Living cautiously

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default. – J.K. Rowling

A child walks into your school or classroom. They stare at the floor as they walk and talk to a few friends as they hurry by. A stop at a locker, a check of a schedule or a classroom number and they disappear into the swell of students not wanting to be late. Seated in a classroom, they want to be left alone, and will be compliant with any rule or expectation the instructor sets forth. All too often, these kids are left alone with so many others demanding constant attention from the teacher.

They live their school lives (and possibly their entire lives) cautiously. They aren’t natural risk takers and don’t want anyone to push or pull them in a new direction.

I was this child. As an adult I have regret about living this cautiously in my youth and early adulthood. I don’t mean that I should have been overtly defiant or out of control, but I know I didn’t take enough risks in school to maximize my learning. I followed all the rules, accumulated the proper amount of points, and moved right along through the years. I didn’t really start taking risks with my learning until I was several years into my teaching career. I am so glad of where I am now, but I realize what I missed out on.

Last year, I had a discussion with my students about risk taking. These were 9th graders, 14 or 15 years old. I asked the question, “Is risk taking essential to learning?” The response was interesting and varied, but by the end of the discussion my classes agreed that it was important. I could tell that this bothered some of my kids. Frankly, it would have bothered me as a student. These types of students need a lot of support to take risks. Modeling, positive reinforcement, and assurance that time will be given to master learning targets are the name of the game rather than the older style ‘game of school’.

This may seem difficult, but as we well know, teaching is difficult work. Quiet compliant students are so easy to manage that they often slip through the cracks. Give these students what they need just as much as the ones who fill the room with noise, movement, and endless stories of what they did last night. You will be doing them a huge favor…teaching them how to learn fearlessly.

Choosing to act

The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. -Amelia Earhart

As I watch students work and learn, I pay close attention to the decisions they make. Adolescents need a lot of guidance with decision-making, but cannot be expected to make choices like adults. Meeting our students where they are developmentally and helping them grow will elicit much better results than demanding other behaviors. But teenagers also need space to try out making their own decisions, even if they are not the ones we would make.

Learning is an active process. Our students need to be the ones making the choices and taking action. As an educator, to truly become the guide on the side is difficult – allowing our students opportunities to take risks and fail is not as easy as it sounds. Many times we can predict how things will turn out and want to step in, but the experience can be ruined for our students if we interfere. We have to resist the urge to play superhero and come in to save the day.

This is not to say that we should give up complete control and guidance with our students. But at the moment of failure, we need to behave in the appropriate way. We need to encourage our students to respond themselves. It then becomes an experience of learning, of growth, and of tenacity for the student. So many times failure is seen as the end, but in a  standards based culture of learning, it is just the starting point.

This call to action is not something that our students are used to. It takes practice, encouragement, and patience from the instructor to allow them to find this call. Our kids need to be given the opportunity and sometimes taught how to take action. They have been given extrinsic motivators in their past educational experiences and have no idea how great it feels to be intrinsically motivated.

Once students decide to act, the biggest hurdle has been crossed. They may not choose the course of action we would, but we need to see them out. We need to guide our students to become good decision makers, what an essential life skill! They need to make some poor decisions in the process to learn and grow – this is completely normal and necessary. When they find success on their own, it is so much more than any success we could hand them.

Work out of respect, or respectful work?

We have all had these kids…the ones who are gifted, brilliant, or very far ahead of their peers with regard to their readiness levels, yet arrive to our classrooms after years of not being challenged. School is an act of compliance and conformity where learning is only for the few who fit the ‘middle of the road’ parameters. They enter our buildings prepared to jump through whatever hoops teachers place before them and fully understand how the game of school works. They sit in class quietly and complete every assignment maintaining the status quo of their environment without thinking, creating, or learning.

I was made aware of a student who fit this bill. He was a world language student studying Spanish. Assignments were rote and the same for everyone. Filling in the blanks was the norm rather than creating language. He completed assignments not because he needed the practice, but out of respect for his teacher.

Wait a minute. He commented that he completed assignments out of respect for the teacher…let that sink in.

How troubling! His love of the language was getting lost in countless meaningless assignments. Getting an ‘A’ was never a question because point acquisition was an easy endeavor. This class was becoming, as he put it, a ‘joke’ rather than an opportunity to communicate with people from around the world and learn their varied cultures. Compliance had more value than growth.

 This situation makes me feel a little ill to be quite honest. I know the scenario has played out in the same fashion for years, but to have such a clear example right in front of me gave it a new reality. Students deserve much more than a school experience that lacks learning. Aren’t there are ways to show respect without succumbing to a sub par experience?

Some of you may be wondering, why these students don’t self advocate for more. Many reasons abound, and I believe they become jaded with the process and get used to the idea of being bored. Disenchanted kids forget what risk taking, recovery from failure, and learning feel like and need a spark to remember. They are conditioned to perform to the same level as other peers even though deep down they yearn for challenge. The ceiling is placed low and they have forgotten the joy of breaking out and pushing past it. Their intrinsic motivation gets shoved back so far it is very difficult to uncover and release.

Why would we want to create this for our students at any level? They should enjoy the challenge of learning and excitement of curiosity with new levels of understanding. Completing mundane tasks runs the risk of negatively impacting learning for a lifetime. Students become robots, and they will be released into a world of work that requires the exact opposite.

As we begin this school year, let’s flip the table concerning respect. Let’s honor our students as learners. Let’s design experiences and tasks that are relevant and meaningful. Let’s be responsive and involve students in the decision-making process. Kids will stop completing assignments to show you respect and compliance. They will work because they want to learn. This is the ultimate respect a student can show you.

A thank you to Brian Durst and his student for the inspiration for this post.

Oh the places I’ve been

I had the fortunate experience of traveling some this summer and meeting educators from across the United States and beyond. To witness the passion for education that lives throughout our world was awe-inspiring. It was very interesting to talk with others and learn about diverse learning environments and school systems. The more I discover, the more I realize how much I have left to learn and I am intrigued. We sometimes get sheltered in our own school cultures and fail to realize how distinctly different other districts can be. My eyes have opened more fully and I feel more well-rounded heading back to school this fall.

There are of course similarities no matter what school you walk into or which teacher you meet. Student learning and how to ensure it happens in our schools resides in all of our hearts. We have a common ground that links us and guides discussion no matter what context and background we bring to the table. There are times when we disagree about methodology and assessment, culture and grading to name a few. I find these conversations are so important to my learning and growth. I love the challenge of rethinking what I do at school and defending my beliefs. It forces me to arrive at that slightly uncomfortable place where change and risk taking reside. It makes me reflect on my practice and consider new possibilities.

I have been faced with many difficult questions and discussions about what I do in my learning environment over the years. I have gotten the long pauses in my doorway with the begrudging looks. I have been avoided because it is much easier to ignore me than engage in discourse with someone who is so passionate about learning. Then I am faced with a decision. Do I walk away as well, or do I start the conversation?

I have grown more comfortable with this over time (and am still working to improve!). Walking away could leave behind a potential learning opportunity. I try to listen and encourage teachers to divulge problems or issues they are facing before I say anything. I strive to validate their opinions and find common ground before sharing my perspective about the topic or situation. So much is gained through these conversations and I become a better educator after each one.

No matter how you connect with other educators, whether it be via social media, travel, or simple conversations in the hallway, it is an opportunity to expand your horizons and learn. Don’t be afraid to share your story with others and listen to theirs. It will expand your educational world and enlighten you to the vastness that exists within it. Gather the varied viewpoints that create our amazing profession while finding the interwoven thread of student learning that ties us together.

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!                                                                                                      -Dr. Seuss