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Somebody trying to help

It is hard to know if the actions we take are having any impact on our students. The “thank you” is rarely there. Even if your efforts appear to be falling on deaf ears, you never know how a student really feels about the time and energy you put in to support them.

Short video. Big message. A River Runs Through It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. One of the major reasons being there is so much to take away from it.

In this scene, Norman Maclean (Craig Sheffer) and his brother Paul (Brad Pitt) are fly fishing on the Gallatin River. Norman was supposed to take his girlfriend’s brother, Neal, with them. Unfortunately, Neal had too much to drink the previous night and passed out on the walk to the river.

Norman is frustrated and believes that his girlfriend will be upset that he did not help her brother. He states, “He doesn’t like fishing. He doesn’t like Montana. And he sure as hell doesn’t like me.” To which Paul replies, “Well, maybe what he likes is somebody trying to help him.”

This is an incredible line, because we discover later that Paul is really talking about himself (no spoilers here, even though the movie came out in 1992). Secondly, it perfectly puts into words how your good deeds will not always be received in the way you want them to be.

Implication for Education

The last day of school. The student you have been pouring your energy into for the past fours years comes into your room with a letter. It is a college acceptance letter. They start crying. You start crying. You hug. Fade to black.

Okay, that never happens.

What will happen is you will be in your classroom grading papers after school. You turn around and see a former student at the door. Maybe a student who made your job a lot more challenging than it needed to be. You exchange pleasantries and ask them how high school is if you are a middle school teacher or how college is if you are a high school teacher. They tell you it is a lot tougher. You smile and tell them how proud you are of them. They reach out to shake your hand and then leave.

That’s it.

They never said thank you. They never said how grateful they are for how you prepared them. They never said how much it meant to them that you never gave up on them. They never said how you changed their trajectory simply by caring.

But, did you catch it?

They came back to see you. And what that “says” is thank you for caring, thank you for believing in me, and thank you for never giving up on me.

Of course it would be nice to hear those things. Even better it would be nice to hear those things when those students are in your class. But, it does not work that way. It is hard for adults to acknowledge an appreciation for help. It is near impossible for students to verbalize it.

All that means is that you can’t let a student’s response, or lack of one, dictate your actions. You must continue to do what is best for students even when there is no sign that they care, or even want your help.

It may seem that students are disinterested in the help that you are trying to give. But remember, it might be that what they like is “somebody trying to help” them.

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Let it Go

In my Coping with Failure post, Rocky reminds us to keep moving forward. Unfortunately, there are times when something or someone will prevent you from progressing. If you reach that point, it is important to recognize it so that you are able to cut your losses and push forward.

You probably think I am going to go with a scene from Frozen. Well, close. Some people have even called Frozen the nordic version of Tombstone. That is not entirely true, but nonetheless both films deal with moving on.

Initially, moving to Tombstone is an attempt at an escape for Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell). He hopes to leave the life of a lawmen and the perpetual danger it put his family in. Tragically, he gets roped back into his former profession, which ultimately leads to the death of his younger brother, Morgan (Bill Paxton).

This scene immediately follows the murder of Morgan at the hands of the Cowboys under the leadership of Curly Bill (Powers Boothe).

Here we see Wyatt inform the Cowboys that he is no longer concerned with enforcing the law. He wants to salvage what is left of his life and start somewhere fresh with his remaining family.

Famously, Curly Bill hears this and simply states, “Well…bye.”

Implication for Education

I am a people pleaser. It is not okay to me if there is there is someone in the building who is unhappy. I take it extremely personally and will do everything I can to “fix” the situation.

Frequently, I send out Google Form surveys that allow teachers to share feedback and potentially criticize, critique, or complain about something. This information gathering is extremely important because it helps inform future planning. But when you internalize negative feedback it can be devastating.

My immediate response is to fix it. How can I make it better? What can I do to change this person’s mind? Is there anything that can be done improve the situation? While these are all very noble pursuits, they often are not the appropriate response.

What I should be doing is determining if the problem or concern is systemic. How many people are feeling this way? Is this a common belief? Does it negatively impact the culture? If the issue is widespread, then it is important to work through solutions with relevant stakeholders in the building.

If I determine that the concern is isolated, I need to move on. This is difficult for me, because as I have stated before I want everyone to love coming to work, and it is painful when someone does not.

I am getting better.

Recently, I sent a survey to staff to evaluate recent professional development. Fifty people responded. As I was reading through the comments, one person crushed the training stating that it was a “waste of time” and how they took “nothing away from the day.” This person gave the training a 1 out of 5 stars.

At first, I took it personally. But then I looked at the results as a whole. That was the only 1 star rating. The mean score was 4.3. The median score was a 5. The other comments were glowing.

Because I did not dwell on the negative response, I was able to look at the totality of the results. And because the opinion was not shared, I had a much easier time reading those negative comments and saying to them, and to the person who wrote them, “Well…bye.”

Choose Wisely

There are a lot of things that we are unable to choose. “Stuff” comes our way and we have to deal with it. When you have the opportunity to choose, be sure to make the choice that is going to set your students up for success.

This is what happens when you choose “poorly.” Okay, maybe it is a little dramatic, but I believe it gets the point across.

In this scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Julian Glover (Donovan) drinks from a golden chalice believing it to be the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the wrong cup, and instead of obtaining ever lasting life, Donovan decomposes in a matter of seconds.

Implication for Education

Every morning I start my school day directing carpool traffic. It is one of my favorite parts of the day, because I get to welcome parents and students to our school.

I am sure to wave and share a smile with every car that goes by. Everyone deserves to have a positive experience when coming to school. Over the years I have become familiar with lots of the cars. Here comes Roscoe, the golden retriever. I know his window will be down for an early morning ear scratch. The white truck that greets me every morning with a salute instead of a wave. The mom on Friday who asks me how my boys are.

These are all positive examples of my daily morning interactions. Unfortunately, not all drivers are warm and friendly first thing in the morning.

No matter how hard I smile or how fast I wave, some parents will ignore my attempts to elicit a positive reaction. Of course I would love for every parent to smile and wave back, but one non-participating parent is not going to ruin my day. It does make me wonder why that parent is choosing not to positively interact with me. Which makes me wonder what impact that has on the child. Which led me to wonder if we have any “non-waving, non-smiling” educators in the building and their impact on student learning.

Teachers do not get to choose their students. They do not get to choose their curriculum. They do not get to choose their colleagues. But, they can choose their attitude.

I go back to the child with the perpetually unhappy parent. At home maybe they don’t see joy, love, humor, or warmth. Maybe their only opportunity to experience a positive interaction is at school.

So who are we to deny those students that right?

There are a lot of things out of our control. Smiling, laughing, waving, joking, comforting, expressing appreciation, and demonstrating excitement are things that every educator can do.

In order for any child to learn they have to feel safe and loved. We cannot assume that every child that comes to our class already has those needs met. Make the choice to greet your students with the positivity and enthusiasm they need to excel.

The Sky is Not Falling

The best way to address any concern is when you are in a calm state. When things happen, and they frequently do, there may be little time to make a decision. It is important to come down from whatever initial emotion you went to in order to begin to remedy the situation.

Okay, it is more of a literary reference, but they did make a movie. In this opening scene Chicken Little is ringing the tower bell informing all the citizens that the sky is falling.

What is important to note is the domino effect Chicken Little’s warning has on the entire community. Because of his overreaction, cars get into accidents, city property is destroyed, and the entire city is in a state of panic.

At the end of the scene we learn that the sky is not falling (maybe it will eventually, but no spoilers here). But whether the sky is or is not falling is irrelevant, the way in which Chicken Little responds only escalates the situation.

Implications for Education

From a Teacher’s Perspective

Inclement weather. You were hoping to get the day off, but the school district thought the weather might pass. It did not. Now you have just been informed that you will be releasing students 3 hours early. Unfortunately, you do not have a 3 hour early release schedule.

As a teacher you have to work with administration and other teachers to put together a plan to get students through the day. How long will classes be? Will students go to all of their periods? When will you go to lunch? Are you eating in the classroom?

Additionally, the students’ energy has just been increased. They are getting out early, and who knows, maybe they will be off tomorrow.

Balancing all the logistical moving parts of a last minute early release with student behavior makes it no easy task to keep your cool, but it is what you have to do.

Students take their cue from you. Their behaviors are mitigated or aggravated by what they see from you.

In this stressful situation, students are already more likely to make poor choices because there is increased excitement and decreased routine.

By being the calming agent in your classroom you can de-escalate a situation where a 3 hour delay can feel like a 3 hour extension.

From a Principal’s Perspective

School threats are all too pervasive in our society. The majority of the time they are false, but that does not mean they should be taken any less seriously.

When dealing with school threats you have several stakeholders to consider: students, parents, and staff. The number one priority for an administrator is ensuring the safety of everyone in the school. That certainly includes physical safety but also emotional safety.

Because you have to consider students, parents, and staff when navigating a school threat, it is essential to maintain your composure. Most school districts have established protocols that need to be followed. When you let your emotions get the better of you, you are more likely to miss essential steps when investigating and mitigating the threat.

Word travels fast. It will not be long before students, teachers, and the community are all talking about the threat. You will have to address concerns in the hallway from school staff, phone calls from parents, and support (and questions) from district level personnel who will all want to know what you are doing. If you portray a sense of panic, that is what the people in your school community will reflect.

It is impossible to remove all stress and anxiety during a crisis situation. However, when the school community sees and hears you leading from a position of confidence and assurance, they will feel a great deal safer.

Whether the sky is falling or not, what really matters is how you react. Those around you will do much better in challenging situations when they see you responding calm and under control.

Who Knows What the Tide Could Bring

Setbacks are a part of any profession. In education they can manifest in a variety of ways. Whether it is losing a teacher mid-year or learning that your students did not perform as well as anticipated on a summative assessment, educators deal with adversity. It is essential to move forward with a positive outlook because sometimes wonderful opportunities arise out of the most devastating of circumstances.

When initially stranded on an island, Tom Hanks’ (Chuck) initial thoughts revolve around survival and rescue. However, as more and more time goes by, those thoughts transition to hopelessness and despair.

After spending four years marooned on an island, Chuck returns home. In this scene Chuck shares how he was able to overcome those negative emotions by focusing on the possibility that he would one day be reunited with Helen Hunt (Kelly), the love of his life. “Then one day that [pessimistic] logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in and gave me a sail.”

While maintaining hope in the most dire of circumstance, Chuck was gifted the one thing that could potentially reunite him with Kelly.

Implications for Education

From a Principal’s Perspective

It is inevitable that a teacher will leave mid-year. They will relocate, decide to stay home with their family, change professions, or go back to school.

No principal is ever prepared for it. What are you going to tell the parents? Who is going to prepare the lesson plans? How are the students going to behave? Who is going to do the grading?

You can drown yourself in the negative self-talk. You can allow yourself to succumb to the pressure and stress being placed upon you by the parents or you can move forward, because from challenge comes opportunity.

Two years ago I was faced with this exact situation. A teacher left, parents were upset, students were misbehaving, and there was a looming end of year exam.

But, the administration maintained a positive attitude. We worked with the team to ensure there was a plan for lessons and grading while we searched for a long-term substitute.

And we found that substitute, a gentleman transitioning to education as a second career. He was someone who discovered later in life that he had a passion for working with kids, making a difference, and giving back.

Fast forward two years and that teacher is an institution at our school. What he does for kids and the school culture is immeasurable. And if it were not for a mid-year crisis, he would not be a member of our school family.

From a Teacher’s Perspective

There are a couple of ways in which teachers measure their effectiveness. One way is through teacher observations and feedback. This can be a great tool, but is subjective. A second, and more objective, means is student achievement, or student growth scores. I understand there a lot of factors that go into student test results and there is not a direct correlation between teacher effectiveness and student growth, but it is the most objective measure we have.

Depending on your school or district, when you receive these results will vary. However, no matter when you receive student scores, the feeling you get if those scores are not what you hoped for, remains the same, awful.

Just like a principal who has a teacher leave mid-year, a teacher with less than stellar results will face additional stress. What did I do wrong? What does the principal think? Am I in the right profession?

But, if that teachers moves forward with a positive attitude and a focus on growth, there is much to be gained. A reflective teacher is an ever improving teacher.

Now that the teacher has accepted the results and is determined to get stronger as an educator, he or she can get to work.

Strategies from Reflective Teachers After Receiving Test Results

  • Observing other teachers (focusing on those with strong scores)
  • Having other teachers observe you (again, focusing on those with strong scores)
  • Surveying students about engagement, rigor, feedback, and relationships
  • Delving deeper into your data [what specifically needs addressing (it might be more manageable than you originally thought)]
  • Spending more time with PLCs to discuss results from common formative assessments (this way you are more prepared for future formative test results)

It is not if you will be faced with adversity as a principal or teacher, but when. And when that time comes, how you react, and ultimately respond, will make all the difference. Who knows what the tide could bring?

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