“How can I help?”

The adage of “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” was ingrained in me at an early age.  Until recently, I have always thought that being confident, capable and successful meant never asking for help.  I used to think that asking for help meant that you were weak.  I now think that asking for help is incredibly brave.  My 17 year old son recently told me about a group chat with his workmates.  Someone at work had sent an urgent message to the group asking how to do something while closing up the restaurant.  Many of the coworkers poked fun at the lack of knowledge of the person seeking help.  My son (brace yourself for this proud Mama Bear moment) texted that it was really brave of his co-worker to ask for help and provided the information that the coworker needed to close up for the night. I think that his act demonstrated wisdom an empathy far beyond his years.

Have you ever felt a little territorial or protective about your ideas or lessons in your classroom?  I imagine everyone likes to be valued for their unique talents and abilities.  In general, I don’t think anyone likes to be seen to be struggling and consequently, some teachers might choose to work in isolation. Perhaps it is fear. I’ve spoken to many colleagues who have identified as suffering from imposter syndrome. Perhaps those of us who have experienced imposter syndrome think that if anyone else got eyes on what we do every day that we would be judged and found to be lacking in some way.  Often teachers will tell me that they don’t have time to share with their colleagues-there just isn’t enough time in the day to collaborate. With the busy pace of education, I know that I have absolutely felt that way. My experience has been that when I take the time to collaborate with others I in fact, have more time and consequently better programming.  It is a concerted effort and takes a trusting relationship to co-plan and co-teach but when it works, it is amazing.

In my role as an instructional leadership consultant I am responsible for two portfolios; Innovation and Technology and the New Teacher Induction Program.  At the beginning of the COVID pandemic as teachers were teaching virtually for the first time, some had never used things like Google apps, FlipGrid and Kahoot. I was doing my best to support teachers with tools for teaching online.  Thankfully, I knew some other teachers that I could reach out to and ask for help.  These teachers, close to the beginning of their careers, were using these tools in the classroom and were able to help design and present webinars to other more seasoned colleagues.  As teachers, we often think that we need to have all of the answers for our students and with one another.  I’ve heard it referred to as the “Sage on the Stage Syndrome.” We seem to feel that we need to stay ahead of everything, which is impossible.  Education is changing more rapidly than ever.  I learned so much from my colleagues over the months that we worked together as a team and even though it was stressful at times, it was also incredibly fun.  I look back now on the powerful outreach our work had and the gratitude that was expressed by our colleagues and I am so glad that I got over myself and asked for help.

In the t.v. drama “New Amsterdam” whenever the new director of the hospital is introduced to someone, the first question that he asks is, “How can I help?”  It happens in the first episode about twenty times. This was a BIG a-ha moment for me.  What a powerful question!  How often have we wanted our students to ask for help?  How often have they refused when we have asked “Can I help you?”or “Do you need help?”  Unfortunately, asking for help is still seen as a weakness by many people.  However the question “How can I help?” turns it around so that the responsibility and focus is on the person offering assistance.  It is more difficult for someone to just say “No.” to this question.  It can help to create psychological safety in order to focus on what can be done to help rather than someone sitting in discomfort or shame because they won’t ask for help.  Sometimes just asking can make all the difference to someone when they are feeling overwhelmed, even if they decline the offer.  The four small words, “How can I help?” can make a powerful impact.  Sometimes, asking for help is the bravest thing you can do.

Triggers and Habits in Teaching Part One

Dreaded Seating Arrangements

Almost every teacher I talk to says, “I have a really difficult class this year.”  The difficulties identified are most often tied to “behaviour” issues.  In my experience effective classroom “management” can be connected to dynamic programming and developing solid relationships with students. Many of us go to things like Class Dojo or incentive programs to “manage” behaviour and some have their merits.  However, they might “manage” behaviour, but does it help student to learn to self-regulate?  I understand that there are students who have behaviour safety plans that can provide challenges and I do not mean to downplay the effect that even one student’s behaviour can have on an entire class.  However, there are ways in which we can have small tweaks in our triggers and habits in teaching that will have a positive outcome on developing a community of learners.

So what is a trigger?  A trigger in psychological terms can  used to describe sensations, images or experiences that re-visit a traumatic memory.  It can also mean to make something happen very quickly; a reaction.  It is also referred to as an event that kicks off the automatic urge to complete a habit.*  Habits are seen as something that people do often or regularly.  Habits can even be unconscious behaviours and sometimes difficult to stop.  What do triggers and habits have to do with teaching?

Over the years I think I have become more self aware in the classroom about my own triggers and habits.  It is easy to continue to do a routine in a classroom simply because it is something that we have always done. Even when we have sound pedagological reasoning, it can be difficult to change or cease a habit. For example, for many years I put names on the desks of students before they entered the classroom on the first day of school.  I don’t really know why I began this habit.  Besides a wedding, some kind of gala or a reservation at a restaurant, I get to choose where I sit every day.  It is a fairly important life skill.  I’m not going to find my name on a seat on the city bus.  Once I recognized that this routine was purely out of habit and was “triggered” by the first day of school, I decided to change it up.  On the first day of school with a grade 4-5 class, the students came into the room and sat wherever they wanted. I admit that this made the perfectionist in me who loves order, routine and habit rather uncomfortable.  I had some students sit in groups, some in pairs and some on their own.  Then we had a class meeting about how they had felt when they entered the room and had to make their seating choice.  There was talk of anxiousness, sweaty palms, heart rate increase, fear of missing out and for some it was no big deal.  I decided to create a google form to survey the students about where to sit in the classroom, how often we would change it up and who would decide.  The results of the survey were fascinating.  Some students wanted me to choose where they sat and wanted to have that same spot every day for 194 days.  Some never wanted to “sit” in a group but wanted to be a part of it during group work time.  We came up with a plan that each Monday the students would choose where to sit for the week and the students who wanted a regular spot would be able to keep it and the other students would respect their choices without question.  We also had some extra choices for seating that students could go to if their choices for that week weren’t working out.  The students gained incredible insight into self-regulation.  I heard things like, “I sat with Gracie all week and we’re such good friends, I didn’t get my work done so I’m not going to sit with her next week.”  or  “I don’t hang out with Olivia but I know she is a serious student so I’d like to sit with her in a group.”

It isn’t easy to be self aware while we are trying to keep our head above water, collect permission forms, listen to announcements, adjust our day plan for the assembly that was announced, deal with a parent that wants to chat in the hallway AND teach curriculum.  I GET that…however, being aware of triggers and habits and making small tweaks to our teaching behaviour can make a big difference in our classroom community.

*106:Triggers-The Key to Building and Breaking Habits, Chris Sparks, 2018

 

Daring Classrooms

I state the obvious when I say that teaching is a demanding job.  If you are reading this, you are most likely a teacher and this is not news to you.  I’d like to highlight a resource that feeds the soul of a teacher (and quite frankly a human being) while also providing some strategies for integrating that soul feeding into your classroom practice for your students.  Wait, what…that exists?  It is a website from Brene Brown called Daring Classrooms.  If you haven’t heard of her yet, you can find “The Call to Courage” on Netflix and/or her Ted Talk on Vulnerability.  She is inspirational in leadership, in life and in work.  Here is a snippet from her #DaringClassrooms website:

“Teachers are some of our most important leaders. We know that we can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection.

But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do as teachers, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen.

Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe and be curious and explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.

And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.

Teachers: Everyday should be Teacher Appreciation Day. I am so grateful for you and your willingness to show up and create brave, safe spaces where our children can learn, grow, and be seen.”

Some of the short (8-12 minute) video resources from Daring Classrooms include:

How do we avoid the pressure to please?

How do teachers manage oversharing?

How do we help parents understand failing as part of the learning process?

Does the word “disappointed” shame students?

In addition to the video resources there are free downloads for resources, parenting the classroom and daily life.  There are pdfs that you can print out for working with students.  My favourite one is the list of core emotions.  Sometimes when students have triggers they can’t always name or explain the emotion that caused the trigger in behaviour.  Being able to learn about the names and the definitions of core emotions is helpful for students to self-regulate.

Every year in a classroom brings new challenges.  In fact, every day in a classroom will bring on a new challenge.  I hope that as you lead your own #DaringClassroom you will find this resource helpful and that it may feed your teacher soul.

Do-over day

https://www.flickr.com/photos/42931449@N07/5263539723
https://www.flickr.com/photos/42931449@N07/5263539723

Have you ever wished that you could do something over again to make it better?
In education, this could be everyday, every week, every month, and every year in our classrooms. If we let it.

Have you ever taught a lesson more than once in order to ensure your students understood and could master the concept(s)? What, you’ve done this over and over!? You don’t say?

This happens more often than all of us think and that’s okay. I learnt very quickly in my career that last year’s grand slam lessons do not always guarantee success when used in the years to come. Hence the need for the do-over, or reinvention in order to revive or re-invigorate what we teach.

What about a retest? A few years ago, I completely misread my students’ progress on a Math strand and the results were glaringly obvious that I failed them. After an open discussion about the daunting unit, I had students take their tests, crumple them up, and throw them around the classroom. It was like a giant breath of fresh air had blown into the room as everyone exhaled.

We restarted the unit from ground zero and had a “do-over day” a couple of weeks later with much improved results. As a result, our class grew closer as a learning community. Students knew that I had their best interests at heart and that learning in our class did not come with an expiry date as laid out in dusty long range plans. After all the curriculum says, “by the end of each grade…” and not immediately after an assessment of learning.

Recently, my students were preparing to share a series of movie trailers they created about the book Loser by Jerry Spinelli. Each group, of 2 or 3, was asked to pull key elements from the text and to present them in the form of a live drama or digital version.

After much planning, production, and practice, the big day arrived for everyone to share their work. Not surprisingly, there were a number of interpretations of the text being shared and the trailers were being presented and screened. And then it happened.

Whether it was nerves or a case of over-preparation(I think it’s a thing), the majority of presentations shared were not the shiniest outputs from this group. Cue the do-overs. When I suggested this, the students seemed generally wary about it, but I was serious. With some descriptive class feedback, we started over again with much more positive results.

Now think about your classroom? Is there room for the do-over within your walls and halls? Imagine the opportunity to reinforce the idea that failure can still be a positive result when it is used as a stop along the way rather than the final destination to success. I believe that the more we build this into our pedagogy, the more our students will be willing to take chances, make mistakes, and move forward.

Thank you for reading. Please share your “do-over” stories in the comments section below.

Ontario Student Record Search

Wow, we are already into the second month of this school year and I am not sure I really know my students very well yet. I have a working idea of who they are as students and as people but need to gather more information to help me with my programming. That is where using their Ontario Student Record (OSR) can help you gather further data to assist me  in this process.

I typically do not complete my OSR searches until after the first month of school so that I can establish my own opinion about them as learners. The OSR is a cumulative record of them as a student since their entry into the Ontario education system. It is a legal document that travels with them from community to community and school to school in Ontario. It is a valuable tool for any educator who is working with a student.

There is a wide variety of information that exists in a student’s Ontario Student Record. First and foremost are the provincial report cards from their time at school. It is here that a teacher can gauge where a student has typically performed in the various curriculae. In addition there is often a wide variety of other sources of information specific to that student. For example, there could be documentation around outside supports such as occupational therapy, early intervention, psychological assessments, legal documentation around custody, Family & Children Services involvement, suspensions, Individual Education Plans and Safety Plans. When you look at the back of the OSR you can see a history of whether a student has had a stable education in one school or whether their circumstances show multiple schools with little or no stability. I have had one student who was entering into his 8th school and he was only in Grade 4.

There is a combination of hard data as well as data that has a subjective component and is based on the interaction and opinions of adults. It is important to differentiate between the two. I am not saying you should discount in any way or ignore that data, but rather understand that the circumstances in which that data was obtained may have been affected by many outside factors. For the student who was entering into his 8th school, his OSR showed that he had difficulty making friends. That data was accurate but was also impacted by his inability to be in a single place long enough to establish friendships or the fact he knew if he did make friends, he would probably be moving soon.

The OSR search is most valuable to me for my at risk students. Students who I know come with challenges either from an academic or behavioural standpoint are the first ones I search, as they demand my attention immediately. When I have a firm understanding of what level of achievement my students are displaying I then look at previous report cards to help me. If for example a student is obtaining a lower mark in mathematics then what has been previously reported it prompts me to further examine my assessment data to ensure my determinations are aligned with my criteria.

It is important to familiarize yourself with the proper protocol of what goes in an OSR, who can access an OSR, where that OSR can be viewed and the responsibilities a teacher has in regards to filing information in a student’s Ontario Student Record. A really rewarding aspect of doing my OSR searches is that I get to see how they have changed over the years with their annual photo. I have attached a template that I use when completing an OSR search.

 

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How to get at the truth – maybe

Almost everyday in kindergarten someone tells a fib. Sometimes it is me – “I will come over to see you swing on the monkey bars in just a minute.” More frequently, however, the most talented fibbers are from amongst my class of 26 five year olds. Occasionally, the fibs are small, like, “No, I didn’t bring my library book,” or “Yes, I washed my hands,” – either of these are easy enough to verify by checking in a backpack or looking at the hands in question.  A more substantial variety of the fib comes in the form of a tall tale, which I guess is a subcategory of the fib, but far more interesting and creative. Examples include; “I found a wasp as big as a bird in my backyard,” or, “One day, I lost my tooth, broke my arm, got stung by a bee, AND fell off my bicycle!” Which was curious, because the exact same thing – minus the broken arm –  happened to another student one day, too.

These kinds of untruths can be left as is because no one is harmed by such exaggerations. A student who lets loose with one of these may be heralded amongst his or her peers as cool, lucky or a great story-teller, and may even garner a “Student X has an excellent imagination” comment on a report card from his or her teacher. However, the fibs that are problematic are ones which can cause some sort of injury. This is often the time when the truth is harder to get at and when we, as teachers, need to figure out what has happened so that we can report to parents or to the administration. Nothing is more frustrating than having both parties involved in a conflict deny involvement. How can they be so convincing? Looking you straight in the eye, and giving their side of the story, you think you may know who is telling the truth, until the second student denies everything. OK, someone here is not telling the truth, but who is it? I don’t have training in the forensics of lie detection, I don’t have the time to slowly draw it out of a student when my classroom is in full swing with 24 kinders, and I need to get to the bottom of this. What to do?

Quite by accident, the other day I stumbled upon a strategy that seemed to work really well and quickly. I am not sure if it was a one-off or if it would work with other students, but it is definitely worth trying again. The situation was a relatively common one in the school yard; one boy had shoved another boy during outdoor play. When I went over to put a stop to the scramble, I was ready to give a serious reminder about schoolyard behaviour to the boy whom I had seen doing the shoving, when he very quietly told me that the other boy had tried to pull his pants down. What?! This was a very uncharacteristic statement from a boy who enjoys running and wrestling and has received the old ‘proper playground behaviour ‘ talk a few times already.  But the other boy said that he hadn’t done anything! He told me several times, in fact. Here’s the problem; when we are dealing with our students in delicate situations like these, we always want to be fair, but it can be really hard when 2 five year olds look at you and blind you with their cuteness and excellent fibbing skills. So, instead of being hasty and jumping to conclusions, I decided I would try again to ask my question, “Did you do that?” but this time, I told the student he could answer me with a thumbs up if he had done it, or a thumbs down if he hadn’t. When I repeated my question, he squirmed a few seconds, looked everywhere but at me, folded his arms, then, there it was, the thumb popped up. Now we could get somewhere!

I can only assume that it is more difficult to tell something that is not true when you cannot use your words, and I can only assume that it may even be a small kind of relief when your body just goes ahead and tells the truth. There is no more conflict or hole-digging once the gesture gets everything out in the open. I am not really sure why it worked, but it was a gentle way for a problem to be resolved and for me to help two little boys who had both gone too far in their actions, and, as a happy ending to this post, I am happy to report are still good friends.

When Your Best Is Not Enough

I work with some very challenging students, who at their core, are really nice people. As I get to know them as people first and learners second, what surfaces quite rapidly is that many of their needs are beyond my skill set. I am not a counsellor. I am not a psychologist. I am not a physician. Yet the needs they bring to my classroom are very diverse and more complex than just literacy and numeracy. I find myself often saying, what can I do to help this child succeed and feel good about themselves. As you know, there is no simple answer to this question.

This year I have been faced with a dilemma that I have never before in my career been in. I do not know what to do for a child in my class. All of my efforts, strategies, consultations and professional readings have left me in the same place I started with this child over 6 months ago. This individual’s lack of progress (and at times regression) have been a huge stressful burden on me as I struggle everyday trying to figure out what to do to help this child stabilize and grow as a student should. My initial reaction was that despite my absolute best effort, I have failed this child.

I have a very good friend and colleague to whom I shared this belief about myself with. He was very quick to point out that I had not failed him. The student’s lack of progress is a result of many needs not being met. He began to query me about my approach with the student. The conversation went something like this:

Do you differentiate the work for this student so that it reflects his current academic level? Yes

Do you provide accommodations in his program that meet his individual’s learning needs? Yes

Do you work hard to make that student feel welcome and cared for each and every day in your classroom? Yes

Do you seek out additional supports within your school and/or board to assist you in creating a program for this student? Yes

Do you communicate your concerns in an ongoing manner to your school support team, principal as well as the student’s family? Yes

Do you smile and tell that student what a nice person they are and thank them for coming in everyday and putting forth their best effort? Yes

At the end of that conversation I came to realize that I had not failed this child. I had to the best of my knowledge and skill set did everything humanly possible to help this individual succeed and that despite my best effort, that progress was not occurring. I had not failed him, because I had not given up on him.

The First 20 Days of School – Connecting with Students is a Great Place to Start

Teaching is always new! With a new group of students, fresh reflections on practice and the opportunity to start from scratch, as it were, the start of the school year provides teachers and students alike the opportunity to create new beginnings every year. Knowing this, what might some important considerations be to make it a great start? Chapter One of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning: Practical Ideas and Resources for Beginning Teachers highlights four important themes for success: connecting with students, passion for teaching, attributes-based approach and importance of school culture. I would like to focus this reflection on the importance of connecting with students within the first 20 days of school as a means to establish an authentic relationship with students that fosters trust and inspires a willingness to take risks within a safe learning environment.

Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This profound sentiment holds true for teachers and their relationship with students in that when students feel respected, safe and cared for, the experience of learning is enriched. The following are five practical ways for teachers to build authentic connections with their students at the start of the school year:

1. Be authentic. When teachers model what it means to be an authentic learner – mistakes and all, students are then encouraged to take risks without fear of reprisal. Let your model of authentic learning influence students to do the same. This form of transparency sets the tone for fostering meaningful connections between teachers and students.

2. Ask students about their needs and listen. Validate student voice by positioning them as the experts on themselves. Invite students to share their learning needs and the things that you could do as their teachers that would support their success and commit to doing them. Conducting multiple intelligence and attitudes and dispositions surveys are great ways to begin the dialogue for students to articulate how you can support their learning and their level of self-efficacy.

3. Explore student interests. As teachers we all need to cover the curriculum but viewing the curriculum as a launching pad as opposed to a landing pad can invite student’s interests to take centre stage in the teaching and learning process. Ask students about their interests and find creative ways to invite further inquiry into them while exploring the curriculum at the same time.

4. Learn the students. In addition to the information that can be found in student records (i.e. OSRs), commit to learning more about your students in meaningful ways. Pronouncing student names correctly is important way to let students know that they are valued. Challenge yourself to learn at least five non-school related facts about each of your students. This can help to build a positive relationship and validate their experiences outside of the domain of the classroom. Finally, being aware of students personalities (i.e. introverts, extroverts, etc.) will inform how to relate to them as well as setting the conditions of the classroom experience.

5. Invite to student voice by fostering a reciprocal relationship with your students. Nurturing a collaborative learning environment for students does not merely mean giving students the opportunity to collaborate with each other, but it also means positioning students as collaborators with you. Partner with your students to design the learning space and learning opportunities. This fosters student ownership in the teaching and learning experience and empowers students to be meaningful contributors to the class. When you invite their voice in classroom decisions, ensure that it is validated by action on your part. Leveraging positional power in the classroom creates space for a more meaningful connection between students and teacher.

As teachers we are in the business of supporting students success. Fostering meaningful connections with students goes along way in promoting both student achievement and well-being. When students know that their teachers authentically care about them, their willingness to learn will support their ability to do well. Starting the school year with students in mind will set you on a solid foundation for building upward. Make it a great start.

Addressing Equity

The elementary school that I teach at is a K-8 school with approximately 540 students. It has grown over the century with new additions, since its original build in 1923. I have only known the school for the past three years that I have been teaching there. So I consider the school to be diverse with many new Canadians, mostly from Bangladesh. It is also higher needs in terms of the challenges students face for success, according to the Learning Opportunity Index. The family income has declined for families attending the school, as demonstrated by the data. Many of the parents work part-time, multiple jobs, and through the evenings, nights, or on weekends.

What I found interesting to note, is that teachers who have taught at the school for more than ten years, many for more than 15 years, have difficulty seeing the demographics of the school as they are. They continue with the same fund raising projects as they always have, yet lament that there is less participation or interest from the students. They continue to book trips that cost more that an hourly wage that most families would make, then are disappointed in the attendance. It is only in the past year that they have been questioned about the cost required for students to attend their own graduation celebration. The teacher response in regards to how they are accommodating a student population with a decrease in family income, is to encourage students to come forth if they don’t have the funds and the staff will address it or provide the funds, based on the individual situation.

Recently I was talking to a teacher from another school board about equity and teacher bias. She recommended the ETFO publication, Possibilities: Addressing Poverty in Elementary Schools to read.  It is an excellent resource. It not only encourages a change in mindset by educators about assumptions and biases in regards to poverty, but it provides strategies and literature connections to address the real needs of students for academic success and well-being. It also provided information on how to engage parents and the community of a lower income status.

According to TDSB, “Educational research has demonstrated that children from lower income families face more significant barriers in achieving high educational outcomes.” It is essential that we as educators are aware of these facts and barriers, as well as the strategies and supports necessary for the students that are in our schools right now.

Link to ETFO publication: http://www.etfo.ca/ProfessionalDevelopment/ETFOsBookClubs/Lists/ETFO%20Book%20Club/DispForm.aspx?ID=37

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Mike Beetham

You Never Know

This blog is based on a real life scenario that I was fortunate enough to be a part of both on a personal and professional basis. It truly reminded me just how important our teacher/student relationships are as you never know when your kind word, out of the ordinary effort or simply just being there will make a difference.

On a late Saturday afternoon there was a knock on our home door and to our surprise, there was our very distraught neighbour who just needed someone to talk to. Over the course of the next hour this young mother poured her heart out to both my wife and I. During that time she asked us to read a series of letters that obviously were very important to her.

As we scanned the pages it became clear to us that these letters were from a past teacher who took the time to write to this young women while she was in her classroom. The key message that surfaced on each and every page was that this young woman was an amazing person who had the potential to be herself and that alone would make her great. It was clear that she had experienced trauma in her adolescence and did not receive the necessary support that she should have had. Through teary eyes, this distraught woman just kept telling us how important this teacher had been in helping her get through some very dark times in her life. In fact, she owed her life to her.

Although these letters were almost 20 years old, we could tell by the wrinkled paper and tear stain marks, that she had went to these words of support many, many times over the past two decades. Once again, she was going to this teacher for support in these times of hardship.

As a teacher, we are merely a step or two on a child’s life journey. Yet that time we spend with each child is one of the most influential events they will ever experience. It is our responsibility to ensure that memory is as positive as can be.