Saturday, August 12, 2017

Starting Strong: 6 Things to Keep in Mind as You Begin the New School Year

   
     The beginning of the school year is such a special time of year. Teachers excitedly get their classrooms set up, organized and decorated. There is a buzz of excitement and energy all around school. Expectations are high, and hope lingers in the air like a cool breeze on a hot day. When I think of the beginning of the school year, I think of hope. "Hope" because everyone enters the new school year thinking it will be better than the year before. Maybe it will be the best yet.
     There is a special kind of feeling that ensues during this time of year, and it's the kind of feeling one would like to bottle up and keep for later (you know, for when we're exhausted and in need of a "pick-me-up"). If only we could hold onto that feeling and make it last. What would our whole school year be like then? How would this affect students, teachers, and even parents? I contend that the consequences of such a long-lasting feeling would prove positive.
    Maybe we can't bottle up the excitement and positivity of the beginning of the school year, but we can commit to promote positivity and encourage others to do the same. It seems a tall order, but it's something that we can all do if we decide to. Below are 6 key ideas that promote positivity as you begin the new school year. Hold onto them throughout the year, and they will help you maintain a positive attitude even when things feel negative.

Gratitude


     We never have to wait for the big, grand things in life to be grateful for because it's the smaller things in life more worthy of gratitude. Are you breathing today? Be grateful. Do you have access to clean water? Be grateful. Did you feel the cool chill of the wind on your back today? Be grateful.
    Aside from all the wonderful things in life to be grateful for, we can also be grateful for the fact that we have jobs. Not everyone has that. Not everyone has a job for which they will rise and get ready for each morning. Be grateful.
   

Create an Appropriate Work Environment


     Just as we aim to create a learning environment for our students in which they feel free to take risks and make mistakes, the same needs to be true for our work environment. All faculty have the power to help create this kind of environment. It involves creating a growth mindset where teachers feel safe to make mistakes because they know they won't be deemed bad teachers. This kind of school understands that the only way to grow as educators is to understand that things won't always go well. Teachers might try things instructionally that won't always work and will adjust accordingly, and that's okay. When the entire school participates in this kind of mindset, it makes others feel safe enough to try new things, even if it doesn't work immediately (there's often wrinkles to iron out when trying something new).

Shield Yourself From Negativity


     Negativity can bring someone down like a pile of bricks. Its weight is heavy and constraining. Though it's not possible to remain positive 100% of the time, it is important to attempt to remain positive. When we fall in the negativity trap, it does nothing but bring us down (look for solutions instead of complaints as solutions are more productive). One step to attempting this is to shield your from negativity. If there's a location at your school where you know negativity runs rampant (say the teacher's lounge, for example), refrain from frequenting it. We can't control the negativity from others, but we can choose to not participate in it. Likewise, by modeling positive behavior, we have the potential to positively affect others and improve our immediate environment. This is not only beneficial for you and your colleagues, but for your students.


Assume the other person had good intentions.


     I once listened to a podcast that argued we should always assume the best from others. How often, though, do we do the opposite instead? We read an email and detect a tone and immediately feel offended. Or, we find out a colleague has done something and we assume it was done with bad intentions. Assuming another person had good intentions when they do something that, at first glance, appears otherwise, is not easy (I know, I struggle with this too). However,  by attempting this mindset, we better understand our colleagues, avoid unnecessary conflicts and drama, and maintain healthy relationships. When something happens and we immediately feel upset with our colleague, we should pause, rewind, and think that the person probably had good intentions. With that mindset, you can better examine and then manage the situation because it helps to keep you calm (as opposed to going into the situation upset and angry).

Communication


     Communication is key in an institution with so many people. I have had my own fiascos when it comes to communication, which is why I think this point cannot be left off this list. When communication is broken or lacking, relationships can suffer. When relationships between colleagues suffer, students ultimately suffer as well. If there is pertinent information, make sure everyone involved is given the information. This will prevent someone missing vital information, and when that happens, the other person involved could be left feeling upset and disrespected. Likewise, keeping others informed is an easy way to let them know they are being kept in the loop, considered, and, as such, respect.
     Sometimes communication is not easy, though. Speaking with a colleague about difficult matters can feel uncomfortable. These kind of conversations are not easy, but in order to maintain healthy relationships, they certainly are necessary. When we feel confused, upset, or even hurt, it's important to have direct communication with the other person. This can feel extremely uncomfortable, but misunderstandings and conflicts are best resolved when we go straight to the person. Remaining calm while expressing kindness and respect can help make the discussion as comfortable as possible in such a situation. Most people appreciate direct communication and will realize that you are interested in preserving the relationship.

 Recognize Everyone's value


     All school personnel has a special role, and each person's work helps to make the school great. As such, it is extremely important to recognize the value that each person brings to his or her school. Teachers, janitors, cafeteria staff and grounds are only a few positions that make up our schools. We can show our recognition of each other's value by expressing respect and appreciation for each other. No one is above or below, nor is anyone's job more important than another's.

   
    Want to listen to my full episode on this topic? You can do that here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Rethinking Homework

   
     Homework is one of those very delicate subjects in education. To give homework or not to give homework, that is the question. However, that's not the only question. If we teachers give homework, what kind? How frequently? How much or how little? What are the parents' role in homework?
     To begin to answer this question, we have to look at the research. There's really no research that supports the idea that homework helps students make academic advances. You do start seeing some advances at the highschool level, but it's hard to tell if this is just correlational or actually a causality.
     However, the subject of homework is still complicated even when you know the research. You have to keep in mind the parents and students, because they are part of the equation. Parents have their own preconceived ideas about homework, which implies the importance of informing them of the research on homework. Many parents believe that homework should be part of school, but this is primarily because that's what parents did when they were in school. Admittedly, most of us experienced having homework while in school, so it feels natural and correct to give homework as a teacher, as well as have your child receive homework. However, just because this is the way things have always happened doesn't mean these are best practices.
     We also have to look at students. What are their experiences with homework? Those who understand the concepts do well on homework. They lose nothing but time to be children and be with their families, but they also gain nothing. What about students who struggle with the homework, though? These are really the biggest losers in the homework game. Not only do they lose time in the afternoons after school, but they experience frustration while they struggle to do something that they do not understand. If they are struggling with the concept, how does new learning occur then? It likely will not occur during their interaction with the homework itself. These students need something different in order to develop understanding. This might be the need to have the material presented differently, or it might be the need to access the content in a different manner.
     Now, I'm not necessarily saying all homework needs to be thrown out. When it comes to reading, I think students should be doing this regularly at home. In terms of traditional homework, I do think we need to move away from this. Here are a few things we can do as we begin to revamp our current homework practices:

1) Require that students read at home.

2) Offer family activities as homework options (cook together; go for a walk as a family and use your senses to explore the world; bond together over a television show or a podcast episode, etc.).

3) Instead of answering a homework sheet with multiple questions, why not offer a sheet that provides a meaningful task? Maybe your student writes on this sheet, or maybe your student doesn't. Some tasks like this might include: find different shapes in your house; using manipulatives, find different ways to make the number x; have a conversation with your child about x.

4) Send home math games instead of homework sheets.

5) Make homework optional (except for reading).


     We can no longer ignore the problem of current homework practices. Students need time to be kids in the afternoon as well as spend time with their families. That's extremenly important to developing a well balanced and healthy child. After spending 6-7 hours at school, it's only fair that students get time for other things besides academics. If we think what helps us adults feel healthy and well (physically, mentally and emotionally), we know that there has got to be a healthy balance between work and our personal lives. This is very much true for our youngest humans. They deserve better, and we teachers have the ability to help them achieve that.

     If you'd like to continue thinking about this concept, I encourage you to listen to an interview I had with a parent. In this interview we get a parent's perspective on homework.  That interview can be found here.

    Want to see an example of the kind of homework my grade level gives out? You can check that out here.

    Do you have some great homework activities you'd like to share? Please leave a comment and share with us. Together we are better.

Starting Strong: 6 Things to Keep in Mind as You Begin the New School Year

         The beginning of the school year is such a special time of year. Teachers excitedly get their classrooms set up, organized and d...