Teacher-Teacher Relationships Matter

When I first starting blogging in June, I didn’t know how important it would become to me. It is hard for me to always put what I am thinking into words, and writing has been a tremendous release for me. I took the last 2 ½ weeks off from blogging because I finished my Masters and wanted to fully devote time to my family, friends and recharge a bit before September. My first ever blog post was about the importance of student-teacher relationships. However, as we head into a new school year I wanted to write about the importance of relationships with other educators.

In my last blog post, I shared a curated Google Doc inspired by Melinda D. Anderson’s hashtag on Twitter #CharlottesvilleCurriculum. I started curating these resources because I didn’t want the great ideas that I witnessed being shared across Twitter to be lost. I shared the Google Doc on Twitter thinking that a few people would be interested, and instead the Google Doc collected over 19 pages of resources. It is difficult to put into words how much this impacted me. I experienced first hand the power of collaboration and I felt overwhelmingly connected to other educators who like me were using part of their summer to find, curate and share anti-racist resources, because they recognized that protecting our students was our first priority. It reminded me how lucky I am to work with people who commit their lives to educating others.

As teachers, we don’t just teach curriculum, we support students through social-emotional issues and sometimes we make a connection with a student and discover that we are one of the few caring adults they have in their lives. This is overwhelming, immensely rewarding and sometimes incredibly stressful. Our job is hard – it is wonderful, I truly feel that this is what I was meant to do, but it is hard. If it is hard for us, then that means that it is hard for our colleagues as well.

Student-teacher relationships are incredibly important, but as educators we also need to reflect on how we treat and talk about our colleagues.

First, be kind to yourself. I have never ended a teaching year and thought to myself, “Well, that was a perfect year.” You are going to make mistakes. You are going to have a kid you didn’t reach and beat yourself up about it later. You are going to deliver a sub-par lesson a few times throughout the year. You are human. You are flawed. You are enough.

My fifth year of teaching, I left on the last day of school and cried in my car pretty much the whole way home. That year had been extremely hard for me personally, and I felt like I had failed my students professionally. I was angry at myself, frustrated and saddened by what I had achieved in my classroom that year. I thought about quitting teaching. I wanted to quit teaching. I was tired.

At the time, my Department Head invited me to meet up with her later. She didn’t give me a hard time for all the mistakes I had made that year, and there were many. Instead, she told me that my bad days were still pretty good, and that next year I had a clean slate. She told me that I was only human, and that sometimes life gets in the way of who we want to be in our classroom. She gave me the courage and support to teach again.

This may not seem like much. But she could have done something very different.

Too often, I have been to Professional Development sessions or see Tweets on Twitter that begin by disparaging teachers. Sometimes this is posting their Syllabus on Twitter and ripping it to part as outdated for all to share and retweet and comment on. Other times, it is idle chatter in the hallway or discussions in the staff room. At times, I am guilty of this.

Now, I firmly believe that we should definitely be critical of teaching and teaching practices when we are focused on improvement. I don’t believe it does anyone any good to close the blinds and just pretend that everything is lollypops and rainbows in the education system. Also, I want to make it clear, if a teacher is harming a student, you have an obligation to speak up. You have to.

However, if one of our colleagues is struggling and feeling overwhelmed then we should offer help, support and share resources/ideas as opposed to disparaging them.  If they are struggling, we should see what we can do to help them as opposed to making their job harder.

I am so fortunate to work with the people that I do. They are my colleagues and my friends. They support me through the good and the bad, and I value their insights, creativity and friendship. Most of all, I know that the people in my department truly put the welfare of kids first everyday and want to support their students. We don’t always agree, but I never doubt their commitment. They love their students and they want to support them just like I do. The teachers I work with and the students I teach make my work meaningful. Without the support of my colleagues, I would feel lost.

Professional Learning Network’s (PLN’s) on Social Media are extremely powerful. However, we all need to work at building our own PLN within our schools as well. This job can feel very isolating and places like Twitter can offer solace and help for that, which is wonderful. However, there is nothing better than a face-to-face relationship with a supportive colleague. 

 

Now Is The Time For You To Know The Truth About Becoming A Better Teacher. Go Back To Kindergarten.

Walk into a kindergarten classroom and what do you see? Bright walls, anchor charts, students moving from place to place in the classroom, learning centres and lots of play. What do you hear? Students laughing, talking, reading, negotiating through play.

Now contrast this image with your typical high school classroom, what do you see? Desks (often in rows), facing the front with the teacher as the centre of the action. What do you hear? The teacher, going on and on and on, despite the fact that the research shows that most adults can only listen for 20 minutes. This has to change.

If you want to be a better teacher it is time to go back to kindergarten. So, what do kindergarten teachers do differently that makes them effective?

They Put Relationships First

kids relationships

Kindergarten teachers value and recognize the importance of student to student relationships as well as student to teacher relationships. They focus on establishing positive classroom relationships before anything else. If you don’t believe me Google “Lessons I learned in Kindergarten” or check out Pinterest.

In high school, we often forget the importance of relationships. I mentioned in a previous post that while reading Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate, I had an ‘A-Ha’ moment about the importance of ensuring that I not only know my students, but that my students know each other.

Student-Centred Inquiry Based Learning

While visiting a kindergarten classroom in June, I noticed an anchor chart on bees, pictures of bees, models of bees, signs for bees – if it had anything to do with bees it was in the classroom. The teacher told me that one of her students loved bees and was very sad when her mom told her that the bees were in trouble. Even though it wasn’t her idea or what she had originally planned, the teacher embraced the student’s curiosity and used it as a teachable moment. The students worked through all stages of inquiry, while learning about bees, science and the environment. Most importantly they learned their ideas were valued by their teacher. How amazing is that?

Kindergarten 2They Emphasize and Value Play

Kindergarten teachers value play. They realize we learn through play. In high school, too often we try to give what Dave Burgess in Teach Like A Pirate calls “The Medicine Pill” lesson. We tell students that they have to learn something, because it will be tested. How uninspiring can you get? Also, how much learning is really happening? Countless studies show that adults and young people learn the most through play. So, if your students aren’t playing are they every really learning? One of my upcoming blogs will look at how to ‘play’ in a high school classroom.

They Get Their Students Moving

We need to use brain research to inform our teaching. Kindergarten teachers get this. Their classrooms are set up with different learning centres and inquiry-based activities. Instructions are quick, and then students are up and actively involved in an activity. Kindergarten teachers recognize that kids can’t sit and listen for too long, and they also know that real learning doesn’t happen that way anyway.  The research shows that little learning takes place during whole-group instruction, but how many high school teachers (myself included) are guilty of largely teaching their students this way?

They are FlexibleKindergarten

Kindergarten teachers adjust to the needs and interests of their students. Have you ever tried getting a 4 year old to do something that they didn’t want to do? Trust me, as a Mom of young kids, it makes teenagers look like a piece of cake. We need to read our audience. Are our students exhausted? Did something happen in the news that has captivated them? This may require us to change and rethink our lesson at the last minute.

For most, this is the greatest obstacle. As teachers, we sometimes lack the confidence to be out of control; we fear questions that we can’t answer instead of welcoming them. We have to learn to let go of our need to control the environment and let our learners guide us. We might just be pleasantly surprised with what happens.

 

5 Innovative Approaches To Ignite Student Voice

 

5 Innovative Approaches to Ignite Student Voice

Create a class YouTube Playlist.

YouTube

I LOVE YouTube. As a teacher this love has turned into my obsession with creating and curating YouTube playlists for my classes. YouTube lets you organize videos into themes and categories and compiles them all into one link that you can share with your students via Google Classroom or your class website. YouTube Playlists are powerful tools for igniting and supporting student voice.

I challenge my students to find videos that we can add to our class playlist and/or to share  videos that inspire or interest them. You can also feature student videos on your YouTube channel. Over the years, my YouTube Playlists continually develop and change to reflect/support not only my course content, but also the interests and learning needs of my students. As an added bonus, the students are researching and making critical choices about their selections and synthesizing their findings. If you are interested in learning how to create a YouTube playlist check out: Create & manage playlists.  

Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects – call it whatever you want – just do it .

This year I engaged in Genius Hour with my Grade 12s and Heritage Fair projects with my Grade 10s. For both projects, students create an essential question on a topic that interests them, engage in research, create a 90 second elevator pitch and create a final product and presentation they share with the class.

These projects truly ignited student voice in my classes. The students came up with topics that I never would have thought of. Also, the medium and style that they used to present their project highlighted each student’s talents and passions. One student created a website to inspire women in the arts, another tackled Islamophobia and the impact this has on her life, still another researched the history of LGBTQ rights and presented it as a spoken word winning the York Region Human Rights Award. Ultimately, these projects allowed me to learn from my students and share their passion. If you want to ignite student voice, try out Genius Hour. Be sure to check out amazing resources by: Joy Kirr, AJ Juliani and Gallit Zvi to help you get started.

Have Difficult Conversations

Too often in our classes, we avoid ‘controversial’ topics.  Rather than avoidance, it is our job to equip and support students with the tools to discuss these topics. Two tools that I use are this Google slides presentation I created: Difficult Conversations and this comic by the Oatmeal You’re not going to believe what I have to tell you that looks at the brain research behind why we have visceral reactions to controversial issues. In today’s world, it is so important that we equip our students with the tools they need to critically think and openly discuss their viewpoints and beliefs.

Value & Incorporate Student Interests  

Many of my students are interested in video games. One student told me that I could teach most of our unit on Ancient Greece through the video game Civilizations. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the game. I asked the student if he could bring in the game, show it to us and explain how I could incorporate it into my teaching. He came back with one of the most engaging and thoroughly prepared history lessons I have ever experienced, and I left hooked on the game as well as his ideas. (P.S. There is a Civilizations Edu version coming out in the fall, so he was clearly a visionary ahead of his time).

Basically, as educators we need to step back and let our students share their interests, value them and look for ways that we can incorporate them into our teaching. If we want our students to have a voice in our classroom their passions need to be reflected in the learning environment and the pedagogical choices that we make.

Build Student-Teacher Relationships

One of my previous blogs discussed strategies for improving student-teacher relationships. I can’t stress how important this is. Ultimately, if we want our students to be vocal in our classrooms they need to know that their traditions, beliefs and opinions are valued – full stop. More than anything they need to feel safe and supported in our classroom. If you want to ignite student voice in your classroom, you better be prepared to value and protect it.

Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships

 

Almost all of my teaching successes and failures can be attributed to relationships with students. Relationships are the heart of teaching.  Accordingly, as we head into summer and begin to recharge and think about the start of the next school year, and for my first ever blog post, I wanted to share Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships.

  1. Take Risks & Be Vulnerable

Too often teachers believe they have to be the experts in the classroom when in fact this creates a power dynamic that distances teachers from students. It can also lead to teacher burn out as no human being can ever be the expert on everything. If you want your students to take risks in class, then you have to model this behaviour and join in the learning.  Every time I try a new lesson, assessment or technology I tell my students that it might fail, BUT that I am excited to TRY it. This could be creating a murder mystery scene, using Screencast or introducing Genius Hour.

The point is I tell them why I want to try it, that I don’t know if it is going to work, but that I want to do it anyways because I want to become a better teacher so that I can support their learning. This means that I regularly fail in front of my students. It also means that my students know that I am willing to fail if I believe there’s a chance it could benefit them. If students know that you are willing to open up and put yourself out there, then they will be more likely to do the same in your class.

 

  1. Be Kind – Always, no exceptions

I only give my students one rule. I tell them that this is the most important rule for the entire semester, more important than deadlines, their final mark or the content that they will learn in this course.  Be kind. In my classroom, be kind to each other.  We will applaud each other’s successes, support each other through challenges and contribute respectfully to class discussions and activities.  Students cannot learn and will not feel welcomed in a classroom where they are not valued and protected. Teachers have to model this and enforce this. Be kind- always, no exceptions.

 

  1.  Admit when you’re wrong and apologize

I have two young children, my oldest is turning 4 in September. Sometimes, I have lost my temper or failed at parenting in a myriad of other ways. I cannot be a perfect Mom, but I can apologize and try to learn from my mistakes. So I do. I apologize to my son, I tell him that I am wrong and that I will try to do better.  Just as I am not a perfect parent, I am not a perfect teacher. This past year, I lost my temper at a student. I didn’t yell – I am not a yeller, but I broke my cardinal rule – BE KIND – and told him in front of his peers how disappointed I was in the quality of his presentation. At first, I felt justified in my criticism (he clearly wasn’t prepared), but then I saw the crushed look on his face. It wasn’t what I had said, it was how I said it. So, what did I do? I apologized. I apologized to the student. I apologized to the class. I told all of them that my behaviour was inappropriate and that I was sorry for breaking our only class rule. I spoke with the student privately and worked at rebuilding the trust I had broken. In the end, he told me that no teacher had ever apologized to him before and he appreciated it. This moment didn’t take away the guilt I felt/still feel, but if you want to build relationships with your students, you need to be willing to admit when you are wrong.

 

  1.  Get to know your students & make sure they get to know each other.

If you read Teach Like a Pirate, you know that Dave Burgess discusses his first three days. One of the first things that he does is come up with a creative way for students to introduce themselves to the class and each other (play-doh anyone?). He also rewards them by challenging them to remember each others names.  

Reading this section of the book was an ‘aha’ moment for me. How much time did I actually spend in my high school classes making sure that my students knew each other? How could I possibly create a risk-taking inclusive learning environment for my students if they didn’t even know each other?!?! The simple answer was, I couldn’t.  I am now fully committed to making sure that my students know each other, before any course content is taught.

As a History teacher, I love having students research and share their family history with the class in any medium they choose. There are also a ton of Name Games & Get To Know Each Other Activities out there that can easily be adapted for any classroom. The point is it doesn’t really matter how you achieve this goal. It just matters that your students get to know you, you get to know them and they get to know each other.

 

  1. As Rita Pierson so aptly stated, “Be Their Champion.”

I like to create a class calendar that I either draw out on a whiteboard or post in our Google Classroom. It is accessible to all students and everyone can edit it. I tell them that they can put any dates that are important to them. Some put religious holidays, some put their birthdays (or their dog’s birthdays), some post sporting events and some don’t want to post (also completely okay). The point is anything that is posted on the calendar is acknowledged/celebrated.  Two years ago, my Grade 12s and I sang happy birthday to a beautiful dog named Billy, and I brought in a party hat and dog treats that the student could take home to celebrate with Billy later. That student cried, which might have made me tear up as well and all because I remembered to stop at the dollar store to pick up a party hat and some dog food. Sometimes our students have major achievements, one of my students wrote, filmed and produced a film that was being shown at the Toronto Short Film Festival. It was over March break, and she invited me, so my husband and I booked a babysitter and attended her show. I left that night so impressed by her and what she had achieved and honoured to have been a part of it. When we become champions of our students, we remember why we chose this profession and it fuels our passion. 

As Rita Pierson stated “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” When we create positive relationships in our classes, our students learn better and we enjoy our jobs more.

If you haven’t already done so, please check out: Rita Pierson’s TED talk and Dave Burgess’s book Teach Like a Pirate for more great ideas on supercharging student teacher relationships.

Thank you for checking out my first ever blog post!