Spring Awakenings For Educators

It is hard to believe that we are planning graduation, finals, promotions, and projections for next year already. Where did this year go?  

I remember a few years back a teacher friend told me that once you get to Halloween the year disappears like a magic trick. I thought he was crazy at the time, but, as I get older, the years seem to go quicker and quicker, and his statement turned out to be more true than not.

It scares me how quickly the years fly by, how quickly my kids are growing up, that I am closer to 50 than 30. I often feel like I am just getting started, just figuring out how to be the leader I want to be, the parent I want to be, the person I want to be; I don’t want to run out of time or, worse yet, have the years blend into each other. I want my years to be memorable and, at the risk of sounding self absorbed, I want to be memorable.

I feel sorry for those educators who count the years until retirement, who see their careers and years as putting in time to get to the proverbial finish line.

Many wonder if it is fair that those who have checked out so long ago, who have stopped  trying to learn, to grow, to get better, but still find the strength to complain, receive the same salary as the often silent majority–those dedicated educators who come to work each and everyday determined to hone their craft, make a difference, and be better than they were yesterday. It used to frustrate me too, until I realized that those unlucky educators do not make the same as the inspired and inspiring. The paychecks may look the same, but the satisfaction and fulfillment that you get when teaching is more than a job to you can not be replaced.

As my children get older and start to decide what to do with their lives the best advice I can give them is to try to find a profession that makes you happy, one that you can do some good, and one in which you can never master, but always strive to improve at.

Although teaching seems to becoming more and more demanding, I still can think of no profession better for them to spend the next 30 years of their lives.

It is easy to forget what a great job educating is. Especially since we have more and more crisis to deal with, more angry parents, more needy children, more skills to learn, and all the tech we are bombarded with seems to make the world spin faster and faster.  I have found that when I reflect on the big picture and take some time to actually be mindful of the work I do, I appreciate the calling to make a difference that most educators have. The ability to change a life is a powerful responsibility so we must be prepared to do our best, and look for ways to improve.

To me, there is no better time in education to reflect on your year than in the spring.  There is enough of the year gone that we can smell summer break, but still enough time to correct some wrongs or create a special experience for our  students. Was this year memorable for my students? Was I memorable? What can I do to finish strong? What can I do to make next year even better? These are the Spring Awakening questions all educators can ask themselves as they close out the year, as we try to finish on a high note. Taking some time to analyze your year and be intentional about how you want to finish it can help to make not only this year special, but set yourself up for a great year in 2018-19 (is it really almost 20 years since the turn of the century?!?!). Here are a steps to begin your Spring Awakening.

Students

Which students will remember you in 10 years, 20 years? Will you be the one they tell stories about, write blogs about when they are adults?  Who did you really connect with this year? What strategies worked with connecting to kids ? What failures did you have? What do you wish you didn’t say?  How can you do better?

Reflecting on these questions and being honest with yourself no matter how cringe worthy some moments may have been will help you to be a better teacher or administrator. If you really want to know how you did, or what worked and what didn’t, ask the students.  Take the next month and a half to speak to your students individually and in groups about how they thought the year went, what you could do differently, and what adjustments can we make now together. If you are really courageous, create an anonymous survey for your students; that will let you know what they thought of you as a teacher and, more often than not, they will be honest. You still have time make an effort to finally bond with that student that you just never “got” this year.

Instructional Practices

Review your year and think about your instruction. Did you try anything new? What new strategies worked and which didn’t?  What old projects, or units did you finally abandon this year, if any?

It may be time to purge some old to make room for different ideas. It is also a great time to try something new. This can be the time when you finally try a project based learning unit or let students lead instruction.  Maybe you can dip your toe into the flipped classroom world or give your students the gift of a genius hour. Whatever it is, I challenge you to do something new between now and the end of the year. It can be scary, but also refreshing. It may work, it may not, but you owe it to yourself to feel the excitement of new and different. By doing this you may add another tool in your box.

People

Educators can be funny at times.  We are creatures of habit. Just take a picture of a faculty meeting in September and June.  Chances are everyone is pretty much sitting in the same places with the same people. I used to get upset when I would hear the groans when I assigned seats or did things like group match cards to get people in different groups ( My latest was pictures of education books and you had to find those with the same author as you). I would groan a little inside when I heard teachers or the administrators I work with groan if I asked them to get up, speak to different people, or do team building activities.  It no longer bothers me because it always seems to change the energy in the room and in a good way. They always come back smiling when I have them move, talk, expand their conversational horizons, especially when I get them outside for a “Walk and Talk.” It is good to be uncomfortable sometimes, it is good to break routine,and it is good to meet and learn from new people. Administrators: switch it up, do something different at your end of the year meetings, force different; teachers may groan, but most times they will be invigorated. Teachers: try sitting some place new, having lunch with someone different, make it a point to get to know something more about a colleague. Ask about kids, about how they grew up, about what they read or binge watched on Netflix.  It is a shame that we can work someone for so many years and know so little about them. You can change that this Spring, in fact you can change that tomorrow.

Let It Go

Part of your spring awakening should also be a spring cleaning. What grievances have you been holding on this year? Did “Central” force a new initiative down your throat?  Was a parent unreasonable? What colleague disappointed you? Was life unfair this year? How about the principal’s idea or mistake that made your life harder? It is time not only to let it go, but to also reflect on how you handled it.  Could you have made the situation better? Did you hold onto it too long? Did it really matter all that much in the long run.

Sometimes anger is like a mistress; it may harm us, but we have a hard time letting go of her. I struggle with this everyday (not the mistress part)–the desire to get my pound of flesh, to right a wrong, to get my revenge. Yet, to what end?  Anger really only hurts the ones who hold on to it. As I get older and hopefully wiser, I realize nine times out of ten it wasn’t even about me, it wasn’t personal. We all deal with our own pain, our own suffering, worries, and insecurities.  Most people aren’t trying to piss us off; it is more about something they are dealing with, not us. Take the time to let it go this spring. Write down all of the things that made you angry this year and then rip up the list and move on!

Throw it out!

Take some time to throw out all of the stuff you have been holding onto all of these years. You no longer need that great ditto on polynomials; in fact, do we really need any dittos anymore? How about that VHS tape on the pyramids?  If you didn’t use it this year, you probably won’t use it next. I recently had trouble tossing an old cassette player. Then I realized they had this new thing called the internet where you could pretty much find any song you want for free.  Purge your room of all of the junk! It is so therapeutic, and when you do you can actually find the stuff you want to use.

Memorable Moments

Think about your vivid memories from your 13 years of school.  For me, it is the teachers who made me feel special; it was the field trips, giving a speech about Rocky to my entire high school. I can remember my science fair project on anorexia.  I remember how I looked forward to playing knock hockey in elementary school during our play time. I remember the school wide ping pong tournament and the look of shock on Mr. Fino’s face when I ended his undefeated streak against students. I remember Mr. Dicapua’s look of disappointment when I didn’t turn in my math homework.

Yet, I don’t remember the lessons. I don’t remember the worksheets or the minutia, but I remember the people, the relationships, the unique, the challenging.  I also remember being bored….a lot.

The Power of Moments, as described in the book of the same title by Chip and Dan Health, gives excellent examples of how to make moments special and memorable.   

Think about it what has been memorable about your year. What powerful moments did you create  for your students? Was it a debate in the local courthouse, a private pep talk, an unsolicited compliment or a random act of kindness.? Did you dress up as a historical figure, or take your students on a nature walk where they discovered a skeleton mummy (that you strategically placed)? Did you create suspense by wrapping a present in the front of the room and tell your students that it held the answers to all of their questions (Rick Wormeli style)

What powerful moments did you create?  Can’t think of anything special that you did for yourself or your students this year ?  The good news is it is not too late!

Be creative, do something different, unique and memorable.  Leave your students with a moment they will still be talking about years into adulthood. If you are afraid of AP exams, Regents tests, the curriculum, I get it; those tests, like it or not, are high stakes, but guess what? You can still teach and inspire after the tests are given and maybe, just maybe, you will realize that when these moments are done right, they can actually help student performance on these often antiquated exams.  

Learn

The great thing about our field is there is so much to learn and so many great educators to learn from.  That can be a blessing, but also a curse. I often find myself lost in “Twitterverse”, reading great posts by Evan Robb, Jennifer Gonzalez, Jay Billy, Dan Tricarico, Gary Armida, Angela Stockman, seeing inspirational quotes from Ruby Sneakers and Jon Gordon, and watching educators on DisruptEd TV.  I never have enough time to read all the great books by leaders such as Rick Wormeli, Yong Zhao, Katie Martin, George Curous, Todd Whitaker, Dave Burgess…the list goes on and on. I want to master Flip Grid, Voxer; I want to book snap, I want to hyper doc, I want to learn Spanish, I want to learn an instrument. I want to do so much, but it can be overwhelming, which leaves me spinning my wheels, at times accomplishing none of it.  

As part of my spring cleaning I am going to prioritize and I ask you to do the same. Pick a tech tool to explore, a professional book to read, or blog to read each week. Teachers looking for innovative ideas can start with The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros or Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin. If you want to have a more caring classroom check out Hacking School Culture Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Grey. Leaders must check out anything by Todd Whitaker, but my favorite is Shifting the Monkey. Another inspirational leader is Jimmy Casas–check out his latest Culterize. If you just want to challenge yourself to think differently, read Rick Wormeli; you can start with Fair isn’t always equal.

Education is a special field, a special profession, but it can also be challenging and knock down even the most positive and resilient people.  Taking the time to reflect and refocus is an essential step in not just surviving this profession, but being a life changer who is remembered long after you teach your last lesson. Take some time this spring to try something new, to make a new connection, to be brave, and/or to be different.

You and your students deserve it!