning.  I also welcome comments from anyone reading this blog.  You know that 80/20 split?  Only 20% of readers (and that's a lot!) will leave a comment, while 80% read, consume, think about the post (hopefully) and move on to the next blog.  That's fine too but teaching and learning is all about the relationships.  Reach out, touch someone and leave a comment if you're so inclined.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Google Secrets

What did we do before Google? Yes I know there are other search engines and I do use meta search engines but Google is so much more than that. I'm always amazed that people don't know about the variety of free tools that Google offers - beyond the ubiquitous 'Google docs' and G-mail.

Let's begin with the search engine. Even as powerful as it is, it only penetrates about 30% of the 'deep web'; the massively complex connection of pages, files and data. To be more effective in penetrating this surface layer, we can learn a few easy tricks here.

Howie DiBlasi was one of ISTE's (International Society for Technology in Education) keynote speakers and I recently listened to his session of effective web searches using Google.

In the spirit of the participatory web 2.0 culture, he offers many of his presentations and notes for educators to use.  Check out his web site here and consider following him on Twitter.  He is a wealth of information and  experiences.

Richard Bryn who blogs at Free Technology for Teachers is my favorite blogger for hot tech tips.  He has several great guides on using Google tools and you can find them here. 

I'm including my own presentation on some key tips for effective searching as well.  You may use this presentation but please credit the author - me!

I recommend teachers and students use Google Scholar and Books when they are researching a topic. Google Alerts will act as your own personal assistant and return information to you while you are busy doing something else. Google forms can easily be embedded into your web site, blog or wiki. Some teachers even use these for quizzes. Here is an example of what I am doing at the beginning of this school year.

After my students fill out the form, the information is sent to my Google docs inbox.  Their responses are private and even include a time stamp.  When the next student comes to the wiki page, they don't see the responses of the previous student.

There are so many ways to use Google and its products.  Take some time to learn a few basics and your students will thank you for it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Teachers Make

If you have spent any time on YouTube and if you are a teacher (good assumption for my readership), you might have come across Taylor Mali.  He is a 'spoken word artist' and a teacher.  Before this blog moves into the 'here are some good ideas for your classroom' mode, I want to linger a tad more in the 'inspiration' mode.  So, bookmark this page and come back to Mali's inspiration in October, or even the gray days of November.

Here he is on YouTube...

 and here is a great visual presentation of his 'poem' from Slideshare.net.

I love Taylor Mali.  I love dedicated teachers.  Life is good.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wikis Rock

On Friday I spent the day AWAY from my computer and hanging out with my sister who is also a teacher. It is no surprise that much of our conversation centered around teaching; our students, administrators, colleagues and new ideas for this year. She is in a difficult place this year, one that I remember very well. Her colleagues are uninspired, her administrators not helpful and her resources are scarce to absent. It's almost criminal. She is a teacher with passion, conviction and an intense desire to improve so she can increase the students' learning.  Unfortunately many of her roads are blocked.  I know this is the reality of many teachers today.

So I told her about the free web2.0 tools that are the backbone of my teaching. The first stop is the wiki. (I prefer PBWorks but any wiki engine is good.) The basic wiki from PBWorks is rich with possibilities for hosting your classroom resources and encouraging student collaboration. Just sign up for an account and listen to their online tutorials. This coming September 1st, you can participate in a free webinar and learn the basics. I recommend it.

After two years of convincing the powers that be in my neck of the woods, my school is finally adopting wikis. We are implementing the 'Campus Edition' from PBWorks which means that everyone (up to 1,000 users) can have a premium wiki- teachers and students!   (One premium wiki costs $100 and allows complete control of pages and folders. Each page/folder has security permissions and the storage capacity is up to 40GB.)  The Campus Edition allows for unlimited wikis for up to 1,000 users so really, that means that the storage capacity is unlimited.  I'm thrilled about this move and can't wait to see what the staff and students will do with this tremendous tool.

Can you imagine what it would be like to graduate from sec 5 with a digital portfolio that showcases your learning curve from sec 1? That's a powerful learning tool and a tremendous record of many years of work. In my own case, I'm beginning the third year with most of my wikis and have come to see them as living books. Each year seems to have its own colour.

So, chin up, step up and move up into the world of free web 2.0 tools and wiki your way to another great year!  And keep your eyes on the wikis from PBWorks because they are always improving their product.  Here's the latest - uploading files is even easier.

Drag and Drop File Uploads from PBworks on Vime

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Remember the Big Picture

It is almost here; you know, the day when you walk back into the familiar building, greet your friends, admire their tans and ask them what they did over the summer. Afterwards, you munch on a few donuts, sit through a few meetings, make sure the photocopier is functional and then reclaim your workspace to ‘plan the year’. For many this means; dust off the pile of worksheets, count the tattered text books and print out your course syllabus. By the day’s end, it feels like summer never happened and you have slipped back into the workspace mode.

But wait; there is another way to begin the year! Instead of (ok, if you must, in addition to) worksheets and textbooks, open up the laptop and find your resources on line. Google books is a good place to start. Upload your course syllabus to a blog, webpage or better yet, a wiki. Learn some new tools and energize your teaching.

Fall in love with teaching again. Remember what your initial vision was whenever you first began teaching. Did you want to change the world, one class at a time? Did you want to help the ‘broken’ ones who did not believe they could learn but you knew they could? Whatever your first dream was that propelled you into the profession, reconnect with that and spend some time nourishing those feelings. Find your comfortable space; the back yard, your oversized chair or where ever you allow your mind to be at rest. Take a trip back and visit that teacher of the first and second years. Honor her calling and congratulate his brave vision. Remember what it felt like in those early years when your students said those magic words that thrill us to the core - “Thank you for helping me”.

Now, open your eyes and come back to 2010. Welcome to the rest of your teaching career; the best part of your teaching life is just around the corner. There has never been a more exciting time to be a learner/teacher than right now. Whatever you can imagine, you can do. Do you want your class to collaborate on a science project with a class in Hong Kong? Check out this site and get on board with Vicky Davis and Julie Lindsay who are connecting students to classrooms around the world and breaking down racial, cultural and economic barriers as their students experience the common humanity of others just like themselves. Do you want to motivate your students with amazing speakers but the logistics of it all are overwhelming? Check out Wetoku or Skype and bring the world to your students. Are you thinking about a new way to teach math? Look at what Eric Marcos is doing with his students, or I should say, what his students are doing as they teach one another math using videos tutorials that they create. If this is not enough and you need more energizing, sit back and marvel at this wonderful teacher who loves writing so much that after her ‘day job’ she teaches from her basement using a Smart Board and Skype. Did I tell you that she’s only twelve, that she published her first book at seven and that her ‘day job’ is being a student in a classroom? Meet Adora Svitak here on on her website and enjoy this short video of Adora at TED.

I met her this summer in Boston at the BLC2010 conference where she spoke about the power of youth leadership. She is amazing.

We teach in amazing times and we can accomplish incredible things. It is a privilege to participate in the growth process of these amazing students. Remember that big picture and as you prepare to return to school. Do not give into the ‘yea but’ voice in your head. Yes, there will be obstacles and yes, learning new ways might be a bit scary but do it anyway. We are already one decade into the 21st century folks. The future of teaching and learning is here. Welcome to 2010!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Innovation and Creativity

Yesterday I posted about how wikis and prezi presentation were some of my favorite tools.  Everybody has their list of tools and we all know that tech doesn't make the teacher.  Teaching and learning is essentially about relationships and networks.  There is no hard and fast rule, no one size fits all and no easy solutions to difficult challenges when it comes to teaching strategies.  However, when it comes to qualities and characteristics of good teaching I think that innovation and creativity are at the core of the effective teacher.

 This summer I read Sir Ken Robinson's book The Element.  If you haven't seen him on TED, do yourself a favour and take the 18 minutes to listen to him.  He reminds teachers that the creative child is often different and does not conveniently fit into conventional systems.  His book is an homage to the creativity of many famous people who all had horrendous experiences in the classroom but thrived later on in life when they discovered and developed their creative nature.

Bill Gates spoke at a conference hosted by Techonomy recently and had some interesting things to say about innovation in education.  In this short clip, he speaks about online education and how innovations in educational technology will reduce the cost of college education.  At the end of the clip he bemoans how the school system does not encourage teachers to be innovative and creative.

What do you think? Do you agree with Bill Gates? Is creativity and innovation in the classroom diminished because of a rigid system that encourages standardization and uniformity? Are you a teacher who values creativity and will look for ways to be innovative despite the obstacles? Leave a comment!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New Tools for Back to School

By now, many teachers are already thinking, reviewing, planning and building material for the beginning of the new school year.  Here are two important tools that I will be revisiting this week as I prepare for this upcoming year: wikis (I use pbworks.com but there are many other wiki engines) and Prezi.

I'm sure that everyone has heard of wikis but not everyone has tried them as their digital classroom.  I've been working with wikis (love the alliteration possible with "wiki") for three years and I'm still convinced that they are the superior digital tool for the classroom.  I could go on singing their praises for a long time but instead I'll refer the reader to previous blog posts about the wonders of the wiki (there's that alliteration again!).  I'm including a prezi I made when I presented to LCEEQ in February 2010 about the digital classroom.

 Unfortunately, the prezi presentation does not stand alone and will only give you the briefest of ideas of how powerful wikis can be.  Readers can also use this public wiki I made to accompany that presentation. One of the great things about pbworks is the simplicity and accessibility of their platform. You can keep your wiki private and allow only your students to access it or you can make it public and still control who can contribute.   And all of this is FREE.  If you want more control, then you need to buy the premium version that allows you to hide and/or lock pages and folders.

My students appreciated the organization they gained because everything we did was on the wiki.  I created one page where I listed the topics covered (so they could also see what was coming in a few weeks), the assignments/homework and due dates but best of all, I linked the classroom resources to that page.  Not only did this remove any excuses like, "I was absent Miss" but I made that page public so the parents could be informed.  By the senior grades, parents don't want to be checking their child's agenda but if you add the url of this wiki page to your class syllabus that parents read and sign, then they will have access to this precious information.  It's so important to include the parents in their child's learning journey and wikis are a great way to do this.  Here's what that page looked like for the anthropology class.

Prezis are my favorite way to present anything because of the dynamic movement of text and images on screen.  Importance of ideas is created by hierarchy of text size and the zooming effect around prezi's infinite canvas. Embed prezis on blogs, wikis and webpages that you create for your classroom is very easy.  It is not very difficult to learn but I do recommend looking at the onsite tutorials to help you on your learning curve.  My students love prezi and last year began using it as a platform for presentations instead of powerpoint.  Anything to avoid 'death by powerpoint' is a good thing! Here's a tutorial that uses prezi.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are You a Great Teacher?

Of all the books that I have read this summer, Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division, is the one that made the greatest impact on me.  He writes about the four types of teachers that make up a school culture and the dynamics of a healthy and toxic culture.  The believers, the tweeners, the survivors and the fundamentalists all have different goals; respectively, the success of all students, securing job security and acceptance from superiors and peers, minimizing contact and conflict with students simply to survive another day and lastly, maintaining the status quo and personal power.  Which type of teacher are you?  Read my previous posts or better still, buy the book and gain a powerful understanding of the dynamics in your school. 

Atlantic Monthly’s article, What Makes a Great Teacher?, describes the believer perfectly.  Journalist Amanda Ripley spent time with Teach for America, a grassroots organization that recruits the best college graduates to teach for a minimum of two years in America’s neediest school districts.  Since its inception in 1990, Teach for America has followed their recruits and studied successful teachers.  Why does a child in one class succeed when a child in another class (in the same school) not progress and even fail?  Much of the recent research identifies effective teachers as the critical factor in student success.  For many years, educators and researchers have studied the question of the role of parents and the student’s social environment in determining their success or failure.  It seems that the jury is in on that question; the teacher and their instructional strategies make the difference.

The Atlantic Monthly article compares two teachers and their students’ success.  Both teachers are compassionate, extroverted and care about their students but one is clearly more effective than the other is.  Two students with similar math skills (poor) enter both classrooms in September however, in June, one finishes at the top of his class and the other remained in the bottom quintile.  The qualities that make one teacher effective and the other less is the focus of much research.  When I read this article, it was very clear that the effective teacher is a believer; that means that they are motivated by the belief that every child can succeed and will put strategies in place to ensure that happens.  Failure is not an option for the believer.  The believer (and effective teacher) understands the relationship between their teaching and the student’s learning and behavior.  The believer is outcome oriented and is willing to be flexible in their approach in order to ensure the greatest success for their students.  Effective teachers have ‘grit’ that enables them to persevere in the face of negativity and obstacles.  Effective teachers ‘keep their eye on the ball’ and never lose sight of their goals because they believe that students can succeed.  Effective teachers understand that their teaching makes a difference and that means if things are not working, then part of the solution is re-examining classroom instruction.   Effective teachers are the believer teacher that Dr. Anthony Muhammad describes in his book. 

As we all prepare to head back to the classroom in the next few days, we should spend some time reflecting on our core beliefs about students and our role in their success.  This article in Atlantic Monthly and Dr. Muhammad’s book is a good place to begin this reflection.  

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Fundamentalist Teacher

The last few blog posts have described three of the four types of teachers you will find in any school.  Today’s post is about the last group and the most formidable obstacle to reclaiming a healthy school culture; the fundamentalists.    In oversimplified terms, the fundamentalist is an experienced educator whose primary concern is protecting the status quo because that in turn guarantees their continued comfort.  The fundamentalist views change as an enemy and believes that the traditional model of schooling is the best and the only valid approach to education.  In their paradigm, students learn because they have natural ability, work diligently and are compliant.  In other words, when students are not successful, the fundamentalist does not take this as an opportunity for self-reflection and re-examination of their classroom practices.  Students fail because they simply do not work hard or are not capable of learning.  This attitude absolves the fundamentalist of any responsibility for both failures and successes in the classroom.  (For more on this, read my previous post.)

Fundamentalists espouse the ideas of social Darwinism; some students are more talented than others  and fundamentalists see their job as allowing nature to take its course.  Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve ( normal distribution 80% =average intelligence, 10% very bright and 10% very dull) found its way into educational theory and became a justification for social stratification.  This belief is key to the fundamentalist’s heart and behavior. ( Student success is a byproduct of talent or lack of talent.  This is determined by the IQ test that reveals the capricious nature of genetics.)  Fundamentalists do not really believe that all students can succeed; that takes them off the hook of responsibility and guarantees the status quo.  The fundamentalist will aggressively challenge any change initiative that threatens this death-like state of equilibrium and the believer is the fundamentalist’s favorite target. 

The fundamentalist teacher values personal comfort, attachment to daily routines and their personal power.   In order to maintain this status quo, they will seek to undermine any change initiatives by enlisting the help of tweeners who might have felt unsupported after their ‘moment of truth’.  The fundamentalists actively and effectively dismantle change because they understand the power of emotions and prey upon the disgruntled and disappointed to bolster their ranks.  Informal culture is their preferred meeting place and where they effectively build strategies for sabotaging change initiatives.   

This blog post cannot do justice to Dr. Muhammad’s powerful presentation at the QuILL weeklong seminar this past July.   He had our full and undivided attention for the entire day as he deftly described these four types of teachers; believers, tweeners, survivors and fundamentalists.  I felt as if he had been a fly on the wall of every staff room I had ever sat in and stood beside me during my entire teaching career.  It was a powerful and important presentation for all of us because afterwards, we felt that we had tools to take back in September when we began or continued our change initiatives.   We all began our week with different versions of a common question; “why do people resist change?” We had ALL experienced the drama of a staff hijacked by fundamentalists and we had all done what believers typically do in these situations –  not engage the fundamentalists and avoid the conflict.

If you really believe that your work makes a difference in your students’ learning, if you are committed to their success and believe that all students can succeed, then you must be ready to defend that position.  Believers often feel isolated.  Teaching can be daunting and difficult and we need to support one another.  Tweeners also need support but not the kind the fundamentalists want to give.  Survivors need immediate help and we owe it to our students to do so.  What do the fundamentalists need? They need to fall in love with teaching again.  No one begins their career jaded, cynical and thinking only of their comfort.  Teachers naturally feel a call to the classroom and are motivated by their love of learning.  Somewhere in their careers, fundamentalists were wounded by too many unproductive reforms, ill-planned change initiatives, ineffective leaders, unsupportive parents and the list can go on and on!  They stopped believing in their first love and their first dream. 

Believer, tweener, survivor or fundamentalist – in a few short days we will all have the same thing; an opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life.  In my view, this is a privilege and I chose to honour that.    Remind your colleagues of this privilege and speak up in the face of embittered cynicism.  You are not alone.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


In the two previous blog posts, I described the first two of the four ‘types’ of teachers; the believers and the tweeners.  Today’s post will look at the survivors.

Survivors are easy to spot and describe; picture someone hanging on to the edge of a precipice; that is the survivor.  On day one of the return to school in August, the survivor will note how many days until the next holiday or pedagogical day.   Their love of teaching is gone and desperation takes its place.  The survivor functions in the ‘flight’ mode of the ‘fight or flight’ fear response.  They will do whatever it takes to make it to the end of the year, week or even day.  The survivors can no longer cope with the difficult demands of the classroom, and for many different reasons, they have given up.  This teacher will bargain with the students for peaceful co-existence, replacing effective teaching with strategies designed to ‘kill time’.  Students can spot the survivor as easily as you can.  They know how to benefit from this bargaining process and can ‘get away’ with things that would be impossible in other classrooms.  The survivor has no political agenda, does not care about the school’s mission and is disengaged from good professional practice because they can no longer deal with the very real stress and pressure of the job.

I think we all have ‘survivor’ days where ‘hanging on’ is all we can manage and we are glad for gadgets and strategies that help us get to the end of the day.  The important difference between these occasional days and the survivor mode is a question of both frequency and values.  Do you believe that your teaching matters?  Do you value student achievement more than your own comfort?  If so, then you are a believer and engaging in survivor type behavior for one day might only mean that you need to regroup, re-examine and reflect on the stresses in your life that find their way into your classroom teaching and your effectiveness.  Your students should not have to pay for your temporary inability to deal with life’s stresses; even though in my experience, I’ve found that students are forgiving and will grant you the space and time to recover from a bad day because they know you care about them.

 Survivors represents a small percentage in the study (less than 2%) but their presence in a school is truly devastating.  On the surface, it would seem that students are not harmed by the survivor’s ineffective teaching and are having fun in the classroom ‘goofing off’.  Not true!  Studies have clearly demonstrated that effective teaching is positively correlated with significant student gain and that this effect is cumulative for over three years.  Good teaching is powerful, makes an important difference in student learning and last for years! The corollary is also true; the ineffective teaching of the survivor diminishes student learning and has a lasting and cumulative effect.  Good teaching helps students; poor teaching hurts them and not just in that one year where they students have that teacher.  After one year with a survivor teacher, a student will need three years of a highly effective teacher to undo the damage done in only one year of ineffective teaching.

The goal is not to demonize the survivor but to draw attention to their plight.  Dr. Muhammad’s study found that survivors are often clinically depressed and need medical attention.  Readers of this blog are probably not survivors and my message to you is to find a way to help the survivors in your school.  After reading Dr. Muhammad’s book and listening to his daylong seminar, I am convinced that the survivor needs treatment and not condemnation.  The administration must do what they can to protect students from the negative and cumulative consequences of survivor teachers.  Ignoring them and their problems will not help the survivor and will hurt the students. 
Next post will be about the fundamentalists and their battle with the believers.  

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Tweener: Who Will Help?

In the last blog post, we saw that student success is the number one motivator for believers.  Tweeners share this belief and are equally enthusiastic about their craft.  This group of teachers is new to the school culture and the majority of them are fresh out of university.  (Tweeners can also be experienced teachers who are new to the school.)  The difference between believers and tweeners is that the latter’s primary goal is to find stability within the new environment.  Today’s university graduates begin their careers with a debt load and it makes sense that tweeners are concerned with fitting in, pleasing the administration and being compliant in the search for a more permanent position.

This period of instability and compliance generally last for 2-4 years during which time the tweener will make every effort to fit into the school culture.  They are eager teachers and not afraid to experiment with a variety of teaching strategies.  They believe in their students but sometimes lack the skill necessary to help students overcome learning obstacles.  Tweeners need support from other staff members and instructional leaders, especially when their ‘moment of truth’ comes.   If you are an experienced teacher reading this, you have a memory of one event early in your career when something unbelievably difficult happened that had you questioning your career choice.  Teaching is challenging, especially in the early years.  Facing this ‘moment of truth’ alone and not benefitting from administrative and peer support, the tweener might choose to exit the profession.  (Studies show that 50% of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years.) 
Behind the enthusiastic face of the tweener is a young person who is afraid to ask for help.  Remember that their number one goal is to fit in, to please and to find stability within the school.  It follows that they would not ask for help and consequently, suffer many difficulties and trials alone.  No teacher college can adequately prepare a new teacher for the real life challenges that await them in the first years.  If tweeners don’t receive the help they need, they will suffer in silence and many will leave the profession.
Healthy schools will have strong leaders who will ensure that tweeners are supported in the early years.  These schools generally have a program and resources in place to guarantee the development of the tweener.  Mentoring programs with peers and close contact with supervisors, lead learners and administration will help the tweener transition from a newbie to the believer he/she wants to be. 
Teachers reading this blog post are encouraged to step up and offer assistance in concrete but positive ways.   Many years ago, my moment of truth involved the attempted suicide of a student.  In that second year of teaching, I realized that my students did not need me and nothing I had or could bring to them would make any difference in their lives so horribly filled with pain.  They need a therapist, an advocate, a bodyguard and many other things but not a teacher.  What could I possibly do that would make any difference?  I felt powerless, incompetent and broken by their pain and just like my students, I felt as if I could not share these feelings.  I survived that moment of truth partly because of serendipity and partly because of sheer grit.  A school is only as healthy as its weakest member is and we all share the responsibility to help our colleagues when they struggle. 
Next post will look at the sad case of the survivor teacher and how they can be helped.  Do you have any tweener stories you'd like to share?  Please leave a comment!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Four Types of Teacher/Leader: Which One Are You?

Among the list of things that blogger Scott McLeod will never understand is why school leaders choose to simply tweak the status quo and maintain the belief that their organizations are doing just fine.  Why do educators and leaders fail to acknowledge the dramatic changes that the digital landscape has created in our society?  Why do we cover our eyes and refuse to acknowledge what our students openly embrace every day?  Why do teachers and school leaders resist the change necessary to make our learning institutions vital and really engage the students?
 As I read the post (and the many comments), I remembered what I had learned with Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s presentation this summer at the QuILL institute; not all teachers and school leaders truly have the students’ best interests at heart and some of us are motivated by convenience and our own comfort more than by the students’ growth and learning.   Dr. Muhammad’s seminal study revealed four groups of teachers and leaders:  believers, tweeners, survivors and fundamentalists.  This post will give a brief overview of what I learned about the ‘believers’ in both his presentation and his book.  Subsequent posts will treat the other groups separately.
Believers are people who espouse the core values of the school; they buy into the mission statement/philosophy of the school and believe that all students are capable of learning.  They especially recognize that they have a direct impact on student success.  They function in a student-centered paradigm and their drive to realize student success is central to their values.  Believers are eager to embrace change especially if it means improving student engagement and learning.  Their motivation is intrinsic and not dependent on the influence of leadership.  In other words, these teachers will “do it anyway” even if the consensus opinion is that “these efforts don’t matter because little Jonny won’t ever pass the course or learn anything.”  The believers are highly flexible in their teaching strategies and ready to embrace new technologies and other change in their belief that all students can learn. 
Believers have a high level of personal connection to the school and the surrounding community.  Many will organize their lives to be in close proximity with their work environment.  Their commitment to their work and school brings them a sense of stability and shared community. 
The most striking characteristic, according to Dr. Muhammad’s research, is the high level of flexibility believers adopt in their attempts to achieve the goal of student success.  When one approach is clearly not effective with a student, believers quickly switch and find one that does.  Rules about classroom management are not more important than student success.   Believers won’t “sweat the small stuff” because they remember the bottom line: student learning and success.  They rely on student loyalty, which they gain through their obvious commitment to their students.  Believers give the students a clear message:  they expect them to succeed and will do everything to help them achieve this.  That attitude is communicated by caring and consistency of effort.  Students display a high level of respect for this type of teacher and are often motivated to achieve more because of the positive pressure exerted by the teacher. 
I think that all teachers begin their careers as believers and motivated by the highest values of selfless work in the service of learning and education of the young.  Something happens to turn that initial vision and dedication to others into a concern for maintaining the status quo.  That’s the subject of my next post.  Stay tuned.  Please leave a comment and share your ideas.