I truly believe that today has been a day that I will look back upon as a defining moment in my career as an educator. Today has been a surreal experience that I want to share with members of my PLN simply because they are part of the story and part of why today happened.
School starts for me next week. This week is that time of meetings – meetings that often accomplish little other than taking care of all of the legal issues that concern schools. We meet and sign acceptable use policies for technology. We have curriculum meetings and hear about all the new laws that affect education. We listen to someone drone on about how we have to raise our performance to some newly defined level – as though we sucked last year on purpose. We go through the teacher handbook and hear about dress codes – we argue for the umpteenth time over whether flip-flops are appropriate. We argue about student cell phone use and hall passes. We go on and on about all of the things that we argue about every year.
We sit through these meetings patiently waiting for them to end so that we can get back to our rooms and get on with doing what’s really important – getting ready for our students that will show up on Monday. Does this resonate with anyone? Am I the only person honest enough to come right out and say what I know many of you feel during this time? I have been in this mode all week. This morning was to be the last of my meetings before I could finally get back to working in my room and preparing for school.
Just one more meeting…
We all meet in the library. We are a small staff of about thirty teachers. We all gather around library tables with our note pads, pens, cell phones, iPads, and other assorted paraphernalia. The assistant principal/counselor comes around handing out stacks of paper; so far this meeting is beginning in the same way as any other. There are spreadsheets with student names and their raw scores on the most recent round of standardized tests. We are told the minimum score for each content area and asked to begin highlighting scores that do not meet the minimum acceptable standard.
As we start highlighting a picture begins to emerge – there are way too many scores below the minimum standard. We are asked to highlight the names of all students who have a highlighted score in any category – about half of the names receive a mark from the highlighter. Not a good sign.
Now the principal begins to explain. For this one grade level – about 50% of our students are at risk of not graduating… If nothing changes, this will be the outcome. Then there are the two grade levels below that have the same issue… You look around the room at the faces of the staff and you see the growing realization of what we are facing – it’s a bleak picture.
Over 70% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunches. We serve a very low socio-economic group of students; Ok – and? Our principal isn’t mad – he isn’t blaming anyone. We don’t have a lousy school. Our staff and administrators work very hard. None of that matters however – we face some frightening consequences if our school maintains the same trajectory we are currently following.
Our principal lays it out for us. Our greatest concern is in writing – we have dismal numbers in that area. He poses the question – what are we going to do? Expository writing is a problem. Students are having trouble explaining and using facts to support their position. The ELA teacher begins to talk and a discussion ensues that soon turns into a melee of sorts… People propose ideas. For every idea someone has an objection. I hear, “I have too much to cover…” “They are lazy…” “The parents won’t…”
Then there are the knee-jerk solutions. “Let’s have a word of the week…” Let’s put essay questions on our tests…” “We need to make them do…” “We have to get them to grow up and stop…”
It’s at about this time I experience something I have never experienced before. I swear I experienced time dilation – I felt as if I was an outside observer seeing the events in the room happening in slow motion. I can tell you where everyone was sitting. I can tell you who is angry, who is confused, and who is tuned out. I can tell you what they are wearing and what color highlighter someone is holding. It’s the weirdest feeling I have ever had – made even more so because I’m telling the truth.
I can feel my own heart beat. I feel a sense of excitement because I feel differently than many people in the room – I know how to fix the problem. It’s not about me being smart, I just realize in a moment of clarity that I have a different vision than most of those in the room.
I see before me as clearly as a scene from a movie the crumbling of the traditional paradigm of education. The old model of telling – lecturing - is no longer cutting it. Working harder, but doing the same thing has run its course. We are a 1:1 school, yet technology hasn’t saved us because our pedagogy hasn’t changed.
In this slow motion, out of body experience, I realize how much I have changed as a result of developing a robust PLN. I am not an exceptional teacher, but I associate with and learn from exceptional people – and we are better together. As I witness the crumbling of the traditional model of education, I see with incredible clarity the promise of all that I have learned in the last year.
Flipped instruction – frees me to build relationships. Learning about growth mindset from Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler has taught me the importance of the messages we send students. I think about my videos and the Google forms (thanks Crystal Kirch) that ask students to summarize, question, and reflect. I think of my version of Cornell notes and how I want students to use comprehension strategies. I think about student blogs and how I plan to ask students to write and reflect on their learning. I think about how Rick Wormeli has influenced me to offer do-overs and retakes – growth mindset. This and much more runs through my head at hyper speed as I look at the slow motion scene in front of me.
As time returns to normal I count the minutes until the meeting is over – I really need to talk to my principal and assistant principal. They asked us for ideas and I have some – I have spent all summer making a game plan that fits our problem like a piece to a puzzle. I dare not say anything in the meeting – who needs a know-it-all claiming they have all the answers?
I approach the administrators and ask for some time to offer my ideas. They are both willing to listen, but the principal has a prior appointment. The assistant principal agrees to meet me after lunch.
So here is my chance. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but I see this as a defining moment for me. We have a district wide problem. We have administrators that have asked for input. I have an administrator with the ability to affect changes coming to hear my pitch. This is my time to swing for the fence – I have an opportunity to share a vision and describe pedagogical ideas that might change the trajectory of a school. No pressure…
The administrator arrives and we begin talking. We know each other well so I begin with my concerns from my own classroom and the problems I set out to address over the summer. I begin to talk and another magical thing happened – I swear I can’t make this up. I experienced what is described as flow – I was energized, passionate, focused, and in the moment. I had a plan, reasoning behind my plan, and research to support my reasoning. For every question I had an answer; an answer I could back up in some way with data or research, not just opinion.
I showed parts of my website demonstrating my personal commitment to my ideas. I had a folder prepared with documents and scaffolding materials. I can say I was in the zone. I know I had their undivided attention. I know I sold my passion. I know I sold my commitment. I know they were interested. I know I showed professionalism and a commitment to pedagogy. I knew things were going well when the admin commented that I had never once mentioned physics – I was only talking about how to teach more effectively.
The meeting ended. I was promised that my ideas would be moved up the chain of command. I have no control over what happens now – and in a way I’m good with that. We’ll see what happens.
If you’ve stayed with my story this far I want to make it clear that I don’t see what happened today as being about me. I’m not trying to claim I’m anything special. What I am claiming is that my experience of building a professional learning network has been and is proving to be powerful. Because of the interactions of the last year, I have made connections and made changes to my practice that now have the potential to affect an entire school. That’s heady stuff.
I have to close with one other thought. My favorite quote of all time is by Theodore Roosevelt from his speech “Citizenship In A Republic” delivered in France in 1910. Today I felt like I was living his words and that’s a cool feeling. Here is the quote:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.