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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Students Needs Are Our Needs Too.

Discussing teaching styles and effective educational practices in my classroom over the past few weeks has been a vulnerable position to be in as a teacher. You can't have students engaged in discussing their own classroom experiences without reflecting to see if any of these comments are based on events in your own classroom. I was transparent with my students about these feelings as we discussed, because as uncomfortable as it may be, I have to be open to hearing how students view their experience in my class. I could very easily continue teaching with blinders to my effectiveness; teacher knows best right? We can very easily slip into this sort of mentality, as if degrees and training make us above taking into consideration student input. At the root, it is a pride issue.

While reflecting on my own teaching practices and discussing what an ideal classroom environment would look like, I couldn't help but make a natural connection to the parallel of a teacher in the school environment. We spend so much time focusing on how we can engage our students and create positive classroom environments conducive to student success, and for good reason. Students are our audience. We are here in order to help them succeed.  However, how much time do we spend making sure that our educators in the front lines feel just as encouraged? engaged? challenged? Here are a few of my observations. While I know there are many facets to educational leadership that make focusing on some of the following points difficult, I just want to point out areas in which I feel are important to creating a positive climate.

1. Engage all teachers in meaningful positions of involvement. We as teachers learn to make a concerted effort to include and engage all students in our classrooms. Whether we use graded discussions, online feedback, or old school popsicle sticks, we all long to figure out a way to pull that reserved student out of their shell and into the conversation. It would be so much easier to let the four students who are always willing to participate dominate the discussions, and as a result, the classroom. This is easy, and truthfully lazy. It takes absolutely no effort on our part to continually look to Suzy "people pleaser" as our go to for running errands, passing out papers, answering questions, and leading classroom activities. But what do the other 25 students in the classroom gain besides a strong sense of animosity toward the blatant bias? We have taught the other students, while maybe unintentionally, that they are not needed and their efforts aren't important. At one time or another we have all been a part of this class. The one where the same few students are constantly crowded around the teachers desk while the rest of the students are left to feel that they are somehow less important.

Maybe in the end it doesn't really matter? As long as the duties are completed and the committee positions are filled we can all go along without any issues. And maybe that is true. But what if there is a better way? What if we could work to engage more of our teachers in meaningful positions?

If in our classroom we continue to allow the same four people to run the show, we are constantly only hearing from the same point of view. These students see through their own unique lens of experience and will not generate a new perspective. Maybe we like it that way because their personalities and philosophies fit with our own thus not causing us to have to stretch our own understanding. Without the input of other students we have resigned ourselves to continue down the same line of thinking. But what we have given other students the opportunity and they choose not to volunteer? We face this every day in the classroom and it would be easy to throw our hands up and say "I tried." It is our job as leaders to cultivate the relationships. Find opportunities to place students in positions to succeed. One small success may very well lead to the confidence to engage more often. In the work environment it is the responsibility of educational leaders to push their faculty out of their comfort zones in order to promote growth. Is it easier to go to the same few teachers for every position you need filled because you already have an established relationship? Absolutely, but that is also the path of least resistance. And how might the other teachers who have been looking for an opportunity to plug in feel as a result? Probably resistant to offering any real help if they don't feel valued. Rita Pierson in her TED Talk "Every Student Needs a Champion" makes a statement that "students don't learn from teachers they don't like." Employees don't work at their optimum level for employers who don't value them. It is our job as the leaders to build the relationship and motivate involvement.

2. Get to know those who work for you. We spend much of our time the first weeks of class conducting personality type surveys, learning style inventories, student interest questionnaires and get to know you activities. Why do we do this? To learn who we are working with in order to effectively meet our students where they are and adjust our teaching methods to meet their needs. Think back to the last time you started the school year at your school. How much time was spent trying to get to know who you are as a teacher? How much time was spent asking you what needs you have and how they might best be served? How much time was taken to discuss your strengths as a professional and your long term goals as a teacher? Probably little to none, and it is understandable why. There is far too much to do before students walk into the building. I wonder though what a world of difference it would make if we committed and invested in knowing who the teachers in those classrooms, the teachers we place all of the pressure on to meet standards and teach students, the teachers we ask so much of beyond their classroom duties, really are? How could we utilize so many creative, intelligent, innovative minds to make an impact? I can tell an immediate difference in my students when I begin to show interest in the qualities that make each of them unique. We just finished taking the Myers- Briggs personality test in class last week. We took a day to just discuss the results together and figure out what roles we would each be most effective in. Participation in the classroom discussion the following day on an article they were asked to read was significantly higher. Why? They felt important and understood. They felt validated for who they are, even if they aren't the extrovert sitting on the front row. They felt like a meaningful part of a large social structure. What if we showed this kind of interest in our educators?

3. Spend time showing understanding the teachers. Positive feedback is essential to building our students' confidence. We as adults have been told ratios like 3 positive comments for every negative comment are the most effective models, yet why do we think the same shouldn't be true within the professional community? Rita Pierson discussed her strategy for motivating failing students by placing a +20 on their paper rather than a -80. Still an F right? Yes, but you have told the student that they aren't all bad. +20 says you did something right, +20 says you aren't a lost cause. We as adults need this same encouragement. We all walk into our school buildings with so many outside struggles weighing us down. Sick parents to take care of, concerns for our children to think about, spouses, and bills, and second jobs, and our own mental health. Yet, we often time treat one another with very little compassion. We quickly bark out all of the negatives and judgement without spending any time building up and encouraging. Why would we think this would work? Why do we think that people will feel compelled to go above and beyond for those that have put little effort into being empathetic? We can't understand a behavior until you take time to get to the root of the problem. We can't continually yell at students for not completing assignments or being a disruption in class and have any real meaningful effect without understanding. Why are they not completing the work? Do they not understand the assignment? Are there circumstances that are making paying attention in class difficult? This is our job as classroom leaders to figure out. Could you imagine showing up at a parent conference and saying " I have no idea why Johnny has an F in this class, I mean I did my part. It is up to Johnny to figure it out." Why shouldn't we create working environments in which education leaders seek to understand those where a possible frustration really stems from?

4. Set clear team goals. When we pass out our course syllabi every fall it begins with a list of intended outcomes and goals. Many of us have these objectives visible in our classroom in the form of essential questions that we will look to answer throughout the school year. We create a united long range goal for the course. In lesson planning we break each lesson into smaller sections. We give our students objectives to be met in order to show mastery of a concept. We may even write these on our board each day. For a school faculty to be successful there has to be a clear focus. One united vision in which we are all working together to achieve. We also can't have goals thrown at teachers without any clear path as to how to meet these goals. This creates uncertainty and frustration. It is the responsibility of the leader to come to its members with an organized and structured plan of action.

So many of these points come back to seeking understanding first. Understand your audience, make choices based on their strengths, utilize more of your members, create a clear achievable goal, and seek to support and understand. A positive work environment can only have a positive impact on our students. Because in the end, adults are just big kids who have become better at pretending we have it together. We still all have the same needs.

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