Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Many Hats of a Teacher

Post by Loralee Cole: Loralee has been teaching for 19 years, the last 18 years at Bettendorf High School. She currently teaches American/World History. She can be found on twitter @LoraleeCole

Students from St. Ambrose University sit in my class, earning observation hours.  As they watch, I wonder if they really know how much a teacher does. In their mind (as was mine 20 years ago!), it seems pretty easy; design lessons, deliver material, grade papers, test, attend in-service meetings and if you’re lucky, wear jeans on Fridays.  Pretty much that’s it!  Oh, then not to mention the paid holidays as well as two months of vacation time in the summer!  SWEET!! I’m in!  Not so fast…. Do they REALLY know the jobs of a teacher??   

Teachers wear many hats. Their first hat is of course the teacher hat.  Even though most of us are not art teachers, creativity definitely comes in handy when designing lessons, especially when you have to compete with Instagram and Clash of Clans.  Of course, teachers know EVERYTHING about the subject they teach.  Since I teach history (specifically World and American), that means I should know EVERYTHING about those topics.  Oh!!  The pressure!!!  Of course I do not know everything about history. However, with iPads, we definitely have many tools available (as long as they are iPad compatible!) to engage students.  Plus, the iPads have come in really handy since if I don’t know something, I can tell students to look it up!!    

The second hat a teacher wears is the counselor hat.  Students today have so many issues to deal with it's any wonder they actually get to school. Some students don’t have the time or don’t want the stigma of making an appointment with the counselor.  Maybe they feel they really don’t “know” their counselor. Many teachers are easy to talk to and students see their teachers every day with no appointment needed.  We easily establish relationships with them, which means we are easily accessible.  A teacher might be the only adult throughout the day who looks them in the eye and personally engages them. Many teachers will have at least one student divulge some kind of personal information to them at some point in their career.  We have to be good listeners, show empathy, and maybe even offer some advice at times.  There are times when we also have to bend the rules.  Fair is not always equal.    

 Being their teacher and counselor at times is not enough.  Putting on the “parent hat” is necessary in some cases.  As a teacher, we need to ask ourselves, “If this were my child, what would I want the teacher to do?” We all want our children to be challenged, learn something, respect others, feel cared about, and have fun.  Holding students accountable to high expectations can be hard at times, especially when they have been coddled by other adults. Sometimes the “parent hat” means settling disputes like, “Mrs. Cole! He took my iPad and won’t give it back!” Other times it means, “Pay attention to my child. Notice my child in your class and don’t let them blend in with the furniture.”  Always it means creating a caring environment where everyone feels safe and respected.  And at times it means have fun!  Most of the memories we have from our own school days do not involve the day we finally solved for "x." Most of the memories we have were when we had fun and did something out of the ordinary, probably directed by a teacher. 

A few of the other hats we wear are friend, colleague, and professional.  We develop friendships with people we work with that come in handy when we need to vent about the latest state mandate just handed down. Friendships with co-workers are important as a teacher to share life events and they allow us to just be ourselves, since most of the day we are “on stage” in front of 30 students. We help our colleagues with lessons as we collaborate together about the latest and greatest app.  And we are professionals when administration decides we can’t wear jeans on Fridays or in-service days anymore.

So, to the St. Ambrose student in training to be a teacher earning your observation hours, while it’s true you will design lessons, deliver material, and grade papers, you will also wear many other hats.  Be ready to change your “hat” multiple times throughout the day, because no day is ever the same. At the end of a year of being a creative teacher, listening to student problems and concerns, and being a “stand in” parent, you will earn the two months of "vacation" in the summer.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

Post by Evan Hartman: Evan is in his 4th year of teaching. He worked as a biomedical engineer for three years before becoming a math teacher. This is his first year at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Evan on twitter @EvanrHartman

Like some of you, I came into education as career change. I began my career as an engineer because I was one of those kids whose fate was to be an engineer. That is, my father was an engineer and I was raised to think like an engineer. There was never really a question; when you grow up with Dilbert as your Dad, you take on certain characteristics.

As an educator, this has been both a boon and a burden. The obvious benefit of having hands on experience in an array of highly technical fields has, to be blunt, made me a desirable hire. In terms of classroom practice, it posed some unforeseeable challenges that have forced me to adjust my outlook. I could not have anticipated that it would, at times, make it difficult to relate to students.

This is because, as with most teachers, I am a self-motivated learner. The question “Why do I have to learn this?” simply doesn't occur to me. Everything is fascinating. It requires very little for me to find myself a dozen Google searches deep in some new topic (this morning, while I drank my coffee, it was gravity batteries). However, I think that most of us are aware that this is unusual. In my teaching career, I can count the number of students who have this kind of motivation on my digits (if I am wearing sandals).

These students form a woefully small portion. Yet I find that education is tailored for them. The traditional classroom – even those using so-called reform curricula – present content as though its purpose were self-evident. Proceeding as though students simply need to change their attitudes to find the material interesting is ineffective; we need not even make a value judgment of whether or not we should force the content upon students. It simply doesn't work.

The eminently quotable Grace Hopper once quipped that “The most damaging phrase in the language is, ‘We've always done it this way.’” We continue to educate students in a set of content areas because…well, that’s just what we've always done it.  Students learn their four R’s because that’s simply what is done. A better way should be sought; I don’t have the answer, but I have some observations that may be useful in seeking solutions. I want to discuss what motivates people to learn.

Broadly speaking, there are 2 types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is derived from the desire to do something for its own sake. In my example, I learn for its own sake. I enjoy it. I don’t derive external rewards from it. Extrinsic motivation is, of course, derived from external causes. Things are done for some incentive. For example, most people work for money rather than because they enjoy what they do (if you don’t believe me, ask yourself if you would do your job for no pay).

In an ideal world, everyone would be an intrinsic learner. They would learn because they want to learn (it is worth pointing out here that the scientific consensus is that infants and toddlers are naturally intrinsic learners). However, it is indisputable that many, if not most, of their learners with whom we interact are not intrinsically motivated by education. This observation has created a number of initiatives, some more effective than others. Generally, this revolves around using purely extrinsic motivation in lieu of intrinsic motivators. For example, paying students would be an extrinsic motivator; of course, schools don’t pay students directly, but we routinely make the appeal that getting an education leads to greater earnings later in life (extrinsic motivation by delayed gratification, if you prefer). An alternative that has (thankfully) fallen out of favor is extrinsic motivation by negative reinforcement. Some of you may recall being highly motivated to do your school work to avoid being shamed in front of the class or given the paddle.

However, these are all simply means to an end; students are able to meet the goals set for them because they are motivated to complete the task but not by the underlying educational purpose. That is, students can complete work but have low retention and low conceptual understanding. These extrinsic motivators simply motivate students to finish the task. There is no reflective component, no connection building; if you subscribe to the constructivist school, it is something of a nightmare scenario. It appears that using purely extrinsic means can’t find a foothold by which we can generate authentic learning in our students.

Rather than continuing to beat our head against a wall trying to motivate students to learn what we think they should learn, I think that we need to acknowledge the reality that most of our students are ambivalent about what we have to teach them. Of course we have our standards to meet, but those are our agenda – not our students. If we’re genuinely trying to create ‘life-long learners’ (I think this is a loaded term, but it suffices), then the standards are superfluous because the students aren't going to be given a set of standards for their learning for the entirety of their lives.

Instead of teaching what we have to offer by means of standards, why not teach what people want to know? It may be apostasy, but I’ll admit most of what I know I didn't learn in school. All of those Silicon Valley Wiz-Kids? Most of what they know they didn't learn in school, either.

"The only way to do great work is to love what you do!" - Steve Jobs

How is this possible? Perhaps because the classroom as we know it may be obsolete. It has been said that the lecture is obsolete as a means of information transfer; at one time, the oral tradition was an absolute necessity for information transfer. The printing press, however, made information a commodity. The wide spread use of the internet has absolutely demolished the need for oral transmission of information; the lecture is dead, long live the lecture (in the form of video lessons, wikis, etc).

Ultimately, what I am suggesting is that instead of teaching what we think students should know by means of broadcast we transition to a model of helping students pursue their own interests in a way that is educational. The availability of on-demand educational media makes this possible in ways that we couldn't have imagined 20 years ago. Strictly speaking, I see no reason why every student in my class must be working on the same task (or even studying the same topic). The availability of resources means that my role as a teacher is not to dictate a structured curriculum to which every student need adhere. Instead, I view my role as helping every student to pursue their passion.

I have students working in a class to pursue their own goals. In discussions, they arrived at the conclusion that they wanted to film interviews with students, teachers, and community members and use this video to create a documentary. Wonderful – it’s project based learning you say. However, and this is important, I don’t know very much about making documentaries.

Before Jimmy fires me for negligence of professional duties, I would like to argue that I don’t have to know anything about documentaries. My students have found something that intrinsically motivates them; they’re learning everything they need to know (in fact, they’re teaching me a bit). I facilitate their access to resources, I act as a sounding board, I make suggestions when they solicit my input. I help them find experts to consult and resources to move their ideas forward. In short, I’m simply the adult in the room.

I believe that this sort of experience is profound for students; they have ownership of the process and gain maturity by charting their own course. They are pursuing their passions and learning about what they want. I haven’t given students the hard sell to convince them to learn what I think is important. That is the crucial idea here and what I hope you, faithful reader, take from this: let students learn what they want to know and do so authentically. You’ll be shocked at what students are capable of doing when you let slip the reins and allow them to pursue their own interests.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Put Another Log on the Fire

Post by Colin Wikan: Colin taught for 12 years before transitioning into administration this year. He currently serves as Dean of Students at Bettendorf High School. You can follow him on twitter @colinwikan or his blog

It is that time of year; the time to reignite the fire.  The time to find that passion and spirit that brought you into the classroom and into the lives of so many students.   It is easy at this point of the year to let the short days, cold temperatures, and wintery weather get you into a negative groove.  Now is the time to sit down and ask yourself some reflective questions to rekindle why you chose to enter the wide world of education.  Here are some things to ponder as you begin your new term…

Do you enter your classroom with the same passion every day?

It is imperative to keep that beginning of the school year passion throughout the year.  You need to bring your best on a daily basis.  If your students sense you lack passion about what you are teaching, they too will lack the passion to learn.  Be excited about what you do!  Go home each day knowing you have given everything to ensure student learning.

Is your classroom a “can’t miss” environment?    
It is essential that your classroom is an environment students don’t want to miss; something they look forward to each and every day.  Whether it is because of the relationship with you, others in the class, or the content you are presenting.  We have to create an environment students are excited about; one like Dave Burgess (@burgessdave) creates in his book, “Teach Like a Pirate,” an environment students would buy a ticket to attend.  If I still taught, I would ask myself a question posed by Erin Klein (@KleinErin) every day before I entered my class: would I like to be a student in my own class?

Do you continually look to improve?

To be successful, you need to live and breathe this statement.  Never settle for status quo and continue to better yourself all of the time.  Look for ways to improve yourself, your teaching, and those around you.  If all you do is look to improve, it is hard to believe success will not happen.

When is the last time you tried something new?

It is okay to take risks!  It is not necessarily a bad thing that your students see you fail at something; it makes you look human and strengthens your relationships with students.  An environment where it is okay to take risks regardless of the results is essential to a successful learning environment.  Robert Kennedy summed this up nicely with this quote: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

 Are you connected?

Although many believe social media serves little to no purpose in education, those same people have a misconception of how educators purposefully use these communication tools daily.  If you are not part of Twitter, Google +, Linkedin, etc., I suggest you join ASAP.  The relationships you can form are amazing and you are no longer blocked by the walls where you work.  Learning opportunities are available all the time from people all over the world.   Join a Twitter chat; host a Google hangout, who knows what you may gain from the experience.

Twitter Chats and times  Thank you Jerry Blumengarten! @cybraryman1)

Are you frustrated?

Remember to take time for yourself too.  You cannot give your best if you are not at your best.  Make sure you schedule some “me time.”  Whether that is a walk in the park, a run, a bike ride, or a cocktail with a friend; make sure you find enjoyable moments outside of school so you can make enjoyable moments inside.

I now ask you to take on a new challenge, take a risk, and push yourself to be the best you can be on a daily basis.  If you expect the best from your students, expect the best from yourself!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Evolving From a New Teacher...To a Not So New Teacher

Post by Breelyn Seifert: Breelyn is in her 4th year of teaching science. She has taught all four years at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Breelyn on twitter @BreelynSeifert

One of my most memorable college courses was my Educational Psychology class. This particular professor would assign a fellow classmate to teach a mini lesson during each class, while the rest of us would act as mock students. Each mock student was assigned various behaviors that we were to perform during the mini lesson. For example, I was a first grader who would hide under my desk whenever I was assigned work. The “teacher” would have to deal with the situations and manage the class while continuing on with the lesson. At the end of the class, we would discuss how the situation was handled, what could have been done better, and any other suggestions classmates might pose. As the semester progressed, the situations would become increasingly more difficult and I remember thinking to myself, “No one at my high school would have acted like that. Who would do that? Is she being serious right now?” Growing up in a small farm community, some of these behaviors seemed hard to imagine and I would often find myself wondering, “Would that really happen?” I was about to find out.

After graduating college I was lucky enough to land my first teaching job at Bettendorf. I was so excited, not only to just have a job, but a good job in the field I had studied in. I tirelessly prepared for those first few days of class of all summer. Finally August had approached and it was time for in-service. While at in-service, it hit me, I had no idea what I was doing, what to expect, or what to do. Luckily, my science department was extremely helpful and supportive. They made sure I had everything, but I still spent countless hours looking over my plans and making sure I knew how to do the labs and what the kids were supposed to be observing and learning. When it was time for the first day of school, everything went fine, and so did the second, the third, fourth, and fifth; basically the first week went great. However, the second week is when the “newness” of school starts to wear off, and the real fun begins.

Instantly, I went into survival mode. I was trying to figure out how to manage 25 teenagers for 85 minutes. Its amazing how different the behavior of a “mock” college student is when you compare it to the actual behavior of teenagers. Looking back, I wish my classmates and professor would have been a little tougher on me during that semester because kids really do “act like that,” and my instructor was being gentle.

To survive, I started asking other teachers about their classroom policies, practices, and procedures. The ideas I liked, I mimicked in my own classroom (in Biology, since I’m a science teacher, we call this relationship commensalism, one organism is benefiting from another, but the other organism isn't affected). As I started to get more comfortable, I adapted those ideas to fit my own personal teaching style. My confidence was growing, my classroom management was improving, and I was really feeling good about how the year was progressing.

During my second year, I began reshaping activities and labs to fit me and my students. My second year was when I really got the opportunity to evolve (more Biology!) and grow as a teacher. I was implementing more and more things, even creating some original activities. I even got the opportunity to visit a project based school in San Diego. Through that experience, I was able to bring back some ideas of how to incorporate more project ideas in my curriculum; I was finally starting to hit a stride. Then my administration threw a couple curve balls; 1. Our freshman and sophomores would be getting iPads and 2. I was teaching Biology. It appeared as though my third year of teaching would be spent in “new teacher” survival mode, again.

Again, I found myself mimicking other good teachers and adapting their materials and lessons, not only to fit my teaching style, but also to fit iPad usage in a classroom. In that year, I learned more than I had the previous years combined; mostly about Biology and ways iPads don’t work in a classroom. From that, I learned better, more efficient ways for my students to use their iPad and now I’m able to share my experiences with my colleagues to prevent them from going through the same trials and tribulations I went through (In Biology we call this a mutualism relationship, where both parties are benefited)

While writing this blog and reflecting on my experiences as a new teacher, I realized that surviving your first year(s), in my case, is like surviving in the wild. I imitated other, better teachers, I adapted materials to fit my style, and I evolved as a teacher and continually tried to improve my craft. I guess its kind of comforting in a way, to know that my survival techniques are techniques nature has been using for a while (it seems to be surviving okay). One of the most important pieces of advice I could give to a new teacher, is take ideas from others, but make them your own. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but the wheel has to fit the vehicle you drive! Hopefully this post is helpful to other new teachers and if you need someone to help you through it, I am always here for support! Enjoy your first few years as a teacher and have a great rest of the school year!