I constantly hear teachers talk about educational trends as a metaphorical pendulum. It swings back and forth every ten years or so, reintroducing previous ideas rebranded as something new, shiny, and necessary for students’ success.
My tenure in education is not yet a decade deep, so I haven’t experienced the pendulum swing myself, but I do know that when teachers are excited and enthusiastic, kids are more likely to perk up and get involved in their own education as well. Maybe the whole point of rebranding something old is less about introducing something better than before and more about getting people excited again so that they can transmit that energy to students. After all, when you see the same scene over and over again, it gets a little boring, but if you view that scene from a slightly different angle, an entirely different world can emerge.
Sometimes as teachers, though, we fail to see the “entirely different world” because we feel so overwhelmed that we don’t think we have time to look out the window, let alone look outside twice — from two different windows, no less! And when we get overwhelmed, we get a little… negative. While I’ve certainly been guilty of attending (and even hosting) the frustration-with-education pity party, I also know that dialogue gets us nowhere. Here are a few practices that can help minimize the education pendulum whiplash.
See the good before pointing out the bad.
Today I was totally overwhelmed. My calendar is filled with IEP meetings, ELA PD, and testing over the next three weeks, and I need to get evaluated sometime in there. On top of that, I just started three new units with my classes this week, and my Mass Communications students need to finish final drafts of their articles so that we can get the newspaper to print by next Saturday. And that’s just my professional life.
So today after school when I walked into my Future Ready meeting, I was mentally listing all the things I needed to be doing instead. I came in with a negative attitude; it felt like one more thing I needed to do instead of the next great thing I got to do. And yet, we had a productive meeting. I got to sit next to my sister, who is the teacher and person I have always admired most, and when I left, I felt like I had more direction for myself because I was reminded of the vision we have for students. So tonight, I’m excited again about all the busy because all of it boils down to doing better for kids. And that’s my job. Can you imagine how much I could have offered and gotten out of that meeting had I thought of the positive outcomes first?
When presented with a new opportunity to improve student learning, make a promise to yourself that you’re going to find all the good first. My guess is that after listing all the potential positive outcomes, you’ll find that any downfall pales in comparison to the benefits for kids. Immediate excitement will replace temporary negativity.
Be a problem finder, but show up with a solution, too.
If you consistently showed up to a potluck with friends sans dish to pass, do you think you’d continue getting invited? Probably not. Even worse would be showing up with liverwurst every time.
This is what happens when we constantly bring problems to attention without providing any positive, concrete solutions. Pretty soon, we’ll find ourselves without a seat at the table. George Couros (and lots of other really incredible educators) see the obvious value in being a person who can recognize real issues, but problem-finding can quickly equate to complaining if there is no action suggested to resolve the issue.
If you’re going to be a problem-finder, be a problem-solver, too.
Know that you don’t have to know everything to get started with a new practice.
The true beauty of the age we live in is that information is easy to come by. When I was in middle school, if I forgot my textbook at school, I was calling (on my landline phone) to every neighborhood friend begging (read: sobbing) to borrow the book. The book had ALL THE ANSWERS! If I were to pull a textbook out in class now, it would be because all of the power in the universe had been consumed and our Chromebooks were dead. If my students want to use a new app, and I don’t know how to use it, we find a YouTube video or an online tutorial and we figure it out together. If I’m busy helping someone else, sometimes the kids just teach themselves without a resource and then they get me caught up later.
I don’t have to know everything to help my kids learn that they can learn anything they want. And if we really want them to view learning as a lifelong, enjoyable endeavor, it’s best that we don’t pretend to have all the answers.
Develop the lesson for the consumer
Probably the most important thing I have ever done as an educator was ask my students what they wanted. I’ll never forget the first time I did this. I was using a poetry highlighting strategy to analyze “One Face Alone” with a group of Pre-AP 9th graders. We had done it before with other poems, and the kids had responded well, but this time they didn’t seem into it. I stopped and asked them if something was wrong. One very straightforward but sweet girl in the front said, “Mrs. K, I don’t know about them, but I’m tired of doing it this way, and I’m not a huge fan of the strategy we learned yesterday.” When I asked how they’d rather do it instead, they wasted no time coming up with new ways to get to the same outcome: analyzing the poem to be able to write about it. I couldn’t believe how fast they came up with the ideas, but in actuality, they’d probably spent most of their lives in education dreaming of the ways they wished they could learn in school.
As I milled around the room, I saw that they were all working in different ways but coming to many of the same conclusions about the poem, and I got to spend time working with kids instead of asking questions from the board. It wasn’t my idea, but it was better.
I’ve never forgotten that day, and so whenever a new idea in education arises, before I think about how it affects me, I think about how it affects the consumers: the kids. If it would benefit them — prepare them better for the world in which they’re going to be leaders — I’m trying it as soon as is humanly possible. And I’m sharing the why with the kids so that they see it as the new, exciting opportunity that it is.