I was so blessed to spend this past week with administrators and teachers in the Chicago area who truly care about teaching and learning. As most of you know, I don't complain much about the work I do. Okay, maybe I get a little frustrated when there is a flight delay. Maybe I even get a little sad when I am away from home and don't get to see Dave, Rudy, and Kirby for awhile, But passion for the most important work of improving teaching and learning never wanes. In fact, to be quite honest, I feel even stronger about helping teachers and administrators grow in their practice than ever before.
I'm about to enter my mid-50s, and I suppose that is making me reflect on my own life and what I have done in my own career. After being a special education teacher for several years, a school counselor for many years, a principal for 7 years, then now an educational consultant and professor for loads of classes and students, my professional life could not have been better. I am so very grateful for the trajectory I have been blessed to take over these years and for all the people I have met and worked with!
What is it about reflection that is so vital? Below are my reflections on reflection.
I have had students in the courses I teach reflect on their learning, and I am always so satisfied when I hear them say things like, "I never realized before......but now I truly believe...." The same holds true with workshop participants. When I hear, "I always thought I was good at working with my teachers before, but now I see so many ways to improve my practice", I feel like dancing on air. We watched eight teachers this week. In a couple of classes, we heard students say things like, "Oh! I get it now!" or "Thanks. That makes sense" (the last one was a student to student ah-ah). We also heard a teacher say, "I want the students to summarize their learning at the end of every lesson, but running out of time is the story of my life." We brainstormed ways to NOT run out time, as we agreed that reflection ties up the learning with a nice bow.
Getting constructive feedback can be hard, but is it worthwhile? Most teachers say it is an incredibly worthwhile process if they, themselves, can be the ones to come to the ah-ha moment versus being TOLD what to do. Consider the following scenario:
Supervisor: Did you notice the three students at the back of the room texting?
Teacher: No, but I have been working with them on not doing that and they don't seem to care.
Supervisor: You need to have a basket at the front of the room where they all put their cell phones when they come in the classroom
Teacher: Okay. I'll do that.
Who did all the work and the thinking? The supervisor, of course. Now consider this scenario:
Supervisor: As you reflected on the beginning of the lesson, what patterns did you notice?
Teacher: Well, first of all, I noticed that I do most of the talking for students. I relay the content for the day, and I continue to reiterate the expectations for them about what they are going to do during the lesson.
Supervisor: What might be some ways students could play a role in that?
Teacher: Well, seeing the notes you took really made me think about how much thinking I do for the students. Even sometimes when I ask questions, if I don't immediately get a response, I just answer the question for them. I want to get better at ensuring they "get" the purpose of the lesson.
Supervisor: Some ways that students can take ownership might be to jot down on a post-it note their own personal summary of what they think the lesson will be about. Another might be to have the students turn to each other and tell their partners what they heard you say about the directions. Another idea is to randomly call on a few students to ensure you have a sampling of what they think they will be learning. Which of those might work with your style?
Teacher (writes down on a pad two of the ideas): I definitely want to use post-it notes more. The Stop and Jot idea I've heard my teammates use but I always forget to put out post-it notes. I'm going to be more purposeful about that. Also, the random sampling is good. If I "cold call" on a few students, I'll get a better sense of their understanding of what they will be learning, and it won't take up too much time from my lesson plan.
Who did the bulk of the work and the thinking above? The teacher, right? And that meshes well with what we know about learning, as it is an active intellectual process that ensures the learner does the learning. I would love for everyone to listen to Kimiko Broome, one of the coolest teachers I met last week, talk about her own learning after our reflection conference.
It is one of my favorite things to have administrators watch a model reflection conference then, when asked, to reflect on the conference, they say things like, "I need to work on my questioning skills" or "I do WAY too much telling and talking at the teachers." It is one of the most satisfying and rewarding events in my own career when I have seen administrators or supervisors have ah-ha moments like that. But it doesn't happen by accident or casually. It happens when they are given time to learn new skills, practice them, see them modeled, then get coached on them. Most every principal or administrator with whom I have worked with on this skill says the same thing I felt at one time: "This is going to transform the learning for my teachers."
Finally, I can't forget or negate my own reflection every time I work with adult learners. I either go back to my hotel, head to the airport, or drive to my next venue and think about what I can do to increase the learning of all those with whom I work. What protocols can I use that will assist them in helping those with whom THEY work? What impact am I making and how am I making a difference? How did I challenge people's thinking to perhaps consider a new way of doing things? And finally, and perhaps (selfishly) most importantly, how am I helping educators and parents who are currently raising kids who will be the best productive citizens possible when they finish their schooling? Why is this so important? Quite honestly, since Dave and I only have canine children, I am counting on the educators of today to raise and grow young people who will someday push my wheelchair and wipe our hind ends as needed. I like what I am seeing in this regard around the country and around the world, and I thank each one of you who is taking part in education!
I travel a lot for work. A lot.
So I hear a lot of things that people say in airports. I am awaiting a flight to Chicago right now, and I just heard an announcement, "If you just went through security, and you are missing your beaver cap, please come back to claim it." I'll be honest; the announcer had a tough time saying it without laughing aloud, I could tell by her voice.
I hear couples on the airplane, fighting about what toy they should have brought for their 1-year-old to play with during the flight. It sounds like:
Husband: I told you we should have brought the Plop and Play (okay, I'm making up that name---I have no idea what toys 1 year olds play with).
Wife: No, she won't play with that for very long. It makes too much noise, too.
Husband: The Plop and Play is good for her! Remember how much she liked it when....?
Wife: No!!! (voice gets increasingly louder) We brought the Roll and Rock (okay, I made up that name, too, in case you hadn't guessed) and that is better!
Husband: You have got to be kidding me. We have talked about this before.
Meanwhile, in India, people are likely hearing this conversation go on.
Southwest Airlines just paged a man by name, then said, "Wait. What just happened?" I am not sure about you, but I really never want to hear someone at an airline say, "Wait. What just happened?"
The other day, I stood waiting to board a flight out of Santa Barbara. The two gate agents were standing there talking as if passengers weren't right there. One said, "I don't know why the flight crew doesn't just start boarding these people." The other one said, "I know. I get off work after this, so let's get these people on the plane!" Ummm....."these people" are hearing every word you are saying. Helloooooo?
I suppose much of this has to do with technology, as many people I overhear are talking on their cell phones, which somehow must give the illusion that their conversations are private. And, by the way, if you are in the public bathroom, maybe your cell phone conversation could wait.
Overheard just a few minutes ago in the restroom:
Person on toilet: I'm going to the bathroom but I wanted to tell you that I will be getting on my flight soon. PAUSE, then, more loudly: I SAID I'm going to the bathroom but I am about to get on my flight! PAUSE, then so loudly that the men's restroom likely heard: I'm in the BATHROOM!!! Why can't you hear me???
I have a sweatshirt that a dear friend gave me a few years ago that says, "Is it any coincidence that LISTEN and SILENT have the same letters?" I'm wondering if some of us could take a lesson from my sweatshirt. Listening is so very important in professional and personal conversations. But the listening we need to be doing should focus on truly hearing what the other person is trying to tell us, not what our own agenda is dictating. "Generous listening" is what one of my workshop participants called it two weeks ago. I just love that phrase and am trying to practice it in my work and my relationships.
Just for today, perhaps we can work on that together---generous listening. But we might also want to work on remembering that people are hearing what we say, even when we think our conversations are private.
"In order to be effective, you have to be reflective." I was so thrilled to hear those words come out of one of my participant's mouths in Red Earth, Saskatchewan this week. We were talking about how being reflective impacts our own practice and how it impacts our students' learning as well. Capturing that thought in rhyme was so cool; then, the participants proceeded to translate it to their indigenous Cree language. Have I mentioned I love what I do?
Reflection is not, however, limited to the teaching practice. I was thinking about the lifelong learning we do, and how big a part of all learning reflection is. I remember when I was a little girl (I can't remember, maybe 4 or 5 years old), and I found myself quite curious about the electrical outlets in our house. I have no idea what possessed me to do it, but I stuck a fork into the outlet and got the shock of my life. I remember thinking I wanted to cry and tell someone but I also thought I would get in a lot of trouble. Curiosity has gotten me in a lot of trouble throughout the rest of my life, but rest assured it has never been due to sticking a fork in an outlet again. I learned my lesson.
I suppose I believe that that is what true reflection is all about----learning a lesson. When I am sitting in church, listening to our dear priest tell a story during her sermon, I often reflect on what she is saying and how it can impact my own life moving forward. Regarding teaching, I am constantly reflecting on whether or not my participants are learning what I hope they will learn. If I feel that something needs to be altered to make the learning more impactful, I will change it on a dime. I am prepared, because I want the learning experience to be as valuable as possible.
One of the concepts we talk about the most when I work with teachers and school leaders is the notion that reflection, in and of itself, is not enough to make a change. I can sit and reflect on my bad choices in my younger days for hours on end, lamenting about why I chose to do this or that, but without APPLICATION, the reflection would be all for naught. In other words, I am a true believer in changing our behavior in order to change our beliefs. In other words, sometimes I need to simply alter one thing in my repertoire in order to believe or feel a different way about something. Simply thinking about thinking doesn't make the behavior different. So I suppose I believe that reflection is just the beginning of a change. Stephen Covey (2004) wrote a whole book (well, let's be honest---multitudes of books) on how changing habits can lead to becoming a better person. When Dave and I leave church, we frequently talk about the habit of seeking first to understand then to be understood. I believe that I can reflect all day on how I think I should be more understanding of other people who share different views, but unless I take some ACTION or APPLICATION, all I have really done is talked or thought about it.
One of my workshop participants early this week in Cinnaminson, New Jersey taught me a new term. I often talk about how we should listen openly to others without applying our own agenda to what the other person is saying. She called it "generous listening". I absolutely love that term, and I told her I was going to give her credit the first time I coined the phrase, but I can't for the life of me remember her name (the perils of getting older, right?). Suffice it to say I not only love the term, I love the concept and I am putting it into practice. When I listen to someone else who has a differing opinion than my own, I am working on listening generously; in other words, giving them the space to say all they want to say before I jump in with my own feelings about the subject. If I generously listen, the odds of me remaining fairly open-minded may increase. Then I can apply another technique I learned many years ago from a dear friend in Florida who taught me the sentence, "You might be right about that." Think about that for just a moment. When someone spouts off about their views about religion, politics, school choice, professional development, airlines, or the type of stroller you should buy when you are a new mother (that one I couldn't care less about, but just take a look on Facebook to see how important it is to so many people), saying something as simple as "You might be right about that" takes the wind out of the sails of a wound up sailor. That doesn't mean I am agreeing with the person. I'm simply not going to engage in a battle that has no winner. Will my words truly change someone's position on their political beliefs? I highly doubt it. But I can remain peaceful and calm if I actually reflect on what they are saying then apply generous listening and a conflict-free verbal response.
Just for today, perhaps you have something on which you are reflecting. I invite you to share that with me, and I invite you to share your application of the action you can take from that bit of reflection. I also highly encourage you to NOT put a fork in the outlets in your home.
While it is perfectly perfect Chamber of Commerce weather in Tucson right now, I am packing up long underwear, gloves, hat, and much more for work this week. I will be in New Jersey for a couple of days then headed on to the middle of Saskatchewan for the remainder of the week. The weather in Saskatchewan appears to be a high of 15 degrees on the days I am there. Have I mentioned that I am originally from San Antonio, Texas where 15 degrees should only be in Celsius (don't think I didn't check to see if the 15 degrees might be in Celsius (hopeful, hopeful thinking---no dice))?
But you know what? I am still completely jazzed about the trip! Not only will I be working with school leaders who care deeply about the work of helping their teachers improve their craft and then working with teachers on improving their questioning and discussion skills (in New Jersey) then working with teachers in Canada on increasing their knowledge of the depth of understanding of components that increase their effectiveness in teaching for two days. And that, my friends, is why I will put on my long underwear underneath a dress or pantsuit to brave the elements on the way to said workshops.
What keeps me so passionate about what I do?
Three things: my workshop participants, talking with fellow colleagues and reading educational publications, and working with my Educational Leadership students at two different universities where I teach.
My workshop participants
Every time I work with a group of educators and educational leaders, I learn more and more. In fact, Charlotte Danielson (personal communication, 2019) says that teachers learn so much more from talking with one another than they do from an expert talking TO them. Educators simply need the opportunity to talk with each other. When I talked with a group of educational leaders last week in Pennsylvania, I asked what the reason would be that teachers might trust their principals more if they have only worked for them for less than a year than if they have worked for them for more than 10 years. One of my participants said, "I think it is because teachers come into the field ready to trust their principals." Yes! I agree. So, what happens after five years or so? Why might the trust decrease? Others talked in pairs then shared out that they believe it might have something to do with the notion that, after some time, teachers see the "real" person for whom they work. Yikes! Scary as that might be, there might be some real truth to it.
I like to end my workshops with the quote: "Sometimes, the people you are trying to inspire end up inspiring you the most." I believe it! What are your thoughts?
Fellow colleagues and educational gurus
I have a dear friend and colleague who shares her curriculum ideas, resources, and insights with me even when I don't ask. She is in her 70s and still has more energy than most people my own age. Why? I happen to believe that it has a lot to do with the fact that she loves learning. She reads many educational journals and keeps current on new trends that are impacting education. She is my role model. But I also follow a lot of really great people on Twitter and LInkedIn. I love hearing what people in the field of education have to say about the daily work in schools. While I adore the Gerry Brooks videos (you simply must check a few out on YouTube), I also am just as inspired by Doug Lemov's techniques in "Teach Like a Champion" or even some of the tidbits from Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture". One of his stories describes how Disney employees are taught how to answer people's question with a positive outlook. In other words, if someone asks, "What time does the park close?", most normal answers would sound like, "11:00 tonight". Not so at a Disney property. Disney employees are taught to answer something like, "The park will remain open until 11:00 tonight." Shhhhh......don't tell, but the park is still going to close at 11:00. But what is the point? Sometimes the way people say things alters the way things are heard and accepted.
My students who are going to become school leaders
I like teaching online courses, even though I miss the comfort and relationship building that occurs more easily in face-to-face classes. My students are typically teachers who have a strong desire to become school leaders. I teach classes on Educational Finance, Education Law, Shaping School Culture, and Developing and Empowering School Leaders. The conversations that come out of their mouths (or rather out of their computers) encourage me about the shape of the next generation of school leaders. While being a principal was one of the hardest jobs I ever did (next to slicing beef at a BBQ restaurant when I was in high school without slicing my hand), it was also the most rewarding and created life-long friendships and relationships with students, staff and parents. Watching new, potential school leaders develop their own philosophy of leadership while also learning that the way they write and talk can make or break their relationships helps me become a better consultant who can support the efforts of current schools, districts, and universities. My experiences with universities (supporting student teachers, teaching classes, mentoring doctoral students, etc.) is a perfect complement to the work I do in schools.
I wouldn't trade what I do for the world, but I wouldn't turn down a cup of hot chocolate this next week when it is below freezing.