Sunday, August 25, 2013

Buzzword: Relationships

Buzzwords: Those key phrases or concepts that trend in and out of education. It's the "here today" and perhaps, "gone tomorrow" nature of our profession and likely other professions, too, that dictate our conversation and our efforts in the classroom. Yet, one buzzword that's experienced a huge renaissance, not because it ever went away, but because of its relevance and importance to the changing landscape of education is relationships. Strangely, I think our technology craze is actually driving relationships back to the forefront of the "buzzwords you need to pay attention to" list. As our own Director of Technology Bryan Weinert says:

The best "device" has always been and will always be the teacher #iledchat

We are the best devices. And the best thing a teacher can do to facilitate buy-in is to invest in who their students are. We hear this a lot on Twitter and in education circles. "Get to know your students and learn about their interests," etc. But unlocking the code to the most successful student/teacher relationships goes a bit deeper than that in my opinion. 

1. Let the kids know YOU work for THEM. 
We all work for someone and often times, many different people. But teachers who solidify relationships with their kids work for their kids. They stay after school to help a student. They answer emails late at night to clarify any questions. They write personalized letters of recommendation. They are attentive to any student needs even in the (gasp) summer. Our students should know we work for their successful outcomes and in turn, they are empowered knowing that someone is laying it out on the line for them. It makes them want to work that much harder for you.

2. Err on the side of the student and you can rarely go wrong.
We've all been there. No one likes to talk about it, but everyone can relate to it. 

The bus arrives back at school from the road game around 11pm at night. The last kid waiting for their parents admits he doesn't have a ride. After I ask a bunch of questions, the kid says, "It's no big deal, I will just walk home."

Its 7 degrees outside. There is a foot of snow on the ground. We all know where this is going.

We never seek out situations like this. In fact, we should take any and every measure to prevent them from happening. Whether that be parent meetings, phone calls, or constant reminders to kids about communicating with their parents, its our obligation to protect ourselves professionally. 

Adults in our building give money, clothes, cell phone numbers, keys and countless other things to students all the time. In doing so, they are taking a risk. Ultimately, how influential we are will always come down to positive intentions, and if we are erring on the side of the student, the reward is a relationship that may just turn their life around. 

3. Successful relationships start with listening. 
Ten years ago, my favorite college professor Rev. Steven Avella gave our class some "college style" advice when he said, "If you ever want to be the life of the party you are at, just ask people about themselves. They will be more than happy to talk to you." That can be so true. But as teachers trying to build successful relationships with our students, we listen. We allow students to talk about themselves. When a student visits my classroom after school, they usually aren't looking for advice, no matter how eager I am to give it. They're just looking for someone they can trust and who will listen. The most successful relationships with students are built on this foundation. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

What I realized about 1:1

I'll admit that when our administration asked the faculty if we were ready to go 1:1 in 2011, we weren't ready. I had a vote, albeit a small one in the landscape of the larger community, and I opted for a full year of planning and a slow roll out before taking the 1:1 plunge. As luck would have it, the district thought differently, and decided in October of 2011 to go fully 1:1 in August of 2012.

As I reflect back on the past year, I realized that Leyden made the right call and that our students are already seeing the benefits of the world at their fingertips.

Some schools will begin their tech journey out of obligation to keep up with the others. Some schools will dive into 1:1 because of the pressure from their community. Some may even find a research based study that proves the effectiveness of this 21st century initiative. But until these institutions fully commit, there are so many underlying advantages that 1:1 creates that will go unnoticed. Among these are:

1. Our students are better at communicating with us. 

Despite what some may say about "Generation Y," our students are becoming better communicators because of technology. They may not have all of the conversational skills that our parents emphasized as we were growing up, but that doesn't mean that our kids cannot communicate. Their interaction with their teachers is as strong as ever. Students can email, tweet, text, post, blog, and create their own means of communication. My classroom may be empty after school, but my inbox is always full. Kids are reaching out to us in their language, not ours, and I think that's ok. 

2. Our teachers are gaining more autonomy through this device. 

Again, that statement may be a little puzzling at first glance. I believed the 1:1 initiative would zap the personality out of my class too, but that was far from the case. Now more than ever, I am able to create authentic lessons that speak to the goals I have for my students. I am still working within the framework of a shared curriculum, but this initiative, when implemented correctly, allows teachers to branch off in whatever direction they decide. Constant reflection, data gathering, and a willingness to admit failure are key components of making a successful 1:1 teacher.  Yet, I feel empowered to still take students down "my path." Every consciousness educator has a vision for what students will accomplish in their class. Having a device in front of every kid expands that vision vertically and horizontally.

3. Our instructional methods are more relevant than they used to be.

After high school, most of our students will not be asked to summarize a primary source. They won't be required to fill out worksheets, or do vocab. They may not even have to interview or create a paper resume for the job they want. We really cannot predict these things, or pretend to know what the future of our job market holds. What we can do is make our teaching relevant. Technology allows everyone in the room to learn together. It places the student and the teacher on an equal playing field. The "millennials" that fill our classrooms today were raised in and through technology. It is our obligation to teach towards their learning style and in doing so, we are staying current with what our students deserve.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Educational Philosophy

Every Spring (and sometimes late Winter), my Mom would endlessly harass my sister and I until we could definitively answer the question, "Where are you working this Summer?" From 1998 until 2006, my foray into the working world included jobs as a caddie, umpire, waiter, photographer, and...wait for it..."the dude that cleaned the park district pool." In those nine years, I learned valuable lessons about my career path, namely, that I didn't want any of those jobs. Inevitably, I would get a sinking and quasi-depressed feeling the night before I had to work only to be violently juxtaposed with the elation I would feel when the shift finally ended. I promised myself to never work a job "in the real world" where I had to experience those highs, and mostly those lows.

That being said, some of my basic educational philosophies are:

1. Create a place where people want to be.
Some say that if you find a job you like, you will never work a day in your life. Since I've been a teacher, I have not had that sinking feeling the night before a school day. I want to be there and I know it's proof that I'm in the right profession.  There are few things as powerful as a positive school culture that pulls people in instead of pushing people away. Its vital that this culture includes both kids and adults who come to work in the building everyday, but also values the connection between a school and its community. It sounds like some sort of fantasy school "utopia," but in large and small ways we can make school fun.

2. Cura Personalis. 
This is a Latin phrase meaning, "care for the whole person." I believe it is the school's job to create an environment that challenges every student and encourages everyone to find a better version of themselves. In engineering a diverse curriculum, affirming a wide range of interests and skills, and supporting the students' passions, a school can be the greatest influence on a child's life. What an amazing responsibility we all have in building a place grounded in academic rigor that also emboldens students to find their calling. High School is sometimes the last chance to reach them before the world reaches them. Maybe one day that kid won't have to dread his job, because he, too, found a career better than being the pool boy.

3. Leave it better than you found it. 
In my world now, this means cleaning Nanna's vacation house for hours so that it looks better than it did when we arrived. As a boy scout, its what they told us about entering and exiting the forest after a camping trip in nature. Clean up after yourself. But in education, I think it means being the difference in each others' lives- not because we want the credit for "turning that kid around" or "getting that kid into college," - but because its what we are called to do. The greatest legacy is not what we leave FOR our kids, but what we leave IN our kids. Leave them better than you found them.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Why I Lead...

It is my absolute pleasure to be a part of the Virtual Mentoring program (#savmp) and our first "assignment" this week was to write about why we lead and why we are educators.

In 2009, a colleague of mine was doing a doctoral study on how kids consumed different types of text. He used my students as a part of his research as well as many other students at our school. When he completed his observations of all of our students and gathered data, he came up with many conclusions including one he shared with me:

"Andrew, your students were doing things that none of the other students could do. The skills and content they learned in your class were just at a different level."

I knew then that I could impact people in a way that made a difference. While every teacher plays an important role in shaping the skills and content that kids absorb, we only teach what we know. But we produce who we are. Since that time, I have used my platform as a teacher to try to make a difference, however large or small, in the lives of my students. "Be the Difference," will one day be an answer to the question, "Why I lead..."

Until then, I am soaking in every lesson that this profession affords me and seeking out any advice and experiences I can gain in my district and through my PLN. Without that process though, I cannot progress as a leader. Processing the "process" is how we grow.

With that, I am setting three professional goals for myself this year:

1. Be consistent with my digital presence inside and outside the classroom.

After our school went 1:1 last year, each teacher tackled digital education with a different level of ferocity. Because my class was already running from a digital platform, I added a few new wrinkles but did not fully commit to every digital tool when it made sense. That changes this year.
I also began a professional twitter account and began to build my digital footprint. However, as the constraints of life and my job pulled on my focus, I lost the consistency that any digital leader needs. I sometimes went weeks without tweeting, checking twitter, participating in discussions, or sharing links. That changes this year.

2. Build on a culture of success and take it another step forward.

In my two years as our Advanced Placement US History teacher, we have made groundbreaking improvements on our student outcomes and test scores. 46 of my 48 students in the last two years have earned college credit because of their relentless work ethic and commitment to the class. Last year, our class average was 4.33, with 23 of our 24 students receiving a 4 or 5. We work in a profession that raises the bar year after year. This year, our goal as a class is to have every student receive a 4 or 5, virtually guaranteeing each student 6 college credits before they even choose their university. Wouldn't that be awesome?

3. Make what I am doing the most important thing in the world.

A former coach of mine used to say, "When you are at practice, practice should be the most important thing in the world to you. When you aren't at practice, it falls way down the list of things that are important in your life."

I want to apply this philosophy towards the many hats I will wear this year. When I am in the Dean's office, I want that job to be the most important thing in the world to me. I want to help kids understand how important their decisions are in life and how they impact others. When I am teaching, I want to make my students the most important thing in the world to me. I want to make myself available as much as I can to ensure their success in my class and in life. And when I am home, being a husband, son, and father (in January) will be the most important thing in the world to me. I want to focus on today and putting 100% of myself into today. Just today. And then tomorrow, I want to get up and do it all over again.

Those are my personal and professional goals for the 2013. Have a great school year everyone.