“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.

Painting with the same brush.

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PublicDomainPictures / 18043 images CCO 1.0

Underlying
An artist was preparing to paint one day. First, she stretched and secured her canvas over its wooden frame. The artist continued by arranging her brushes, planning a colour scheme, and then by setting up her supplies. Finally, it was time to ponder her subject forever to be captured in a moment of time and occupied space – where her vision would be on display in pigment, oil or acrylic for evermore for all to enjoy.

The artist could already see her finished masterpiece. As if the picture had miraculously painted itself. Without anything left to imagine, conjure, or deliberate she began.

Un-(der) inpired
It was all right there in living, er um, cold dead colour. All she had to do was slather it onto the wintery whitewashed space in waiting. She pulled out the widest brush in her kit, dipped it into the first colour, white, and painted a perfectly straight line across the top of the canvas. She dipped her brush again and repeated, the same thing over and over, with the precision of her first strokes until she has covered the entire canvas. She felt satisfied, but did not have time to admire her work for long. There were 29 more canvases to cover just like the first one. She smiled, sighed, dipped her brush, and started on the next one.  Yet, with a pallet of colours and brushes at the ready, the artist only knew how to paint with a single brush and to use white paint to do her work.

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Under pressure
Does teaching ever seem like this to you? Do educators feel they are asked to paint blank canvases everyday, but are only given one wide brush and a single colour to work with? I wonder whether that is how some teachers have come to feel when a learning system is imposed on them which expects students to be taught to the test?

Teachers plan and prepare their materials to deliver a lesson much like the artist in the story above and in the end are expected to use the broadest brush and one shade of paint. What may be more disappointing, is that many only have time to paint one coat before feeling they have to move on.

Underwhelmed
I am not a huge fan of the traditional textbook. In fact I have called them “knowledge coffins” in the past. When traditional textbooks are at the centre of the instructional day, there is little option for learners to explore beyond its pages.  Yes, it’s all in there, but at what cost are other things and ideas being left out?

First, consider the cost of purchasing texts/licenses per class. Math books alone can range upwards of $1500 to $2000 for a class set per subject. What happens when the curriculum gets revamped like what has recently happened in Ontario with the French(2013), Health/Physical Education(2015), and Social Studies(2013). Could the money schools, boards, and government pour into photocopies and textbooks be used to provide Chromebooks for every student instead? Imagine the cost savings in paper alone. If we did this, every learner from K to 12 could be equipped with a productivity and research tool for the classroom at their fingertips? And, at home too if WiFi is available.

Unrepentant
I am a fan of adaptive and hands on learning environments. In the classroom, I want students to have a voice in how and what they are being taught so we can democratize education. I believe all educators possess the means/ability to transform and tailor their instruction to suit their students. What they need now is a safe place to do so and that’s an issue of system and school leadership.

JFK Paint by Numbers
JFK Paint by Numbers

To paint a portrait of the future, educators need to use the prescribed curriculum as a pallet filled with colours that is not limited to a paint-by-number task. However, many are afraid to use other, less traditional brushes and materials to paint their masterpieces because the outcomes might not look resemble or match work gathering dust on the walls.

Yes, there are things to be taken from the past, but the world outside our classrooms has not remained fixed in space and time. Neither should it remain static inside. The classroom must become a vibrant and connected place where students have access to, and be able to contribute to a world of knowledge.

This requires courage to happen. It requires time for others to understand, accept, and embrace. It doesn’t have to look perfect. The mess is an important part of the process.

Ask yourself what or who inspires you to take chances as a learner? What new idea(s) would you try in your classroom if you knew you couldn’t fail? Start by giving yourself permission to change things up in one subject area, and then go from there.

I’ll be here to chat if you want to talk more about how we can change the portrait of education to a landscape of creativity, differentiation, and encouragement.

In the meantime I have some brushes to clean.

Remembering To Remember

Life is so busy that it sometimes takes an overwhelming effort to make time for yourself, let alone remembering all the sacrifices that have been made that allow us to live in such a free country. Yet we must and we must teach our children so they understand the why of remembering and not just the act of remembering.

Every year we make a concentrated effort to bring the community and school focus on Remembrance Day. Teachers and students put together emotionally compelling presentations to honour the generations from our past that made the ultimate sacrifice to make Canada the country it is. As part of our daily commitment to students we must commit to educating them not only about the world events that lead us to November 11, but also the small, day-to-day acts that make their world safer, healthier and provides them with a seemingly endless list of opportunities.

Take the time to have classroom discussions about the role of police officers, firefighters, physicians, crossing guards and any other key individuals that impact their life. Write letters of thank you and deliver them to those individuals or organizations. As a teacher (and key role model for your students) model for them on a daily basis how remembering can be demonstrated in such small ways as simply saying thank you.

Finally, as a teacher who has been in the profession for over thirty years, I must say thank you to the generations of colleagues before me. They spent days on the picket line, sacrificed family time and were the target of public scrutiny in order to make my profession what it is. I am blessed to have job security, benefits, peace of mind knowing my wife is treated equitably as a teacher and that my working conditions and student learning conditions are constantly being protected. This was not always the way for teachers.

 “Remember For More Than A Day”

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.

 

This is who I am

Through the winter inquiry my senior kindergarten students and I are involved in at the moment, I have recently been reminded of the importance of seizing opportunities for students that can spark a sense of self and place within the school setting. 

In one of our classes, we have a five-year old Inuk girl who is from Pangnirtung (on Baffin Island), and who was adopted by a family from the south. When we began talking about how people stay warm in the winter, her mother spoke to me of an opportunity for her daughter to bring in and share some of the clothing she has received from her family in Pangnirtung; a spring amauti (anorak), sealskin slippers and mittens, and a pair of sealskin kamik (boots).

Elisapie (not her real name) is a quiet student who plays happily with her friends and who engages in a variety of activities and learning opportunities during her school day without making a big splash. However, since beginning this journey of exploring the wonders of the north with her classmates and her unique connection to it, Elisapie has become a bit of a superstar. She is definitely proud of her uniqueness and this inquiry seems to have offered her an opportunity to step up and claim a place which is her own within the school setting. We have all noticed how she has become more engaged in class – asking where her amauti is every morning and wanting to put it on to go visit other classrooms in the school to show and tell all about it. When one classmate came back to school after an absence, Elisapie said, “I have to show her my amauti and slippers. When can I do that?” I am finding I occasionally need to open a window to get some cool, fresh air in the classroom before her cheeks start to glow red (sealskin is very warm), because she likes to wear them during centre time now. According to her mother, Elisapie talks more about her school day when she goes home in the afternoon, and also mentioned that Elisapie is showing an interest in going to Inuktitut classes to begin learning her language again. In class the other day, Elisapie and two of her best friends took an Inuktitut early reader from the class library and used it to write a message in Inuktitut. It is a collection of words that no one can read at this point, but it is definitely an exercise in writing in Inuktitut.

Because of the nature of inquiry, you never know where it will take you and your students. While our winter inquiry is not quite finished, I am very inspired by the learning journey and where it has taken Elisapie in particular and the whole class in general.

We may all have taken workshops on diversity and inclusion which remind us how representation in a school of every child’s culture and people can have a positive impact on their sense of self and place. As teachers, we understand that learning in a school and seeing people and images that, for a change, are familiar rather than largely representative of the dominant white culture, is not only important but imperative for a child’s well-being. None the less, seeing the world from the unique perspective of all of your students may be hard to consider. Furthermore, if you find that each of your students seems relatively well-integrated and engaged in school life, you may not seize on opportunities that may make their school experience even more worthwhile and personal. That is why I feel that workshops, books, and discussions which encourage you to make diversity and inclusion regular aspects of your teaching day are invaluable to individual students as well as the broader school community.

 

Taking Your Students “on Tour” to build community within the school

I grew up in a very musical household. My family is from the Maritimes where the kitchen party originated. I always had visitors stopping by and music blaring in our house. There were guitars, keyboards, banjos or the spoons being played by anyone who could cram into our home. My parents used to listen to old country while they vacuumed early on Saturday morning singing and dancing. As a teenager, I did not find this amusing, but as a music teacher I know the power of music to bring people together as a community.

The sharing of music can take many forms from evening concerts to performances in assemblies. However, this year I decided to add in a few performances that were much less formal with the goal of letting the music be the catalyst for having some fun (very much like the Maritimes).

I started a recorder consort and ukulele club this year. (A recorder consort is a variety of recorders playing together such as an alto, soprano, tenor and bass) Usually, on the first day of a new club the students’ first question is always about when they will be performing. Both of these clubs were no exception. I told the students that we were going to be going “on tour” with our instruments.

Once both clubs had learned a song or two on their new instruments off we went. During our nutrition break time, we took our instruments and found classes that were willing to sing along, tap along or groove along with our music. We went to 2 or 3 classes per break and had a great time.

All this week as I walked down the halls, students from the classes we performed in have been waving their hands and saying hi to me and the students in the club. In our big school, it is not very often that the grade five students do something with the grade two students or the grade fours with the grade ones. The older students may have brought the instruments but just like in a kitchen party everyone was a participating member of the group. Whether you bring your voice, your stomping foot or your clapping hands the music you create together is what brings you together.

ukulele

Safe and Accepting Schools in today’s Social/Political Climate

All teachers are familiar with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s initiative for teaching inclusion;

A safe, inclusive and accepting school environment is a necessary condition for student success. Students cannot be expected to reach their potential in an environment where they feel insecure and intimidated. We are committed to providing all students with the supports they need to learn, grow and achieve.
Building a positive and inclusive school climate requires a focused effort on developing healthy and respectful relationships throughout the whole school and surrounding community, among and between students and adults. “

We respect this philosophy and we would not deny our students the full application of this mandate. And yet, for all the anti-bullying lessons, resources, activities; for all the lessons and discussions on civics and character education within our schools, I cannot help but feel as if I am complicit in perpetuating a myth that grown-ups know how to behave properly – when in fact, outside of our schools, our society is anything but civil, respectful, and devoid of bullies. For examples of intolerance and disrespect, we need look no further than the relentless doses of hysteria, stereotyping and racism in our newspapers and in our laws. The media is rife with stories pitting Us against Them, creating fear about Others, and discrimination based on clothing, skin colour, or mother tongue. Meanwhile in stark contrast in our classrooms, we are reading books such as “Children like Me”, promoting diversity and trying our best to ensure that our students learn about community and how Social Justice applies to everyone in our society.

Feeling overwhelmed by the latest news stories, I have been thinking about young students who, on the way to school, or once within its confines, may be unexpected targets of the divisive environment where ignorance, scapegoating, blaming, shaming, guilt by virtue of association, and racial profiling may have trickled down. Our anti-bullying initiatives may be only a Bandaid solution to circumstances of inconceivable scope and which are completely out of our control. Children who are subjected to this intolerance have to navigate through the quagmire with little or no grasp on the realities and myths that may be associated with their lives, and as in many cases of intimidation, because it is insidious nature, teachers may have no clue what these children have to endure. As visible minorities, or as minorities suspected of an affiliation, no matter how remote, children risk being targets of ignorance and vitriol from other children or adults in the community. Sadly, we have so many brutal historical examples of just this type of situation. Therefore, it is essential that, we as teachers, remember to be aware and have empathy to help all of our students feel secure and free from intimidation so that they can learn, grow and achieve, even when we may not fully understand the greater issues that they may be dealing with – politically, religiously or culturally.

And, without a doubt, the world has always been so. Danger from bigotry and intolerance existed long before the implementation of the Safe and Accepting Schools Act in Ontario. We can only hope that the effort we put into promoting diversity and ensuring students are educated within a safe and accepting school environment will eventually make the myth of a society of respectful, civic-minded people a reality. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to make sure that our students know we are an ally they can depend on for help should they need it.

Extra-Curricular Involvement – All in Good Time

Your school is a community and a good way to enrich your year as a teacher is to participate in this community. Some good reasons for getting involved include, opportunities to share your expertise or vision for the school, getting to interact and connect with students and parents in a supportive but more informal way, and being part of the spirit of the school. This year, someone may ask you to get involved by organizing extra-curricular sports and clubs for students, or by taking on administrative roles such as a Parent Council, Union, or Safe and Caring Schools Representative.  Here are some things you may want to consider before you make a decision.

Anything you do outside the classroom means you have to be able to take time to do whatever you decide to take on. Make sure that you do not overdo it! I have seen new teachers sign up for as many extra-curricular activities as possible because they think they should, only to have to bow out of many due to a lack of time. Being too stretched time wise can also affect your enthusiasm for the activity and you may begin to look forward to it less and less. Remembering to balance time for your job and your life outside of work is of the utmost importance. Do not feel bad if you have to decline a request to start a club or help coach a team. It is best to become involved only when you have the time and energy! You may lose lunch hours, have to come in extra early some mornings, or stay later after school to make it happen. Some years may be better than others. Do it when you are ready.

And not everyone is able to give more of their time. There may be childcare or family obligations, lack of proximity to the school, or health concerns which may present challenges for someone wishing to coach Girls’ Soccer, for example. Also, taking Additional Qualifications or going back to school to complete a Masters’ degree may not be the best time for you to engage directly in extra-curricular activities at your school. Your studies will ultimately benefit your school community and so while you are studying, your job as a classroom teacher and your life as a student are already big responsibilities and commitments.

If you are looking for ways to become involved, breaking the school community into 3 parts may help organize how you want to participate and budget your time. Firstly, consider your academic obligations towards your own students. Secondly, you may be interested in working with colleagues and parents in the administration of the school. And thirdly, you may be ready to offer your time to run a club or sport involving students in the whole school.

Using this guide, I have always been able to manage time to run a math club or homework help all year long for my students.  And in the last 10 years, I find I have become more interested in taking on administrative roles and enjoy being part of the Safe and Caring Schools initiative – going to workshops and promoting social justice resources and issues at school. And lastly, if I can, I take on a sports or arts club once a week before or after school for part of the year. For example, coaching Track and Field in May and June, or organizing International Dance Day for one day in April. I used to have much more energy and was very happy to run a couple of clubs and teams at the same time. Now, I realize I am able to be useful in more administrative areas of the school community and so I happily leave the running of the teams and clubs I used to enjoy to the younger (more energetic) teachers.

Mike Beetham

Backward Planning To A Classroom Community

I would like to take a few lines to introduce myself to new readers or re-acquaint myself to regular bloggers. My name is Mike Beetham and I am entering into my 30th exciting year of teaching and look forward to the learning opportunities that will take place for me as I continually strive to enhance my best practice. I work with an area behaviour class of Junior age students and love to spend time in the outdoors.

 Each September a new group of students arrive in my classroom and our journey begins. Like any other trip, you have to know where you are going so that you can plan your journey accordingly.  In the first week of school we collectively complete the following activity. I create three charts with these titles:

What does a safe and peaceful classroom look like?

What does a safe and peaceful classroom feel like?

What does a safe and peaceful classroom sound like?

It starts with time for self-reflection, than moves to partner and small group discussion. Our final step is to post our ideas on chart paper. These sheets are visited throughout the first week. On Friday we take a final look at what our collective vision is and we complete the task by creating a classroom agreement that will help us create the community of learners we seek. I always accompany this with a good book such as ‘YO! Yes!’, ‘Wings’ or ‘Don’t Laugh At Me’.

As a teacher it is critical to take the time to visualize what your want your classroom to look like, feel like and sound like. From that point you put into action the activities and lessons that will move your group to the desired outcome. It is important to remember that this is a continual process and like any relationship, when the participants stop putting effort and time into the partnership, the bond starts to lessen.

Welcome back everyone and I hope you have a rewarding year!

 

Mike Beetham

Time To Smell The Roses

As the year now shifts to the final months of academia, it is important to take the time and reflect on the growth of yourself as a teacher, the academic gains that your students have made and the endless best efforts that took place in your learning community. We often start to stress or feel the pressure of the year ending with so much curriculum yet to cover that we neglect the opportunity to recognize the gains accomplished thus far. By instilling in your students (and developing in your teaching practice) the skills to reflect on their effort, accomplishments and next steps we pave the way for students to become a partner with us in the educational journey.

The timing is critical as it will allow all parties involved the opportunity to give and receive feedback that will direct them in their goal setting for the last two months of the year. If this feedback is provided too close to the end of the year there will not be an adequate amount of time to use it to create change. This is an essential time when I focus on the accomplishments of each student and work with them to establish next steps. An analogy that I would use is when a coach takes that final timeout to share a plan and pump up his/her team for that final push to reach their goal. The message the student receives is that I am capable, I have been successful and it is important for me to keep it going rather than coasting into summer vacation. Enjoy this time of year and take great pride in what you have been able to accomplish with your students.