“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.

Picking Each Other Up

Just like most people in all of Canada these past few weeks, I have been watching a crazy amount of basketball. Go Raptors!! One thing I love about basketball is that every time one of the players is on the floor, his teammate is there to put his hand out and pick him up. I think teachers need to take the same approach with each other.

I have a brand-new role this year and there have been some days that I have left school and thought well “that sucked”. I didn’t say the exact right thing to a parent, I didn’t handle a behaviour situation correctly and today my one student flat out told me I was not her friend. Not exactly sunshine and rainbows. We are generally very hard on ourselves because we want the best for our students every day. Since we are so hard on ourselves, it is important that we pick each other up every time we are lying down on the court.

There are so many days in my current role where I lack confidence. I am new to the role and I second guess myself a lot. I guess that comes with being an experienced teacher. I was very confident and experienced in my previous role and it was hard to go some place new and feel like I was back at the beginning of my learning.

Some of my colleagues have been amazing at picking me up off the floor on those tough days.  My favourite was a friend putting her plans aside and saying let’s have a coffee and talk through this issue that is worrying you. She asked me some amazing guiding questions and then looked at me and said this is hard and there is no easy answer. She then asked “Do you have the supports to help you learn how to help this student?” “Is there anything I can do to support?” And finally she looked at me with all the confidence in the world and said “You will get this, it will just take time”. She picked me up about 7 times during the conversation and I left the coffee shop feeling so much better!

Over my career, I have heard some colleagues be less supportive with each other. There are two common things that are sometimes said amongst teachers that definitely leave teachers on the court stranded.

“That doesn’t happen in my room.”  This sentence always drives me absolutely crazy!!!!!!!  There are always so many factors that could contribute to difficulty in a different setting that has nothing to do with the teacher or teaching. Depending on the subject it may include noise levels, physical structure to the space, interest in the subject etc. Even if it is the teaching style saying “this doesn’t happen in my room” is not really helpful. Instead, if a colleague approaches with a concern about a student it would be so much better to ask them if there is anything you can do to help make the situation better.

My number 2 pet peeve is “If that student was in my class, I’d straighten them out/they wouldn’t be having these problems.”I have yet to meet a teacher who didn’t have a challenging student at some point in their career. We have all been there. It is important that we offer help to each other when we are taking time to figure out our students.

Our job is hard, we need to be kind to each other. Make sure that you put out your hand to pick someone else when they are on the court.

Go Raptors!!


Jack of All Trades, Master of None

I am for sure aging myself here, but for those of you who may not be familiar with this figure of speech it is used to describe a person who is good at many skills but a master of none. That is the best way to describe who I am as a teacher and how I have evolved over my career of  learning to be a better teacher.

Far too often we think that in order to use a strategy or tool in our classroom we have to be an expert at it. We don’t! As a teacher I have to be familiar with the content, the methodology and/or the necessary steps but I do not have to be a master of it. I am going to talk specifically to my personal Achilles tendon of teaching, the ARTS. I am in no way a musician, yet I can share my passion for music, lyrics and the powerful messages found in music. I can learn and teach to the curriculum expectations of my grade. I can partake in professional development opportunities to expand my skill set and knowledge. Even after all that, I will still not be an expert as compared to a music specialist.

My greatest accomplishment in the arts has been my work on understanding drama as a teaching tool, learning dramatic content and implementing it into my program. I have never been on stage (other than as an elementary student at Christmas time). I have never been a part of any formal dramatic theme, other than helping clean up after a school event and yet drama is one of the most successful components of my program these days. Each year my team and I take a group of highly volatile behaviour students and put on a formal dramatic presentation that we travel with to various schools within my board to share. We are currently in mid production of this year’s play.

Like in almost anything I was not comfortable with as a teacher, the students’ skill set, passion and innate ability to learn took over and I was just left to facilitate their growth. The second message is that when you share your expertise with your colleagues (collaborative planning) the saying that no one person knows more than all of us holds true. I am writing this for all teachers to understand that is it okay to take risks, it is okay to make mistakes in your classroom and learn from those mistakes and it is certainly okay to be a jack of all trades and master of none.

Tortoise Brained Learning

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”. This quote from Maya Angelou holds true no matter what stage of  teaching  you are at. Too often teachers feel pressured to constantly be moving their best practice forward before the last component has been consolidated into their everyday practice.

Over the course of my career I have evolved from a Hare Brained Learner to a Tortoise Brained Learner. A Hare Brained Learner is one who is constantly delving into new areas without going through the process needed to implement theory into best practice. I attended multiple workshops, almost everyone our board offered. I would see so many good ideas in practice, take notes on them, put them in a file, give them a try for a week or two and then most often let them fizzle out in that file. I was off to the next workshop, new idea or teaching practice.

My life as a Tortoise Brained Learner is much more manageable and is producing a far greater change in my day-to-day pedagogical practice. I have learned that my personal learning cycle is about two years. From the initial exposure to a new idea (e.g. mind mapping) through further research, personal experimentation, classroom experimentation and finally a part of my practice where I no longer even think about it as a new idea it takes me about two years. Thus my shift from quantity to quality professional learning has resulted in me being a much more pedagogically sound teacher.

It is not possible, nor reasonable for teachers to be constantly in a state of change. My advice is to develop an Annual Learning Plan that focuses in on one or two key areas that you are both interested in and know will enhance your journey toward best practice.

Challenging the “Impossible”

“I was shocked when I saw what he had done in class. The psychologist said that’s the kind of thing he wouldn’t be able to do.”

“You’re going to try and teach your class to use sewing machines? Do you think they’ll even be able to?”

“You don’t really think beginner immersion students can memorize an entire play’s worth of lines, do you?”

At least once a year (and usually much more often than that), I have a conversation with someone – parent, colleague, administrator, student – who tells me that something I’m doing in class is “impossible” for one reason or another. Sometimes, like the first comment above, it’s an incredulous parent who is impressed (albeit confused) that their child was able to do something that shouldn’t have been possible. Other times, it’s well-meaning fellow educators who, I think, are trying to keep my lofty newbie expectations in check.

It’s okay, guys. I have this. My students can do it.

I’m not saying that I’ve never tried something that failed horribly (student-created team games in Grade 4 Phys Ed, I’m looking at you) but for the most part, my wackier ideas actually do pan out. Sometimes it takes some creative intervention from me, other times it takes a lot of patience and dedication, other times still I have to admit that we didn’t end up where I had planned but that the activity still taught what I was hoping it would – but we get there!

I credit my dedication to trying new, challenging, ambitious class projects to two people.

The first was my Grade 7 and 8 French Immersion teacher, Mme Crystle Mazurek. I have to admit that I don’t remember a lot about those two years except the really awesome art activities we did, but MAN, did we do some cool things! We made quilts, 3D art out of foam and cardboard, batik designs on fabric using melted wax, linoleum printing… I loved being in her art class (even if her dog literally ate my homework one time). It was in her class (though I can’t recall if it was while I was in Grade 7 or 8, or if it was when she was my teacher again later in high school) that we started a coin collection to help a village in India, where she had spent time in her childhood with her parents, to purchase a buffalo. From those humble origins began an ongoing collection to alleviate some of the effects of poverty in India by buying tools which can be used for trades (such as sewing machines) or by sponsoring students to attend school outside the village. I check in on the fund regularly and have a hard time believing it’s come as far as it has – from old soup cans in classrooms collecting a few coins here and there to a charity raising several thousand dollars a year.

Mme Mazurek, in hindsight, also dedicated a lot of time to helping her students succeed. Some of us were not particularly great students – I may or may not have had a few detentions in my time, despite being an active participant in class – and yet she still managed to get us excited about learning. I never did my homework, but I actually remember one of the novels we read as a class (it was about teenagers in Lebanon), details of Canadian history I know I learned in that class (the Rebellion of Upper Canada comes to mind), and how gracious and funny she was when we played an April Fool’s joke on her by switching her desk with our English teacher’s identical desk across the hall. I think a lot of my interest in becoming a teacher came from her. She probably doesn’t know that. Maybe one day she’ll google her name and find this. None of this paragraph has anything to do with challenging the impossible, she was just a really cool teacher with a bright red pixie cut, leather pants, an awesome attitude, and a wealth of personal anecdotes to keep us interested.

The second was my first Associate Teacher while I was in teacher’s college. I had the extreme privilege of working with a phenomenal teacher, Mr. Bill Morton, in an incredible Grade 3/4 Gifted class. My time in the class was too short, as all practicum placements are, but even in my five weeks there he bestowed upon me a lifetime’s worth of wisdom about education. I’m not sure the word “impossible” is in his vocabulary, unless we’re talking about retiring. His Grade 3/4 students were already engaged in learning and rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream when I started in his class. As I took groups out to work through scenes and break them down, I was amazed by how well they understood the material with very little prompting from me. Nine and ten year olds! Reading Shakespeare! Not just reading it, but actually understanding it. Given what I could remember of reading Shakespeare in high school (and those were plays which I would argue were easier to follow than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, read by teenagers who were given very explicit instruction on what the words meant, who STILL didn’t seem to understand that “wherefore” doesn’t mean “where”), that shouldn’t have been possible.

The point of all of this is that you’re going to hear and read about a lot of things that your students “shouldn’t be able to do”. Students with NVLD “shouldn’t be able to” illustrate a graphic novel with consistency and detail from one page to the next. Second year French Immersion students “shouldn’t be able to” write short stories. Ten year olds “shouldn’t be able to” design and sew quilts. Students with a long history of behavioral problems “shouldn’t be able to” have a year where they fully engage in class and take responsibility for their actions.

You won’t always succeed with the wacky, outlandish ideas you have, and sometimes no matter how hard you and your students try, it won’t work. That’s part of life. But you will almost certainly have more successes than failures, and even the failures teach you something.

Be that teacher who does something “impossible”.

Fair warning, though: it gets pretty addicting to overhear your students bragging about the cool things they did in class as they walk to the bus.

Working With a Mentor

As a new hire, all Ontario teachers participate in the provincial New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP). While the specific details of NTIP vary from board to board, one common component is working with a mentor teacher to develop your professional skills.

I was fortunate to go through NTIP in a school where I had already completed a Long Term Occasional assignment. I knew the staff, and as such I had developed great working relationships with many teachers in the school. Before my principal could even ask me who I would be interested in working with, I had discussed the idea with a colleague – my teaching partner from the year before. We knew we had similar teaching styles but different strengths, so it was as much an opportunity for her to learn from me as vice versa.

In my board, we are given three release days to be divided between the NTIP teacher and his/her mentor as they choose. These days can be used for time outside the classroom for planning, time observing either the NTIP teacher or the mentor in the classroom, attending professional development opportunities, etc. It was really nice to have it be so open and undefined because it allowed us to decide what my priorities were and how we would address them.

We started with a very general question: “What am I good at?” This question would give us a starting point for discussion. My mentor had already come up with a few things areas in which she felt I was strong. I added a few more, though it was an incredibly difficult question for me to answer because I was so new. It was really beneficial to see what she considered my strengths because I hadn’t yet had a TPA, so I had never heard someone talk about my teaching skills from an outside perspective. Many of my strengths were things I had already decided were priorities.

The next question, perhaps predictably, was, “What do I want to improve?” While it’s easy to criticize your own teaching style and come up with a list several pages long, I tried to really focus on a few things I felt were particular areas of need for me. It wasn’t going to be possible to touch on all of them with our limited time, so together we decided on one thing that we could work on together. For us, that was assessment. Together we planned a unit for my class and a unit for hers, with the plan being to work together to assess students before starting the unit and again at the end. For all of the assessment during the unit, we would be flying solo (because realistically, that happens on such a daily basis that it would be impossible to do together).

We never had a chance to finish our units together because of a family emergency, but to be perfectly honest, the planning and discussion was beneficial all on its own. Just by having a frank conversation about our strengths and needs and by planning units together, I learned more in two days than I had thought I would. I’m not certain that our discussion would have been as meaningful or helpful had we not been familiar with one another already. My mentor already knew a considerable amount about my teaching style, my strengths, and my areas of need – so we were able to dive into professional discourse and develop a plan.

I suppose my point with all of this (disjointed though it may be) is to strongly encourage you to find a mentor with whom you can work in an open, candid manner. Be realistic about your expectations: you won’t be able to address everything you want to address. Most of all, have fun learning from one another!

Promoting Prosocial Behaviour

Most students, if asked, know not to bully or know not to litter. Yet, you may see those same students exhibiting behaviours that contradict what they know.

Prosocial behaviour is behaviour that uses positive words or actions to benefit others. Rather than a desire for personal gain, students are prompted to act this was by empathy, responsibility to others, or moral values. Much of the responsibility to teach this behaviour is falling on schools and teachers.

To promote prosocial behaviour, consider some of the following:

  • Encourage a caring school community that includes everyone from teachers to caretakers and lunch room supervisors.
  • Implement a positive discipline approach that includes clear expectations, discussions, and modelling.
  • Initiate school-wide programs such as “learning buddies” that match up older and younger students to work together in a variety of activities (computer lab, shared reading, picking up litter, community walks).
  • Integrate value or character education to learning in all classrooms
For more information on creating a caring community in your classroom or school that promotes prosocial behaviours, see the Principles and Practices of Responsive Classroom at http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/principles-and-practices-responsive-classroom.
Mike Beetham

Shared Learning – Not Competition

In a learning community the focus becomes a shared learning, teamwork and helping each member to reach their potential. This collaborative classroom design creates a community of risk takers, where talents blossom and are shared for the good of all over time. Now, lets shift the scene to a school staff. It is made up of a wide variety of individuals with unique talents and levels of experience. A diverse talent pool that when shared creates a school portfolio that meets the needs of all of its learners.

I share this blog topic based on my many years of teaching in a wide variety of schools and communities. My early years of teaching witnessed classrooms as separate entities within a larger building where the only sharing that took place was at staff meetings. The most rewarding settings were always where classrooms were not a competition between teachers but rather a continuum of grades that were seamless in their beliefs and goals. Teachers seeking help from each other was encouraged and not frowned upon. The sharing of resources should be common practive and not items to be hidden. Mentoring, teaching partners, grade level planning are all significant enhancements to teacher planning pedagogy. Regardless of your level of experience, I highly encourage that you make time for colleague collaboration for it will become a regular part of both your learning and planning. “Even Einstein asked questions!”

My Critical Friends

One of my favourite moments in my practice are those times when I can sit for a few minutes and just reflect on what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, how I thought about things in the past and where my learning has taken me.  Now, let’s be clear, these moments are few and far between (unfortunately) within the whirlwind of a school day but it’s worth finding the time because I often come away with a  few “aha!” conclusions.  I’d like to share one such moment I had today.

I was thinking back to my first years of teaching  when I believed that I not only had to be the best at what I did but I had to travel that road alone.  Not because I didn’t want the support (are you kidding? I knew I needed all the help I could find) but because I felt that as a professional who was leading these young minds in their quest to learn about the world around them, I had to be the know-it-all guide.  Eight years down the road, I now love the feeling of being in a state of continuous and perpetual learning along with my students.  So what caused this shift in my thinking?

My own growth has been exponential and I owe much of it to a special group of people I l call my “critical friends.”  This is a term introduced by Andrew Hutchinson, a sector consultant, in 1998.  A critical friend is defined as “a trusted person who asks provocative questions, provides data to be examined through another lens, and offers critiques of a person’s work as a friend. A critical friend takes the time to fully understand the context of the work presented and the outcomes that the person or group is working. The friend is an advocate for the success of that work.”

I have been fortunate to work with critical friends as teacher colleagues, administrators, instructional leaders, professors and sometimes my own students.  As I sat back today, I realized that their feedback about my practice, the collaboration between us and their willingness to guide me as I work to find solutions and new goals to reach is one of the greatest tools I possess on my own quest in education.

Not a bad “aha” moment for a five minute break 🙂

If you’re interested in further reading, this article by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick that summarizes the process.

Being a Mentor OT

In my first year of occasional teaching, I was as lost as Bambi in a forest fire.

Yes, I was fully certified, and sure, I had successfully interviewed for the OT list.  Yet there I was, in my first few assignments, marvelling that someone, somewhere, had said, “Hmm.  We have a teacher who’s going to be away for the day.  Let’s put Ryan in there.” The thought that I was actually being trusted with other people’s kids was entirely intimidating.  And let’s face it–most of us have reflected on, and at some point have been terrified about, the enormity of our task as educators.

Thank goodness for Sarah.

Sarah introduced herself, took me under her wing, and showed me around the school.  She connected me with full-time staff members and included me in conversations around the lunch table.  When I didn’t know where to find the photocopier, Sarah showed me.  She even pointed me to where the bathroom was (a gesture, I might add, of no small importance).  Did I mention I was lost?

You can imagine my astonishment when later I discovered that Sarah was a daily OT, just like me.

I don’t know if she realised it at the time–or if she’d even consider herself one–but Sarah was a mentor to me.  Her simple gestures helped make my transition to teaching incredibly smoother.  I bristle to think about how those first few days would have been without her.

In chapter two of The Heart and Art of Teaching and Learning, we’re reminded that beginning teachers are active participants in the mentoring process.  This applies not only to contract teachers, but also to occasional teachers.  Perhaps this means that as a newer OT, you seek out the mentorship of a colleague you trust who can help you navigate through first season of your career.  Alternatively, perhaps you’re a seasoned OT with a kind heart and a wealth of experience who can guide and assist a newer teacher in the schools where you regularly see each other.

The difference informal mentors make in a school is outstanding!  I’ve seen it myself and I’m sure you have, too.  Mentors help to foster a sense of collaboration and community in their schools.  For me, what started off like a forest fire soon began to feel like greener pastures.  Undoubtedly, the mentors I know make my schools fawn-tastic places to work.

Think about your own schools.  Could you be a Sarah in someone else’s life?  I assure you they’d be forever grateful.  I am.

Thanks, Sarah.