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Practicing Up

I played on the boys golf team in high school.  My first year was rough – I had no business being on the team. Luckily the coach knew my family and let me participate in spite of my lack of experience.  After my freshman year I got serious and actually began practicing on a regular basis.  I played from the white tees on the hardest course in town everyday.  It wasn’t easy. In addition, I played with the best boys I could find. Girls were too easy to beat – I needed to play with boys if I really wanted to push myself.  I won’t put myself in the same league as good athletes but I will say that this is a common story of athletes that excel.  They practice up.  They practice with people that are much better than they are. Although it is at times humiliating and at times frustrating, in the end it makes you a better player.

I have been thinking that teaching is really the same way.  You need to surround yourself with people that are “better” than you are. Collaborate with people who are passionate and surround yourself with greatness. Inevitably, this will improve your game.

I have spent the last twelve years practicing up. I have worked with some unbelievably talented educators. I am leaving my school a better teacher and administrator because it was easy to practice up everyday.

As I say goodbye to my colleagues tonight I am feeling grateful and hoping that I have helped others practice up as well.

Calling All Mentors

I would like to believe I am a lifelong learner.  Learning gets me excited… no – VERY excited. That being said, even I am surprised at how excited I am about my experience tonight at dinner. I intended on having  a quick dinner where I would sit at the bar and pretend to watch the t.v. while also surfing on my phone. The goal was food consumption and nothing more. 

With only one seat available I asked the woman next to the seat if it was taken and planted myself down. We began chatting and well… the rest is history.  The woman was friendly, inquisitive, and humble.  During the one hour dinner I learned an enormous amount from this woman. From interviewing skills to books to read – I am already a better leader because of my dinner geography and a lot of luck. And the best part is that she offered to keep teaching me.  She offered to be my mentor.  Maybe that is what all great teachers do for their students – get them excited about learning and then promise to stay by their side.

How to “Sell” Your School

Those of us in the independent school world know that admissions are the life blood of the school.  Without students there is no school.  Without admissions there are no students.  Yesterday I visited three schools for my son (yes in one day). After three very different experiences, I have a few words of advice for those working in admission offices.

1. The first thing after hello and welcome should be “Tell me about your child.”

2. “The Tour” is not the most important thing about the visit. Don’t lead with it – it sends the wrong message.

3. Tell me why I should give you my precious child – and with it – my money!

4. Be passionate.  There is nothing less impressive than a salesman who isn’t in love with their product. Tell me why this school is special – different – worth my consideration.

5. Make it personal. This decision is a huge one.  Tell my why THIS school might be the right one for MY child.

6. Include the teachers!  No one knows the program better than they do.  Let them explain to me why my child would thrive at their school.

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After much discussion in the car drive home, my husband and I agreed that the school with the highest tuition and least impressive facilities was our favorite.  It was definitely not “the tour” that sold us.  It was the passion, compassion, warmth, and conviction that we heard from the admission officer and the teachers.

Tragedy and Reality

It is hard to write anything today that doesn’t relate to the tragedy that has occurred in CT. Is there anything worse than the death of a child?  It is simply too much for me to think about today. I am in denial I guess.

At the same time, we are all shocked because it was a “nice” town. Things like this shouldn’t happen in a place like _________.  Unfortunately, you can now fill in the blank with numerous examples, Columbine, Newtown, Virginia Tech.  Why does this happen? How can this happen? How will those communities cope?

I wish we weren’t here again. I worry this is a new reality.

Standardization for the purpose of Customization

As an independent school we work hard to deliver a customized or personalized education for each of our students. It is an exciting venture. The concept of not every student completing the exact same progression of science courses or focusing their English classes on topics that interest them like: Paranormal Literature and American Literature and Baseball are just some of the ways we are trying to make students excited about learning. Dare I say passionate?

But in order to deliver this customized education, we must standardize certain things. We must ensure that every English class covers the same skills, no matter what texts are read. We must verify that whether students study American History through the perspective of women or African Americans that the same skills are mastered. How will we do this? Through standardizing the skills instead of the content.

Think of it like a great restaurant… they will allow you to order the steak at the temperature of your choice and substitute the broccolini for cauliflower mash but the service, quality of food, and experience must remain constant. Standardized in order to customize.

The Job Description

It’s hard to be a great teacher. Lesson planning, grading, communication with parents plus lunch duty and taking attendance. It just never ends…

The responsibilities list for a teacher at my school is long. We expect so many things from them including continual professional growth and innovation. But I think the most important responsibility for any teacher is simple – modeling good character for the students.

It doesn’t matter to me how great your lessons are planned, if you don’t treat others with compassion, care, and respect you cannot be a good teacher. It doesn’t matter how smart you are or how excited you are about solving equations, you cannot be a good teacher if students can overhear you gossiping about other teachers in the hallways.

In 2000 I read the book “The Teachers are Watching” by Ted and Nancy Sizer and it changed my life.  Students watch everything you do – not just your teaching.  So in addition to the laundry list of responsibilities on the job description, it is all of the things assumed and implied in the character of being a teacher that matter the most.

Never Forget

Following the anniversary of 9-11 we hear many voices repeating the mantra “let us not forget.”  For those of us that experienced that day as adults it is one that is hard to forget. Luckily, we have an anniversary to commemorate the day that will in the years to come help us to “never forget.”

Unfortunately, there are other tragedies going on daily in our society that don’t have an anniversary to help us “never forget.” One of these tragedies is the number of Americans and children that live in poverty everyday. Living in Fairfax County, VA (one of the wealthiest in America) it is easy to forget. I have the luxury of working in an expensive private school where all of the children live above the poverty line (and in most all cases – WELL above the line). I live in a house with electricity, air conditioning, and plenty of food. Unfortunately, for me… it is easy to forget.

Tonight I took the time to listen to an audio cast from The Poverty Tour 2.0 which is headlined by Cornell West and Tavis Smiley. A tweet by West about the event caught my eye due to the fact that it was recorded at nearby TC Williams HS, made famous by the movie Remember the Titans. I am so glad I took the time to listen and remember. Because for so many of us, the poverty in America is easy to forget.

Design Thinking and the DMV

It is amazing how many people hear the letters DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) and begin wincing. What the DMV needs is some Design thinking…

One of my reading obsessions right now is design thinking. IDEO, D-School, NuVu, Creating Innovators, and of course STEM curriculum seem to be everywhere I look these days. After spending an hour at the DMV today I have some Design suggestions that would make the experience better for everyone.

1. Don’t make people wait in line like cattle to get a number. Use the restaurant system of a pager. This way, people could sit and relax while they wait.

2. Make the waiting rooms more cozy and welcoming. The sterile environment only furthers the madness often seen as people become more and more frustrated due to the wait.

3. Allow food! If you are going to spend an hour, or two or three waiting to get a driver’s license or tags for your car the least you could do is let people fulfill human needs.

4. Supply things to read, t.v.’s to watch, or devices to play on – again – think of a doctor’s office!

5. If you do all of the above items, you may not need 3 security guards to keep the peace. By keeping people happy during their wait there will be less acts of aggression.

6. Customer service training for employees. Again, the nicer the employees the less likely that people will become unreasonable in their reactions.

7. Think like a business – not like a government agency. What would make people WANT to come to the DMV and like it?

 

Year Round Schooling Solved

During a recent dinner party our conversation turned to education. When I was asked what I thought about year round schooling I paused. I could argue either side of this issue with ease. However the next day after some reflection I had a better solution!

LOOPING!

I love looping. I once had the privilege of looping with a group of 7th (and a year later) 8th grade students. It was the most amazing experience for the following reasons:

1. The learning began on day 1 of year 2.  We literally picked up where we left off on the first day of school – no need to explain my rules/procedures or philosophy – straight to learning.

2. I was also able to individualize the learning on day 1 since I already knew the students.

3. We became a family by the end of year 2 – these were not my students, they were my children.

4. Did I mention the learning began on day 1?

I realize that looping in secondary settings are not a simple task but I believe it can be done. So the next time someone argues that students “lose” so much over the summer, I am going to explain my experience with looping. I don’t believe the problem is what the students lose as much as it is they have a new teacher(s) that will spend the next 3-4 months getting to know the students well enough to individualize the instruction.

Looping… if you have not done it – try it – and let me know your thoughts.

The Bike Part 2

I distinctly remember learning how to ride a bike without training wheels. I was turning five years old and my Dad and I spent what seems like countless hours sweating and arguing (and me crying) in our driveway.  Looking back I am sure it didn’t help that we lived on a hill.

Last summer when we decided we would teach our almost seven year old son to ride a bike I anticipated an experience similar to mine. He would be crying, my husband and I would be sweating, and we would need a few band-aids.  I could not have been more wrong. He learned immediately! Within one minute of going to the parking lot he was riding around in circles and wearing a smile as big as the sun. Maybe I should not have been so surprised. He was older and he had been riding a razor scooter for the past two years which I am sure helped him learn balance. But still… he got it on the first try.

My younger son is probably going to have a bit of a tougher time than his older brother. His gross motor skills have always been delayed and even now he prefers riding his trike to his bike with training wheels. However, I am not worried. I am sure one day he will decide he is ready to learn and we will take another trip to the parking lot to try to teach him. It may take him longer than son #1 but I am sure he will get it eventually.

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The point is –  it doesn’t matter how long it takes to learn to ride a bike. It is a skill and once you have mastered it you can enjoy bike riding for a lifetime. I often use this analogy when describing my philosophy on grading my students. As a math teacher my goal is to have them master the skills in the curriculum. It doesn’t really matter to me if it takes them one try or one hundred. I want them to master the skills so they can use them for a lifetime. Some people may call me an easy grader – I would argue that I am committed to having my students master the material.

Just imagine if I had only had once chance to learn how to ride a bike…