Trying to lead from the heart

Really, I am trying.

I don’t usually write about my personal challenges as a teacher in this blog, but today I find myself needing to.

I started at a new school this September and was hired to teach and design a new program for older students (16-21) who are not  expected to graduate.

I’m now teaching 14 students from the ages of 12-19. 6 of them are in the original program – a life skills transition program we’re calling Bridges. 8 of them are in a ‘learning centre’. I teach them all at the same time. One of my students is severely intellectually handicapped and works below a kindergarten level. Other students have a variety of cognitive and learning disabilities. I am finding it difficult to lead them where they need to go when there are such different objectives attached to each of the students in the room. I need help.

I think I need to map out the types of learners in the room and work from there. So I can design maybe 3 or 4 different plans per lesson rather than 13. And so that I do not have lessons where students are lost, or I am lost.

Because that is how I feel sometimes with them. I want to lead them where they need to go, and from my heart.

Motivation and change, values and passion: Making the connections

[cross-posted at LeaderTalk]

I will be returning to the classroom at the end of August after a year as a special education consultant and professional development facilitator. I decided to return for a variety of reasons, the most important being that I miss the energy I pick up from daily contact with students and the next that there are so many things I want/need to try with students as their learning contexts change at such an exciting and fast-paced rate.

Today I am still a consultant and I am preparing for a teacher induction session we are designing for new teachers in our school system, the Association of Jewish Day Schools of Montreal. (Interestingly enough, I will be facilitating that session on the 21st and participating in one at the new school system on the following day!) The other day I spent the afternoon looking for video examples of different aspects of classroom management to include in the session. What I found was certainly food for reflection.

Essentially, I seem to have a choice between the inspirational teacher a la Erin Gruwell
(Freedom Writers) and Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) in Hollywood teacher movies or the angry teacher in student cell phone videos on youtube.

I have yet to meet a teacher who become one in order to be angry at his or her students or in order to expect mediocrity from them (check out this cute little movie on that theme :) ) yet … I know teachers who do this on a regular basis.

On the contrary, most teachers I have spoken with became teachers because they want to make a difference in the lives of learners, like Erin Gruwell, and because they want to share a passion they have around a certain subject and see it grow strong in young people, like Jaime Escalante.

I have recently had the pleasure of working with teachers who had forgotten why they became teachers.

Yes, it was a pleasure.

I want to give my reason by framing it a bit first. Kelly Christopherson‘s recent post in LeaderTalk addresses the issue of motivation and it got me to thinking.

How do teachers stay motivated to teach and to learn when the playing field changes on such an astounding level?

I am motivated to teach and to learn, to action, when what I am doing has relevance for me because it is tied to my core values, my passion. The answer for me, therefore, lies in this next compound question:

How do we reconnect teachers with their passion AND reframe it within changing contexts?

I firmly believe that before we can motivate teachers to do anything new we need to connect it to what is important to them, to tie it to their values and their passion.

Relevance and seeing purpose are key to internal motivation – and we know that internal motivation is key to learning. Dr. Marvin Marshall writes, in Using a discipline approach to promote learning:

“True change must come from INSIDE an individual, and therefore a teacher must understand how to create an environment in the classroom in which children WANT to learn, WANT to behave appropriately, and WANT to achieve.” (para. 5)

Not only must a teacher understand this for students in the classroom, but the same understandings apply for leaders about the teachers in their schools.

Now, to return to the teachers who had forgotten why they became teachers.

It was a pleasure to work with them because we began a change process that started off as some run-of the mill PD on Differentiated Instruction (DI) that is becoming a shift in school culture that will allow Differentiated Instruction to take root as a learning model in that school.

It was a pleasure because I saw angry and unmotivated teachers rediscover their passion for teaching by being allowed to have the time to talk with each other and their school leaders about their concerns and fears, but most importantly about their dreams for themselves as teachers.

At first, many of the teachers at this school did not want to learn about DI. They said it was nice in an ideal world but would never work in their classrooms. So we stopped teaching the theory and the strategies and we started to focus on the teachers. I asked them – What is it about teaching that touches your soul? And the conversation grew from there. By the end of two sessions the teachers (all but 3 who are still holding out, but their colleagues are working on them!) asked us to return to the DI workshop we had begun because they insisted it was relevant to their needs and the needs of their students.

The school’s principal fully supports the learning that her teachers need to do together and has abolished monthly staff meetings in order to allow structured time for groups of teachers to meet to talk and learn together. This support is integral. The most inspired of teachers can lose their inspiration without it. In researching this post today, I found an article that underlines this importance:

Stand and Deliver Revisited. The untold story behind the famous rise — and shameful fall — of Jaime Escalante, America’s master math teacher.

As I transition back into the classroom and into a new school community I will bring what I learned while working with this group of teachers with me. Values and passion are powerful stuff. If we can stay connected to that our schools will become powerful indeed – and imagine the students!

So, I ask you…

What is it about teaching that touches your soul?

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the essence of it all

The Power of Personal Relationships
By Thomas S. Mawhinney and Laura L. Sagan
Phi Delta Kappan, March 2007

The essence, the very essence, of what I believe as an educator is summed up in this understanding:

We now understand that higher-level thinking is more likely to occur in the brain of a student who is emotionally secure than in the brain of a student who is scared, upset, anxious, or stressed. (para.5)

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