Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Standing Ovation for Teachers

The math curriculum has changed completely. New text books are required. A new pedogogy is demanded. And secondary teachers have to rebuild their courses from scratch. There is no funding, however, for release time for teachers to work together, to review the new curriculum, to learn the new teaching methods.

So what do our math teachers do? You might imagine that they would close their doors, continue to teach the old curriculum, and wait for a change in government. But they don't. They find funding through the local and provincial teachers union, organize as a local specialist group, and begin to hold monthly meetings after school. (Thanks for doing the legwork, Denise.) I attended the last meeting: they were immersed in reviewing the new provincial exam that they would need to prepare students for, discussing upcoming professional development, and developing a plan to work with their elementary colleagues on an essential learning document to aid transition.

Their commitment against odds doesn't surprise me. Everywhere I go I see educators meeting after school, on weekends, during breaks, and online to think about teaching and learning. What's surprising is that you rarely hear about the daily dedication and passion of teachers. Our eyes tear up to hear the stories of Olympic athletes and their Herculean effort to "own the podium." Daily newscasts extol their virtues. Let's spare a few minutes to think of the heroes in education, their long hours, their commitment to excellence, their dedication to their craft, and their passionate pursuit of improved life-chances for each child in their care. Let's give them a standing ovation!
Image: garryknight's photostream on Flickr

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Not gold medals but glowing hearts

I've spent most of my career in high schools, so I wondered how much help I could be when I was invited to supervise a station at Ladysmith Primary School for their family math afternoon. Don't worry, Anita said, we've trained the grade 2 and 3 students to “man” the stations. You really won't have to do anything.

I arrived at the "Olympic" event and got a participant card - the Olympic logo on a clip secured by a ribbon around my neck - and was steered to my station. There were a dozen or so stations around the gym with various activities suitable for primary students. Mine was a logic puzzle. My tiny student leaders quickly showed me how to help the families do the "event" at our station, how to give the participant a "medal" to add to their Olympic logo clip when they'd completed the puzzle. And they taught me how to be "gentle." Even if they don't solve it, you can give them a medal, they told me. We honour their participation. And don't forget to be encouraging, they added. But don't just give them the answer, they admonished - that takes the fun out of it. Then with that sage teaching advice, they invited me to sit in a chair, because, really, I wouldn't have to do anything - they had everything under control. And they did. I got to watch.

Parents and their children poured into the gym, enthusiastically participating in the math "events" and gathering up their "medals" with glee. At our station, even the smallest child solved the puzzle with Ruby and Maddy's expert prompting and support. You could see the light shine in their eyes when their tiny fingers pointed to the solution - "It's that one!" And Maddy and Ruby's enthusiastic, "Yes! You got it!" was never less than genuine. What was best of all was watching the parents as they watched their children thinking hard in math. And another best - every person in the room could say, "Math is fun!"

The Olympic feat I'd like to point out is something else though. A quick glance around the room would tell you that hours and hours and hours of time was spent to make this magical event happen - everything from planning and designing the stations, training the student-leaders, creating the ribbons, "medals," and signs, ordering tables, setting up the gym, inviting parents. The list is long - surely Anita and her Ladysmith Primary team should stand on a podium and receive their own medal. And they are just one of the schools I happened to visit. Events like this take place in our schools constantly. They connect our parents to our community, allow children to be leaders, and provide educators an opportunity to showcase what's most important for learning. There are no ceremonies to acknowledge this important work; the reward, for those who are lucky enough to see it, is in the glowing hearts of the children and their families.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Do you believe?

Ordering food is the hard part. Close to 100 people are expected, but will they really show up, tired educators at the end of a long day? How many of them will have something "come up"? By the time we started, however, we realized we'd have to have chairs brought in and I began to wish I'd decided on one more platter of cheese.

Over 100 educators arrived in the end - administrators, teachers, university instructors, student teachers - to think together as productive partners in a network of educators - the Network of Performance Based Schools. Our task? To achieve our collective "dream with a deadline": an equitable future with quality outcomes for every learner by 2020. In each network school, teacher design an inquiry question to discover ways to improve learning. In our region, we meet formally three times each year to share ideas, ask question, and learn together. You can see some of our work in progress at our Mid-Island Wiki.

Here are educators deciding that it's "too late to wait," as Peter Senge says, and are working in teams in their schools or, if in their school there is no one to work with, with educators in other schools, and if there is no one to work with in their district, with other educators in our province. They are refusing to work in isolation. They are pushing themselves to think about research-based practice, designing focused inquiry questions to examine their own teaching and learning, and implementing formative assessment daily.

Is it going smoothly? No. It's messy, hard work that forces us to think hard, work hard, redesign the way we do things in schools, test our own preconceptions - and meet together at the end of a long day. But here is gold medal work that makes you want to say, "I believe."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Blowing a horn loudly for teachers

Shelley, my first practicum teacher told me, if you don't blow your own horn, someone will use it as a spittoon. For years I thought that my difficulty with self-praise was in part due to the way I was raised ("bragging" was the ultimate sin), in part because I am Canadian (we are defined by our unassuming nature) and in part because I am a woman (as Clay Shirky argues, "not enough women have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks"). However, lately I've been thinking that it is also because I am a teacher. Those of us who are drawn to teaching are more modest, less self-aggrandizing. Teachers are "behind-the-scenes" people, coaching, prompting, encouraging, pushing, carrying, cheering. The focus is not on the teacher, but on the student.

The danger, of course, is that we become the spittoon of society. Kids can't read? Blame teachers. Kids can't write? Blame teachers. Kids can't solve math problems? Blame teachers. Kids aren't motivated? Blame teachers. Kids are overweight? Blame teachers. Kids aren't responsible? Blame teachers. And because we are modest, we think, yes, we could do better. And we go back to the drawing board and add more things to our plate: literacy initiatives, numeracy initiatives, healthy schools initiatives, social responsibility initiatives and spend our professional development learning how to "engage" students.

The result? Tired teachers. Discouraged teachers. And teachers who don't feel valued. Yet the teachers I meet daily should be sung about in the streets and have their pictures hung on Olympic-sized billboards. But who will blow their horn?

I've decided to take it up - my Olympic series. Here is my first snapshot. Last week was exam week for secondary schools on a semester system. That means that teachers wrap up their semester, mark final assignments and exams, write report cards, put away the books, files, and materials of one set of courses and start to fill their rooms with a new set. It is, as you can imagine, a very busy week. And if they are teaching Socials 11 or English 10, they also have to mark the provincial exams. There is no requirement to mark them in a certain way. They could mark the papers in their classroom by themselves quickly. But teachers in our district decided to mark the exams in a district-wide process that takes a full day to complete. It begins, actually, the day before when a half dozen teachers volunteer - during this madly busy week - to create anchor papers from the stacks and stacks of written exams. The next day the whole group reads the anchor papers together and agree on how the papers should be marked and why. Then each paper is "blind marked" (neither the school nor the student is identified) and "double-marked" (two teachers agree on the mark). Throughout the day and more formally at the end of the day, teachers reflect on the student work, note areas of weakness, and consider approaches and ideas to tackle those challenges.

This heroic work done during a busy time by exhausted teachers isn't just a good day's work. It's work meant to change the future for children, to improve their life chances, to make success for each child a reality. Three cheers for our teacher heroes. I wish we had a podium and medals to hand out.

Image: Nick-K.'s photostream on Flickr