I've been asked this type of question many times in my career as an educator. Are classroom management strategies more important than asking good questions? Shouldn't teachers be good at planning before they can do ANYthing else? If a teacher can't reflect well on their own teaching, isn't it all for naught? These and so many other questions are ones that teachers, principals, superintendents, and professors ask me on a fairly frequent basis.
I talk about the following question a good bit:
Is student engagement really the pinnacle of all that we do?
Hmmm.....I wonder, if not for engagement of students (or adult participation in a workshop, for that matter), what is truly the purpose of education? In one of our courses for our doctorate, my dear cohort members and I were asked to engage in many conversations and write much about our philosophy of education. For what are we preparing our students through this thing called "school"? I would form my opinion, then listen as others espoused their own beliefs, and I would quite honestly find myself nodding at every single one, even those who differed from my original thought. Is it to teach students to think critically? Is it to prepare them for "the real world" (what is that, exactly?)? Is it to pop out productive citizens? Is it to perpetuate the notion our forefathers set down so many years ago? Is it to teach students social skills in order that they might be able to get along with others in life?
I believe what is most important depends on who you are, where you are, your beliefs, and those of the community around you. I've been engaging my students in one of my Educational Leadership courses (those students who are currently teaching but getting their degree to become school leaders) in the debate about school choice. Some of them vehemently fight for the right of the parents to choose whatever school they believe is best for their own child. Some of them argue that students should stay in their neighborhood schools, no matter what. I asked them what happens to neighborhoods in which schools have closed down because of that cycle; you know, the one that starts with the school not performing well on some state assessment, then the parents pulling the students from that school, then the school losing funding, so resources are now limited, then more parents start pulling their students from the school, then finally the school has to close down. Is the most important thing school choice or school support --- or both?
All I know for certain is this: the educators and educational leaders I know and have worked with are some of the hardest working people I have ever met. How do you put a dollar amount on all the soccer games teachers go to watch just to show support for and build relationships with their students? How do you put a dollar amount on the principals who stay after school for two hours just to begin meeting with a working parent who wants to talk but can't get off work during the school day? How do you put a dollar amount on school leaders in Michigan who are coming to learn about how best to help their teachers when one of their school buildings just burned to the ground this past weekend? Oh yes, this last one is happening tomorrow and Friday, and to me, it just shows the dedication people have to the teaching practice and profession, in general. I couldn't be more proud to be an educator than I am to come to Michigan and work with people who will persevere despite tough times.
A few years after I had become a principal at an elementary school in Niceville, Florida (yes, really, and it is truly one of the most beautiful places in the country), we came back to school, as usual, on the first day or so of August. We had teacher prep days and professional development days ready to go. So much planning had been done to prepare for this day on which we welcomed the staff back to school. Unfortunately, our air conditioning went out. I'm not certain how hot Hades is, but the end of July and the first part of August would give it a run for its money. Did the staff complain? Not a bit! Okay, maybe there was a stray "I'm so hot" heard from the hallways, but we made it work. We went next door to a school district building to conduct our professional development. We basked in the air conditioning for a few hours that day. The next day was a teacher workday, and our dear music teacher (who had terminal cancer AND her own preparation to do, by the way) went around to all the classrooms and spritzed people with a water bottle. Thus, she was dubbed the "Water Fairy". Some would say it looked like crazy-making as we all sweat while moving furniture and prepping the school for Open House. But it looked a lot more like what teachers and school staff do to make it work in order to do what's right for students.
What is the most important part of teaching? I likely still don't know the "correct" answer to my own question, but I know I am supremely blessed to get to see important parts of teaching around the globe as I go into schools, districts, and universities to work with educators on improving their craft.
I'd love to hear your own thoughts on this oh-so-important topic.
A dear friend of mine is in her 70s. She still runs circles around me (maybe not literally but academically, for sure) in terms of staying current with all the latest research and literature on what good teaching looks like. If I have a question for her about how to design a particular activity to achieve a particular learning goal, she is my go-to person.
She has been asked many times, "How long are you going to keep doing consulting and teaching?" Her answer is, "As long as I still want to". I started thinking about that, and I have discovered I feel the exact same way. My dear husband, Dave, has been retired for almost four years, now, and he doesn't take any of that for granted. He loves playing golf 8 days a week (okay, so maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but not by much). People often ask me, "So now that Dave is retired, when are you going to retire?" My answer has always been, "As long as I continue to love what I do". But recently, I heard a teacher say, "I'm going to keep teaching as long as I keep loving learning." I think that is a pretty cool concept. As long as I am learning, I am going to keep teaching. And right now, I am learning so very much. From whom?
First of all, I learn so much from reading new professional literature that comes out. As a consultant for administrators who need help coaching their teachers in new strategies, techniques, and practices, I love finding articles and books. Some of my favorite books to use for classroom strategies in the area of questioning, discussion skills, and student engagement are: Doug Lemov's Teach Like a Champion (2015) and Bambrick-Santoyo's Get Better Faster (2016). They both have helped me help teachers many times, as have many other references. I don't get any kickbacks from their publishing companies, by the way; I just know good resources when I read them.
Second of all, I am constantly learning new tricks and tips from my own workshop participants. I truly believe I have never taught a workshop in which I didn't learn at least one new thing from my participants. I also have learned (a long time ago) that the sooner I form relationships with my participants, the better our sessions are. I recently conducted a one-hour marketing session and I found myself a little sad that I didn't have more time to spend with these lovely people. I wanted to go deeper (and I suspect they did, too) into content and talk with them and hear their thoughts, but I actually was the only thing separating them from lunch, so I knew I couldn't go over my time (I may be slow, but I am not that slow). I did learn something a few weeks ago from a workshop participant that I had never thought of. I use chimes in my teaching, as a way to transition back from small group or table group discussions back to full-group sharing out or back to me delivering content. Often, people will joke about the ringing of the chimes reminding them of that secretary from Grease. By the way, I tried using a singing bowl, and I found out I simply was miserable at it. I need to give it away as a doorprize as it is doing me absolutely no good. So, I used the chimes throughout the day a few weeks ago, and then when I got the feedback from my participants, everyone said how great the day had been and wrote some incredible insights into what they had learned. But one comment struck me as odd: "No more xylophone" it read. Wait, what? Well, as luck would have it, I had the opportunity to see this gentleman again a few days ago. I took a chance, and I asked him, "So, you didn't like the chimes, huh?" He smiled at me, but very clearly said, "Not at all." I asked, "Would you mind telling me the reason?" He shrugged his shoulders and said, "They remind me of when I was placed in a reservation school. It brought back really bad memories." Wow! Talk about cultural awareness. I had no idea! We talked a little bit about that, and I thanked him for teaching me something new I would have never discovered on my own.
The other way I learn and continue to grow is through teaching masters' courses in Educational Leadership. These students are teachers who will someday want to become school leaders. I get so excited about the prospect of working with them on courses like Education Finance, Education Law, Growing and Developing School Leaders, School Culture, and more. I get told that I "grade hard", sometimes. But often, I find that these students who want to become principals are struggling to communicate effectively. I am trying my very best to act as a role model for their growth in written and oral language. Are there times I get frustrated? Absolutely! I get the occasional student who gripes that, "Just because I turned in my paper four days late, why do you have to take off points?" Ummm....maybe because deadlines are there for a reason?? Another favorite of mine is, "I thought I had turned that paper in, but you never got it." Nope! But that occasional student will say, "But if I thought it was turned in, shouldn't I still get credit for it?" Ummmm....if the paper is not in the gradebook, I actually have a tough time grading it. And, by the way, if you spell the word that defines school leader as "principle" instead of "principal", I don't believe you should be one. On the other hand, I have students who write such profound responses to the discussion questions, I have to pause and think about what their take-away means to ME as a professional learner and educator.
No, I never want to stop learning, but when I do, I'll likely stop teaching.
By the way, with all the travel I do, I have also learned tips and tricks to talking with airlines and hotels. Griping and complaining never seems to get anywhere, and yet I watch people do it all the time, trying to get what they want. I have learned over the years to ask for what I want and press for a viable solution to problems that inevitably crop up with frequent travel (delays, lost luggage, no towels in my hotel room, a snoring man in the room next to me that I'm certain could wake the dead, etc.). Dave is one of my greatest teachers in this arena, as he traveled for work for years. "If you don't ask, you won't get anything", he reminds me.
I think I'll continue to learn so I continue to grow, and I pray you do the same.
One of my all-time favorite songs is "Legacy" by Nichole Nordeman (this one is an acoustic version, which is pretty cool---listen to it a million different ways).
The lyrics talk about how the trappings of the world and how seeing your name in lights can be tempting to look at as the marks of what we have made on this world. You know the drill: how big is your house? How much money did you make? How many friends do you have on Facebook or followers on Twitter?
But her lyrics remind us to look at something so very different:
I want to leave a legacy,
How will they remember me?
Did I choose to love?
Did I point to You enough?
To make a mark on things
I want to leave an offering
A child of mercy and grace
Who blessed Your name unapologetically
And leave that kind of legacy
What are these legacies and why are they so important? I think it's because the legacies that have been left TO me make up who I choose to be every single day.
Today happens to be my dad's 88th birthday. He is still alive, living in San Antonio (aka "my homeland filled with the nectar of the gods: Tex-Mex food"). His health is poor, but I will call him in a little while to wish him a happy birthday and to tell him that I am ever so grateful for the impact he has had on my life. Daddy and Mother were musicians who were always involved in quartets and bands and church choir (she on the piano, he on clarinet and saxophone) when they were married. There was always music in our house (classical, jazz, '70s, lullabies, not much rock and roll) even when their marriage hit the skids and they were on their way to a divorce when I was nine years old. My dad was a band director his entire career, and a damn good one at that. His marching and concert bands always won awards, all over the state of Texas, and he is still so proud of that. I am too. I know I must have been a bit of a disappointment to them (I tried piano lessons, and I can plunk out melodies just fine, but I was much more into choir--"my voice IS my instrument", I would quip). If you ever had a chance to watch my mother play the piano---whew! what a blessing, indeed! Her hands would fly across the entire keyboard and the passion with which she played was undeniable. I love all sorts of music, now, some of that appreciation I know came from them.
Another legacy that sticks with me is the legacy I receive every time I am blessed enough to stand in front of a group of teachers or school leaders or professors and teach and learn about good teaching. "Learn?" you might ask. What are YOU learning if you are teaching? I happen to believe fully in the fact that the people I am attempting to inspire sometimes wind up inspiring me the most. That happened in Saskatchewan this past week. While the group was talking about teachers who had impacted their lives the most, one teacher (in the middle of a group of 52 teachers, many she didn't know) stood up and told the story of a teacher who made her feel broken and unworthy. She began crying as she talked about that impact and how, instead of making her hate school, that experience prodded her to become better. She said, "I will NEVER do to my students what that teacher did to me!" Now that's a legacy. I talked to her a bit later, and she shared her strong feelings about how to care for students in a way that sometimes their own parents can't care for them. It reminded me of Claudia Edgerton, who was my 5th grade teacher (a blessing in my life right after my parents got divorced). Mrs. Edgerton (with whom I am now Facebook friends, as another blessing) wrote me little notes every week to say how proud of me she was and how much she loved having me in class. She also talked quite personally with me about how tough it must be to go back and forth between my mom's house to my dad's house. In other words, she "got me". I knew then I was going to become a teacher who had a passion for making students feel good about themselves as much as she had a passion for reading and math. That is a legacy that has carried me through so many tough times as an educator.
Finally, I want to talk about the legacy of love. Oh, please don't ask me wax philosophically on all the "loves" I had in my life. My first REAL boyfriend was in 8th grade, and I had a few after that, including one in college who is still a dear friend. But when I met Dave, I think something inside me switched on that had never been part of me before. I knew I had met my companion for life. Well, for a while, we were dance partners and great friends, until the night he asked, "Are you ready to screw up an amazing friendship?" Yes!!! We've been married for over 27 years, now, and I can honestly say he is my ROCK. He was there for my mother when I wasn't strong enough to be there for Mother alone. He was there for me when Mother died, and I wasn't certain I was going to be able to do all that had to be done. He put pink ribbons on our three Labs when I was diagnosed with cancer, laughed with me about all the silly things I worried about, and held my hand and prayed with me before my multiple breast cancer surgeries. What is Dave's legacy? Loving unconditionally. We rescue and foster Labs together. We make each other laugh; he holds me when I cry; those are legacies that can't be replicated. He loves my best friends almost as much as I do and even puts up with our annoying fits of laughter. Dave and I were floundering to find a church home in Tucson two years ago. We went to talk to a priest at the closest Episcopal church, and we both fell in love with Debra, our priest. We are now members of the church, and I have just agreed to be part of the Vestry there. Dave's willingness to be my everything, my partner for life, and the person with whom God has blessed our time together will live on eternally for me.
What is your legacy? What will you leave behind when you are no longer here?
I think about this notion of "legacy" every so often---what will people say about me after I am gone? I pray that it is something akin to "Well done, good and faithful servant".