Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Four Tips I Learned in the 2013 - 2014 School Year

I just finished up 20 years in my career in education. Many times I said it was my best year yet. I saw students get excited about using their talents and pursuing their dreams. I worked with some great teachers who were stretched and who stretched me. I received heartfelt thanks from administrators, colleagues, students and a few people who encountered my work online or at conferences where I presented.

I also had some setbacks. Several teachers took action through the local union in response to a professional development program I had been excited to share. This year also marked my sixth full year as an instructional tech coordinator. In evaluating overall growth of the staff over this time, I had to face some harsh facts. Not everyone has been following where I'm supposed to be leading. I have to claim responsibility for my shortcomings and oversights in that area.

In reflecting on the highlights and challenges, I came up with these four main lessons I found.

Teach like an artist.
Just before school started last year I wrote a blog post about some parallels I see in teaching and creating art. It struck a chord with some teachers and it fueled my passion for months afterward as I put the principles into practice.

In short, it is my way of staying inspired so I can inspire. It involves chasing a vision. Pushing through all the fear, risk and doubt, we do what it takes to make that vision real in our classrooms and for our students. Everything I learned and continue to learn about this shows up at my new blog.

It's OK to learn together.
I worked with a few teachers this year on ambitious first time projects. They made for quite an adventure. Either I or the teacher started things off saying something like, "This is the first time any of us have tried this, so we're not sure what to expect. We need your help."

Contrast that with the classroom environment most of us grew up with. In the past the teacher was the expert in the room. He or she had the answers. The game was to guess what was in the teacher's head. I consciously made it a goal in my writing to simply tell the teacher what she had told us. I knew it would earn the A. And why shouldn't it? There was comfort in certainty. The right answer was known and had been spoken.

But now the only certainty is that there's more to know. This is not just true in the classroom, but everywhere. When the goal is to do better, the learning never ends. The comfort of knowing right answers is gone.

This year the students I worked with saw me turn to Google more than ever when it came to a new tech obstacle we encountered. I had to take notes and tell them I'd look for solutions after class. I had to admit I was stumped. I had to thank students for finding an answer before I did.

Giving up my "expert at everything" status is still uncomfortable at times. It is hopeless to perpetuate the illusion, though, and it is far more important to model good learning strategies.

Go with the goers.
There's nothing fresh or insightful in this thought on its own. It's obvious that personal growth takes place most when we surround ourselves with others who are growing. I most recently reflected on this, though, when I read Jeff Goins' blog about what makes a great leader. Quoting one of his mentors, he put it that way: Go with the goers.

I will add only two thoughts here. First, it might be easier for writers and speakers to hang out only with the movers and doers as they share their insights with those who pay to hear what they have to share. Those of us in education are paid to reach everyone, though, and that means we also have to stay in touch with those who are not yet goers.

And I also have to speak to the power of connection and my virtual PLN. Going with the goers is a lot easier now when we can almost continually be in touch with experts online. I learned so much this year skimming recent blogs in Feedly and finding wisdom and best practices on Twitter. This year more than ever my online presence transitioned to face to face meetings. I was able to see the reach to which my thinking was bound and I found help in stretching beyond that.

Find strength in personal growth.
I rarely hear this advice offered, yet I had to return to it a lot this year when it was tough to go on. I hear my colleagues turn to any number of hobbies and (more or less jokingly) chemicals to recharge amid the stress of the school year. I want to submit this additional option:  Take strength in measuring your progress toward your personal potential.

I know it can sound very prideful to point this out, especially within the circumstances and conversation in the teachers' lounge. I can only say there's a strong spiritual element in this for me and I see the insight, practice and the strength I find in its truth to be a gift. It is with gratitude and humility, not my own ability, that I return and rely on the blessing.

Lifelong learning is a process of becoming who we were meant to be. The journey will be necessarily difficult. There's nothing innately wrong with recharging through moments of recreation, but let's remember when there's no time for that, fulfillment of purpose and further steps toward our potential provide deep peace and energy necessary to continue.

As teachers (the lead learners) we should know this best and pass the lesson along to our students.

Along those lines, I'll end with a suggestion to all teachers: Take a few hours to reflect on what you gained this past school year. If you write anything online, please share it in the comments.

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