Eddie, you inspire me.
I don't teach for the vanity, and let's face it - teachers do not exactly have the best reputation these days. Something stupid about money-hungry fiends who take up way too much of the taxpayer's money, blah blah blah. It's not like we are educating the future citizens of the world or whatever, so no big deal. For the record, it is a huge burden to teach kids stuff they will never use in real life. Even textbooks have to work extra hard with their fancy graphics and enticing fonts to convince children that modeling the shoulder height of a male African elephant is an example of using cube roots in "real life."
Note that the problem states "a male African elephant," as in a (singular) male African elephant. Why the hell does nobody ever care about the female population? What made this particular male elephant so special that he can have his shoulder height modeled by a mathematical function? Won't the other elephants feel left out?
Some days I feel as if I am teaching from inside of a five foot thick cinder block that's been buried ten feet underground. A few sympathetic students will strain their ears and squint their eyes, but no one is really listening.
Other times my lessons go so horribly that I wish I could morph into a bird and fly away. At least that will be more exciting than what my students will have to endure. There are moments when I forget that teaching is not the same thing as learning, and there are instances when I knowingly commit the heinous crime of giving my students the "I taught it so you should know it" attitude. I know, I'm awful.
I have been told that it can take years to make a difference in someone's life, and most of us do not have the privilege of witnessing that change. I have also been told that making a difference in somebody's life can be as simple as handing out a lollipop.
My "lollipop" moment happened on my graduation day.
Four years ago I was an orientation leader for the incoming class of con-ed 2015, Queen's University. A couple of us volunteered to write letters to future members of the con-ed family that year. I had a lot of fun with those letters and wrote them on hello kitty paper and decorated the margins with stickers from my personal sticker collection (of which I am very proud of). Only one person out of five responded to my invitation to email any questions or concerns they had to me. Orientation week came and went, and for a while, that was that.
In all honesty, I had forgotten all about those letters. But one of those letters had been sent to a young man named Mike. Mike went on to become the Rector of Queen's University in 2014. On the day I received my Bachelors of Education, I walked across the stage of Grant Hall to shake the Rector's hand. He leaned in and said to me, "April I just wanted to tell you that you were the one who wrote the letter to me. The one with the hello kitty stationary and all. I wanted to tell you what a difference it made." I was so shocked I nearly pushed him off the stage (okay, it was a gentle nudge, but my family members who were watching from the balcony swore that it looked like I punched him in the shoulder).
That story still gives me warm fuzzies every time I think about it. Who would have thought that a letter I wrote, and purposefully sprinkled with tacky looking gold-trimmed stickers would have been something that could ever have an impact? I mean, okay, I doubt I drastically altered the course of his life by sending him that letter, but I will be forever grateful to Mike for showing me what I difference I have made.
To quote Drew Dudley who quoted Marianne Williamson, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, and not our darkness, that frightens us."
Sometimes our students have small ways of telling us we matter, and they will come at moments when we least expect it. On Friday, I complimented a student for the cute stickers she had on her notebook. Surprisingly, stickers are not easy to come by in Kazakhstan, and if you know me, you will know that I am a proud owner of a shoe-box full of stickers that I have been hoarding since I was seven. Today, that student came to school with a pack of happy face stickers. She gave them to me.
So, to my fellow teachers who may feel discouraged, worn out, or overworked, I say - teach on! Follow your guts and stick to your principles. Teach because you matter more than you know. Teach because you are powerful beyond measure. Teach because you have the courage to teach.
I was reminded of this little gem I found on the internet in a conversation today with one of my good friends about the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (see video link below). She had been feeling a little conflicted about the "10 000 hour rule" - the mantra that states you need to devote 10 000 hours in order to really be good at something. After all, the only thing most of my peers have devoted 10 000 hours to in our lifetime thus far is school. Imagine how that would go in an interview...
Interviewer: So tell me about your greatest strength.
Me: Ever since I was three I had been enrolled in school. I've invested so much time and energy into this endeavor that I feel I really mastered the skill of passivity in the classroom. I can now successfully memorize isolated facts and information and retain it in my short term memory long enough to regurgitate it on a final exam. So I would definitely say school is my greatest strength. I'm amazing at school.
I can see how this rule can be disheartening for those who feel it might be a little too late to begin a new skill. As much as I loved reading Outliers and learning about how cultural and environmental factors really influence success, I think that readers need to be cautious of extending these ideas too far. Despite the environmental hand you may be dealt, success is also dependent on how you decide to interact with these factors.
There are some interesting tidbits you can take away from the TED talk on "How to Learn Anything" by Josh Kaufman, which dispels the 10 000 myth (though there is some truth to it, admittedly). Watch on to learn about the learning curve; successful strategies and barriers to skill acquisition; and to see his cool ukulele performance at the end!
A question I've considered many years: Why is it that so many of the tasks we perform in our culture - at home, at school, at work, at play - are set up [...] where most of us can succeed only at the price of another's failure. - Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn is one of my heros in the field of education. He is an American author and lecturer on topics pertaining to human behaviour, parenting, and education. His website contains a series of links to articles he's written, books published, his personal blog, and a series of "online freebies" (e.g. video/audio).
In the video below, Kohn speaks to a group of educators about the effects of competition in the classroom (my thoughts here). To put it simply, competition kills creativity; it teaches students a "sink or swim" attitude and that one's success comes only at another's failure. He argues that competition is never the optimal arrangement. In contrast, cooperation and collaboration lends itself to better attitudes and results, both in the classroom and in society as a whole.
As an aspiring educator, I couldn't help but also notice the way Kohn engages his audience as well. He skillfully navigates the content of his lecture while drawing his audience into the discussion as well. He starts by surveying the audience to see what their professions are, creating a simple but effective connection. Then, he provides an example of a study having to do with competition that yielded some fascinating result, and prompts the audience to think about why those results may have been produced. He gives the audience a chance to discuss their thoughts with someone near them, and takes some time to talk about other relevant observations he's made on the topic before getting the audience to share their responses. That way, he sets the stage for the depth and type of responses expected of his audience, and they also get some time to refine and further develop their responses before sharing with the larger group.
Watching and listening to Mr. Kohn speak is such a privilege. He's funny, insightful, and thought provoking. Definitely worth the watch!
“I teach high school math. I sell a product to a market that doesn't want it but is forced by law to buy it.” — Dan Meyer
Rita Pierson reminds us all of the importance of human connection.
The 2014-2015 academic year marks my 18th consecutive year of schooling. Over the last two years, I've developed a horrible case of "senoritis," which, according to Wikipedia is "a colloquial term mainly used in the United States and Canada to describe the decreased motivation toward studies displayed by students who are nearing the end of their high school, college, and graduate school careers." (Preach Wikipedia, preach). Three years ago, you would never have caught me skipping classes, using my cell phone in class, or sitting in... you guessed it - the nosebleed section. On one hand, I absolutely cannot wait to be out of school and teaching in my own classroom. On the other hand, it freaks me to think that I will eventually touch the lives and underdeveloped mind of hundreds of children to come, children who will eventually grow up to become the future leaders of their generation.
Ever since popularized videos like Suli Breaks' spoken word poem on"Why I Hate School But Love Education" and Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on "How Schools Kill Creativity" I've begun to question everything. At first it was a very cynical, and unhealthy type of questioning that gave me fuel to justify the "senoritis" I was feeling. I have been a very successful student all my life, and that's because I've learned to navigate the system. When it comes to skills like memorization, test-writing, and exam-preparation, I am an expert in my field. Eventually, this made me feel inadequate and ill-prepared for life in the Real World. I wondered what life would have been like if I had been exposed to the same kind of education that Logan LaPlante calls "Hackschooling." The more people I met and spoke to about the crisis around schools, the more I realized that the school system I have loved all my life was failing people all over the country. School - which gave me my friends, my hobbies, my love for learning... was starting more and more to resemble the factories they once were.
"There are three things you need to remember as a teacher, " Bev Kokerus said in a recent workshop on occasional teaching at the Faculty of Education. "The first is be memorable. The second is to find the positives. If there are none, turn the negatives into a positive. And last is to take care of yourself and your family." I needed to find the positives again. Once I began to do some soul searching, it wasn't that hard.
The first question to ask myself was why I am here? I'm here because I want to be. I think back to my first few weeks at Queen's and how it was absolutely enchanting. As I delved deeper into my studies the beautiful scenery faded into the background and I began to take all the little things for granted. I stopped noticing how pretty the trees looked against the bright blue sky every morning, how incredibly serene the sunrise overlooking the lake was, how calming the quiet hum inside Douglas library could be... I wasn't alone in this process. The effects of senioritis were widespread, and as we entered our fifth year of university many of my colleagues and I had stopped noticing our surroundings entirely. Get good grades, get a job, pass that course... no wonder school had begun to look so bleak!
Occasionally, I will find myself falling back into that predictable slump I try so hard to avoid. Turn the negatives into a positive. Okay, so I admit I have met some people in my young life who were never meant for school. I also know people who never had the opportunity to have an education - and I know how powerful schooling can be in a person's life. Perhaps, my initial disillusionment and perhaps overly optimistic perception of schools had not been in vain. Yes, senioritis is very real, but I also know that I am lucky to be here. And yes, schooling and the education system as it exists today can still be crappy, but need to reframe my thinking and see this as a challenge rather than permanent flaw. While it is important to stay curious, we also need develop a healthy ways to question the world (that doesn't turn you into a pessimist). School can still be that fun, magical place where learning takes place and I can keep my starry-eyed optimism about the world. It is now my mission as an educator to help students see it that way too.
International math educator who writes, occasionally.