Keep Your Focus

Every year education gets more complex. There is more to do, more to worry about, and more to understand. In a profession that is often overwhelming, it is extremely important to maintain your focus.

The aging pitching ace, Kevin Costner (Billy Chapel), finds himself in New York one last time facing the Yankees. As Chapel gets ready to face the first batter, he scans the stadium focusing on the insults being hurled his way from the home fans.

In order to hone in at the job at hand we hear Chapel say, “Clear the mechanism.” After that, the surrounding noise is drowned out by Chapel’s primary focus, the opposing batter.

Spoiler alert: Chapel goes on to pitch a perfect game. He is only able to accomplish the rare task because he can separate the distractions from the job.

It’s that simple. Teachers need only to say, “Clear the mechanism” as they walk into class every student will follow directions, participate, support each other, and master the content. Okay, maybe it is not quite that easy.

The best way for educators to maintain the proper focus is by asking themselves one question, “Is this what is best for my students?”

Two of the most common examples of distractions that can detract from doing what is best for students are time wasting and emotional energy drains.

Time Wasting

The tasks of an educator are many and the school day is only so long. Teachers and principals should prioritize their daily schedule based on what will yield the largest benefits to students.

It may be helpful to track your activities, outside of direct instruction, for a week and then reflect on the impact each activity has on student learning.

Example (One Day)

7:30 to 8:00 – Making Copies – Low Impact on Student Learning

11:30 to 11:50 – Eating Lunch – Low Impact on Student Learning

11:50 to 12:10 – Comparing Common Assessment Data with PLT – High Impact on Student Learning

12:10 to 12:30 – Revising Future Lesson Plans Based on Data Review – High Impact on Student Learning

12:30 to 1:00 – Searching the Internet for Project Ideas – Medium Impact on Student Learning

3:30 to 4:30 – Providing Meaningful Feedback on Student Assignment – High Impact on Student Learning

This a very simplified outline of a teacher’s use of time before school, during planning, and after school. I recognize that there are certain tasks that have to be done, even though they have a low impact on student learning. But, these tasks should be minimized, or an alternative or more efficient means to accomplish the activities should be considered.

If you find that you are spending an exorbitant amount of time making copies, have you considered the use of technology in your classroom? Could students use notebooks instead of receiving a copy of everything? Can you get by with only a classroom set?

Ask a colleague whom you consider to be a master teacher to log their time as well. After a week compare the data. It may be surprising to see how they prioritize their time.

When you are cognizant of your time and what you spend it on, you will inevitably become more efficient.

Emotional Energy Drains

Teaching is emotionally draining. If you want to hang out with an educator on the weekend, make it a Saturday, because most teachers are sleeping by 8 o’clock on Friday night.

Passion, enthusiasm, and energy are essential elements to strong teaching. To keep those at peak levels, we must avoid emotional drains.

Examples of Energy Drains

  • Complaining Colleagues – Conversations with co-workers around all the problems in education
  • Negative Student Talk – Discussing and hearing about all the “problem” students you and others have to deal with it
  • Emotionally Charged Emails – Reading and responding to negative emails from parents
  • Power Struggles with Students – Constantly seeking the upper-hand when working with challenging students.
  • Failed Lesson Obsessing – Wallowing in the aftermath of a failed activity

It is difficult to go through a school day and not encounter one, if not more, of these energy suckers. The key is to quickly recognize it for what it is, and move on to a high student impact activities.

When you spend too much time in an energy drain your ability to maintain the positive energy, enthusiasm, and passion in the classroom will become almost impossible.

While it may not be as simple as “Clearing the mechanism,” focusing your time and energy on doing what’s best for students will ultimately lead to greater job satisfaction and better student results.

Adopting New Ideas

As educators we are overwhelmed with resources, professional development, and information. There are times when we are blown away by what we see or read that others are doing with students. While it is extremely important to continuously grow, we must be sure not to redefine who we are every time we discover something new.

Carl and Russell just met Dug, and are obviously mesmerized by the fact that he can speak. As Dug explains where his ability to talk came from, he is distracted by an off-camera squirrel.

This scene from 2009’s Up has become synonymous with distractions. Are you trying to redirect your kids, but their eyes keep drifting back to the television? Squirrel. Are you having a heartfelt conversation with your spouse at dinner, but they keep eavesdropping on the first date at the next table? Squirrel. Are you holding a faculty meeting, but the whole staff is checking their phones for weather updates regarding the possible upcoming snow day? Squirrel.

The wonderful thing about technology is that it has shrunk the world. Through YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, TED Talks, blogs, and a host of other communication platforms, we are able to see what teaching looks like across the globe. No longer are we confined to textbooks and the four walls of our schools.

So what is the problem?

The problem is that when we try to replicate what an educator is doing somewhere else, we may fail to recognize what was done with students prior to what we saw and that not all students need the same thing.

What better way to emphasize the first point than with another movie clip.

Jeff Godblum (Ian) lectures Richard Attenborough (John) about the dangers of how he achieved the rebirth of dinosaurs. Ian speaks about the power that John is yielding, when he states, “It didn’t require any discipline to obtain it.” He continues, “You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility.”

When teachers and principals are too quick to implement something they recently learned, they discount the time and effort it took from the originator to perfect it. To assume that any successful educational idea, protocol, system, innovation, or process can be copied and replicated at any school is naive.

What you don’t see when you are enamored with a presentation is all the errors that were made beforehand. All the feedback sessions that were had behind closed doors. All the practice it took to get it right.

The second, and more important, aspect to consider are your students. Every school is different and every child is unique. It can’t be assumed that just because a system was successful in a school with similar demographics as yours, means it will work for your students.

So, should you ignore anything great that your hear about?

Absolutely not. Here are a few suggestions when trying to incorporate something you recently saw and are very excited about:

  1. Share it with colleagues at your building. Collective buy-in beats operating from an island.
  2. Look at student survey data if you have it or create it if you don’t. What do students think is going well and what do they want? Carving out an extra 30 minutes of enrichment time a day when students feel they are struggling to keep up with curriculum in current length classes might not go over well.
  3. Read 2-3 other ideas around the same topic. A quick Google search will yield articles and information about the topic you are interested in. You may find data to back-up your enthusiasm. However, you might find that the case you were so fired up for is an outlier.
  4. Reach out to the presenter/author. With social media, most people are extremely accessible. They may be able to share starting points, pitalls, and resources.
  5. Go slow and take your time with implementation. Nothing happens overnight. Get feedback along the way. If you followed steps 1-4, there is some real potential. Don’t waste the opportunity by doing too much too soon.

Being moved by a speaker or book is an amazing feeling. We got into education to help kids. It feels natural to want to jump right into something when we feel like it will benefit students. But, it is important to understand that behind every great idea came a great deal of planning, feedback, and mistakes. And, be sure you are thinking about what is best and will work for your students. Lastly, always remember that in order to achieve success…squirrel.

You Don’t Always Have to Win

That is a difficult title for me to write. Growing up with two brothers, competition was a way of life. However, in education, always trying to come out on top can ruin relationships.

I hated this scene when I was a kid. I rooted for Geena Davis (Dottie) the whole movie. I found Lori Petty (Kit) to be overly whiny. So when Dottie drops the ball in the final game, allowing Kit to win the title for Racine, I was devastated.

As I’ve grown older, and rewatched A League of Their Own, I understand and appreciate Dottie’s decision (yes, it was a decision) to drop the ball allowing Kit to become the hero.

So why did she do it? She did for Kit, but she also did it for herself.

Throughout the film, Kit is fragile, anxious, and diffident. Without Dottie, she would have never had the opportunity to play in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Kit’s lack of self-confidence stems from living her life under the towering shadowing of her big sister. Dottie is well aware of this, because she sees it on Kit’s face… and Kit flat out tells her.

And what does Dottie have to gain from holding on to the ball? Sure, she costs her team the championship, but she could have lost her relationship with her sister. Seeing her husband safely return from the war, solidified that she had everything she needed, which did not include an All-American Girls Professional Baseball League Championship.

When faced with winning or doing the right thing, Dottie chose to do the right thing, and won in the end.

Sometimes the stress of school builds to a point where students and parents are seen as enemies, not allies. It is at these moments when administrators and teachers sometimes make the wrong decision to “win” instead of doing what is best for students.

Every teacher has a late policy. It could be a school policy, a grade level policy, or a team policy. Often students sign contracts (parents too) at the beginning of the year stating that they read and understand said policies.

There will come a point during the school year when a student has a legitimate reason why he did not complete an assignment. That teacher will have a legitimate signed contract that shows the student understood the late policy and has now violated it.

What should the teacher do?

If they are currently viewing the student as the enemy, they may choose to dig their heels in and “win.” And why not? They have the signed contract to back their position.

But, if they see this as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship, they may choose to work with the student. Ultimately, creating a plan with the student to finish the assignment is a win for both the student and the teacher.

As an administrator there are times when you face similar scenarios with parents. A parent might have not completed the paperwork for their child to apply for Student Council, failed to pay the deposit for a class field trip, or missed the deadline to waive their child up to a higher math course.

Being the amazing principal that you are, I am sure that you sent out several reminders to parents about these events. You probably posted information on your website, tweeted out details, or advertised them through your PTA.

Should you stick to whatever information was shared like it was set in stone? Or do you need to bend a little bit? At the end of the day you know what is best for the child.

One might argue that once a deadline has passed, there is nothing that can be done. I think that is nonsense. In my experience there is almost nothing that can’t be done to accommodate for missed opportunities.

Helping parents, especially when they know that they made a mistake, is a golden way to unite the school and the home.

Dottie chose her sister over winning the championship. I hope you choose students over “winning.”

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: