Just Ask Them

One of the best trends in education is the continued innovation and increased value of professional development. The days of putting in your time while some random person goes over rules and regulations or leads a glorified pep rally of everything the district does well are, thankfully, over. Districts are spending more time and resources that emphasize improved practices, improved implementation of the curriculum, and improved awareness of student health.

The quality of those Superintendent Conference Days and Professional Development Days has increased exponentially. While the industry is still trying to catch up with the rapid changes in technology, standards, and world events, the attitude and willingness to invest in these sessions only improves our craft.

We may pick up a new skill. We may be reinvigorated with a stirring keynote presentation. We may work with a department and share our lessons, improve our curriculum. We may begin to better understand mindfulness and how to better help our students cope with the pressures and anxieties of their world.

These types of days are needed; thankfully much thought and preparation are now put into them. Because of that, there are more teachers wanting to learn more, wanting to evolve in the classroom, and wanting to do better for kids. I didn’t realize it then, but this was crystallized for me the day Kris Felicello—The Admin—and I heard Angela Stockman say that we should do an EdCamp. After taking five minutes to learn what that was, we nodded and knew that it was going to happen.

EdCampRockland was born. With a team of amazing people with motors that don’t stop running, the first EdCampRockland was a huge success. A couple hundred educators came on a Saturday and had inspiring conversations that centered around topics they wanted to discuss and learn. It was a day that fully cemented my belief that there was a real desire by educators to continue to get better. There was passion.

We knew that year two would be bigger and better. During our planning sessions for this year’s event (which was March 9, 2019), Kris mentioned the idea of having a student led session. Admittedly, I was nervous for this. I am always cautious of putting kids in spots where they may feel a bit uncomfortable. But, I decided that I would help this part of the day out.

I found my four students who would lead one session of EdCampRockland 2019. My apprehension was put at ease almost immediately when they all responded with an enthusiastic “yes” to the idea. Here was a group of kids about to conclude 13 years of public school education and they wanted to give back. They were going to take time on a Saturday to come back to their school and speak to a group of teachers, many of whom were from other districts.

I felt better. They were all in. And, having known them since they entered middle school, I knew that they were a special group of people. They would have a powerful message.

But, what would that message be?

I’d like to say that we spent hours planning. But, we met together on March 7th, just two days before the event. I asked, “what do you want to tell teachers? I mean, you have 13 years of experience so I’m sure you have a lot to say.”

We just started talking, which led to conversations about their classes, things they liked, things they didn’t like. I was learning so much from this group. Despite knowing them through my role as the English Department Coordinator and National Honor Society Adviser, I never had the pleasure of actually teaching them in class, which is most definitely my loss. They were bringing up so many topics, ranging from teachers discussing their political views to certain lesson types, to knowing whether or not a teacher cared.

I was in awe. Here was all of this information about the profession seen through the eyes of those we serve. I was getting the type of information that could transform practices and attitudes in my department because kids were talking. I started to ask questions, particularly about the political views topic. The more they spoke, I was gaining even more insight about the role of a teacher in the classroom.

At one point, I asked, “why don’t you just do this? You have all of this experience. Would you be comfortable with doing a Q and A with teachers?”

They were in.

In the spirit of EdCamp and truly meaningful professional development, the group of near high school graduates decided to go into a room with no script other than their introductions and let the room decide what they wanted to learn.

All kids are special. All kids have talent. My particular four? Well, let’s just say that they are truly going to change the world. They already have done so.

And, then, the magical moment happened.

Educators filled the room. I introduced the four students and their purpose. I asked the audience to think of questions to ask these four remarkable students. After all, this was the best, primary source they were ever going to get. I could see the educators really taking that message to heart. After all, the four individual students are products of our system. What better source of how that system functions than these four amazing achievers who are not only great students, but people who are involved in so much?

They each introduced themselves, talking about the ways they learn best. One student made their intentions clear. “We are not here to tell you how to do your jobs. You are obviously the experts in how to teach. We are here to give a student perspective. And, obviously, you are here because you value that.”

Amazing, right?

After the impressive introductions, one teacher mustered up the courage to ask a question. It was about group work. They gave stunning insight (more on that later).

The next question was about homework. Again, surprising, insightful answers.

Their favorite lesson? What they thought was most important thing they took from elementary school? Why are they so motivated and others are not? What makes a good teacher?

For 45 minutes, these four students held the room. At points, several members of the audience had tears in their eyes after hearing certain answers. Afterwards, many came up to thank them for, “the best PD session they have ever been to.”

Word spread quickly through EdCampRockland and they were asked to do another session. Different audience, different questions…same inspiring, insightful answers. Educators walked out with information to become immediately better because of these four spectacular people.

And, it’s because we just asked.

We don’t ask kids enough. They are the ones sitting in our classrooms, walking our hallways, dealing with our procedures and rules, and interacting with so many of us year after year. They are the ones who go through the homework, the projects, the lessons, balance their interests with school, serve our community, have jobs, and learn to navigate their emotions and life’s pressures. Our most valuable source of professional development are the ones sitting right in front of us.

All we need to do is ask.

With their success, many educators were saying that the students should lead meetings with other buildings in our district. I mentioned to them that I wish they could do that for my department. They replied, “sure, when do you want us to do it?”

Spectacular kids.

Last Friday, our Superintendent’s Conference Day may have been the best I’ve experienced in 21 years of teaching. For the morning, we were given time to work in our departments. Part of my role is to develop PD sessions for my department, grades 7 through 12.

After surveying the department about what they wanted to learn, I decided that I would divide up the morning into three sessions. First, we would have a session that inspired conversation about interacting with kids, but also double as a strategy to use in the classroom. We would conclude the morning with what turned out to be a spectacular session on mindfulness, led by our district’s own, the amazing Reyna Texler. In between, my spectacular crew held their Q+A with the English Department.

Now, in case you didn’t know, a room full of English Teachers may be the most difficult group to speak with. After all, we are passionate people who want to be heard. But, again, this group—three of the original four—held the room. They were asked about what techniques they learned in English classes that helped them the most. They were asked about group work, homework, grammar, SAT preparation, social media, motivation, reading classics, choice in reading, why some students aren’t engaged, and so much more.

One of their final questions prompted some amazing answers. They were asked what advice they would give to a brand new teacher entering our building.

As I sit writing this, I am still getting texts from my colleagues about their session.

These students impacted my field. Not only am I ridiculously proud of them for having the courage to do this, I am extremely grateful. Because of them, my profession gets better. Because of them, kids’ experiences in a classroom will be better. That’s a legacy that this group of teenagers has left. And, knowing them, there is so much more to come.

All of this happened because we just asked them.

If we put students first, it doesn’t only mean that we do everything possible to give them the best experience while they are in our schools, our classrooms. It means that we put them in positions that allow them to share their experiences, share their “why”, and share what worked for them as well as what didn’t work for them. If we say that we value their voice, then we must listen to that voice.

I can honestly say this because I have just lived this experience within the past three weeks. Their words, their experiences have challenged my thinking. They have already impacted how I teach and how I lead. Schools must put kids front and center and genuinely listen to them. If we do, it will be transformative.

I learn so much from my students every single day. Over the past three weeks, this particular group has left a permanent impact on how I will continue on in my career.

I Learned A Million Things, But Here Are Some Of The Highlights…

Teaching Style Isn’t All That Important

One of the questions that was featured in all three sessions was about teaching styles. How did the kids learn the best? I began to think that they would say lecture and traditional was boring. They had a different take.

“Honestly, it doesn’t really matter if a teacher actually loves what they are teaching.”

“If the teacher is passionate about what they are teaching, the can do it in any way. That passion will get us excited about it because even a lecture will be fun because they actually care about it.”

“As long the teacher makes an effort to have a connection with us as people, then it doesn’t matter. We’ll do anything if we have that type of relationship.”

So, all of this talk about different styles and modernizing delivery practices may just be a bit misguided. While we should always seek to find better ways to make lessons engaging, the first concern should be about our passion for our subject and our passion for our students. If those come across, we can do anything.

The takeaway here is that PD sessions could be planned to give teachers more tools to have their passions come through better. We could emphasize mindfulness so that teachers can better demonstrate care for kids. And, leaders should create an environment that allows teachers to create those bonds early in the year, rather than diving right into curriculum because “there’s not enough time.”

We Really Have To Do Group Work Better

In every session, the idea of cooperative learning came up. We spend a lot of time in the field talking about the value of group work. I, admittedly, am a big fan of having students work in teams to learn a concept, complete a task, and to produce a product together. I’ve learned over the years that you must build a process, everyone must have a role, and everyone must be accountable. We must also build in self and peer evaluations. But, I admit that I still struggle with grading.

I was ready for them to say that they loved it. They don’t.

“Honestly, I can’t stand group work. I end up doing about 90 percent of the work because nobody else will. And, they know that I’ll do it and we’ll all get a good grade.”

“I’m not a fan. I do like things done for school in a certain way. Plus, half the time, they (the other group members) say, ‘you’re smart so you can do it.’ It becomes something that I am responsible for other people’s grades.”

One student had a different take.

“I like it because you can learn from others. That’s the good part, especially if I am working with my friends. It’s just when the grade comes into play, people can get a little tense.”

And, there might be the biggest takeaway from the students. The negative feelings towards group work really stems from grading. Why does group work have to be graded? Why isn’t the learning, the activity and skills acquired, the most important thing? Why is that all reduced to a number? In fact, one teacher asked about whether or not it would make a difference if a grade wasn’t attached.

“Definitely. I wouldn’t mind working with a group at all if my grade wasn’t involved. Then, I could see all of the positives they were talking about. There wouldn’t be that pressure.”

Another teacher asked about giving peer evaluations so that grades could be adjusted.

“Nobody feels comfortable doing that. Nobody wants to be that person to say a kid should get a lower grade.”

Now, this answer is coming from a confident, well adjusted, gets along with everybody, high achieving kid. Imagine how someone who is anxious feels about having to fill out something, even anonymously,

I don’t have any answers other than removing the grade and making the learning front and center. But, if we are intent on keeping the grade as part of the group work experience, it is clear that we have many questions to answer and even more improvements to make.

They Know…

One of the themes that came out of many of their answers was that they knew whether or not a teacher cared. And, it certainly makes an impact on them.

“It’s easy to tell if the teacher doesn’t care. Sometimes they’ll even tell you, but even if they don’t, you can tell. They aren’t into it. They don’t talk to us; they talk at us. If they don’t care, why should we care?”

Think about that last question…

If they don’t care, why should we care?

Again, this is a question from a high achiever, one of the ideal students. This is a student who does all of the work, wants to do well, and is going to a top college. Yet, if the teacher doesn’t care, she is questioning whether or not she should care. Imagine a student who isn’t as motivated, who needs more help, who needs someone to inspire them. We just lost a student because they know the teacher doesn’t care.

That caring also manifested in another way. One student talked about her difficulties learning to read in elementary school. For the first couple of years, the teachers took her being a good kid for granted and moved her along because of it. They thought that it would “just happen for her” because she was so good. That was until third grade when a teacher wanted to know why this intelligent young girl was having a hard time reading. The teacher pushed for testing and it was discovered that there was a visual processing issue. Now, a decade later, this student loves to read, wishes she read more in school, and is going into the communication field. And, it was because a teacher cared enough to do more.

As another student said, “if the teacher cares, whether or not the content is interesting doesn’t matter. We’ll care because there is a teacher who cares about what they are teaching and cares that we are learning it.”

Tech and Social Media Are Not The Enemy

As a whole, education is afraid of technology if only because of the rate in which it is evolving. And, that fear doesn’t compare to the fear of social media. The students put it succinctly.

“Sure, the phone can be distracting, but we can do so much with it. Instead of taking it away, we need to learn how to use this technology better and to do better with it. Our classes can give us those opportunities.”

As for responsible social media use…

“Social media use isn’t really a school’s job. That’s a parent and family thing. What schools can do is show us how to use it and bring it into our learning. If we need to learn this for jobs, not just for entertainment, why not learn that in school?”

We can’t let fear get in the way of preparing kids for the technology and social media world that awaits them. Yes, there will be messy moments when students misuse tech or social media. But, isn’t that what school is for? Aren’t we supposed to teach them?

Homework

In each session, the question of homework was brought up. In the English Department session, it was brought up for two reasons. One, they were genuinely curious. Second, they all knew my beliefs so when it comes up, many look to see my reaction. While my beliefs have been stated on this site quite clearly, I was interested to hear what they had to say.

“Homework can be good because it helps us to learn and to practice.”

When that was said, I got the glancing, “I told you so” looks from some members.

But, the students went on to talk about how feedback was given and that the homework they like was purposeful. If every teacher gave homework like that, there isn’t an issue. The looks stopped. Then the students brought up the time.

“It takes me about an hour to maybe two hours a night to do homework.”

The murmur in the room grew. Many teachers said, “that’s not so bad.”

But, then the other two students spoke up.

“I’m a lot different. It must take me more time because I spend about three and half to four hours a night.”

“Yeah, same for me.”

The murmurs stopped. Students learn at different paces. What we consider easy can take students hours. Again, this is a group of high achievers who constantly work hard. Four hours a night on top of everything else isn’t right and isn’t academically sound. For the kids who aren’t as driven or have more difficulties with the content, how many hours is expected from them? Is it a wonder that they give up?

Advice For New And Not-So New Teachers

My favorite question, by far, was what advice they would give to a new teacher. That question came in other forms during the other two sessions as well.

“Although I might spend a lot of time in this school, it isn’t my home. I have a life. I’ve taken dance my whole life. I go every day for class. I have a job. And, I try to find time to have a life. So, I wish teachers would think about that more when they are handing out work for their classes. Their class isn’t the only one I have. And, I am more than just school work.”

That’s from one of the hardest working, thoughtful, kindest, innovative, ambitious people I know in my entire life. That answer means something because it wasn’t said out of anger. It was said in an attempt to have us, the educators, know that there is a balance. We are out of balance and hurting kids because of it. Kids not only have passions outside of school, many have obligations. Our classes are not their life. Our classes should enhance their life and make them better equipped for their life.

“I don’t have that motivation built into me. I think that’s something I gained over time. I think that’s something I had to work for, but I think that’s something people had to help me with. And, I think that is the most important thing a teacher can do.

A teacher can teach you the material. A teacher can get you to ask important questions. But, they need to awaken something inside of you. I don’t think it takes much. It takes having a real person who obviously cares about being there, who cares about helping you…”

Even the most motivated of students need a teacher to inspire. That last quote was said by the valedictorian. If someone that successful needs someone who cares, doesn’t that mean everyone does? And, doesn’t it mean that it is even more important for our reluctant learners?

Closing Thoughts

There was so much more information given by these remarkable people. The educators who were in their presence left inspired. They left questioning their practices. They left knowing that it is important to not only evolve, but to make clear that they are in education for the right reasons.

Sure, a professional speaker could’ve come in and made similar points. And, yes, we still need the technical professional development for curriculum delivery and innovation. And, we certainly need more training with technology and its rapid growth.

But, to best grow, we must seek the perspective of the only people who matter—the students. Their answers will guide us to be better practitioners and, more importantly, create a better, healthier, better focused environment for them to learn. And, it doesn’t take much to get this information.

All we have to do is just ask.


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