Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Throwing Out Systems: The Best Thing My 4th Year of Teaching Taught Me

I know I promised a different post as my next, and it is in the works...but something monumental happened and I can't help but write about it. It is bursting inside of me, and I cannot wait to tell you all about it.

If you have been a reader here, a dear friend, a compassionate family member, a concerned colleague, a loyal mentor, a supportive parent-- then you know about my 4th year of teaching. My 4th year of teaching from 2013-2014 was my hardest year of teaching to date. It stretched me in ways I never could've imagined. It broke me into a million pieces. It pushed me to my farthest limits. It brought emotions out of me that I didn't know I had.

Yes, if you know me at all, you know about this year. But lately, I have reflected a lot on this 4th year of teaching...and realized an amazing, amazing thing that it taught me.

Yesterday, I found myself scrolling through my iPhone photos and deleting many to free up space for a new update and one caught my attention more than any of the others. It was a picture of me and my class from that year on the 100th day of school. I looked at the picture of 22 students holding up little yellow paper lightbulbs that exclaimed they were 100 days brighter! I could've just scrolled right past the picture, but I stopped. I soaked it in. I zoomed in on each individual face. I cried tears over these children. I loved them so much it hurt. I reminisced about each of their little personalities. I wished I could've been more for them. But I saw something yesterday that I hadn't really, truly, honestly seen in this group of 22 children.

I saw HOPE. I saw a group of children whose smiles weren't manufactured. I saw love, and joy. I saw children leaning in close to one another, children full of excitement, children who were happy to be there, together, with me. Despite the odds...despite the trials, the struggles, the hardships...

I have always looked back on that year and seen it as a failure of mine, that there were so many things I didn't do right and ways that I let my students down. And good gosh, maybe it was a failure. But this time, I saw hope! Hope because failure serves to teach us, to show us where we could do better next time-- it helps us to learn, grow, be molded and shaped.

If it weren't for this class of 22 incredible, loving, beautiful children, I think there was a lot of joy I would've missed out on, and I think there were a lot of really, really good things I wouldn't have learned. I'm ready to see my 4th year of teaching as one of hope and redemption, as one full of grace.

The following is the best thing that this group of children taught me through being exactly the children they are.

Kids are who they are-- so meet them where they are, love them for who they are, and help them grow.

#realtalk There will be a lot of honesty in the writing below...and some of it isn't pretty. I never claim to be a perfect educator, and hopefully sharing what I've gone through and learned from mistakes will be helpful to others.

As educators we want to help children, to make them better human beings, to aide them as they grow in character-- but sometimes our good desires go too far. We forget that each child can't be a carbon copy of another, and that they aren't all going to be able to reach the same expectations as one another-- but instead, they should set expectations and goals for themselves to individually reach, as well as set expectations and goals as a class that they can reach together.

I used to have the most ridiculous behavior expectations, reward systems, punishment systems, and rules in place-- all created by me, imposed on them, and demanded to be followed at all times. If there was even the slightest infraction, a student would move their clip down the behavior chart, with associated punishments at each level. They had to know I was serious-- they had to know that I was the boss, that I was the sun in my little classroom solar system, that I had the magical keys to the classroom's success-- and this was how I was going to do it. Ha!

My 4th year taught me in a very upfront way that not every child is the same, and therefore, they aren't all beginning their journey at the same starting line. They are all growing at their own paces-- and this includes behaviorally. I expected all of my students to be behaving at the level of expectations I had set, when it was completely unattainable for some of them at that present time. It caused them to repeatedly experience failure and setback on a day to day basis, instead of growth and improvement. It caused them to think daily that they weren't enough, and that they were "bad kids," because they couldn't stop making the choices they were making or moving their clips down on the behavior chart. It made things far worse than better! But the thing was, my systems and rules and expectations were causing them to swim in the opposite direction of success. Instead of meeting them where they were and working up from there, setting small goals and reaching them together, they either met my expectation- or they didn't. How heartbreaking.

I have learned that this way of thinking and operating as a teacher of children,  just plain. doesn't. WORK. Children aren't to be horrendously over-managed, they are to be LOVED and NURTURED and TALKED TO. They need explanations for why things are the way they are, or why things should be certain ways. They need to be included in setting the goals and expectations for a classroom environment. THEY need to be the sun of our little classroom solar system, and I need to get out of the way.

They need to be respected enough to be given a chance to learn from a mistake and grow from it, instead of immediately being told to pull their color or move their clip. With no follow up or chance for growth. With no conversation and possibly very little understanding on the student's part of why they got in trouble in the first place. I learned this the hard way, with those kids who seriously could've moved their clips 10+ times in one day (when my clip chart only had 4 levels!). The system was failing us all. There is no one-size-fits-all system or approach that reaches all children, because kids are who they are, and some need more opportunities to learn from their mistakes instead of being constantly punished for them and forced into behaving the way I want them to behave.

You may have heard a lot about Carol Dweck's "Growth Mindset" research. While there are a lot of blogs and articles out there critiquing and commenting on her study, what I personally love about growth mindset is that it gives you the freedom to grow. Learn from failures, learn from mistakes, grow and get better from there. I felt that in the past I had such a fixed mindset. You either reached the bar or didn't. You obeyed or didn't. You listened or you didn't. Now I know it's a lot bigger than that, it's not so black and white, it's not that simple. And children need a lot of chances to make mistakes and then talk about what to do better next time. They need room to grow. You can't put a size 5 shoe on a child who wears a size 2! They need time to grow into that shoe. Same goes with behavior.

For example, I learned that some children just can't sit still during a lesson, and no matter how many times you offer a reward or punishment, they just won't yet-- they aren't ready. So you learn to let. that. GO. You adapt and allow them to learn while pacing back and forth behind the class or sitting on a bouncy seat until they can master the behavior. You learn to not demand your children sit criss-cross-applesauce every blessed second of carpet time, because they are children and they need to move and be active and they can still perfectly learn while sitting in a Z-sit or having their legs straight out in front of them, or propped up on their elbows. You learn that it just isn't that important, because children are children. They are who they are, and I need to celebrate their learning and stop worrying about how they are sitting on the carpet if they are still learning in that position! No more pulling colors or moving clips for this. No more interrupting learning time to discuss and practice carpet sitting positions. Letting this go as well as many other small behaviors during my 5th year of teaching saved us so much time and energy. It allowed us to learn, and it allowed my students to thrive. The focus has changed from my petty behavior expectations to a focus on students and learning.

Another example of what I've learned is that some children just need a lot more time to walk in the hall with the rest of the class, and that demanding them to be perfectly straight and still and quiet right off the bat doesn't allow them any wiggle room to grow into the behavior. I've learned that I actually don't like hallway behavior rules at all and I wish we could just dance down the hallway silently because we are just so excited to be at school or walk in a clump talking excitedly about the learning we just did in our classroom-- but I had conversations with my class anyway this past year about the "why" behind straight, quiet lines in an elementary school hallway. I've learned to celebrate growth and change as I see it, instead of demanding it from the very beginning. Imagine walking into the teaching profession (or any profession for that matter!) and on day 1 being told to be a perfect, 5-star example of what the profession should look like, because you will be rated on PDAS for your effectiveness the first day on the job. Yikes! That's what we demand of our students when we demand perfection and 100% obedience from the start.

I've learned that children don't really understand a lot of the rules we have in school because they honestly aren't very fun, so they need to be a part of the process, they need explanations, they need reasoning to help them understand why rules are necessary. They must be included in creating said rules instead of walking in on day 1 to a classroom where I am the center of my classroom universe, where I have my rules poster typed out and posted on the wall with appropriate rewards and punishments for following them, and they have no say in the whole ordeal. They are merely blind followers at that point and I am a hopeful adult who is praying inside that they will think I'm cool or nice enough to follow the rules for. But the reality is, that just isn't reality! Some students just can't follow rules set for them no matter how much they love you or try, because they either aren't ready to follow them yet OR because they have no ownership over the rules OR because they don't understand a purpose for them, don't like them, and they've never had a chance to figure out why. Include children in this process. Help them own it. Help them set expectations for the classroom they dream of being in. Help them be in a classroom they love and want to come to each day, because they contributed in making it that way.

So guess what I did this past year because of my 4th year of teaching, and also because of a brave educator named Pernille Ripp (<-- click for link to her site) whose books and blogs gave me the courage to do the unthinkable? I threw out the systems. I packed away the clip chart and the rules board. I had my students come up with rules and expectations, what they wanted our classroom to be like. They moved the furniture around, they sat where they wanted and how they wanted, they used the paper they wanted, they got the teacher's tape and stapler when they needed it without asking, they got books in and out of our classroom library without a checkout system, they could sharpen pencils when they wanted and go to the bathroom when they wanted, they helped make decisions on how to set things up or learn something, they were creators and builders and contributors to an amazing classroom environment full of trust and respect. There wasn't a little sign or poster for every single rule. There wasn't a system in place to punish you if you didn't follow said rules. Nothing got lost or stolen or broken, nobody got trampled to death, chaos did not ensue! It was unlike anything I've experienced as an educator. A room where students can reach their full potential in a learning environment they helped create from day one. Boy, am I glad I threw out those systems. It wasn't easy. It took a lot of conversations together, a lot of talking with students, a lot of reviewing the expectations we had set together, a lot of reminding about growing from our mistakes, a lot of goal setting, a lot of helping one another remember and abide by our classroom expectations-- a total group effort. If there was ever a notable incident, parents were contacted, either by their take home binder, phone, or email-- but that was it.

It was really scary throwing out my systems. I even went back on my word and started giving out negative points for undesirable behaviors for a short period in the spring when we were losing steam. But then I stopped. Going back to my old ways sure taught me something! I knew it just wasn't right for our class. I had to stay strong and remember why I was doing this. The goal isn't to pull colors or move clips or give negative points in order to make students behave, the goal is a community of mutual respect where students feel empowered to make the right choices. It's really hard letting go of control, because you think everything will spiral out of control. But it didn't. And we made it through the year, a beautiful year at that!

Next year, I am going to try something new. I kept positive reward systems this past year, such as ClassDojo or our schoolwide "Gator Buck" system, to reward positive behavior. But one day after Christmas break I decided to make our class treasure box disappear, and not one student asked me where it went. They were still behaving and making good choices, because to them, it was the right thing to do and it helped our classroom be the environment they wanted it to be. I couldn't believe it! I started to imagine a classroom without positive reward systems. I had thrown out the punishment systems, but hadn't been brave enough to kick out the happy ones! "Don't kids like rewards and tangible examples of their good choices?" I kept telling myself. However, this line of thinking is something that has been widely challenged. I am going to read Alfie Kohn's book "Punished by Rewards" this summer and am determined to take the step next year. What I do want to continue to do with my students is to reflect on positive behaviors each day and what went well, plus what honorable character traits that child showed through their words and actions that day. I still want to help point out the positive and good choices, and help children see the things they are doing well and internalize that within. I want to cultivate a culture of reflection (so important!) with them, but not hand out points or prizes or stickers for positive behavior. We shall see how it goes...but I will definitely need a lot of support.

You see, my 4th year of teaching might not have been full of my proudest or best moments as an educator, but it sure taught me a lot. I have my students to thank for that! It goes to show you that there is always sunshine after the rain, that brokenness will always be redeemed in the end. There is a lot of hope in that for us, the ones who are continuing to work for and believe in and pull for public schools. We come back each year not knowing what it will be like at all, what our group of students have in store for us, yet we leave each year changed by the students who helped mold and shape our lives as much as we did theirs.

One thing that I always try to champion when I share an opinion or things I have learned in my educational journey is that as an educator, you have to do what is best for your students and your classroom community. Period. You have to find what works, and you have to know your students well enough to know what they need. I do believe in establishing a culture of mutual respect and trust, and when that happens, students feel empowered, they love learning and feel in charge of their learning, and the teacher feels respected and like a valuable facilitator and asset in the classroom. By no means does this approach negate the importance of respect and obedience, but it encourages it by allowing students to have a say, have a voice, and be heard-- as well as treating them not like cattle to be herded and managed, but as children with thoughts and feelings that reach far beyond what we can imagine.

A big thank you to Pernille Ripp and her writings that have changed my life as an educator. Your work helped the thoughts and beliefs that were at war within me as an educator to finally make sense. The way I dreamed a classroom to be, the beliefs I had about systems and how kids learn and grow, they weren't crazy! Thank you for being a pioneer for student voice and giving the classroom back to our students. I couldn't have taken such a bold step without you.

And, as my final thoughts on this long post, I would like to thank my classroom of 22 students from my 4th year of teaching for showing me a lot of love, giving me grace when it was undeserved, and helping me understand how to love and meet children exactly where they are-- and how to grow together as one.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Don't Waste Your Summer

Okay, so I am kind of one of those weird teachers. The ones that don't like it when school is out. Anyone? Anyone...?

I know that rest and breaks from the normal rhythm of school life are necessary, for both students and educators alike. It allows us all to recharge, give our brains time to soak in the past year, veg out for a little bit, and then return ready to take on more. But for me...breaks from school are pretty unsettling times in my calendar year. Not only am I missing my students and our classroom community dearly-- we become such a family, and I'm like a little momma hen puffing my wings out in pride and protection over my kiddos, and then suddenly it's all over, and they're gone-- but I can get intimidated by the wide open spaces that breaks from normal school-life can bring. (...did anyone just start singing the Dixie Chicks? You're welcome.)

You'd think breaks would be the easiest, ones where I'm not bound to a clock and a schedule, where I can go! explore! make! create! do! cook! clean! be a pool rat! (That last one kind of still happens.) But here is what occurs in my brain:

Summer is here...so much time to do so many things! I could write more now...go to the pool...read my bible more...journal...write music...brush up on my piano and guitar skills...see my friends...get to know neighbors...spend time with family...learn how to cook different types of meals...and actually cook, at that...go to yoga more...maybe take a new cycling class...long walks in the neighborhood...go to concerts...actually see movies...do lots of work for our classroom and our class next year...

Okay...so what comes first? What do I do first? What's most important? WHAT DO I DO NOW?!

I tend to have a mini freak out in my brain, and then I get so worked up over everything I could do, that I end up not doing any of it, because I can't decide what should come first. It's like when we provide children with too much choice. When there are so many options, the thought of picking just one is overwhelming. Which is why I rarely ask my gifted first graders to tell me about their "favorite" anything, because seriously, how can we just pick one favorite food or memory or candy?

Because of all of this, I am determined now to not waste my summer.

At the beginning of the year 2015, I made a "yes and no list for 2015" and wrote down some things that fire me up and things that steal my joy, things I'm wanting and desiring for this year, all with the guiding hand of Jesus. I am really glad that I did that, and I felt that it was a healthy way to start "making life happen," and I still feel very deeply about all that was written. However, I feel like 1) I made a pretty long list of goals, and I did not sort them into short and long-term goals, but instead made them all into year-long goals, which I think has caused me to lose steam. 2) I feel like it's time to revamp it a bit and start fresh, with this blank-slate-of-a-summer in front of me.

Yes List for Summer 2015: (Making these more short-term and attainable!)

1) Daily reading, praying, journaling about the attributes of God and seeing God for who he is. I want to truly see him and time with him as beautiful and precious and something I cannot do without. During the school year, time is scarce and it takes lots of effort to be intentional. Now that I've got my days to fill, this needs to be what fills me.

2) BLOG once a week. I kid you not, I have so many pending posts that just aren't fully written or composed yet. I have made a running list of various topics that are hot and fresh on my mind in regards to life, education and teaching gifted & talented children. I can't wait to get those rolling out. I really intended to do it more while school was still going on, but it was lower on my list of priorities. My faith, my husband, my family (actual and church), and my students have to come first. One post in particular though that I am excited to share is: 9 Things I Wish I'd Done in the General Classroom with GT Kids. It is very personal and reflective, and holds a lot of real-life examples of how I wish I knew then what I know now.

3) I want to exercise 3 times a week. For me, that is an actual goal because it is not an actual reality. I don't have weight goals or strength goals. For me, the first goal is the going-to-go-exercise part. (I also would like to state that I am so thankful yoga is exercise. Hurray for finding a type of exercise that fires me up! There's no need to do some type of exercise out of guilt or because everyone else is doing it. Be you!)

4) Learn 3 new breakfasts, 3 new lunches, and 3 new dinners to cook for us that are easy and healthy for when school gets back in session. I tend to turn to the same recipes that I have memorized, which are yummy and packed with nutrition, but more variety wouldn't hurt.

5) Finish planning 4 PBL's for the first semester. I've got the base work for them started, now it's just time to finish them. I want to get these done before I return to school, because we all know how little time we have for consuming planning like PBLs can bring.

6) I moved classrooms before the school year ended, so I want to have our new classroom set up and loosely designed before going on a family trip in early August. I also want to make a few things for our new learning space, things I've realized would be helpful after my first year in GT education.

7) Spend more time in nature, whether on walks, in the gardens or parks nearby, hiking or kayaking or any water activities, because I really see and experience God when I do.

8) Spend more time with my neighbors and build deeper relationships with them.

No List for Summer 2015:
1) Over-scheduling every single day of my summer to where I have no time for the above yes list, especially #1. I don't want to be so busy making plans that I forget to rest and breathe. (I need to also remember that Jesus is my eternal rest and he is the air I breathe.)

2) Overspending. Okay, this one is weird for me to admit here, but let me explain. When I am home, I tend to be a nester- and I see all the things we could do or get or improve around the house. So then I take on little projects, get that organizational bin here, paint that desk there...and it starts to add up. Not to mention, my laptop and my phone become very easy to access and before I can say "Target," online shopping has sucked me in...and before I know it, I've spent all of our monthly house budget and my personal funds. And that is never fun. I want to be really intentional with how I spend my money this summer. Andrew and I are still tackling our student loans (1 down, 2 to go!) and we are trying to make good financial changes for us.

3) Too much screen time. How many hours of my summer could be sucked away from social media and screen time? Far more than necessary. It's so easy to pull up Twitter and browse blogs. It's so easy to open up Instagram or watch videos from Britain's Got Talent. (Anyone? It's so entertaining.) But I want to really fight against that constant temptation and fill my summer with more than a screen. I want to fill it with things far richer.

Things About Summer that FIRE ME UP!, and are all from the Giver of good gifts:

-pool time, pool days, lounging by, swimming in pools... #proudpoolrat
-the smell of Coppertone sunscreen just screams summer to me, and I love it
-the sun. So many things about the sun. It rises earlier, it sets later. It creates beautiful colors in the sky. It reminds me that Jesus's name is even higher than the rising sun. It shines on my skin and my skin glorifies the sun by changing colors-- it tells of its power and its story. Just like Jesus shines on us, and we glorify him with our life.
-being able to live in cotton Old Navy dresses
-many no makeup, no hair-hassle days...just au natural
-trips, vacations, beaches, water
-concerts in the twilight
-seeing Andrew during his lunch hour
-spending time with stay-at-home mommas or friends during the daytime
-lunch dates with others, because I can!, and because I get to stray from my traditional PBJ sandwich in the summertime

The possibilities that a summer hold are endless, but I don't want that to intimidate me anymore. I am so thankful for summertime and the time I have been given, and don't want to thoughtlessly let it go by.

Here's to not wasting my summer!