Friday, September 25, 2015

Why I Love School Sports: Confessions of Non-Sporty Teacher

Yesterday, I went to not one but two school sporting events. The first was a soccer game at my son's small independent school. The Hill Top Hawks were playing the Stratford Friends Phoenix. The Phoenix were victorious, but it was a beautiful day for a game.

From there, we drove to the STHS Stadium where the Spartans played the Trojans in an epic (and very long) football game. Again, a beautiful evening to be outside and the band sounded great.

If you know me at all, you know that I am not sporty. Sure, I attempt to play tennis and street hockey with my kids, but I really don't have the patience to watch others play. While I have dutifully sat through many sporting events out of love, I have rarely paid much attention to the game. In fact, the only reason I knew the Spartans were winning last night was because the pep band played On Wisconsin each time they scored - and I heard that song many times last night.

Not paying attention to the game has enabled me to appreciate the extensive benefits for school sports. It took me a while to realize these benefits. I used to bring a book. But once I stopped reading, I started watching. And that is when I noticed all the amazing things that go on while the team is on the field.

  • Working toward a common goal. When you attend a game,  you typically hope someone will win. This unites the spectators and the team. This is a good lesson for non-school organizations and families. Work together. Cheer each-other on. High-five 'em when they win and pat 'em on the back if they lose. Either way, we are a team.
  • Pride. Watching the parents is the best. Sure, there are some out there who take the games too seriously, but most of them are just proud of their kids. I sat next to a mom at the soccer game who "talked" to her son on the field for the entire game. "You can do it, Ben. Pay attention, Ben." She was proud of his every move - the good ones and the not so good ones. "You should have seen him when he first started," she beamed.
  • Learning from defeat and success. I am a sucker for the underdog and so it always kills me that someone loses. Still, learning how to lose is important and so is learning how to win graciously. When they line up, shake hands and really mean it, it shows that they are learning these skills.
  • Opportunity. Sure, most coaches are going to play their best players. But not always. Sometimes you get to bear witness to someone's first goal, assist, save or great play. Wow.
  • Life happening. When you watch school sports, you are right up close. You hear the coaches and players. You see the cheerleaders get tired and hear the band's flat notes. It is real life happening - and it is beautiful. At last night's game, one of the coaches had his son on the sidelines with him. I know his son from the Challenger League. He might be the most reluctant baseball player ever and will frequently wander off the base. But he seemed to like football more. He drank lots of Gatorade and chatted with his dad. He wandered off a little, too, and the dad would leave the sidelines to go find him. Real life happening.
  • School Spirit. The Beach Boys encouraged us all to Be True to Our School. At both games yesterday, there was some serious school spirit. From the pep band to the cheerleaders to the kids in the stands to the parents biting their nails - everyone was hoping, wishing and cheering for their school. As a teacher, this delights me.
School is so important - and easy for me to love. But adding sports - a thing that so many people love - adds to the depth of the school experience. By playing and watching the game, selling hot dogs, playing in the pep band, waving a banner, drinking the team's Gatorade, we are creating and sustaining community. And that, my sporty and non-sporty friends, is what school is all about.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What is Reflection? 4 Questions to Guide Your Thinking

Today is the last day of summer. I know, summer really ended earlier this month when school opened. Back to waking up early, packing lunches, checking homework, talking to teachers, waiting at the bus stop, band practice, cross country, new adventures, old friends and different expectations.

We have spent the last three weekends starting or resuming all these back to school habits. If we are lucky, we made some goals and are trying to meet them. But how much time in the last three weeks have we reflected on our new experiences with students, colleagues, bus schedules and adventures? It is an interesting question.

I am a mindfulness class drop-out. OK, I didn't actually drop out and the instructor was far too positive and hopeful to kick anyone out of the class. However, I really struggled with the practice of mindfulness.

"Pay attention to your breathing" were the basic directions. "Notice what you are feeling in your body." "Just be." Instead, I planned tomorrow's lesson and made mental grocery lists. I struggled to not giggle while we practice "mindful walking."

Even though I was not able to practice mindfulness, I have become mindful or reflective. I still can't really pay attention to my breathing without getting distracted. But what I have learned is to pay attention to how I feel and reflect upon why I am feeling that way.

Here is an example: As a teacher, I am totally ok with the idea of failure. If the lesson was a flop or everyone failed the test, I am able to quickly say to myself, "what can I do differently next time?" I am comfortable enough with my skills and our community of trust to notice what went wrong, why it did and what I can do differently next time.

The same was true for when things go well. I am able to notice what went right and what made that event/lesson/encounter successful. From there, I can ponder how to replicate this success in another setting or for another purpose.

Consequently, these basic questions have become my mindful or reflective practice:
  • What happened just now?
  • How did that go?
  • What made it good/bad? Successful/not? Pleasant/Unpleasant? Productive/A waste of time? Fun/Boring? Engaging/passive? 
  • What can I do next time to improve the outcome? (even if it was good)
It is easy to get wrapped up in the new and sometimes overwhelming challenges of the 2015-2016 school. After all, we are so busy and deadlines loom. But it is essential to make time to ponder these questions. Sometimes over a cup of coffee early in the morning, sometimes with a trusted colleague or mentor, sometimes while sitting in traffic or waiting in the car for band practice to be over.

I may never be able to pay attention to my breathing. But by focusing on these reflective questions, I can figure out what is going on and how to best move forward.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Organizational Learning

Students share their Chromebook experiences

Last Spring, my 8th grade son presented to the school board with a group of teachers about their Chromebook experiences. The district had piloted a 1:1 Chromebook program for 8th & 9th grade. I attended the meeting because I was proud of my kid, but also, I was proud of the teachers.

Not to harp too much about Chromebooks, but they are really great. They support engagement, organization, research, effective use of time, efficiency, best-practices, etc., etc., etc. In short, Chromebooks support learning.

So much of my career has been focused on individual learning - for myself or for students. In recent years as an administrator, I have thought more and more about organizational learning. This is a bigger and stickier ball of wax.

I found a paper on Scribd (a new fun tool for me) about Individual Learning. Read it, it was fun. The part that was the most compelling for me was about the differences and the connections between individual and organizational learning.

All of us are "islands of knowledge," which is great to a certain extent. But connecting those islands and embedding new learning into organizational patterns is the challenge.

How can we accomplish broader organizational learning? How can schools have structures in place that encourage adaptive behaviors for all learners (adults and students alike)? How can we create challenging, shared goals? How can we sustain a culture of continual evaluation and refinement of our structures and practices?

These questions will plague me all weekend (and for years to come, no doubt). But for now, I'll hold up as a fine example of organizational learning that team of teachers and students who presented to the school board last April. Their islands of knowledge were not only connected, but in sync and continuously communicating their needs, ideas, set-backs and successes.

Part of their success, I think, was ownership. Those teachers and students were given tools and guidelines and asked to create a "program." They were encouraged to experiment and try new things - the outcomes of which were innovative and effective models for teaching and learning. They became enthusiastic experts who were able to share their passions with others. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the excitement on the faces of the listeners - how cool is that? Those pilot teachers and students led the change - and got others to connect their islands with the massive continent-sized group of thinkers that they had become.

Organizational learning at its finest, I think.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Idea Explosion!

Last week, I suffered from insecurity and doubt. Trust me, it is not a fun place to dwell. I kept reminding myself that change is uncomfortable. But also, I reminded myself that I LIKE change.

Part of my identity as an educator is someone who works for change. I am reluctant to use the phrase "change agent" here, because while I work for and support change, I don't have a lot of success creating change on a scale bigger than my own realm.

That said, my realm just got a whole lot bigger. Once, I was responsible for working for change in my classroom. Now, I can work for change with a larger group of peers - educators like me who work for change in their own realms. The thing is, if you think about all the realms that we collectively touch, that's a whole lot of change.

I spent the week allowing this idea to sink in. The deeper it sank, the more I liked it. "What if we.." kept creeping into my thinking. I jotted all my "what if wes" down on Post-It notes or in e-mails to colleagues. My desk and head are cluttered with them (see the picture below) and all of a sudden, I was able to make a plan.

This plan encompassed procedural changes, website changes, changes in approach, changes in focus - all of which I jammed into a nerdy proposal for my boss to check out on Monday. Man, that was fun!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Change is Uncomfortable

The first pangs of discomfort came as a result of sitting. The old me - teacher/mom/summer school director - rarely had time to sit. Sometimes my feet would hurt, so I'd take a few minutes to sit down with a kid or on the playground, but mostly, I stood.

The new me - director of professional development - sat a lot this week. It was an uncomfortable shift. I don't know if every week will require as much sitting, but it was the change in sitting habits that I think was the most noticeable and the most uncomfortable.

There are other changes that I am finding uncomfortable. My office is really quiet. Again, the teacher/mom/summer school director me is unused to this level of calm. I think more about big ideas and less about what will we do in the now to make our learning productive and meaningful. I have a lot to learn. Sure, teacher/mom/summer school director was always learning, but this level of learning feels extreme - so much information, so quickly, with little room for error. Uncomfortable.

If you think about the things that can cause us to be uncomfortable, they are generally mild - an itchy sweater or a room that is the wrong temperature. In these situations, we just put on a different sweater or adjust the thermostat. Other uncomfortable things reap pretty good benefits - yoga comes to mind. Those poses are not at all comfortable and yet we feel so great after doing them.

Even so, it is funny to have to live my own advice. I tell my own kids (and I used to tell my students) all the time "change feels weird. It's uncomfortable. You're going to be ok."

As teacher/mom/summer school director, I felt a certain level of competence in what I did each day. If I wasn't terribly prepared, it was often no big deal because I was competent enough to wing it. I knew my tools and how to utilize them to maximize results. As director of professional development, my tools are new and unfamiliar. Some of my old tools work, but not in the same ways. It feels really uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I had a call from another director of professional development who was also a former middle school teacher. Unsolicited, he offered me some advice. "You will always miss the kids," he said. (How did he know that I had just been thinking about them?) "But what you will find is that you will still have an impact, only in a really different way. You will help teachers connect and feel ready, which will ultimately help the kids. You will learn to appreciate them more, perhaps, because working with adults can sometimes be more challenging, but you will grow to love what you do and feel really good at it."

The teacher/mom/summer school director was so proud of this colleague for offering wisdom and support to a learner. And the director of professional development felt a little less uncomfortable.