As a new school year rapidly approaches, I am pondering the year that is past. Successes, failures, flops, and everything in between. And these reflections are not limited to lessons and instruction.
I am thinking about the physical organization of my room, routines and procedures, culture and climate, contacting parents, after school programs, grant writing, supplies and materials that I will need, time management before, during, and after school, the list continues to grow on a daily basis.
One thing I learned last year is that I tried to do way too much.
Between running two after school programs, being a member of the Instructional Leadership Team (ILT), and trying to revolutionize the way I taught by using homemade instructional videos, writing original performance pieces (that never quite turned out the way I wanted), and using read alouds and other ELA based instructional practices in my music classes, I spread myself way too thin and burnt out more than once throughout the year.
This year I am starting with a minimalist approach. My main focus is going to be the culture and climate in my classroom.
To give a bit of context, I teach in Chicago Public Schools in an area known for its poverty and high crime rate. Many of my students are lacking social emotional skills that are essential for someone entering the workforce. Luckily I teach pre-kindergarten – 8th grade and I can still help to teach and instill productive personal traits in my students before going to high school.
I am going to focus on establishing an environment that is physically and emotionally safe and respectful of all students and adults who enter my room. I had one class in particular last year with whom I did not establish as respectful of an environment as I thought I had.
I rushed the beginning of my year wanting to jump into rigorous instruction as soon as possible, somehow not realizing that I can deliver rigorous instruction while still focusing on my culture and climate at the same time. As a result I lost a lot of time at the end of the year having to repair what I had overlooked at the beginning.
With this in mind I am still going to plan rigorous lesson but I am going to do so while still placing a focus on the culture and climate of my classroom. I plan on building this through student discussion using accountable talk, self and peer assessments, and of course some team building songs and games.
As the year progresses I plan to continue focusing on culture and climate in varying degrees.
My ultimate goal is that my students get to a point where they are completely self sufficient and they run class with little to no help from me.
For this to come to fruition I must be aware of when things are not going as well as intended and then be able to determine the source, whether it is one student is having a rough day and they just need some time to chill out, or the larger relationships in the classroom, student-to-student and student-to-teacher, are beginning to break down, requiring action that is both appropriate and purposeful.
I have faith that as I keep myself attuned to the environment in my classroom and remain responsive to the the ever changing nuances of my developing young people, that my ultimate goal will be a success.
While many students/educators have already begun their new school year I am still in my final week of summer break before going back for a week to staff professional development .
A new year with new opportunities!
However, with education and teachers receiving a lot of attention and scrutiny from politicians and the media having often being deprived the necessary tools for success, there is a lot to contemplate.
Let me be clear, I use the term ‘tools’ in reference to funding for supplies, personnel, and academic and athletic programming. And I do not limit academic programing to the involvement of what is considered the ‘core subjects’ but to all subjects that need to be taught to develop the whole child. The term ‘success’ is being referred to as it has been defined by those who have never taught or even observed a teacher other than their own from childhood.
What is viewed as success (test scores) in education, in my opinion, is not a true measure of success at all. All that is important is that other adults view the school and it’s students as successful.
So if you appear to be having success, then you are.
If the classroom is decorated nicely, there is a nice and neat bulletin board displaying student work, and if all the numbers are in the green or blue then you are successful.
There is no care for how the numbers got that way.
There is no care if teachers cheat on standardized tests unless the media gets ahold of it.
The reason there is no care, in my opinion, is because the majority of the tests our students are subjected to do not accurately assess their knowledge.
The reason I find this as a major pondering point is not to complain or throw my arms in the air and say, “My students will never receive the education they deserve with the funding/materials that I have at my disposal.” Or to say, “How am I supposed to teach my students how to be a person when I am told to teach to the test and social emotional skills, history, and grammar are ignored.”
I think on these issues often for two reasons:
1. There is nothing I can do about it.
In reality I could do something about it. However, in order to make a meaningful and lasting change I would have to become an educational lobbyist, or some form of equivalent in the political sector in order to propose and hopefully pass and implement educational law and reform that would actually make a difference in the nation’s present educational system. The reason there is nothing I can do is because I am not going to leave my classroom or my kiddos. I love what I do and won’t let it be taken from me for any reason.
2. I am going to succeed anyway.
I was born to teach, it is the thing that comes very naturally to me even though I have a tremendous amount of room for growth and improvement. I don’t care what the politicians say. I don’t care what the complainers have to say. I am going to succeed anyway. Notice I am not going to ‘try’ to succeed, I AM going to succeed.
Every year success looks a little bit different in my eyes.
Most importantly, I have to consider what success looks like for my students. As a music teacher I can rather easily teach my students to sing and/or play a performance piece that sounds great. Anyone who comes to watch will shower the students with compliments of how well they did.
But the real question is, “What did they learn?”
It does not matter how well the students performed, even though great performances will greatly help a music program, if they don’t walk away with an enduring understanding. The reason this does not matter is because this is the model of “If it looks good you are successful.” Of course looking and sounding good is part of the students success, especially in the arts, yet it is knowledge gained by the students from the process of learning, practicing, and performing that matters, that is where the true measure of success lies.
If a student can’t tell me something they learned from a performance piece then I have failed them in that particular lesson. Possibly, I didn’t actually tell my students what academic gains they should be taking from the
lesson and all they did was experience something that was fun. Yet, without connecting the dots between having fun and learning, a rigorous lesson will quickly turn into an activity.
This is one of the reasons that objectives or “I Can” statements are important for the children. For a time I felt rather strongly that I shouldn’t have to post the lesson’s objective on the board because my students were going to learn it anyway, there was simply no need or benefit.
I felt that I was only posting objectives because that is what the adults wanted to see and it did not help the students. And this mindset handicapped me on a regular basis at the beginning of my career. I was so appalled that adults weren’t thinking of what is best for students that I actually fell into a similar pattern.
There is a piece of advice, or rather a mental calibration that I have to remind myself often of: “If I disagree with a new policy, procedure, or ‘reform,’ still take a step back and think of how it will benefit the students.” If in the end it will benefit the students then there is no way to argue against it, and by looking at new initiatives through this lens I don’t end up blinding myself to the needs of my students.
Keep an eye out for part 2…
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