I Am The Bellwether

 Teachers have little control over what happens to them, but they  do control their response. Teachers are stewards of the content and tone of their responses to any situation, be it a hostile parent, a misguided administrator, or a “lively” group of children. 

Chapter 3  of Robyn R. Jackson’s Never Work Harder Than Your Students spotlights  expectations. In response to the author’s statement, “expectations have more to do with you than with you students,” I offer these three strategies that are the bedrock of the expectations I hold for myself as a teacher:

  • I am the bellwether.
  • Always repair (even if not needed).
  • “I am sorry that it happened.”
A bellwether indicates future trends.  I am the bellwether of my classroom – my mood effects the quality of my student’s day. My relationship with my students determines the quality of their school year. I have the potential to make or break a child’s experience. I’d better be mindful of my mood; it is powerful
I need to always apologize, even if an apology is not particularly warranted. I avoid hurt feelings by repairing any potential mistakes I’ve made, even small errors of judgement. This is key to nurturing those relationships that are crucial to student learning. “I’m sorry” used with most of  the same criteria as praise* repairs mistakes that are inevitable upon making dozens of teacher decisions each school day.
I can’t please everyone all the time. Somethings simply are not within my control. Still, a mother might choose to give me her “two cents”, the principal may misplace blame, or a coworker might not like my teaching style. Instead of engaging in an unproductive (and unhealthy) debate, I can simply apologize that it happened. I can apologize that they feel that way. I am no way insincerely taking the blame, and I am showing empathy.
*The apology should be authentic [heartfelt], specific [I am clear about what I am apologizing for], immediate, and clean [no hidden agenda]. Unlike praise, it does not need to be private.

The Classroom Economy

If it were only about test scores, teaching would be the job of a monkey. If students were motivated simply by the score on a test, a ranking next to peers, or a grade they could trade in for some societal goody, then a trained teacher would be superfluous. Learners would come ready to follow the program, and do exactly what is required to make the grade.

It just doesn’t work like that. Like any human endeavor, there is no exact template to follow in order for everyone to find success. In fact, it is template-driven systems that are sure to fail, or at least are sure to fail humans; the system may thrive in spite of the human failure.

Years of teaching have shown me that I need to make crystal clear my expectations. In fact, I need to repeat obsessively my expectations, rephrase them, and maybe even write them on the wall.

Less apparent is my need to know my students’ expectations. Much of their success, or failure, hinges on my understanding of their expectations, motivations, and abilities.

Typically, my students have valued success more than I could imagine. Their feeling of success seems to beget even more success. They become believers not only in the fact that the can learn stuff, but that the teacher can teach stuff. Also, they have an uncanny sense of the authenticity of the teacher’s rapport with students. They can usually tell when my heart isn’t invested in their success. It may be subtle, unspoken, and heavily veiled, but the students know. They feel the love, or lack of love.

Teaching is like coaching: Does this coach know how to win? Does he really, really, really want to win? Is he aware that I’m left handed?  That I’m near-sighted? Does he know how much I love to play?

A good coach would  have the answers to those questions or would be actively looking for them.

El entrenedor,

Profe Suave

A Teacher’s Self-Assesment

I recently took a self-assessment of teaching skills from Robyn Jackson’s Never Work Harder Than Your Students. Like the Briggs Myers type personality tests, Jackson’s evaluation weighs answers to various prompts in order to identify strengths in key areas of the teaching domain.

My answers  landed me squarely in the Practitioner category (Master Teacher, Practitioner, Apprentice, Novice). Practitioner is a category that accurately describes my abilities, on average. Of course, on any given day, I could be any of the four. On the third rainy day in a row without outdoor recess, while delivering a math lesson at the end of the day, I resemble a scraggly substitute on work release; while my Monday morning, caffeine-enhanced storytelling sessions would get me a spotlight role in a PBS documentary. Teaching is like that; lots of static, hidden currents, blind spots, fatigue, and frailties. It takes a lot of consistency to address the inconsistencies.

I scored highest in the the instructional categories at which I am most consistent: time management, an unrelenting  focus on depth, and the accuracy of my vision of student abilities.

The evaluation also underscored areas that have often been either a struggle, or a non-priority for me. I’ve always struggled with the accounting of student progress, at least in the sense of frequency and formality. It seems that I would need both a staff of accountants and clerks, and an unrealistic belief that constant assessment improves learning, in order to truly impact my progress in this area. Still, Jackson identifies this component as a principle, so I will be diligent in reading her thoughts on this.

Un humilde estudiante,