on fear & curiosity

It’s August, and the first day of school for teachers is a little over a week away. As I start to put my brain in back-to-school mode, I find myself reflecting on the nature of fear.

There is plenty to fear these days. COVID is still a very real thing, where I’m located is currently seeing high transmission, and I don’t know what the COVID mitigations (if any) are going to be like in schools. Also add the text I got this week from our city’s public health alerts about monkeypox, another public health issue that I have no information about regarding mitigations.

I’m also starting in a new school, albeit one I’m somewhat familiar with, and there’s the swirling questions of “will I be able to connect with my students here the same way I did at my old school?”, “how will I connect with the adults in the building?”, and “how will I adapt to a different curriculum and environment?” A fear of failure, a question of “can I be successful here?”

And then there are just the general fears of working in public education in America these days. I definitely saw a rise in jackhammer parents over the past few years. I can understand and empathize that their “jackhammeriness” comes from a place of fear and wanting to control what they can to mitigate those fears, but I fear being on the receiving end of that relentlessness. Also, although I am not in a state that is currently trying to pass laws around what teachers can and cannot say/teach in the classroom, I see what’s happening in Florida, Texas and other places and how those laws are having a trickle effect. Consider, for example, what happened at Heinemann, where two anti-racist educators led the way in severing ties with the company when Heinemann tried to edit out parts of a reading curriculum because of the restrictions in some states. As a science teacher, and more specifically as a physical science teacher, my curriculum hasn’t come under the same level of scrutiny as, say, literacy or history, but sometimes it feels like it’s only a matter of time. As I work to make my classroom more culturally and linguistically responsive, as I work to make it a welcoming environment for all students, what if that is suddenly “too much”? What if something as simple as asking my students for their pronouns comes under undue scrutiny?

I wish it was straightforward to mitigate the fears of other people, because it seems that when the folks around me are reacting out of fear, my own fear rises in response. There was a study from Yale several years back about having conservatives imagine that they’re physically invincible leads to more liberal mindsets (on social issues, anyway). It seems that feeling physically safe leads to less of a hoarding/scarcity mentality. What could we do if we felt safe, if we weren’t governed by fear?

As I am getting more into planning for next year, I am reminding myself to approach things from a place of curiosity. Who are my students, and how do I get to know them? What is the community like that I am stepping into? What are the emotions behind what’s happening here? I’ve learned over the past few years how we can’t get away from our emotions, but also that emotions are not reality or permanent. Additionally, as Elena Aguilar has shared in so much of her work, emotions can tell us a lot if we invite them in. The work I’ve put into understanding emotions, my own and those of others, has helped me be more empathetic and compassionate.

Unlike the constriction of fear, this mindset of curiosity feels expansive. I do not know what this year will hold for me, but I am cautiously optimistic and curious to find out where things go. So here’s to starting Year 10 (!) and all the ups and downs that will come with it.

on leaving

pic.twitter.com/G6L2jrMSTR— the Awkward Yeti (Nick Seluk) (@theawkwardyeti) June 4, 2022

It is the end of my 9th year teaching, and I’m not only wrapping up the school year, I’m also wrapping up my time at this school. I decided that I needed a change for a variety of reasons. Even though a part of me did not feel quite ready to go (as so wonderfully illustrated by Nick Seluk above), I took the leap and now I’m going to be at a new school next fall, teaching a different type of curriculum (still chemistry though)!

When I left a place in the past, it was generally obvious that it was time to move on. After graduating high school and college, the next steps were clear. My first job out of grad school was basically as an admin assistant for a professor, and when he left for a different university that was my cue to leave too, and I transitioned into teaching.

9 years is the longest I’ve ever been in one setting, and so it is a strange feeling to leave. I’m still in the same city, in the same school district. This leaving is very much my choice rather than an “natural” life transition, and most days I feel like it’s the right one. I will be in a different school environment, hopefully one that allows me to better live out my values as an educator and just as a person. But that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to leave.

I’ve put down deep roots in this school community. The process of uprooting myself has been painful, even as I look forward to what comes next. I’ve been in a variety of leadership roles over my time at this school, and it’s strange (but also really a relief!) to think that I won’t be responsible for so many things next year. I’ve had some heartfelt conversations with colleagues, who I’ve loved working with, and it’s hard to leave what you know and are comfortable with to adventure on to the unknown (or at least, the less known).

This year was also, to be quite honest, really amazing in the classroom. I know that wasn’t true for all or even many educators, especially in this transition back to “normal” school. But I built some wonderful relationships with my students, and it felt like it went better than it’s ever gone before. My students gave me many little notes as I’m leaving, and it’s really hit me that in particular, it is the small things that they’re taking away from my class. (Turns out it’s unlikely that they’re taking away a deep love for stoichiometry, hah. Though several of them said they learned that they can be good at science this year and that is always a win!) The random Peardeck question that I posed to start the day. The STEM spotlights I tried out this year for all of the different heritage and history months. The way that I didn’t cold call them because, unsurprisingly, they hate it.

I almost never do cold calling as a teacher because I hate being cold called myself, but I wonder if it made a difference in the classroom dynamic to explicitly name that I would not be cold calling them this year because so many of them said they hate it. Several students pointed out the way that I listened to their suggestions (even the “silly” one about giving stickers for participation) and how that made a difference because… their teachers often don’t actually listen to their suggestions. And I am both happy (that my classroom was a space where they could be their authentic, sometimes ridiculous, teenage selves) and sad (that they don’t have those spaces everywhere).

There are moments when I still wonder if this is the right move, if leaving was really necessary. But I felt that I couldn’t do anything more to push for change at my current school, and I had tried really hard. There are moments when I wonder how I’ll transition to a new school community and build new relationships with both the adults and the students. As a rather introverted person, I still remember how my first year at this school, one of the security guards was convinced I didn’t like her because I never said “good morning”, when really I was just in a half-awake daze early in the morning. It took me a long time to expand my circle beyond the folks I worked with on a daily basis. I wonder about how I’ll build relationships with a different student body. And yet, when I find myself with these doubts, I go back to the idea of “unconditional positive regard” that Alex Shevrin Venet first introduced me to.

Unconditional positive regard is a stance I take in relationship to my students. The message of unconditional positive regard is, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.” … This care infuses all of my teaching choices, from personal interactions to learning design. Importantly, unconditional positive regard stands in opposition to savior mentality and deficit thinking.

-Alex Shervin Venet

It seems like such a simple thing to say – that students (and colleagues!) don’t have to prove their value to me and that their value comes from their inherent worth as a person. And yet, in my past interactions with folks, I know that I’ve definitely made my regard conditional – what did or didn’t you do for me? These days, I think more and more about how to infuse unconditional positive regard into all my interactions, even for those that I might feel anger and frustration toward. 

As I wrap up, I’m reminding myself how much I’ve learned and grown over the past 9 years. I’ve learned how valuable it is to just speak up, to ask questions and point out how policies and procedures were unclear, nonexistent, or harmful to students. I’ve learned that I can create positive feedback loops with my colleagues, where our actions mutually encourage each other to keep pushing for change. I’ve learned that I could bring ideas and leadership capabilities, both with and without formal leadership roles. I’ve learned to recognize how dehumanizing some of the “typical” classroom policies and procedures are for students, and I’ve learned that grace & flexibility are more important than enforcing deadlines. 

Folks have been asking me if I’m excited for the next steps, and in many ways I am. (In other ways, I’m a bit terrified of the unknown, hello from an Enneagram type 6.) But it’s been a mix of both grief and excitement, as I process the good that I have experienced here and the anticipation of something new. I am thankful for these slow days at the end of the school year that have allowed me the time to stop and genuinely reflect on things. And it is a blessing to have good things to grieve as I leave a place that’s felt unsustainable for a long time. 

I am not quite sure what the future holds. Students and colleagues have said that they hope that my new school is everything that I want. I hope for that too, but I know that working in public education these days is a mixed bag even at the best of times. But at the very least, I will be reminded that I can do new things, and I will continue to grow. So, onward to good things.

on trust

It’s the Sunday before classes start, and I’m feeling both ok and doubtful of myself and my teaching practice this year. The past two school years have been strange and chaotic in ways that I could not have predicted, and I’m bracing for another year of chaos. I find myself emotionally depleted in ways I have not been before at the end of the summer, and I am trying very intentionally to not utterly flame out this year. I am slowly learning to hold myself with more grace and compassion, and I am learning how to genuinely extend that grace and compassion to those around me.

In the midst of all of this, I find myself thinking a lot about trust. How to build trust with my students, the trust that does or doesn’t exist among my colleagues, with our administration, with the district, the trust between families and the school, between families and the district…

I am realizing that just because I want my students, their families, and my colleagues to trust me, to know that I am doing my best to be compassionate and still maintaining high standards (the “Warm Demander” that Zaretta Hammond talks about in “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain”), that doesn’t mean that I will automatically get anyone’s trust. (There is also a lot to unpack with the term “high standards”, but that’s for another day.) That trust is not automatic seems like an obvious statement, but some things happened at our school last week (that I’m not going to get into here) really made me think about how sometimes we assume a level of trust that isn’t there, and it can be upsetting or offensive when we realize that other folks just… don’t trust us.

I’m currently reading Elena Aguilar’s book “Onward”, and the chapter for September is on “Building Community” and how vital trust is to community in any setting. It was a timely read this weekend, and Aguilar defines trust as this:

Trust is an emotional state. It is the feeling of confidence we have in another’s character and competence… Distrust, therefore, is suspicion of integrity and capabilities.

Elena Aguilar, “Onward”, p 101

Trust, and correspondingly, community, is built over time. Sometimes it seems to me that trust was quickly eroded, and I’ve felt astonished at how quickly trust disappeared, but now I think perhaps there wasn’t any genuine trust there to begin with. Perhaps what I thought of as “trust” was really a series of assumptions based on hierarchical roles and visible identity markers and the accompanying biases. In the classroom, I am an Asian American woman teaching science – my Asian identity may take precedence over my female identity when it comes to the competence that my students and their families ascribe to me in terms of science teaching. I am also in the positional role of teacher – surely someone evaluated my competence and decide that I was “good enough” to teach. But have I demonstrated any competence the minute my students walk into the room? What might a colleague with different identity markers experience when it comes to assumed trust in the classroom or in the school building?

Someone said to us this week “when students walk into your classroom, they’re asking, Can I trust you?” – which I think is true and not true. I don’t think students walk into my classroom wanting or needing to share their deepest selves with me, and that’s ok. I don’t need to be a trauma detective (thanks to Alex Shervin Venet for introducing me to that term, and I’d encourage all teachers to reflect on her blog post about setting up trust at the start of the year, What I wish teachers knew about “what I wish my teachers knew”). But I think my students are watching me, to see if I am competent and have integrity, to see if they can learn from me, how I will treat them, and whether what I say I value actually lines up with what I do. There are many different decision points throughout the school year that will build or erode the trust that my students have in me, and simply saying “trust me!” is not enough. (In fact, I think if I were to say that and not follow through, that would do more harm than not saying “trust me” to begin with.) All of this brings to mind the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

I want my students and colleagues to trust me, and I want to trust them in return. I want to be a part of the resilient communities that Elena Aguilar describes in “Onward.” I want school to look different than the same old, same old that we had pre-pandemic (which honestly feels like a lifetime ago- this is now the third class of students I am teaching in this on-going global health crisis). But that level of trust takes demonstrated actions, consistent behaviors, and – figuring out how to deal with conflict in healthy ways. My hope for what school could/should be is not the same as that of others, and to work toward a goal we have to first agree on what the goal will be.

I feel like building trust in my classroom space is doable, but I honestly don’t know if I will be able to move the needle very much in some of the other (adult) spaces I’m in this year – I already know going into things that I am emotionally depleted, and teaching in any circumstances is an emotionally heavy lift. I’m learning how to set boundaries in my personal and professional life, and some of that means accepting that things will not be “perfect” in all the ways that I want them to be. It can be frustrating when I feel like that there’s a better way that things could go, and not seeing that outcome in reality. But I’m hoping that by working on my own resilience as an educator, and unpacking my own behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being (also from Aguilar’s work, this time from Coaching for Equity), it’s a start to building more trust in the spaces that I inhabit. And we all must start somewhere.

the least that I can do

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We are now heading into Day 6 of the Chicago Teachers Union Strike, and I am tired.

Being on strike has been exhausting on just about every level. It’s physically exhausting to be on the picket line from 6:30 am – 10:30 am, then go to a rally/march in the afternoon. It’s mentally exhausting to not know when we’ll be back in school and if/when we’ll make up the lost days, and to think through all the contingency plans for where to start once we get back into the classroom (and into email and Google Drive, where my teaching life lives). And it’s emotionally exhausting to see the city’s responses to the union’s bargaining team, to hear all of the excuses, and especially to read the letter that the mayor sent to the union on Monday.

And yet, to be on strike is in one sense the least that I can do as an educator for the students of Chicago. The strike makes all of us take a stand on the issues that are being raised, and I stand with the CTU. The union is fighting for the common good. We are asking for a nurse in every school. A librarian in every school. Staffing at clinician-to-student ratios as recommended by the appropriate national organizations. A student-to-counselor ratio and limiting ‘non-counseling duties’ so that the counselors can actually do their jobs. More teacher-directed prep time so that we can actually do our jobs. And the bargaining team is making progress on these issues. It just took a teachers’ strike for the city to move.

I’ll be honest, my school has been doing just fine. I’ve spent all 7 years of my teaching career at a selective enrollment high school in Chicago, which in many ways puts me in a bubble and makes it easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the city. At our school’s Back-to-School night in September, a parent asked if our teachers would also be on strike if the union went on strike (also a sign of how confusing the high school system is in Chicago). Earlier in October, our CTU staff had a joint “walk in” with the SEIU workers at our school, and one of the students on the school newspaper stopped me to ask how the contract negotiations, the (at the time, potential) strike would affect our teachers and our students. The Wednesday before the strike, during the last period of the day, one of my students commented “yeah, but this strike won’t affect us that much”. And this confusion about how the contract negotiations would affect our school is understandable- we often don’t feel the effects of district-wide issues in the same ways that other schools do. When the CPS budget crisis happened a few years ago, our parent group was able to fundraise $250,000+ to cover the shortfall. Our science department budget has always been able to cover the supplies I need for labs, and I have never had to put together a Donors Choose project to fund the activities I want to do in the classroom.  We already have a full time librarian, a nurse in the school every day, 6 counselors for our approximately 2000 students (note: still a higher student-to-counselor ratio than what’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association). 

I have to remember that all of this makes us the lucky ones. And it’s absurd when I think about how this makes our school lucky, because these are things that students in other school districts take for granted. 

There are clear systemic issues affecting the youth in our city. Even in our privileged school, we have students dealing with homelessness and trauma, we see the effects of systemic racism and injustice. I have conflicting feelings about the very existence of selective enrollment high schools – I love where I work, but I also want all students in the city to have well-resourced educational experiences that doesn’t depend on how well they do on high-stakes standardized tests. But, as one of my colleagues said to our staff yesterday morning on the picket line, systemic problems require systemic solutions, and our teachers’ contract is one place to start.

I believe that education is a right, not just for the privileged. I still have individual work to do – I could have done a better job of talking about the strike with my students before it happened, I could do a better job of finding places within the science curriculum where we can discuss issues of injustice and inequity. I am tired, as are many of my colleagues. Being on strike takes “teacher tired” to a whole new level. I would rather be back in my classroom, thinking about electron configuration and periodic trends. But this strike is a time for me to literally put my money where my mouth is. So as long as it takes to get the wins our students and communities need, I will be out on the picket line. It is, after all, the least that I can do.

tired

“There’s no tired like teacher tired.”

That statement is generally accepted as true, and there are a whole slew of memes to go along with it. But as I’m winding down on winter break and finding myself a little mentally exhausted at the thought of going back to school, I have to wonder why.

What do we expect from our teachers? A few years ago, I explored the idea of what is “good teaching” and what makes a “good teacher”. Some of the points that came out of my personal investigation into good teaching indicated that good teachers have all of the following:

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About a year later, I talked about “good teaching” on a podcast with some other teacher writers and we agreed that good teaching isn’t sustainable in isolation, and it is something that can/should be developed, rather than being an innate quality of a teacher. We shouldn’t expect to be excellent at teaching every day, from Day 1.

Yet right now, in the middle of my 6th year teaching, I find myself wondering if we still expect too much from our teachers, if we as teachers expect too much from ourselves.

In this 6th year of teaching, I still find myself working crazy hours. My timecard from before winter break showed too many 12 hour days. (And yes, I have a timecard because although I don’t get paid overtime, my school district requires us to clock in and out.) I sometimes think that I’m doing myself a favor by staying late and grading, but there is always more to do. And I feel like I already work at 100% efficiency, but I still need more hours in the day. It’s hard to get away from the mentality that I should return assessments to students ASAP (particularly mid-unit assessments) so that they have the feedback, that work done for a team should take priority over work done just for myself (I teach on two different subject teams), that I should be available for students outside of school hours, that I should contribute to my school community by sponsoring clubs and joining committees. All of these these “shoulds”, plus the work of, y’know, teaching and the other aspects of my life.

And I so wonder – what is the value of my time as a teacher? Is the value of that time different than the value of my time not spent teaching? There was an interesting article about a similar problem in higher education, where PhD’s find themselves in low-paying adjunct faculty positions. Elizabeth Segran argues that PhD’s are choosing to stay in an unfavorable labor market.

No one but Ph.D.’s themselves expect Ph.D.’s to live without the dignity of a living wage or to work for academic institutions that do not respect them. Indeed, when adjuncts continue accepting temporary work with no benefits, they perpetuate the very system that is taking advantage of them. The laws of supply and demand dictate the academic labor market as they do every other labor market, and universities have no incentive to change their labor practices when adjuncts willingly work for so little.

I see her argument, and I see similarities in the K-12 teaching profession, where teachers are continuously expected to do more with less. But I don’t know how to shift the market to incentivize higher value for our time, or if that’s even a good way of thinking about the problem. (I have issues with applying a market mentality to education, and this Washington Post article articulates better “Why schools aren’t businesses”). I know I contribute to the problem when I stay for 12 hr days, when I sponsor the Scholastic Bowl team (which does Saturday tournaments that go all day several times a year) for no additional compensation, when I take care of work that may or may not be explicitly within my job description (I honestly don’t know what is explicitly in my job description). I also struggle to be okay with doing less on a personal and moral level – in order to teach at the standard that I hold myself to, I need to do all those “shoulds”.

Jose Vilson, a teacher and a writer whom I respect enormously, wrote about the value of a teacher’s time recently. He argued that we should be given less classes, less students:

However, in countries that have done away with those arguments*, they’ve learned that teachers do much better by having less classes, less students, and more time for the mounds of paperwork they’re obligated to grade.

* “Those arguments” being that students need more time with teachers/teachers don’t spend enough time with students

Don’t get the wrong message – I love working with students. When my non-teacher friends ask me what’s the hardest part about teaching, it’s never the students. Yes, there are challenging students to work with, and yes, if you catch me in a certain frame of mind I will vent about said students. But honestly, if I had fewer students, fewer classes, I could give those students and those classes more of my attention. I feel guilty because I don’t know all my students, but I have 150 of them and that makes it hard. When I hear that a student of mine is through something in their life that I had no idea about, I wish I had the time to cultivate more and deeper relationships with my students. And if all of the teachers at our school had this time, what would be the impact on our students? Would there still be as many students who are struggling, academically or personally? Would we finally be able to close the “opportunity gap”? And would we as teachers feel less tired, less burned out or demoralized, by the work that we face every day?

There are a lot of narratives about teaching out there. Becky Van Tassel, another teacher writer whom I admire enormously, wrote recently about how the perception of what is “normal” can shift our behavior. But what is “normal” for teachers? Is “teacher tired” just normal, and I (still) need to figure out how to just deal with it? Is the lone “superhero teacher” who bucks the system and rises above (and pulls their students up with them) normal, and what I should be aspiring to? Or is the disempowered, burned out, demoralized teacher the normal, and I need to find my own personal coping mechanisms? I don’t want any of these things to be normal for teachers, or for myself.

I go back to school on Monday, and although I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, I’m taking the time to take stock of where I’m at. I’m still tired, and I don’t want to continue this way. There are things I can tweak to take better care of myself personally and professionally, which I will probably try. But I’m still wondering how we can shift the narrative, shift the perception of what is “normal” for teachers, and how we can make school a better place for all who pass through, both students and teachers.

 

meetings, meetings everywhere

This school year feels different than previous years. Really, every year is different, because the students are different, I’m a little different, I’m trying different things in the classroom. But this is now my 5th year teaching, and I don’t feel like I’m reinventing the wheel anymore, which is kind of nice. This is also the first time since I started teaching that I haven’t had new colleagues join the teacher teams I work with (even though I’ve been at the same school the whole time). However, I find myself spending a lot of time in meetings.

A few weeks ago, I counted up the meetings that I had that week – it was particularly bad. In that one week, I was in 9 different meetings plus my normal teaching schedule. On Thursday, I had three meetings – before school, during lunch, and after school. In a more “typical” week, I have 3 meetings either before/after school, plus all the informal conversations that we have with colleagues during prep/lunch/before or after school.

I think a hatred of meetings is somewhat universal, no matter what profession you’re involved in. I’m sure everyone has been involved in an ineffectual meeting – whether it was people just complaining, the organizer(s) didn’t have a plan, it was a meeting that could have been an email, or just nothing was accomplished. (Incidentally, when I was watching this TED talk about givers vs. takers, I came across this article about how to get a sense of the culture of an organization when job searching, and at the very end the author suggests asking about meetings – if people enjoy the meetings they’re in, that’s a good sign. Something to keep in mind if I find myself on the job market again.)

Teachers in particular seem to dislike meetings. The culture of schools doesn’t seem to foster collegiality (different from congeniality, as outlined by Robert Evans in the article “Getting to No”). As Evans states,

Ask any classroom veterans why they teach. You’ll never hear, “I love to work with other adults and go to meetings.” Teachers have chosen a career that involves spending their days in the company of children or adolescents. They thrive and feel most confident and fulfilled when doing so. (Would we want our youth taught by people who felt otherwise?) They often see dealings with other adults — whether colleagues, administrators, or parents — as intrusions upon their primary source of work satisfaction.

And it’s true. Going to meetings is definitely not the best part of my day. I would love to have more time for my students. This year in particular, I feel like I am not available for students as I have been in the past. I used to give a blanket statement that students could see me in the mornings, but that’s no longer true because these days I often have morning meetings. And teaching two preps in two buildings, I can’t tell students that I will definitely been in room ____ before school. So now it’s “please email me if you’d like to see me outside of the school day” and I just feel less accessible to my students this year.

And yet I find myself voluntarily involved in more meetings with my colleagues this year than ever before. I’m on two subject teams that basically teach lock-step. I’m the “course team liaison” for the chemistry team. And I find myself stepping up and occasionally helping organize some school-wide PD. All of these things take time and require face-to-face interactions.  Most of these meetings take place outside the “normal” school day because I don’t have the same prep periods as the colleagues I need to meet with.

I engage in all these meetings because I feel like the work that’s being done is important. It’s important to me to work with colleagues to develop curriculum, because it makes it better than whatever I could come up with on my own. (It’s also important to me that students enrolled in the same class get a comparable experience regardless of teacher.) It’s important to me to be involved with my department as we are working through what it means for students to construct scientific arguments (we’re having a lot of good discussions about the “claim, evidence, reasoning” framework – what is evidence, exactly, and how is it different from reasoning?). And I feel like I have ideas and resources to help our school-wide meetings be more productive (particularly after the NSRF Critical Friends training I attended this past summer).

But some days, I feel conflicted. Am I doing my students a disservice by being so busy when I could be available to help them? Or am I doing worthwhile work by being involved in these groups in my school? I don’t think that I am yet doing work with colleagues at the expense of my students, but it’s a tension that I keep in the back of my mind. And then, just the sheer number of meetings is exhausting sometimes. Sometimes I find myself wishing for a Time Turner, although Hermione’s experience might suggest that a Time Turner would not actually help my sanity.

I do wish that the school day was structured differently, where there was more time built into the school day for collaboration with colleagues (although then that begs the question when would I get the grading done?). But we must make the best of what we have, and for right now I guess that means continual meetings. And I guess all I can do is continue to reflect and be honest about when I need to step back so that I can make sure I’m also able to meet the needs of my students (and keep my sanity).

The fear in dilemma

Day 3 of this Critical Friends Group coach’s training and again, so much to think about.

We spent a fair amount of time today talking about professional dilemmas. I was able to workshop a dilemma of my own, and help some colleagues workshop their dilemmas. In this context, a dilemma is “a puzzle, a problem seemingly without any desirable outcomes.” It’s something that keeps you up at night, that you have some power to solve (if you knew what to do!) and is important enough to keep at it.

Going through the dilemma protocols, we asked and were asked probing questions. Questions that pushed our thinking, that made us consider what might really be going on here. And at some point or another, the presenter of the dilemma was asked to share one or two probing questions that really resonated with them. And I noticed something.

The question “What do you fear about…” came up in every single round I participated in. (Ok, so that question stem was listed in the stems for probing questions that we were given.) But also, every single round, the question “What do you fear about…” was one of the questions that the presenter wanted to think about more deeply. (Caveat: I only have four data points right now.)

So I wonder.

How big of a role does fear play in our dilemmas? I don’t think that this is limited to my professional dilemmas. If I think about all the different things that bother me and keep me up at night, how many of them have a component of fear embedded somewhere in that frustration and worry? And how many of those fears are really the fear that this dilemma has the potential to reveal to me that I am not who I thought I was?

From my current perspective, dilemmas seem to threaten identity. If my students really aren’t learning, then does that make me a bad teacher? If what that person said is true, does that make me a bad person? Did they treat me like this because I am not likable? And perhaps, on some level, we already know what we should do to address our dilemmas, but the risk associated with unearthing a threat to identity make us run in the other direction (and spend a lot of time/energy in that running).

I want to think more about identity and the impact it has on our interactions. (Really, right now I should be sleeping, because these days are maxing me out mentally.) This past year, I read through the book “Difficult Conversations” with some other KSTF fellows because we wanted the tools to have those difficult conversations at work. The authors point out that one of the main reasons that conversations are difficult is because they threaten our identity – I don’t want to talk about that because it makes me seem like a jerk and I believe I’m a good person. I don’t want to talk about this because it makes me look incompetent and I believe I’m more than competent. What is the impact of this situation on my self-image, my self-esteem?

I think we react viscerally to threats to identity. Which might be why dilemmas are dilemmas. If this situation threatens my identity in some way (even if I’m not conscious about it), then I’m definitely going to stew about it. So I guess, if I find myself in a dilemma, I need to ask myself – is there something that I fear about this situation? How might that threaten my identity? And then, how do I acknowledge that threat, accept the disruption, and find a way to move forward?

The risk in reflection

Reflecting can be risky.

I’m on Day 2 of a Critical Friends Group coaches training (sponsored by the Knowles Teaching Initiative, formerly KSTF, with a trainer from the National School Reform Faculty. I’ll be here for three more days and I’ve already had plenty of think about. (What’s a Critical Friends Group? NSRF has an answer to that.)

Day 1 we did an activity around quotes, and this was the one that I picked:

I like this quote because it captures how growth is not easy. There’s plenty of talk in education about teaching students to struggle and teaching them to embrace mistakes as growth opportunities, but mistakes are risky to make. Particularly if they are made publicly. But a part of making mistakes and struggle worthwhile to the learning process is examining them and reflecting on them, and I’m realizing that this reflection piece can feel just as (or perhaps more) risky than just making the mistake itself. How many times have I made a mistake or had a difficult experience and just wanted to get past it, rather than thinking through what happened in that scenario and how I can learn from it?

Today, we read an excerpt from Margaret Wheatley’s book “Turning to One Another” that spoke about the willingness to be disturbed in conversations that we have with one another. There were many parts of this piece that resonated with me, but for right now, a quote:

Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new.

Although the whole excerpt is about how we should be willing to really listen to someone else’s view and let that disturb us so that we can think well together, I also think that the willingness to be disturbed is essential when we reflect on mistakes and difficult experiences. We need to be willing to be disturbed in our assumptions and beliefs about ourselves. And that’s risky. Because what if I reflect on a difficult experience and find that there are so many places in which I can grow? What if I reflect on that difficult experience and find that it makes me question my beliefs and assumptions about who I am? Am I willing to risk having my very identity disturbed?

In teaching, everything is personal. Being a teacher is a core part of my identity; in particular, believing that I’m a reasonably good teacher is a core part of my identity. Reflecting on experiences that could expose this belief as untrue (or at least, not as true as I thought it was) is risky. But if I don’t reflect on my difficult experiences teaching, how will I grow as a teacher? I have many thoughts about the importance of reflection, and I want to promote more reflection in my students, so I need to be willing to take the risk in reflecting on my practice and be willing to face whatever disruptions to my beliefs and assumptions that might come out of that. I need to be willing to dive into the confusion that accompanies having my beliefs and assumptions disrupted, so that I can continue to grow and change.

I don’t think that, as a society, we’re good at acknowledging the importance of mistakes in the growth process or rewarding mistakes. I don’t think that we’re good at recognizing the importance of reflecting on our experiences and really learning from them, growing from them. Rather, we tend to highlight the successes and gloss over the reality that those successes required us to get through many, many difficult situations. But I want to be more willing to acknowledge my mistakes, acknowledge my difficult experiences, and use those to grow. I want to encourage my students to have this attitude, and I want to encourage my colleagues to have this attitude. I’m still not completely sure how to do this (and I’m hoping that the rest of this workshop will help me clarify some next steps for next year), but I’m just trying to remind myself of the importance of this kind of work. Even when it’s hard, messy, and uncomfortable.

ignorance and failure

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Right Question Institute’s Midwest Conference as a guest, and I was able to bring a colleague from work with me. This was the first out-of-district PD that I’ve attended with a colleague, and it was really nice to have someone along with me to talk about how we might incorporate the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) more into our classrooms.

Since yesterday, I’ve been musing over some ideas/quotes about questioning, ignorance, failure, class culture, and mindset (of the teacher and the student).

One is this idea that I tweeted out yesterday:

Another idea my colleague and I discussed is the possibility of using QFT to get students asking questions and thinking about classroom norms at the beginning of the year, and I’m considering this quote from author Jasper Fforde as a QFocus:

Failure concentrates the mind wonderfully. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough.

– Jasper Fforde, “The Well of Lost Plots”

(Side note: if you like British literature and fantasy, Jasper Fforde’s “Thursday Next” series is highly recommended. You’ll see another side of Miss Havisham, among others.)

I think these two things – allowing room for ignorance and failure in the classroom – are intertwined. QFT and student questions can honor these two things as part of the learning process (but are by no means the only way of honoring these pieces of learning). Several speakers mentioned that QFT allows for a safe space for students to ask questions and become more comfortable/confident in their ability to not only ask the questions but find the answers. And I think this is an essential part of my classroom that I try to cultivate, but I wonder how easily this kind of thing could be undermined by subtle things we do as teachers. If I want a question-asking, try-fail-try-again mentality to be the basis of my classroom, how do I promote such a culture? How do I inadvertently undermine it? How do I model failure for my students?

I’ve tried QFT a few times in my classroom, and it went ok, but I need to do more thinking about what the goal of those questions are and how to use them in an authentic way. Because otherwise, it becomes just another hoop for students to jump through, just another part of the game of school that they play. I want to use QFT more, and I want to take more advantage of the student reflection, the metacognitive thinking, that it has the potential to promote, but I want to do this intentionally.

Last week, I had the opportunity to join a class on online tools and collaboration in education and talk about the tech tools that I’ve used in my classroom. I use Google Classroom and Google Docs all over the place in my classes, and one of the participants asked if I’ve gone completely paperless. The short answer is no, the longer answer is no, because the online/computer-based tools don’t lend themselves well to everything I want to do in my classroom (also, we’re not 1:1 and not all of my students have reliable access to devices and/or internet from outside of school). One of the skills that I’m trying to develop as a teacher is the ability to evaluate different tools and see when they’re most appropriate for what I’m trying to do in the classroom.

So right now, I see QFT as another tool to promote student thinking, student agency, student reasoning. It is one tool of many that I try to implement in my curriculum, which is evolving and dynamic and I hope that it stays that way. But it’s hard, sometimes, to implement a new technique or a new tool in the classroom. It’s hard even to implement a tool I’ve tried before in a different way than I used it last time. I’m finding this to be true even after only 4 years in the classroom. There’s a risk involved – what if it flops? And when I work on course teams and share this tool/resource with my colleagues, there’s a bigger risk – what if it flops for everyone? Then they won’t want to use this thing (that I think is actually a pretty cool tool) again!

But teaching is a process, just as learning is a process. If I believe that failure and mistakes are ways that my students will learn, I need to accept that these things will also help me learn how to teach, how to be better. Kelly O’Shea has a Samuel Beckett quote as her blog’s tagline:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

–  Samuel Beckett

Next year, I want to be better about fostering an environment where mistakes are expected and valued, where student questions are valued by everyone. In aiming for this, I also want ignorance and failure to have space in my teaching practice too – acknowledging what I don’t know, what I want to know, what I tried and will need to try again differently.

mindset, smarts, and strengths

I’m finally getting around to reading “Mathematical Mindsets” by Jo Boaler, a book I’m reading with the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation fellows for our summer meeting, and it’s prompting a lot of reflection on how I have or haven’t fostered a growth mindset about science with my students this year. I’ve read Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset” and over the years, I’ve tried different things to more consciously foster a growth mindset in my students but I’ll be honest- I don’t think I do a good job of this and I don’t think I spend the time addressing it (explicitly or implicitly) that is really needed in the classroom. But I’m trying.

At the start of the spring semester, inspired by Kelly O’Shea and a conversation about being “smart” in science class, I switched up the way I do peer feedback and asked students to comment on their groupmates’ strengths in science class. At the end of each unit, I asked students to pick a science skill that they saw as a strength for each of their groupmates and explain why they chose that skill or when they saw that skill. I pulled the list of skills from a blog post by Ilana Horn on auditing your classroom for competencies and status. Here’s the list that students could pick from:

  • Extending on the ideas of others
  • Representing ideas clearly
  • Making connections between ideas
  • Asking interesting questions
  • Asking questions to clarify misunderstandings
  • Coming up with logical explanations
  • Working systematically
  • Working without giving up

It’s been a busy year and I didn’t revisit this mid-semester, but I compiled all of the peer feedback (which was collected via Google Forms) and printed a sheet for each student with their unique anonymous feedback. (I would love an easier way to do this and may need to do a mail merge type thing next year, but that’s another story.) I then had the students go through a series of reflection questions. As we were doing this in class, one student remarked that it felt like the end of summer camp, where you read all the nice things that other people say about you. Another student asked where the feedback about his weaknesses was, and I told him that I had only asked students to give feedback on strengths.

I thought about asking students to give feedback to each other on areas of improvement, but I’ve found that students can be almost too brutally honest with one another and I wonder if it’s helpful. Cacia Steensen, another KSTF fellow, wrote about her experiences looking for strengths in her colleagues and how it improved teacher morale in her department. I wonder what the effect of asking students to focus on strengths in science class has on their morale, particularly for students who don’t necessarily see themselves as smart in science. I hope that it improves their morale and helps them see that they are contributing to the classroom and their learning, although I think I need to do a better job of communicating and reinforcing this message throughout the school year. I also hope that it helps the students who do see themselves as competent and smart in science also see the value in their peers and how that helps their learning. A goal for next year is to revisit the idea of skills and strengths multiple times in the school year, although it can be hard because this seems to fall into the “important but not urgent” category of things.

I didn’t go through all of my student responses as in-depth as I could have, but I noticed that while most students weren’t surprised to see that their classmates thought they asked good questions (either interesting questions or questions to clarify understanding), some of them were surprised that their classmates thought they had skills related to explanations – coming up with logical explanations, extending on the ideas of others, representing ideas clearly, making connections between ideas. Some of them also thought they asked too many questions and slowed down their classmates too much. I think next year, I’d like to spend more time talking about what these skills actually look like and how they can be helpful to learning. I also need to be better about publicly highlighting these skills when they show up, particularly at the start of the year.

I compiled their answers to the last question (“What advice would you give to an incoming sophomore[freshman] at the start of next year on how to best succeed in chemistry[physics]?”) and made quick videos to show to them. I’ve asked students to give advice for incoming students before but I’ve never shared that with either the current class or the incoming class. This time though, I thought they had a lot of good advice and I’m hoping that seeing this from students who’ve gone through the course will help new students get started on the right foot. I’m also hoping that seeing what everyone said (I chose not to censor any comments) that the current students will see the value in asking questions and getting help. Not all of the comments are things that I would necessarily agree with (such as “memorize procedures” and “make sure you make a good notecard” [they are allowed a 3×5 notecard on unit tests but not quizzes, they can have a full sheet of paper for the final]). So I’m still wondering how to shift their thinking about what science is, just as Jo Boaler wants teachers to shift students’ thinking about what mathematics is: “At its core, mathematics is about patterns. We can lay a mathematical lens upon the world, and when we do, we see patterns everywhere; and it is through our understanding of the pattern, developed through mathematical study, that new and powerful knowledge is created.” (Boaler, Mathematical Mindsets, pg 23) I do think that a lot of science is also about finding patterns and applying them. A few of my students said that science class is “kind of like math” – probably not coming from the pattern-finding view and rather thinking of the rote application of a procedure instead. I’d like to disrupt that kind of thinking about science for my students.

So there’s work that I need to do. I’d like to assess more conceptually rather than just whether students can apply an equation. On assessments, I probably ask too many basic application/rote questions and too few conceptual questions that get at their thinking. Basic application/rote questions are easier to answer and easier to grade, but I know it doesn’t necessarily help their learning. I commented to one of my physics classes this year when they complained that a problem was hard that “you just want to apply an equation indiscriminately and I want you to think about it!” I then had to explain what the word “indiscriminately” meant, but once they understood they said “yes, because that’s easier!” It was a moment born out of frustration for me- that class in particular didn’t seem to really enjoy talking about physics, they just wanted to get it done, and I was getting frustrated by that attitude. However, I have to think about what I did or didn’t do to foster that attitude- why didn’t I address it earlier in the school year? I had students in my other physics class who were brave and willing to ask questions  when we were going over the homework and I took care to highlight that, but I don’t think I did that in my other classes. And looking back on it, my two physics classes had very different dynamics this year. Some of that is probably due to the personalities in each class, but I know a lot of that is on me for not doing more to foster a growth mindset, a “learn  from your mistakes” mindset and “ask the questions because surely you’re not the only one who is lost” mindset. There’s too much in my teaching that rewards just getting the right answer and not the process, and I’m still looking to change that. It’s uncomfortable and it’s messy, but is that a bad thing?

I also need to recognize where I am exhibiting a fixed mindset about student learning – When and why do I think “oh, they’ll never get it” and give myself a pass? I don’t think I do these things overtly, but sometimes the subconscious messages are the most damaging. I’d like to communicate to my students that my classroom is a place where I expect everyone to grow – you don’t come in knowing everything but everyone does and can grow and the growth is more important than memorizing equations.

A student asked me if teaching doesn’t get boring- aren’t we just doing the same thing, year after year? And I told him no, because the students are different and I change how I teach a little bit every year. (He still seemed skeptical that teaching could continue to be interesting.) I forgot to mention that I’m not just changing how I teach content (adjusting handouts and labs, etc.) but I’m also constantly looking for ways to better build up students’ competence. So I’m excited to think more deeply about how to better address student mindset in science next year, and the little to not-so-little changes I can make to address that. And I’m excited to see how it affects their learning (although, as I’ve said before, education isn’t a controlled experiment).

And here are the students’ advice to the next class, mostly unfiltered: