Monday, July 25, 2011

10 things I have learned part 6: Be prepared for ups and downs

Education is a funny business. It's almost like American politics ...polarized opinions, big personalities and a pendulum that swings back and forth. Teachers are often caught in the middle of this maelstrom, being pulled on all sides by parents, kids, unions, employers, administration and society. One of the hardest jobs teachers have is walking that fine line of doing whats best for students without being pulled 6 ways from Sunday.

Like everyone else, my career has been full of ups and downs. Here's the kicker though... what I thought at the time were the worst things to happen to me during my tenure, turned out to be the best. How can that be, you say? Well... gather round the campfire and let me tell you a tale :)

Example 1: The Rolling Stones "you can't always get what you want" theorem

I wanted to stay at Charles Best Secondary school so bad. It was my home. I loved the staff, students and courses I was teaching. But the lay-off/recall process had other plans for me... after a summer of waiting and uncertainty, I ended up at Riverside with @jdaskew08. I was miserable at first (and not just because I had to work with Askew... though that is reason enough! =D). I tried to get back to Charles Best the next year...but it didn't work out. Then things started happening... I met @chrkennedy and Scott Robinson. I started taking leadership roles, mentoring kids, taking on student teachers and becoming a part of the school. If I went back, I doubt I would be the person I am today. The lesson? Thank God for unanswered prayers.

Example 2: Solidarity forever - and the happy, unintended consequences.

October 2005 - I had just bought my first place and the day of my first mortgage payment we went on strike. For two weeks we walked the line and it was the best thing that ever happened to our school. Now don't get me wrong, I rather had been teaching. I am not a huge fan of the BCTF (I do love my local, they do a lot of great work for the teachers in our district) but we were getting the shaft at that time. So, like everyone else I walked. Something funny stated to happen as that strike dragged on... we became tighter as a staff. We sang songs, shared stories, ate hot dogs (thanks Ron), talked to parents and kids, waved at cars, got eggs thrown at us & flipped off, hugged & kissed and everything in between. The Lesson? Unifying moments often come at the worst of times.

Just like in your private life, the universe will throw curve balls at you. Look for the unexpected joys and happy surprises that the ups and downs of life as a teacher can bring :)

Oh and BTW to all you new teachers reading this... there will be days. Days when you walk out to the parking lot, get in your car and start smashing your head on the steering wheel. You'll lement about your choice in becoming a teacher... we all have. But remember this: there will be days when you walk out of that building like you are walking on cloud 9 because you just made a HUGE impact in a child's life. And that is what makes teaching the best job in the world.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 5: Correct and Reflect

Writing this series on the "10 things I have learned over the past 10 years" has really become a reflective process for me. More and more, I find that I am writing these posts not only to the next generation of teachers but to a 27 year old me as well. Speaking of reflection, this post is about realizing that we are human and we are going to make mistakes. Along with those mistakes will come a correction and hopefully reflection.

"Have you ever failed a class?" I ask this question all the time. I ask it to my students, colleagues, friends, relatives, strangers on the street... everyone. Why? Because I think it is says a lot about who a person is. Let's get this out in the open right now... I was a horrible student and I failed more than my share of classes (I wish I could find and show you my grade 9 report card...terrifying). "OMG" you'd say, "How can you be a teacher?" Well firstly, I didn't fail everything and secondly I did learn from my mistakes. Most importantly, my parents never gave up on me, there was a pretty wicked punishment (threats of having to go to private school + the mother of all groundings) and I grew up. The big one for me was the final piece of the puzzle, reflection.

Now, I'm not talking the SFU model of sitting around in a circle, banging a bongo drum and writing in a journal about my feelings of the day. For me, reflection means soul searching, realization and a commitment to to do better.

Flash forward 20+ years. I still make mistakes all the time. Ask my students... I spelled "wet" as "whet" last year. My crowning achievement was mixing up pronouncing sequence and sequins during a study group discussion. My use of a "number sequins" wasn't correct apparently and to which Scott Robinson is still mocking me with photos! <----

I still get in trouble for shooting my mouth, picking battles I don't need too, not letting things go, being a spaz... you know, all those things that make me Browner. But I make less of those mistakes now, I check my ego at the door more often and I still reflect everyday on the choices that I make.

What I am trying to say is this; don't be afraid of making mistakes and failing. Don't be afraid of being corrected by someone else. Reflect on what happened, the choices you made and the impact you had.

PS: Making mistakes in front of kids and then owning them is one of the most humanizing things you can do!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 4: Great team members can excite you.

Think about the most creative and exciting time(s) in your career. Have you go it? If you are like me, the one common thread for these bursts of innovation/excitement is the people you share it with.

For the last 10 years, I have felt the ebb and flow of creativity; sporadic moments of inspiration and then times in the doldrums (ruts for lack of better words). But, like my very first class, I will always remember that first moment of collaboration. It was an awaking of something inside of me which I never experienced before. Don't get me wrong, we did "cooperative/group" projects in school. The differences between what I experienced in school and what I was part of now was epic. In school, every project was for grades, there was always a sense of competition and pressure. This was different... there was this great freedom and joy.

Brent Raabe (@braabe) was my very first teaching partner. We were both teaching Physics at Dr. Charles Best Secondary (me for the first time). Brent was the master (think his Obi Wan to my Luke Skywalker). Not only did he mentor me, but pushed me forward. We worked together to create new, innovative ways to get kids excited in Physics. There was this sense of joy in the process, that we were doing things that would make a difference in our students experiences at school (and hopefully in their lives).

Over the last 10 years, I have been so blessed to work with so many amazing teachers who want to share, grow and create as part of a team. And while it energizing to be collaborative, it HAS to start with the person in the mirror. You need to seek out people with common interests, sit a table with someone besides the people you normally sit with, take a risk, become part of a learning team.

To all those people who have let me be a part of this process with you (there are too many to name), I want to thank you for making this the greatest job on the planet! Take the leap.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ten things I have learned Part 3: Great principals do make a difference

My Father-in-law was a woodwork teacher for 30 years and always said, principals come and go, but a great staff will always weather administrative changes. While I agree with him, I believe a great principal can be transformative to a school, staff and student population. This blog post is about 2 principals in particular: Chris Kennedy and Scott Robinson. Both made a huge, positive impact in my life and maybe I can share a little about what was so special about them.

My top 5 Chris and Scott Principal characteristics::
  1. Give Trust
  2. Have a Vision
  3. Willing to make the tough call
  4. Ability to look beyond yourself and see what is best for the school
  5. Remove obstacles to learning
1. Give Trust
From everything I have seen in my 10 years of teaching, great leaders give trust. Simple as that statement is, I believe it is the foundation for everything else. With trust comes the willingness of others to take risks and chances. Without the trust that was given to me, I couldn't have started Digital Immersion or become the Science department head or professional development chair.

2. Have a Vision
A vision gives structure. Its allows goals to be reached and helps you get there. The process that Chris brought to Riverside helped us heal some old wounds, find common ground on which to grow and give us a goal to obtain. He brought in Christina Merkley (a graphic facilitator) to go through what turned out to be almost a cleansing with the staff. What does cleansing have to do with vision? Well, you have to air your dirty laundry before you can move on. What was accomplished was Riverside's 8 bold steps. After 6 years and accomplishing what we set out to do, we are in the process of our next vision.
Riverside 2005-2011 Vision
3. Willing to make the tough call
Scott's greatest attribute (in my opinion) was the ability to make the tough call. He always made his decisions with an understanding and thoughtfulness which humbled me. When he asked for input, he listened and this often changed the outcome. But when push came to shove, he wasn't afraid to make the decision that had to be made. Scott's actions spoke volumes about his character and integrity and while I didn't agree with his every call, I respected him for making them. And looking back... they were right.

4. Ability to look beyond yourself and see what is best for the school
This is for everyone, not just those arm-chair principals out there... sometimes you have to leave your ego at the door. I struggle with this (my motto is "I'm kind of a big deal")... I think we all do, especially at the secondary level. We see our little world and often have very little understanding of the big picture. Before you barrel into something ... ask. Trust me... there will be a reason. In saying that, transparency... goes a long way.

5. Remove obstacles to learning
The most important thing I can say... Great Principals (re: Chris and Scott) do one thing above all else: Remove obstacles to learning. These are the million little things, if done, no one will notice and your school will run as it should. But if you forget or neglect them... they will bite you faster than a piranha on a feeding frenzy. These range from the simple (like making sure all doors are open), to the insanely complicated (like 1701 stuff and Bill 33 consultations). Like invisible discipline in a classroom, removing obstacles is rarely seen or appreciated... but essential for teachers and students to be best they can be.

Both Scott and Chris have moved on to superintendent roles (Chris is the CEO of West Van and Scott is the
Assistant Super in Richmond) but they have left an indelible mark open all of us at Riverside. They were great leaders and more importantly they were both mensch. They did these 5 things with integrity and humanity, and that more than anything, set them apart.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

10 things I have learned part 2: Fun and Inspiration

Without doubt, teaching is a two way street. As much as I put in, I get out. Believe it or not, it took me a few years to realize that. Back in 2003, I was getting burnt out. The workload, hours, negativity about education in the press, micromanagement of my principal at the time... all these things drained my soul. It wasn't until I taught "the worst class" in the school (math 9 core), that I finally got it.

The class was full of grade 11's who still hadn't passed grade 9 math. Most were category R or H. both behavior categorizations (the joke they stand for rotten and horrible) plus a learning difficulty. They all struggled with the basics... even simple things such as multiplication tables, adding, measuring, etc... I started out doing the traditional model: Lecture, work through some problems, practice, wrap up, etc... I never had a class go south faster than this one. It was like watching a clown car drive up and 20 clowns pile up all the time time march of the gladiators playing in the background.

Needless to say, we shifted gears fast. We started having fun with math... having multiplication races & doing activities like "how many meter sticks would it take to fill this class".What happened was special... They started to learn about math and I started to learn about them. We bonded as a class... They had fun and in turn, they inspired me.
From the "worst class" I ever taught

We as teachers often talk about the inspiration that we deliver to kids.... buts lets not forget the inspiration we get from them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

10 things I have learned part 1: Relationships

If I was to go into the PDP program at SFU, UBC or UVic, the first thing I would say is: "Relationships will be the bedrock of your teaching experience". I don't know a single master teacher that doesn't make profound connections with kids. But I would also tell them that they don't all have to be like Robin Williams in Dead Poet Society.

I would bring in one of my favorite people in the world to prove my point. Carlo Muro, a math teacher at Riverside Secondary, could be seen as my polar opposite.
Carlo winning BC Coach of the Year
He is quiet, shy, thoughtful, jittery, kind, contentious and possible the most angelic man I know (Sorry @braabe but Carlo has you beat). He teaches all class, lectures, give exams after school and is probably the greatest math teacher I have ever met. Beyond our dissimilar techniques, what I admire about Carlo (and what I hope to become better at every year) is his ability to make profound connections with kids. We have teachers at Riverside who Carlo taught, coached and mentored and he is adored. He would never have kids stand on a table and shout out the quadratic equation or boast about his success... he would ask how their day was, what they learned, how their basketball game went. He would show up to a basketball game to see one of students play...then he would show up to the next. Carlo (and I think every great teacher) understands that forming and maintaining relationships takes work.

When you have those relationships in place, your classroom management becomes easier & your interactions with everyone (parents, students, staff, etc...) become more comfortable. It's not a hard thing to do but like any other skill, it takes both effort and time.

You have to give up some of your time to make a difference... and that sacrifice is hard sometimes. Missing out on your family time to see a student's basketball game is hard but its easier when you make it a family activity :) It takes effort to know students not in your class, but walking down the hallways and saying "Hi" to any kid in your school is a reward in itself.

So to all you new teachers out there... build profound relationships with kids. Be that teacher that you remember from school, the one who made you want to become a teacher (thank you Mr. Carillo!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

10 years of teaching - 10 things I have learned

I just completed my first of 10 years of teaching. 1/3 of my professional career is done... That's a daunting thought! You'd think I would be smarter than I am after all that time, but I still make stupid mistakes, put my foot in my mouth and step on people toes all too much. For all of that, I have learned a few things...

1) Relationships matter more than anything else.
2) Inspiration and fun are intimately related.
3) Great principals DO make a difference.
4) Great team members can excite you.
5) Correct and Reflect 
6) Be prepared for ups and downs
7) No surprises
8) If you don't love what you are doing.... do something else
9) Teaching is more than standing in front of a class... be a school teacher
10) What I have learned part 10: Mentorship leads to innovation

I will be doing a series on these points over the summer. Kind of a way to keep my mind active and reflect on the last 10 years of my life!