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Really Listen

Educators recognize that communication between school and home is essential for student success. One of the most common goals teachers and administrators set for themselves at the beginning of the year is to make more parent phone calls. However, sometimes our conversations with parents are not as fruitful as they can be and concentrating on depth rather than breadth might be a more worthy goal.

*This video contains graphic language*

Robin Williams (Patch Adams) admits himself to a hospital so that he can work through his emotional and psychological struggles. In this scene he becomes frustrated that his doctor does not seem to care, or pay attention to what he is going through.

Patch, after helping his roommate the previous night, comes to his doctor invigorated and with a sense of purpose. He knows exactly what he wants to do. He wants to help people. Patch says, “I want to listen. I want to really listen to people.”

The juxtaposition of Patch needing someone to listen to him, and not having it, and seeing what can happens when you really do listen to someone (his roommate), opens his eyes to the power of human connections.

A popular question asked in teacher interviews is, “How do you communicate with parents?” Candidates frequently respond by sharing that they like to call home, and not just when there is a concern, but for positive reasons as well.

This is not an incorrect response. In fact, this is the answer a lot of administrators are looking for. It is valuable to call home to share the great things students are doing in schools.

However, I think that the answer is missing something. We all know that there will be times for teachers and administrators when we have to call with unpleasant news. Whether it is academic or behavior related, there are going to be times when we have to make the difficult call. So what does that phone call sound like?

More often than not the format of the phone call looks like this:

  1. Start off with a compliment – “I really enjoy having Johnny in class.”
  2. Explain the concern – “Unfortunately, he has not been participating on the in-class activity we have been working on and failed to turn in the final project.”
  3. Provide a brief way they can help – “If you could follow-up with him and encourage him at home, that would be wonderful.”

Again, nothing wrong with the conversation, but it is incomplete. It is not a two-way conversation. We are dictating to the parent what we think of their child, what they did, and what we need them to do.

We say that it takes a village to raise a child. In order to involve the whole village we need to ask the right questions. And when we ask the right questions, we need to “really listen.”

What are the right questions? After explaining the concern to the parent, here are a few questions that can garner great information.

  1. What do you think?
  2. What questions do you have about him in class or this incident?
  3. What have you found at home that really motivates him?
  4. What strategies have been successful at school in the past?
  5. What are some of his interests and hobbies?
  6. When he talks about school, what does he say?
  7. What does he like most about school?
  8. What can I do to better support him at school?
  9. What other questions do you have about this class or school?
  10. Would you like some more resources to follow-up at home?

Asking these questions does two things: provides valuable insight into the problem with possible solutions and builds a partnership with the parent so that they know we are in this together, on the same team.

I am not saying that we are all like the doctors from Patch Adams. But sometimes we do everything we can to get off the phone as quickly as possible, because it is uncomfortable to have tough conversations and open ended questions can lead to a conversation that we haven’t fully scripted in our heads. When we do that we are missing a golden opportunity to show our humanity, connect with our families, and learn about our students.

Let us do our best to really listen to parents and avoid “Sucking at it,” as Patch so eloquently states.

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Be Open

“Education is cyclical, the same professional development always comes around again.” “Don’t worry about this initiative, there will be a new one next year.” “The person who came up with this policy will only be here another 6 months, let’s just ride it out.” If you work in education, you have either heard or spoken one of the above statements. Sometimes it is easy to get caught in the negative talk. However, when you approach everything from the perspective that it won’t last or it won’t work, you will never grow.

*This video contains graphic language*

Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) has enlisted in the United States Army. Here we see him going through boot camp as an exemplary soldier. When asked what his sole purpose in the army is, he responds, “To do whatever you tell me drill sergeant.” The drill sergeant is blown away by this answer. So much so that he calls Private Gump “a genius” and “gifted.”

In the second scene Private Gump is asked another question, “Why did you put that weapon together so quickly Gump?” Gump’s simplistic response is, “You told me to drill sergeant.”

Forrest Gump’s trust in the United States Army, and his commanding officers, enables him to have a successful military career and earn the Medal of Honor.

Is the takeaway that every principal should do exactly what the superintendent says? Every teacher should blindly follow their principal? Every student needs to take a teacher’s word as gospel? Absolutely not. This is an oversimplified example of the benefits of trust. That is the beauty of Forrest Gump. The movie tackles a lot of challenging topics through the simplistic perspective of Forrest.

Unfortunately, I believe that sometimes we have swung too far in the direction opposite of Forrest. We question. We dig our heels in. We gossip. We dispute. We complain.

If we ever want to break free from working at an average school and making average progress, it is imperative that we take risks. We cannot hope to eliminate achievement gaps and develop independent thinkers and conscious citizens by doing things the same way we always have.

But, people are comfortable with doing what they have always done. When we hear that we are trying something new or going in a different direction, we get scared. Scared because we don’t know what the results will be. Scared because it might take a little bit more work or force us to do more self-reflection.

And negativity is contagious. Nothing slows or stops an initiative faster than people openly, or behind doors, criticizing the new direction a school decides to take. Often, that pessimistic bandwagon seems a lot bigger, more comfortable, and entertaining than the optimistic one. The teachers who are willing to trust and try something different feel outnumbered and outmatched.

Imagine what a school could accomplish if the whole staff was open to new ideas and trusted each other to take risks. Not only could you create real change, you could breed innovation and creativity. Educators would be far more comfortable sharing ideas if they knew they would be received with support and passion.

Imagine what a classroom could accomplish if the students were open to new ideas and trusted each other to take risks. Not only could you create real change, you could breed innovation and creativity. Students would be far more comfortable sharing ideas if they knew they would be received with support and passion. (See what I did there).

It is about changing our mindset so that instead of discounting any new idea, we embrace it. Not every initiative is going to be successful. But, we will never be successful if we confine ourselves to the comfort of what we have always done. Hey, it worked for Forrest.

Connecting with Students

Making an effort to connect with your students can have a meaningful impact on the relationships you form. And we all know relationships are the foundation for any great school.

*This video contains graphic language*

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Adam) does not know if he will survive his cancer diagnosis in the 2011 film 50/50. His best friend, Seth Rogen (Kyle), is with him every step of the way.

In this scene things finally come to a head for Adam. Frustrated and uncertain about his fate, Adam berates Kyle for his selfish actions. Up to this point Kyle has seemingly ignored the potential death sentence of Adam’s cancer diagnosis. Kyle’s focus has remained on the stereotypical concerns of a mid-twenties male.

However, when Adam drops his inebriated friend off at his apartment he notices something while washing up. A copy of the book Facing Cancer Together is in the bathroom. Not only does he discover the book, but sees several dog-eared pages. With no dialogue we learn that Kyle’s actions were not self-centered. He was trying to distract Adam from constantly focusing on his own mortality. Kyle was ensuring that if it were in fact Adam’s final months, he was going to enjoy them.

There are times when connections come easy for teachers and students. A physical education teacher will often form relationships with athletically inclined students because they share a common love for sports. Band teachers will gravitate towards students with a passion for playing music. Students with a love for the Civil War can often talk with social studies teachers for extended periods of time.

It is most challenging to make connections when there is no common interest, but sometimes these situations can yield the most impressive results. In these cases, books and music are two easy ways to start building a connection.

Education is constantly changing. One thing that does not change is that adolescents love listening to music. The artists and genres are not the same from 20 or even 5 years ago, but the passion and opinions about music remain as powerful as ever. It is impossible to walk in any middle or high school in the country and not notice students transitioning with their AirPods in.

Students are more than happy to share the names of artists and songs they are listening to. One thing they do not expect is for teachers to go out and actually listen to their music. But in doing so, a teacher may accomplish two important things; the teacher might learn something about his student and he might form a meaningful connection with that student.

It is difficult to get into the psyche of a middle schooler. Often, adults choose to block out that period of time from their lives. And even if they could remember, a lot has changed. By listening to the lyrics of current musicians, teachers get a glimpse into some of the social and emotional issues students are facing. Additionally, everyone has a social media presence. In taking the time to explore popular musicians on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter you may be able to uncover some of the issues they are speaking about or against. Often, students steal their ideas and perspectives from the musicians they listen to.

There is certainly no guarantee that teachers will enjoy the same music that their students are listening to. But, when you make the effort to listen, you are able to intelligently speak with your students about the music. You are able to ask specific questions about songs and bands. Even if you do not love the music, students will notice and appreciate the effort that you are making.

Another area where administrators and teachers can connect with students is through literature. It is extremely easy to go to the media center and ask the media center specialist what are the most checked out books. Because young adult novels are so easy to read, an educator can quickly go through the most popular selections.

Just like you see students with AirPods transitioning from class to class, it is easy to pop into the cafeteria and see students reading off in the corner. To be able to go up to a student who is reading and make a comment about the book they are reading (because you have read the book) will shock and amaze a student. That comment will sometimes lead to you making book recommendations to the student and better yet that student making book recommendation for you.

Books and music are just two examples of ways to connect with your students. There are countless other interests that students immerse themselves in. You do not need look very hard to find out what they are. Even though you might not understand how those books or music speak to your students (just like Kyle could never understand what it was like for Adam to be dealing with cancer), your students will appreciate the time and energy you are putting in to making stronger connections with them.

Balance

The emotional toll education takes on teachers makes balance essential to a happy career and a happy life.

Rocky last post and now Mr. Miyagi. The venerable Socrates and Plato of the modern era. Both use combat sports (boxing and karate) as the vehicle to bestow wisdom to their sons (for Daniel, Mr. Miyagi is the father figure he lacked his entire life).

Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi) has just given Ralph Macchio (Daniel) a new car for his birthday. Mr. Miyagi sees how excited Daniel is, but senses something is still troubling him. Daniel shares that he is worried about the upcoming karate tournament.

Mr. Miyagi reminds Daniel of a prior karate lesson on the importance of balance. He shares that balance is not only critical for success in the tournament, but also in life. Handing Daniel a picture of his girlfriend is a reminder that there is more to life than the karate tournament. And, when you focus too much on one area it leads to stress and worry.

Every day teachers invest time, energy, and their hearts into supporting the academic and social emotional needs of their students. It is an incredibly rewarding profession, but also an incredibly draining profession. If a teacher is unable to balance school and their personal life, it is impossible for them to sustain the wonderful things they are doing in the classroom.

There are definite highs in education: establishing trusting relationships with students that allow them to take risks, creating unique learning experiences that engage the most reluctant of learners, collaborating with colleagues to capitalize on the strengths of the whole. The list goes on and on. But, there are times when relationships fail, lessons bomb, and colleagues choose to work in isolation. It is during these moments when balance is most critical.

Every setback is amplified when it is all you have. Without balance there is no avenue to rebound, reset, and refocus. You fester. You stew. You doubt yourself.

Often the best way to recover from a failure is to turn your attention to something else. That something could be family, a hobby, a budding interest…anything. Focusing outside of education does two things: allows you to find joy and gives your brain the time it needs to process and reflect.

When you come home from school and the day, or week, has not gone as planned, it is important to have something to pick you up. You need an escape. You need something that will take your mind off of the problems of the day. You need something to look forward to. As a teacher, it is a necessity to find that something or somethings, because it is too much to put all you happiness eggs in your teacher basket.

Having an escape not only provides joy, but it gives the much needed time away from a recent road block. With time, your brain has time to process what happened, why it happened, and ways to make adjustments moving forward. When you try to fix a problem at school right after it happens, you can easily be either too emotional or too close to it to identify potential solutions.

An administrator’s need for balance is equally important. Because a principal’s job contains such a variety of components, it can be challenging to leave work at work. A “to do” list is often playing on loop in your head. Sometimes you have to tell yourself, occasionally out-loud, to stop thinking about school.

Family and hobbies are two areas suggested earlier to help live a balanced life. An additional one, that is extremely valuable for administrators, is having a group of supportive friends. It would be great to have friends work in professions outside of education, so that the conversations do not constantly revolve around school. However, people tend to gravitate towards those in similar professions, because they spend time together and often share common beliefs.

A principal having other principal friends can be extremely beneficial. A principalship can be lonely, so having friends who face the same challenges is comforting. You never have to say, “But, you don’t understand,” because they do.

One important note to remember is not to let school conversations dominate when you are meeting up with friends outside of school. Remember it is all about balance, and you do not want the lines between school and friends to blur. Otherwise, when things are going poorly at school, you will not want to meet up with friends either.

Deliberately look for things not school related to share with friends. Be the one who suggests a new restaurant to eat at, sporting event to attend, or show to binge watch together. Your administrator friends will thank you, because even though they understand the importance of balance, they might not always make the choices to live balanced.

Educators experience highs and lows. When you hit a rough patch, having balance allows you to ride out the low times and get you back to what you do best…changing lives!

Coping with Failure

If you have a growth mindset, you know that failure is part of the learning process. That does not make it any easier to deal with, however. It is critical to not let setbacks impede your progress.

I cannot believe it took until my twelfth post to include a clip from a Rocky movie. Truth be told, this whole blog could have been crafted around the Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) franchise.

In this scene from Rocky Balboa, Rocky is speaking with his son, Milo Ventimiglia (Robert), outside his restaurant. Robert is upset that Rocky is taking a fight when he is clearly past his prime. However, Robert’s concern does not lie in the safety of his father, but rather how he will be perceived. While there is a lot to unpack from this scene, the most important takeaway is about about continuing on in spite of obstacles.

Rocky preaches, “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Rocky knows that people will criticize his decision. They will not understand his choice to return to boxing. The easy path would be to remain retired, but Rocky believes there are some things he still needs to sort out…and Rocky does his best sorting out in the ring.

There is a lot for Rocky to overcome leading up to his fight: criticism, disrespect, taunting, humiliation, and fear. Life is what is going to “hit” Rocky, not his opponent. By “moving forward” through the adversity, Rocky is going to win, no matter what the outcome of the fight is.

Winning and losing in the classroom can take on a variety of forms. On a small scale, a single lesson can crash and burn. If you look much larger, maybe you were never able to reach a child that you knew was in desperate need of a positive relationship with a trusted adult.

Anyone who has taught has experienced the epiphany of an amazing lesson. Anyone who has taught has also experienced the pure misery of that magical lesson falling flat on its face. Sometimes what plays out in our heads is not what plays out in the classroom. But that is 100% normal and 100% okay. No risks means no rewards. To stifle creativity in fear of a lesson bombing is a disservice to students.

Relationships are at the heart of every great educator. Early in the school year teachers can pinpoint which students have never had the connection with an educator necessary to generate a love of learning. Great educators live and breathe this sort of challenge. They provide love, support, patience, time, an ear, effort, and energy to the student who may have never experienced any of it.

The dream is that ten years down the road that student is giving their valedictorian speech and reminisces about you and how their life was headed down one path and that all changed because of you. It is a marvelous thought. Unfortunately, it does not alway work out that way. Sometimes all the time and effort you spend trying to make a connection with a student does not pan out.

So what does that teacher do? Never go above the call of duty to reach a lost child? Play it safe because opening up can lead to pain? Absolutely not! It will not always work out the way you imagine. But it will never work out if you do not put in the effort to change the trajectory of the lives of your students. In order to make a difference, you have to take that risk.

For a principal, a lot rides on standardized test results. Scores are important. They show the areas where a school is growing and where a school is underperforming. So what do you do when a years worth of work results in less than ideal scores?

It is really easy to do the following: discount the scores, blame someone/something for the results, get angry, or even get depressed. Rocky would not consider any of these options. The best two things to do are to not shy away from the data and look for the areas to celebrate.

Staring at spreadsheets that display unanticipated results is a tough pill to swallow. But, when you take the time to look closely at the scores you will start to see patterns and make connections to what might have led to those results. It is when you choose to ignore poor scores that you miss out on understanding where you might have gone wrong. Fast-forwarding a year, without looking at the data, will give you zero confidence. But digging deeper and making alterations based on the results will have you feeling much more optimistic the next go round.

Lastly, nothing is ever all bad. There is a silver lining in even the most dire of test results. Look for the positive. Teachers will want their principal to be honest, but they need hope as well. Find the area(s) where the school made growth. Highlight what the teachers did that yielded those results. When people are recognized for the successes they create, they will desire that feeling again and again. So when you do share scores that were not so great, they will want to do everything in their power to turn the concern into an area of celebration for next year.

“You, me, or nobody is going to hit as hard as life.” The most important choice we make is the one when life knocks us down. Do we choose to give up, make an excuse, or look for a way out? No, we are educators, so we choose to “keep moving forward” and do everything in our power to better the lives of our students.

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