Educational Perfection

As we end another school year and look forward to summer vacation, I think back to my first years in education and what summer “vacation” looked like for me. July was spent taking additional qualification courses and most of August was spent prepping and planning. It wasn’t really much of a vacation.  So why did I do it? Two reasons. I am passionate about learning and I am a (now recovering) perfectionist-especially as an educator.

I must have thought there was some kind of a prize for having the tidiest, prettiest and well organized classroom. I wanted my classroom to look like something out of the Scholar’s Choice catalogue. The custodians would be annoyed at having me in the school and I would wait anxiously for them to be finished waxing our hallway so that I could get in and set up my classroom. I needed everything to match. If I had baskets for items in the classroom they had to all be the same colour. It isn’t always easy to find 24 of the same basket at the Dollar Store.  Before the students started in September I felt the need to have labels on all of their notebooks, duo tangs and I even labelled their pencils. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to control the environment for my students. My classroom looked like a showroom on the first day of school and I would spend the next 194 days trying to maintain that standard. Our first printing practice lesson (because we still did that back then) was to practice writing “A place for everything and everything in it’s place.” When I think back now to all of the time and energy that I wasted not allowing learning to get messy I shake my head. It was exhausting.

After twenty plus years in education I’ve learned a few things about educational perfectionism and letting go of control in order to empower the learners in the classroom. When I was given a portable for a classroom that I wasn’t able to get into much before school started I panicked at first.  I didn’t have space or time to create a showroom. I decided to give the design over to the grade 4-5 students.  I still had labelled duo tangs and a place for each of them to put their things that was their space ready on the first day but the rest, we did together. It built community, it gave the students ownership and it gave me some of my summer back. If you’ve ever taught in a portable that has the coat racks inside, winter is a bit of a nightmare for an organizational freak but eventually I let it go. We still had a tidy classroom because their wasn’t enough space to be too messy but the organization of things didn’t stifle the learning. We learned how to paint in a portable without water using buckets and trips into the school. We brought lawn chairs to school at sat outside at reading time. I loved our little cabin in the woods.

As educators we have a lot of people that we are accountable to in our jobs. Students, families, administrators, our board and our communities are all stakeholders in what we do. The pressure to be perfect in our roles can be overwhelming and paralyzing. What educators do each day is literally driven by “overall and specific EXPECTATIONS”. It took time for me to realize that the expectations that I was putting on myself were much higher than those of anyone else. It took reflection to realize that perfectionism isn’t the badge of honour that I thought it once was and that it was making my life more difficult. I came to understand that it isn’t the room or the resources that make me a good educator.  It is about the connections and relationships with my students and their families that matter. It is about embracing the Ms. Frizzle moments and rolling with it.  If I’ve learned anything from COVID-19 it is that being flexible and letting go of what I cannot control are the keys to staying out of perfectionism. I plan on guarding my summer vacation as I would a medical specialist’s appointment but I’ll likely take a few professional resource books along to read in the waiting room.



This past week allowed me an amazing opportunity to work with a very committed and compassionate group of Early Childhood Educators. They are part of ETFO and as such are able to partake in a variety of services that are offered including workshops. The topic of this session was on poverty (Why Poverty? is the official name for the provincial workshop). So on a Monday evening in the month of June, twenty ECE staff showed up after a full day of work to talk and discuss the topic of poverty.

At first I was quite nervous, as I had never facilitated a workshop for anyone but teachers. Over the two hours that we worked together the titles faded away and we just became a group of like-minded people who were seeking ways to help level the playing field for the children in our care.

Then it happened, that aha moment where the idea of partners and partnerships became very real for me. So on my drive home from Hamilton I began to ask myself where else could I find partnerships? Who could also partner with me to enhance the educational experience of my students? The answer was astonishingly simple. I need to look no further then the staff room in my school. I just needed to look with a different lens in order to see the amazing wealth of talent that exists within each school (Child and Youth Workers, Educational Assistants, Early Childhood Educators, volunteers).

Yes, right before my eyes existed a wealth of ideas, passions, skill sets and people who chose a career that focussed on helping young people be successful. The task is to work on bringing them all together, to create an environment that values each person, their profession and not their title. This approach is alive and well in our Kindergarten programs. How do we transfer that to our entire school? How do we bring support staff and teachers together in workshops to learn side-by-side?

I highly encourage the readers to please share their ideas or current practices on how to best create, maintain and foster growth in these types of partnerships. In closing, I would like to thank the Early Childhood Educators from Hamilton who helped me experience the power of a partnership.

Making la vida “OT” less loca

By Agriculture And Stock Department, Publicity Branch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Agriculture And Stock Department, Publicity Branch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
As a teacher, the daily demands of planning, preparing, assessing, and constant learning occupy most of my waking hours. Thankfully, after several years at, what I call, the speed of learning I have achieved what appears to be a work life balance.

One thing I clearly remember, from the start, was a vow to never (emphasis on never) take a day off due to illness, PD, or any other reason. And for a while, everything went according to plan. Steadfastly, I made it 8 months before the inevitable happened. I had to take a day (NTIP will get you every time).

4 brain wracking hours of over planning later, I gave myself permission to believe I was ready to be away. Looking back, I had really over-prepared and I know it…now. From what I reckon, I planned about 3 times more instruction and work on that single day for the Occasional Teacher or OT who covered my classes. Well, better too much than not enough right?

After the experience I began reflecting about that day. My first thoughts were a tad egotistical, truth be told. Did my class(es) behave, were my plans good? Was I going to be outed for not knowing how to prepare for an OT? What if I messed up? I felt a bit vulnerable. What if my colleagues (all experienced teachers) had to cover for me? What would I do the next time?

I also thought about what it must be like for the Occasional Teachers who, on a daily basis, find themselves in a different school classroom teaching someone else’s students and lessons? Did they ever get a chance to feel connected to the lives they were impacting, however brief? I remember the first time I noticed a couple of OTs sitting by themselves in the staff room during lunchtime – little to no eye contact and even less interaction. I didn’t like how it appeared so different than the inclusive environments we were espousing in our classrooms.

Did it have to be this way?

We are all in the same educational boat, but it seems that some are sailing on a different part of the ship. Did I break an unwritten rule the first time I said hello, and invited an OT to sit with our staff to eat? Did I miss a class in teacher’s college that covered how this was supposed to play out?

Perhaps, this was a rite of passage that all OTs had to go through in our profession? If it was, I claim ignorance, but what I observed guided me more towards how I wanted to support these colleagues who were going to occasionally be part of my teaching life. I wanted the OTs that were me for the day to feel welcome and valued in the space in my place.

So, I started with my Day Plans; ensuring they were informative, concise, and easy to follow. As a prep coverage teacher, I made sure all of the resources were marked by subject, class, and time on the schedule. I included names of students who are helpful, descriptions of students who might need extra support, and all details related to any/all safety routines/plans. Thankfully, our school had a booklet printed up with most of the general info to leaf through as well.

I thought about what else could I do? Maybe they’d like a snack? So I included a peanut free granola bar with my plans too. The response was overwhelmingly positive. I had a number of teachers write a personal note saying that no one had ever left them a treat. It made me feel good because we all know as the day goes on a little snack goes along way to staying strong. To this day I have a drawer full of treats ready to share with my OTs. I knew that if a little snack works for my students, it would work for others too.

Now that I’m a homeroom teacher, I share my plans with OTs digitally via Google Apps for Education or GAPPS. This allows me to include links to any internet content like websites or video to be shared throughout the day without having to risk typing in the wrong URLs or mistakenly opening the wrong file(s). The easier I can make their job, the better the day.

Taking stock of my OT plans from last year, it struck me that, for various reasons(mostly giving/receiving PD), I was away over 25 days from my class last year. I had to rely on a host of OTs like never before and with their support not a lesson was missed. Each one delivering the lessons and sharing important feedback after each day.

With more days out of the classroom guaranteed in the future, I know my students are in good hands.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share your OT stories and keep the conversation going.


How to Get Outside

I know I have probably spoken about the wonderful connection my school has with a nearby bird sanctuary, but I thought it might be of use to other educators to know some of the administrative requirements that are in place that make it happen. Depending on the location of your school in relation to that of a nearby green space, it may be possible to establish the opportunity for your students to access a natural setting (a park, a watershed, a field) on a regular basis – without extra costs or volunteers to organize. This is how teachers and students at my school have managed to be able to do just that.

Every Wednesday and Thursday, I take a groups of 5 kindergarten students out of the school yard, across a soccer field, over a bike path, and through a turnstile into a forest located at a large pond formed beside some rapids on the Ottawa River, not far from downtown Ottawa. It is called Mud Lake, and it is considered a “Provincially Significant Wetland and an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest by the government of Ontario.”

It is a very important destination for birders carrying all variety of cameras, and it boasts meandering walking paths in the summer and fall, and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails in the winter. Some winters have even seen a rink being flooded and cleared at one end. It is well used, but not overused or abused. The trails are clean and it is rare to find any garbage on a walk through the forest.

The kindergarten students are not the only lucky ones to be able to regularly go for a trek in the forest for an art lesson, some math, or science inquiry, this is what the entire school does each week. While having such a rich and diverse natural environment to explore may sound too good to be true, it is counterbalanced by the fact that the outdoor area on the school property is less than to be desired. In particular, the kinder yard is an inhospitable square of pavement surrounded by a chain-link fence, and offering absolutely no shade. The children wilt at their outdoor play on warm, sunny afternoons, so having the respite of a cool, verdant forest is extremely welcome.

To be able to take a small group of kindergarten students each time we visit, there are 2 important criteria that need to be fulfilled: firstly, the parents receive a year-long field trip permission form to sign on the first day of school. Secondly, the kinder educators maintain the student-to-adult ratio of 5:1, thus avoiding the necessity of requiring parent volunteers. This way, if we need to change the time of our visit for some reason, we can still go later on in the day because there is no one else to organize except ourselves.

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, while the rest of the class is engaged in outdoor learning, I go to the forest with a group of 5 kinders. I have 20 students who are divided into 4 groups and I take 2 groups each week. It would be great if we could manage more visits any time we wanted, but it is not entirely feasible within the framework of the kindergarten day or week to go more often. With the way we have it set up, each child gets to go every 2 weeks. They still always get their outdoor learning time each day, which may or may not be limited to the kinder yard, so the wait is not so long that they feel hard done by. After school hours, many of the students have started to visit the forest with their families, too, which may account for the clean and healthy condition of the trails and surrounding area.

Every school culture and location is different, of course. You may not have access to a large, safe, natural area to adopt as an extension of your class or your school’s learning environment, but if you do find somewhere to explore, hopefully 2 legal hurdles – the year-long field trip permission form and the student-to-adult ratio requirement – won’t prevent you from making it happen.

Kindergarten at a Thousand Miles an Hour

As I slump in a chair at the end of a day teaching kindergarten, I remind myself that, although I feel overwhelmed at times and unsure at others, I am learning each day. I was placed in this position without having any previous training or experience as a kindergarten teacher. I remember feeling very intrigued at the time my principal and VP suggested the switch from grade 3. I could have refused but instead I accepted the challenge. Now I cannot imagine teaching anything else. I’ve been a teacher for over 25 years, but not a kindergarten teacher. Kindergarten is a whole new ball game. Did I mention that it is a fast game, too? It feels as if the school year has slammed into the Christmas holidays and will continue to gather speed in January.

After four months, I am beginning to feel a teensy weensy bit more confident with the planning and activities in the classroom. Although we share and co-plan, I like to ask my ECE counterparts for their opinions about something I have planned because they are the ones with the years of training and experience at this age level. I may have a general theoretical notion of how and what may work, combined with my personal experience as a mother of two boys, now grown up, but really, that does not amount to much compared to what the ECEs bring to the planning table and to the classroom. It takes a team that respects and effectively collaborates to make a kindergarten class run well, and I feel privileged to be part of such a team.

And the kinder classroom is so very different from the grade 3 classroom where movement and noise could regularly be brought to a minimum during a learning period. My English counterpart often uses the term, “Birthday party behaviour” to describe behaviour we seek to curb in the kindergarten classroom – the kind of free-for-all party atmosphere usually experienced at the end of a birthday party.

It is an apt description. All the more so since the set up for a well-run kinder classroom feels rather like hosting a birthday party as you plan and prepare enough activities to keep the attendees interested, focussed, and engaged, and you circulate to make sure everyone is happy. Imagine hosting a birthday party for 27 five year olds every day… no other grade quite fits that description.

As we gallop along, trying to tie up loose ends, follow through on planning, assessment, evaluation, meeting the curriculum, and contacting parents about behaviour, speech issues, and hearing problems, the only thing that remains constant is each young student – little beings who need to play and explore, and whose emotions are so immediate. They are going at their normal, five year old speed when they come to school each day and we are trying to keep up with them. No wonder I am exhausted at the end of the day.

Tortoise Brained Learning and Students

In my last post I focussed on the philosophical belief that quality vs quantity of professional learning is a more effective way of enhancing pedagogical practice. What does that mean for my classroom instruction? As I grow to understand the presence of different learning styles in my class, the presence of multiple intelligences and the wide variety of learning rates it forces me to re-examine both the long term and short term planning that I set up.

In the earlier part of my career my long-range plans were reflective of an efficient way to ensure that all of the curricula was covered. This I now refer to as curriculum planning and not student centred planning. As my understanding of differentiated learning and assessment grew, so did the need to adjust the way my planning unfolded. What I had experienced was a short-term understanding of content and when that topic was revisited months later there seemed to be a regression in the level of understanding of my students. That forced me to ask myself as to how well they had really learned the content in the first place.

Through years of experimenting with both my long range planning and unit design there arose two aha moments for me. The first was the need to revisit big ideas (overall expectations) through a spiralling curriculum. This means that I would chunk the content into more manageable pieces and revisit the content several times over the course of the year (quality vs quantity).

The second profound understanding was in time management and how do I accomplish the ability to revisit overall expectations with so many demands on the school day. Thus came the desire to increase my skill set in integrating learning across a variety of curricula. The following is a direct reference from the 2006 Ontario Language Curriculum:

In cross-curricular learning, students are provided with opportunities to learn and use related content and/or skills in two or more subjects. For example, teachers can use social studies reading material in their language lessons, and incorporate instruction in how to read non-fiction materials into their social studies lessons. In mathematics, students learn to identify the relevant information in a word problem in order to clarify what is being asked. In science and technology, they build subject-specific vocabulary, interpret diagrams and charts, and read instructions relating to investigations and procedures. All subjects require that students communicate what they have learned, orally and in writing. Their studies in the different subject areas help students develop their language skills, providing them with authentic purposes for reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, and representing.

Needless to say, this is a spiralling learning experience for me as I continue to help my students consolidate the learning that they are a part of each and every day.

Photo of Mike Beetham

The Second September of Your Year

Have you ever wished for an opportunity to do something over? You know you would make different choices if only you had the chance! Well, as teachers we get that wonderful opportunity at this time of the year (new year).  As all teachers do, self reflection is just part of our DNA and as such gives us wonderful opportunities to create change in our classroom. Every year when my students return after their two-week holiday I start off the year just as if it was our first week in September. The distinct difference being that the activities I choose, the type of engagement I devise is solely based on what has or has not occurred in my room over the first four months of being together.

This year I have found that there are cliques within my room and as such they do not work well unless certain groupings or pairing are created. I will start off the year with a major focus on team building with a specific design that will see a constant mixing of students so that they get to have fun and get to know students they have not made the effort to do so.

A second change that will start off our year is to work from drama to written tasks as often as I can. For example, I am going to be reading a novel that will focus on social justice so I will make use of classroom debates, readers’ theatre and character improvisation prior to my students completing their reading response journals. This change has come about due to the level of engagement that my students demonstrate when drama is a part of our literacy program.

It is important for teachers to take advantage of this unique opportunity that our yearly schedule provides to us. Reflect, re-organize and reap the benefits of your second start to the school year.

Teaching Math



I have always considered myself more of an “English Language” teacher. So, when I moved into the junior and intermediate classroom, I felt less confident in my abilities to teach math. When planning for the year, I surveyed some other junior/intermediate teachers for recommended resources. And when planning for the classroom environment, I made sure to have a corner dedicated to math, which includes a gallery wall, manipulatives, math dictionary and texts as well as tools like calculators.

Although I was given a set of textbooks, I don’t plan or teach from the textbooks. I print the curriculum expectations specific to the grade for each strand, and use them as my guide in planning the units. Then I refer to some other resources for ideas in activities that involve group work or problem solving. Some of favourites to support my math program are:

  • Introduction to Reasoning and Proof, Grades 6-8: The Math Process Standards Series, by Denisse R. Thompson and Karren Shultz-Ferrell
  • Nelson’s Ontario Numeracy Assessment Package
  • Good Questions: Great Ways to Differentiate Mathematics, by Marian Small
By referring to these resources, I am able to understand the concepts that need to be taught and how to differentiate using broader questions for the range of math learners in my classroom. I enjoy providing mini-lessons on strategies to support the students as well as encouraging them to share their strategies with me and the rest of the class. Our math class has become engaging and interactive, not repetitive and boring as I had feared.
We use a gallery wall to display group answers to problems. This has become an invaluable way to quickly assess understanding. Students are given the opportunity to view the gallery, see how others have solved the problem, respond with their own ideas or suggestions and acquire new learning. A week of math classes includes a range of instructional strategies, independent work, paired and group work. One of our common “go to” questions is “Does this make sense?” We are aiming for understanding rather than rote learning of facts and steps (as I learned in elementary school). So, I am enjoying learning with my students as I discover new ways to approach and solve math problems.
Photo of Tammy Axt

Teaching music to students with autism

I teach music to a contained class of students with autism once a week. On a mission to program effectively for these students, I have been consulting with our team of experts and reading some new resources. Two months into school, this is what my period with them looks like:
An important part of helping students with autism is providing structure to their program. There are no surprises in my class. The order of the day is visually presented on the black board. To prepare the schedule, I bought frame holders that were two for a dollar at the dollar store. Next, with the help of an amazing TA at our school who is a Board Maker whiz, I chose some visuals that will indicate what kind of activities we will be completing in class. The schedule is taken down as we go through each activity.

Next, a challenge for some people with autism is sensory experiences. My class starts with the instrument of the day to allow students the chance to hear, feel and touch a new instrument. So far this year, each student has had the chance to experience and explore with a saxophone, baritone and a snare drum in the “musician’s chair”. Students can feel, hear and see the instrument that they are playing and what kind of sound they can create with the instrument. There have been some minor hesitations on the part of a few students, but with some encouragement and support, all of the students have participated.

Next, we do some songs and instruments playing together as a group. My goal for the beginning part of the year has been to find songs that the students will engage in. Some songs that have been successful are “animal actions”, “jumping in the puddles” and “play and stop” with instruments. Trying to play melodies or specific rhythmic patterns hasn’t happened yet, but we will work towards that. I try to listen really closely to the students during this section of the class and follow their interests and skills. For example, when we were playing instruments recently, one student asked if we could make our playing into a parade. “Yes we can,” was my answer.
Then, to build a reward into the structure of the class, the students have a choice activity at the end of the period. They can choose something arts-related. I usually have drama (costumes), art (drawing or 3D building) or music materials (instruments) for the students to access in their own way. It is a great time to interact with the students while they are taking the lead and showing me their interests. (It has been helpful for gathering ideas for our next class.)

Challenges that I have witnessed include that I have an open classroom with no structural space in it. Whereas in their classroom, there are designated areas for certain tasks, my classroom is very open with few distinctive spaces. Also, transitions can be really difficult for some students with autism, and movement between rooms can be stressful. I have tried to pick an activity that is highly engaging to start every class in order to ease the stress of the transition.

Building relationships with parents is important to every student’s success. I have chosen to build the relationship with parents by sending home a book that we have been creating throughout the term. The book contains a section for each instrument we have played and interacted with. In each section it has a picture of the student playing the instrument, the name of the instrument and a listening response completed by the student. Whether it is high, low, loud or quiet. When the book is sent home right before the break, I will include a note explaining my goals for our music program this year.
Finally, I would recommend two resources to help you understand your students with autism. The first place to go to is the Ministry of Ontario’s resource called “Effective Educational Practices for Students with Autism”. This is a great introduction. Also, an amazing new book “Teaching Music to Students with Autism” by Alice M. Hammel has been very helpful in my experience.

Overheard in my Ontario classroom:
Outside my classroom right now there is a large sign that is a countdown to the arrival of the Canadian Opera Company. The first day my students saw the sign there was a lot of excitement as they came into the room. I was so impressed at how culturally mature they were. We started our class and as they were speaking to each other excitedly, I realized something: they didn’t understand that the opera was coming – they thought that Oprah was coming.

Photo of Tammy Axt

To the Outdoors!!

The students and I often have a similar struggle when we return to school in September. After a whole summer of biking, running around and enjoying the great outdoors, we come back to school and spend a large portion of 8 hours a day inside. It can make you crave the sunlight, fresh air and make one or two of us a little restless.

To help with the transition, I try to do a few music lessons outdoors in September and October. It is amazing what you can do with instruments and sidewalk chalk.
If you have any kind of concrete outside your building, the possibilities are endless for using chalk instead of a pencil for a period. Early in September, I have my students simply start by drawing any musical symbols that they know. For some students, this requires a bit of prompting or visual cuing but others come up with a plethora of symbols. After doing this simple activity, I can begin to gather information on which students will need support and others who will require challenges when writing and reading music. I also like to go outside to review the musical staff with my junior students. We practice drawing a staff and placing all the notes they know on it. I also draw a giant staff outside and we do relay races to remind us of the placement of the pitches on the staff.

For the younger students, this is the time to let them experiment with a variety of instruments outdoors. The kindergarten and grade one students can make all the noise that they want without making the volume unbearable, as it would be indoors. I encourage my students to create as many sounds as possible with something like a rhythm stick, tambourine or found objects outside. The students begin to realize how to create different timbres of sounds which will come in handy for their future musical journeys.

Before you head for the outdoors, remember to:
Inform the office of where you are going to be. I e-mail my head secretary at the beginning of the week to let her know which classes I will be taking outside.
Take some sort of communication tool with you outside. Either a cell phone or a walkie talkie will work. That way, if a parent unexpectedly shows up to pick up their child, the office is able to reach you.
Finally, inform the classroom teacher of your intentions, so that they can have the students ready with jackets and outdoor shoes.

Overheard in my Ontario Classroom…
The creative process includes the very important element of sharing one’s work. Therefore, my classroom constantly has groups or individuals sharing their creations. In week two of my class, my grade two students had the assignment of sharing a poem using different kinds of voices. As one group of 4 began to recite their poem, one of the boys let out a very large fart. Shockingly, the class and the boys managed to keep it together and finish their poem very successfully. After the class applauded, the boys began to walk back to their seats. As they did, I overheard one boy say to the other: “I wish you would have waited until the end to fart. It would have been a really great finale.”