I spend a lot of time each week reflecting on what has gone well and what has gone not so well in our school, as I am sure a lot of you do.
I consider my actions and reactions, thinking about whether or not I need to make changes in my focus in order to support the growth of the school team.
Lately I have noticed a sense of urgency and almost robotic panic in our building seemingly based upon the number of things everyone is juggling. I hate to see people so tired and overwhelmed to the point of not enjoying what they do. One thing I never doubt, not even for one minute, is each member of our team being focused on our students- always.
We can be bombarded with requirements, committees and changes coming at us from various directions outside and inside of the school. It can be a difficult task to balance the expectations and requirements coming at us, with what has to happen in our classrooms, with our students, and in our school, on a daily basis.
I know as an administrator I often feel overwhelmed by the number of things we are expected to balance and complete and spend a lot of time thinking of how to make that easier for teachers. I don’t think we really stand out in the educational crowd with these feelings. I also feel it is something that is not going away anytime soon.
On Thursday of this week, we had the opportunity to have the home town and much-loved, hockey team players from The Estevan Bruins, spend the afternoon in our school. There were 25 of them, spread out, working in every classroom for an hour and we ended the day with a floor hockey game in the gym involving as many students and staff as possible. What a fun way to spend the day!
I am not going to lie, it was a bit of an over the top frenzy for the whole afternoon. The students were so excited and it was nice to just take time to have a whole lot of fun together.
Looking back at that afternoon, I have wonder if that is what we are missing right now. Do we give ourselves permission to shut it all off occasionally and just have fun with each other without feeling guilty about it?
It seems like we can get so caught up with all of the expectations we are balancing we can let those expectations control our actions, rather than us controlling how we will fulfill those expectations. We have many things in our profession that we can’t control. I am always trying to bring our conversations back to the things we can control and reminding myself about those things often to refocus.
For example, we can’t control parental actions and reactions. We can promote, encourage and assist, but in the end we will always have some parents that do not support all of our actions. Should we focus our energy on those few by allowing their negative feedback to control us? Or does it make more sense to focus our energy on forging relationships with all of our supportive, eager to partner, parents and see what we can accomplish?
Now I would never say we should stop reaching out, encouraging and trying, but when they do not reach back, we should try not to take that personally and feel bad about it. Our energy is better spent on ways that we can reach out to the majority and the benefit it will be to all of our students.
Many expectations are put upon schools by different departments at the school division/district level. The intent of all of them is based on best practice, school division/ministry goals and improving the way we do things. The desire to improve our practice is strong, and good intent is there, but it can be overwhelming when there are too many changes. Once again, however, are we concentrating and spending energy by becoming too focused on things we can’t control?
We do need to continue to improve our practice. We do no need to continue to drill down our data. We do need to continue to improve team function so we can meet individual student needs and improve academic achievement. No one can argue that.
At the same time, however, we do not need to lose our individuality in the process.
We can stay true to the good practice and routines we have developed and feel are important in our classrooms and schools. We do not need to change who we are, what we are, or the things we feel are important to our school culture.
Let’s spend more of our energy supporting relationships, reaching out to each other to meet our goals, having fun with our students and families, enjoying reading and the love of learning, meeting in the staff room for a quick chat at recess rather than working alone, letting ourselves walk out at the end of the day and not looking back, rather than dragging home our laptops and book bags for a long night ahead.
The long list of expectations and things to do will keep coming. Where we decide to spend our energy and focus each day is up to us. I have a feeling the expectations will be met much easier if we allow ourselves to be true to who we are and what we stand for.
“To thine own self be true.”
Here I am being prompted to write another post because of something I saw on Facebook. I am not sure if that means I should spend less time on Facebook or not, because it does lead me to think of some important topics. Growth mindset is a topic that comes up often in educational discussions these days. Growth mindset for teachers, growth mindset for students…what does that even mean?
The particular post I was reading on Facebook was a person venting out about city planning here in the City of Estevan. I am not sure why people continue to vent things out on social media using a string of curse words to get their points across, but that is the subject of another post perhaps. The thing about this post and the number of comments that followed, was the attitude that we can just post something, get others to join in a negative tirade and then feel that some positive change might come out of that. I know schools and school principals are sometimes the target of these posts and if the truth be known, most times we don’t even see them. It is difficult to promote positive action or change when the right people do not even receive your thoughts or concerns, which is probably what happened in this case.
I have to wonder, if we stopped for a moment before venting out the negative and spent some time, sharing positive solutions or possibilities, what a difference that might make. I don’t know much about city planning and even though the railway tracks going down the middle of the city cause me some frustration at times, it seems to me, if I want a voice in decisions, I need to get involved in a positive way.
I came across a blog post on the weekend titled, “Quit Complaining”. It caught my eye, because it was exactly what I was thinking in response to the Facebook post. The author of the blog post explained that complaining negatively impacts the energy of the complainer and everyone around that person. The post goes on to say, after 30 minutes, the effects of complaining actually start to change the ability to problem solve.
“Exposure to negativity for 30 minutes or more impacts the neurons in the hippocampus, impairing the ability to problem solve. We give away our power and become victims when we focus on complaints over solutions.”
In my last post, I mentioned the opportunity I had, recently, to listen to Tom Hierck speak on student engagement with the rest of our school division admin team. Our grades 4-12 teachers then spent the day listening to him at the beginning of October. One of the messages he left with us was the opportunity we all have to judge the actions of others in a positive or negative light.
For example, the person who cuts you off in traffic…
Is that person really being a jerk, who is irresponsible or has that person simply made an error in judgement that we all make at different times while driving? Mr. Hierck was trying to get the point across that we should consider giving the benefit of the doubt in these simple situations and moving on without misplacing frustration and energy on negative paths that truly lead no where.
It makes sense when you think about it. The time spent stewing in frustration or anger is lost on the person who cut you off, but takes away from the ability we have to move on with our day and focus our energy on much more important things.
Having a growth mindset, seems to be the ability to focus on the process of learning rather than the fixed end result that cannot be changed. Is it possible there might better way to do something I have done a million times, if I stay open to the possibilities? Can I truly stop and consider someone else’s perspective and be a better, more informed person because of it? Can I make a mistake and look at it as a pathway for growth, rather than a failure? Can I tackle something difficult and not give up in the middle of the struggle? Can I look at my weaknesses as opportunity for growth and not be discouraged?
So, what does this mean for students in the classroom?
We used to believe that intelligence and ability was fixed. A sort of-you either have it or you don’t when it came to intelligence and talent. When I was in school, we were all given intelligence tests and our overall ability was judged looking only at that number. Over the years, research has shown us that is not the case. All of our students have the ability to grow in different areas given the right circumstances and the right motivation.
I was watching a TED Talk presentation by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University, psychologist who specializes in research studies based on motivation and “growth mindset”. In her presentation, she is talking about the power of “not yet”. Her theory seems to be, we are always on a continuum of growth towards achieving our goals. Students who have been taught to have a growth mindset, look at challenges much differently than those who are just aiming for a passing grade or the end result. Students with a growth mindset will not give up when given a difficult challenge, but rather look to it as being “not yet” there.
She offers many studies that show having a growth mindset can make a huge difference for our students and their ability to problem solve. Her advice to parents and teachers is to stop telling our students how wonderful they are.
Now, we might say… “What? We are trying to build up their self-esteem?
She does not want us to stop praising them, she just wants us to think about how and what we are praising. Instead of always telling our children and students that every little thing they accomplish is the best, she believes we should praise the struggle, the quest for understanding, the process needed to stretch and solve problems.
The “Quit Complaining” blog post, I mentioned earlier, suggested a quick strategy that might benefit us as adults, but seems to me could be a habit that might benefit our students as well. The strategy was to simply add the word “so” to the end of our complaints or frustrations followed by the actions needed to make a positive difference.
If we go back to the complainer I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it might go something like this…
I get so frustrated by many of the decisions made by the city planners, so I think I should try to contact my city counselor and explain my frustrations and find out why certain decisions are made or think about running for city council so I would have a voice in the decisions that are made.
Now, I know, that sounds a bit optimistic, but again, if we do nothing, we get nothing.
Is it possible to change our language in classrooms to promote positive mindsets in our students? Rather than praising the student for doing well, can we instead, praise the process or the struggle? When a student makes a mistake or does not quite achieve to the level he or she needs to be at, can we promote a “not yet” there atmosphere instead of a “you failed” atmosphere? Can we focus on the problem solving or seeking positive solution, type actions in our classrooms, rather than on end results?
We cannot do this alone. Like most things that happen in schools, we need parents and families to be an equal part of the team. Can parents also promote the idea that learning and growth is a process and perhaps it is okay if we are “not yet” there, “so” how are we going to get there? Our first response may be to solve problems for our children, but imagine the benefit to them learning to solve problems for themselves.
Learning from the struggle.
Our students do not need to be praised for every move they make. They do not need a reward for every step they take. Instead, they need encouragement to build a growth mindset that will take them into the future. If we model and encourage growth mindset, we could be well on our way to having a group of young adults that might not be discouraged when challenged and might not expect to be rewarded for completing the simplest task.
Imagine what those young adults might accomplish.
I will confess I am a social media junkie and like to participate on a daily basis. I encourage our teachers to use twitter accounts to share classroom happenings and I put effort into keeping our Pleasantdale School twitter account and Facebook page up to date. I have always had an unwritten rule about social media, that I follow not matter what. I do not allow myself to jump into negative discussions. I do not feel that social media is the place to voice our misunderstandings and would rather go to the source and try to educate myself before jumping on a negative band wagon that I may not understand.
Earlier this week, however, I came across a Facebook post about the “new” math. Now I put quotations around “new” because I personally feel it is “not so new”. I understand why people call it new, because it is different approach to teaching and learning math than most adults have experienced. The Facebook post I am referring to is one many of you have probably seen. It shows a simple math question being answered in one step and then goes to compare the same math question being solved in multiple steps, using what might be an unfamiliar strategy for many of us. The post goes on to imply that the long drawn out answer is what makes our “new” math so ridiculous and nonsensical. It also implies that all aspects of all math classes involve long drawn processes, rather than a simple algorithm solution.
Now, most of know that things in the media or, as an extension, social media, can be portrayed just a bit biased or out of the context of the big picture. In seeing the post I felt myself being drawn into the discussion. I explained my understanding and experience of math in the classroom on a daily basis. I quickly, however, jumped out as the discussion continued on in a negative direction. I could see that no one was wanting to consider any other perspective than the one they already had.
As a child my experience with math was a very negative one. I would start each new year, with my new scribbler doing well with the first review unit. I like my notebooks neat and clean and would line up my questions in neat and tidy rows, feeling confident. However, my confidence was more often than not, soon dashed. I did not understand numbers and my memorization of basic algorithms only took me so far. Soon my tidy notebook was a mess of erased spots, scribbles and re-written numbers. I could not transfer my understandings from one context to another and soon found myself repeating the same memorization process while being secluding away from the rest of the class with others like me. Somehow repeating the same methods of learning, over and over again, never really worked.
My experience was so negative that when I was choosing where I wanted to go after high school I actually tried to find a future career that would not require me to do any math. I remember flipping through college brochures trying to find some career in which I could work with children but never have to teach them math. Thankfully, my confidence in math did build as an adult and although I did not directly start my career to be a teacher and a principal, I was able to achieve these goals and I realized, as an adult, I could in fact understand and do math.
This story and confession leads me to why I wanted to write this post, rather than continue in a negative Facebook discussion. I think that there are many parents, community members, and others who still wonder why we are teaching math in this “new” way. I think we have tried to educate others about the need for our students to understand numbers and not just memorize algorithms in order to be successful in using math in many different situations. I also think that we need to continue to do so.
I have countless moments of awe when I am hanging out in math classes with students. As a matter of fact, my own math confidence continues to grow as I watch our student work in math classes demonstrating, for me, ways to break down and understand numbers I have never considered before. I can relate to the struggle a non-confident math student goes through and it is a wonderful thing watching them reach understanding by allowing them to use other strategies and straying away from only memorizing basic algorithms.
One of the best explanations for our need to use “new” math strategies , that I have seen, is in a video Why is Math Different Now? Posted by Dr. Raj Shah who is the owner and founder of Math Plus Academy in Columbus, Ohio. I hope you will take a few minutes and an open mind to watch his explanation and consider his thoughts.
The things I think I would like to share about math in the classroom today are the following:
- There are many ways to arrive at an answer to a math problem, not just one.
- It will perhaps surprise some, that the “old” way of doing math is still a strategy taught to our students and used in the classroom every day, but it is not the only one.
- It also may surprise some to know that we do, in fact, continue to drill the basic math facts that provide the foundation to all other math.
- Many of the problems that will face our children, are not one-step, one solution kind of problems. We will need our children to understand there are many solutions to most problems and have the skills needed to consider those multiple solutions.
- The thing that has the greatest effect on a child’s confidence in math is the attitude of parents or caregivers to the subject. Positive talk about math, new or old, is very important to student success.
I think raising children and teaching are two of the hardest, but most rewarding things that we are blessed to be able to do. I hope we will not keep adding new things to our already busy lives, but I hope we will never keep trying to get better at the things we already do. If you are wondering about reasons we have moved to the processes involved in “new” math in the classroom today, please do not hesitate to talk to a teacher.