Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Days 12-18: Frantic Catch-Up

Despite how this might look, I'm actually challenging myself by forcing a one-word answer for each of these prompts I need to catch up on.

Day 12: How do you envision your teaching changing in the next five years?

Day 13: Name the top edtech tools that you use on a consistent basis.
Google Sites

Day 14: What is feedback for learning, and how well do you give it to students?

Day 15: Name three strengths you have as an educator.

Day 16: If you could have one superpower to use in the classroom, what would it be and how would it help?

Day 17: What do you think is the most challenging issue in education today?

Day 18: Create a metaphor/simile/analogy that describes your teaching philosophy. For example, a "teacher is a ______."
Match (as in lights a fire)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 11: The Best Part of the Day

There are studies that review the best time to drink coffee, try for a baby, exercise, eat, sleep, and what hours during the day are typically the most productive.

Has there been any study on the best part of the day for a teacher?

I have a feeling the smart alecs would say something about the beginning moments of a Friday afternoon, when the entire weekend is in front of you and you can leave the stress and anxiety of the classroom for a couple of days. The mushy types might try with something about the early morning moments before any students have even arrived, the coffee is still hot, and you can close out the last-minute preparations in the stillness of an empty classroom.

My best part of the day? Smack dab in the middle of "the moment." Teachers know what that is. That moment in of a discussion when a really solid point has completely hit home, and you've just realized it. And you take it and run with it. The students are better than understanding what you're trying to tell them; they're buying it, allowing it to become part of their thinking, and using it to rethink about all the things they've learned before.

Depending on the students, this usually happens to me about once a class, once a week. This week, my 4th-year students - who are taking my class as part of their last three classes before they graduate from the program - gave me that moment. These are evening students, so I'm teaching them some brain-busting writing skills between 7:30 and 9:30 at night, after most of them have been at work all day. On the first session of this class, most - if not all - of these students came to me to express the stress and pressure they're feeling at this point in the sequence, and how this class ultimately is the bridge, the answer, the key to their graduation. We were talking about the beginning stages of research that they'll need to do to write their capstone paper, a business proposal. We talked about how research is often particularly difficult for technical education students because it's not linear. A few students gave me a skeptical look, so I elaborated more: the best research will propel, narrow, and direct more research. How ever I said that idea must've struck the magic chord. Each pair of eyes staring back at me in silent contemplation looked like a mix of dumbfoundedness and delight. They were almost angry that it had taken so long for someone to tell them these things.

That is the kind of moment that keeps a teacher teaching for a lifetime; the kind of moment that sends chills down your spine and back up the back of your neck. I felt my cheeks flush and my heart flutter, and all I could do was stare back at them and try and gauge what they needed to hear next. Even the recounting of these kinds of moments rekindles those chills and elicits a coy smile. It's also the hardest part to quantify and prove to policymakers and stakeholders when they start asking about value in education and teacher quality. There is no other way to describe that gut feeling that everything those students thought about research prior to that moment was now changed, moved, even obsolete.

For me, the best part of the day can't be pinned down to a particular hour. In fact, the spontaneity of moments like these is motivational. I strive for moments like these, so I push and push to see if I can make one happen. I look forward to those moments all day long, and that keeps me positive, engaged, focused, and on a constant lookout for opportunities to make my work better.

And if a moment doesn't appear, there's always 3:25pm on Friday afternoon.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 10: 5-4-3-2-1

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 9: A Big Accomplishment

The professional world is full of small, hidden, sometimes undiscovered corners. When we list out common jobs, it's often doctor, lawyer, teacher... But there are as many jobs out there as there are ways to describe them.

I've written before about my calling to be a teacher beginning when I was very young, and I was set on being a high school social studies teacher all the way through college. My first full-time position was teaching 11th and 12th grade social studies, and I scoured the job postings for another position when I lost that job. I tend toward the stubborn side of consistency and commitment, so anything other than middle school or high school social studies simply wouldn't fit. When I earned my K-12 reading certificate, I a few more titles became acceptable, including the one I was eventually hired for.

What I found was that teaching can be so much more than a classroom. While my primary focus remains teaching my classes, my biggest accomplishment has been finding the corners. I teach reading and writing in post-secondary technical education. Technical education itself is a corner, post-secondary technical education is even more hidden, and literacy in post-secondary technical education is almost non-existent. Part of my job also includes learning support, so not just teaching post-secondary technical students how to read and write, but filling in the gaps as well.

These are areas that need research and development badly, especially in the face of issues like college readiness, developmental education, the skills gap, unemployment, the rise of manufacturing, the exponentially growing role of technology and its increasing complexity, and the true value and role of college in our society. I've started my investigation - computer networking students need very strong vocabulary skills; the ability to use text features is essential for automotive students - and I'm excited to continue to bring light to these corners of the education world.

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 8: What's in Your Desk Drawer?

My Desk Drawer
This is my desk drawer: a representation of the major traits found in my work style. Primarily, my drawer is a haven for organizers. Small sticky notes and flags are used to direct me to the best stuff from the pages and pages and pages of material I hungrily consume in preparation for class, a meeting, or a support document. Staples, unstaplers, small paper clips, big paper clips, and paper clips with tags represent a unending struggle to organize the mountains of loose paper that shuffle across my desk, from assignments to meeting notes to resume drafts. Traditional pushpins and faker magnetic pushpins speak of the growing number of to-do lists, status lists, reference lists, phone lists, schedules, and contact information I have posted around me.

And there are items that representative the ironic conflict I struggle with: my cheap side and my hoarder side. My monster of a 32GB flash drive - purchased for me by my previous manager for a simple project, one that would never take up 32GB - holds the backup files to my backup file. The miscellaneous freebies I've acquired along the way - a manual pencil sharpener, a teeny bottle of hand sanitizer, a tape measure - that I rarely use in the classroom but like to have "just in case."

My favorite part of my desk is the collection of things that clearly took a very skilled wordsmith to come up with its name. So skilled, in fact, that I don't know what it's called at this moment. The unstaplers. The magnifying cards. The mysterious thingy still in the plastic wrap. The plastic strip badge snappy things.

There you have it. A complete mix of items to organize the chaos of a teacher's life down to color-coded perfection, items that have harmlessly satisfied my hoarder/frugal tendencies, and items that make me laugh at the intriguing, and pleasantly distracting, "what IS this?" quality every time I open the drawer.

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 7: Most Inspirational Colleague

I was hired for my current teaching position by a manager who is almost a carbon copy of my mother-in-law. This might seem terrifying at first, but I have an excellent relationship with my mother-in-law, not least because I admire her ability to be direct and authoritative in the name of helping someone while remaining respectful and careful. I spent the first fifteen years of my life dealing with the occasional wrong order or forgotten extra at a restaurant; this was likely out of a combination of fear and my tendency to 'take a hit' in favor of neutrality and calm. My mother-in-law, however, effortlessly calls the waitress over, calmly explains this is the wrong dish or that she had asked for that, and thanks her pleasantly when the correction is made. This is painfully representative of how I spent my K-12 years as well. Horrified at raising my hand to ask a question, I spent many nights sobbing in frustration and pleading with my dad for a few more practice problems before dinner. 

So when I became a teacher, I knew that classroom management would be the first area I needed to concentrate on. My first few teaching gigs provided a "baptism by fire" method of practice, and I felt pretty confident by the time I applied for my current position. Now, though, this professional confidence and assertiveness is applied outside my classroom. While my mother-in-law provided a personal example, my former manager taught me those lessons in a professional setting. As with any business, the specific lessons were tainted with some negative politics, many of which she was directly involved in. Nevertheless, the central theme that she wove throughout those lessons was this: it's OK to use professional advancement as a means of developing as a teacher. The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they should complement each other. My former manager purposefully assigned each member of our team a project that would advance the mission of the learning center and develop us as educators, but also provide potential for advancement and recognition within the institution. 

Teaching can be such a selfless calling, and teachers easily turn into martyrs ("I just got to your e-mail now - sorry, I've been leading a help session for the last three hours!") or burn out so quickly that there simply isn't any energy left for holding ground in a situation outside the classroom, let alone seek opportunities for advancement or leadership. Professionally, I keep an eye open for these kinds of opportunities, and I find marked improvement in my own teaching and in my own self-confidence. 

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 6: A Good Mentor

As a teacher, I'm more comfortable in the role of the mentor, not the men-tee. Personally, mentorship is very much a professional growth area because it's difficult for me to admit what is implied by the need for a mentor. Mentorship means I need to admit that I don't know everything, which is terrifying since I take great pride in and prove my value by doing my own homework, figuring things out for myself, and then creating a product that meets my own high standards. 

I don't think I'm alone either. Many of my fellow teachers - co-workers, community members, teacher peers - seem to take a similar approach. For some of those fellow teachers with more experience, there is another dimension: "I've been teaching this way for ___ years and it's seemed to work fine. I don't need a mentor." That stigma attached to the outward expression that a teacher would like a mentor is, for a lot of us, a stinging bruise to the ego. 

But my definition of a good mentor fits within this developing acceptance of a need for mentorship. A good mentor is the best mentor when she doesn't even realize she's a mentor. That mentorship is almost invisible. This is important because the difference between a mentor and a teacher is this: a teacher is very plainly in front of the classroom for the purpose of guiding and inspiring, while a mentor's best lessons are those that are not explicitly taught. And for those of us still working to accept that part of our professional growth, seeing another teacher as a mentor without making it known can help scaffold that acceptance. 

What's more, a good mentor relationship is be beneficial for both sides. Just as an essential part of teaching is continuing to learn, a mentoring relationship should be one in which both parties are able to feed off of the development of the other. Furthermore, just as good teaching means more than just duplication and repetition, a mentor is not one to be merely copied as a template, but rather inspired by each other. 

This can be a rather tall order for a single mentor-mentee relationship. In I Shouldn't Be Telling You This by Kate White, I read about a suggestion particularly for female professionals: have a personal board of directors. This is a group of professional women in your life, each of whom can provide mentoring in an individual facet of one's professional development. I find this to be a relatively non-threatening way to spur my own growth since there's no need to notify these members of their status in any more specificity than "Hey, when I have a question about classroom discipline, would you feel comfortable talking about that with me?" My "board" includes an expert in the area of formal education credentials (Ph.D.? Ed.D.? another M.A.?), business relationships, leadership development, and, of course, instruction. 

In fact, I imagine that mentor standing in the back of my room for every lesson I teach. I imagine her reaction as she reads each lesson plan, her feedback to assignment cover sheets, her body language as she sits in the back of my room during class discussion. She's one more way I keep myself accountable. 

One of my best summer reads was Mindset by Carol Dweck because it sparked the area of professional growth I need to work on next. Personally, I make a conscious effort to have a "growth mindset," especially in the hopes that this mindset will be acquired by my sons. But in teaching, I still have a hard time accepting "areas of improvement." The suggested "board of directors"ideas has proven to be fulfilling and invigorating, and I advise any young professional to try it out. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 5: Describe Your Classroom

Day 5: Post a picture of your classroom and describe what you see -- and what you don't see that you'd like to.

Because I work in post-secondary, the ability I have to 'decorate' my classroom is pretty limited. My classroom is used by a couple of other teachers, for meetings, and it's usually the first stop on the "Million-dollar walk" our institutional advancement team gives to donors. But I have been able to make some improvements that have increased its functionality. 

My classroom is on the corner of our building, which is +100 years old, brick, and is slowly melting into the swampy earth beneath it. The building has had numerous additions jigsawed onto it, so there are staircases that only go to this level, doorways to closets that were offices, and levels that only run half the length of the building. The stairway to HR is on the other side of my office, and there's even a large glass window to see to it, but I need to leave the Center, walk past the bathrooms, through the Hub, and enter the "Heritage Hall." Pieces of historical treasure - a photo, a worksheet from 1914, a textbook from a program that no longer exists - are scattered throughout the building, testament to the role the institution played in the creation of formal technical education (our first president, Charles Prosser, is known as the father of vocational education; the college's namesake made his money through a staple Minneapolis company) and in partnership with the appropriate industries. 

The learning center, which houses my classroom, was built in place of the main office about 10 years ago. In fact, the storage closet in my office was the original vault, and there is a sort of secret passageway to the original main entrance on the far side of the Center. We're the most recently updated part of the building, so the decisions of earlier decades - brick over a part of the window to save energy, cinder block walls and solid doors, shop lights - don't get (much) in the way of things like air movement, natural light, or feng shui. 

The dimensions of my classroom, along with a giant bump in the middle of the front wall, make it so my students need to sit away from the glass door and half-glass wall. This is wonderfully conducive to a modified "U", perfect for authentic classroom discussion (not the kind where the teacher calls it discussion and it's really lecture) and group work. 

I am sort of embarrassed to admit my favorite part of my classroom: my five full-size whiteboards. A few years ago, I discovered that I was going through a few packs of sticky chart paper and accompanying markers a semester. And I needed to throw away all the used paper, and make sure students were actually writing on the work tables instead of the wall (so the markers didn't bleed through), and then make students shuffle through the rows of work tables to post their papers instead. Whiteboards were an investment, but my team came to a point in the budget cycle where we had some money we wanted to spend. A rare instance in my life, I got up the courage to ask my manager if she would approve the purchase, coordinated with receiving to have them all brought up, and scheduled our maintenance student workers to come up and install them. 

I use them at least once a class period, for all of my classes. They have been invaluable for teaching how to "draw out" a topic for thoughts, to organize thoughts before they actually go in sentences, and to revise a sentence for agreement or development. Students learn from each other, and they can see my feedback on others' work. 

In a way, the combination of the history behind my classroom and the improvements I've made in the name of collaborative learning reflect my teaching philosophy almost completely. Being able to foster organic learning through curiosity, intrinsic value, and collaboration in an environment that is rich with story and representative of the time our institution has spent becoming an integral part of the technical education community and partners with the industry is incredible. I look forward to being a part of the continuing, growing history through my work in this classroom. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 4: For the Love of Teaching

Day 4: What do you love the most about teaching?

Call it my work style, my sign (Libra), or my personality, but I've always been a balancer, a middle-grounder, a neutralizer. I neither excelled nor bombed in the sports and activities I participated in when I was younger. I don't consider myself exceptionally intelligent, but I know I'm not anywhere near unintelligent. In most areas of my life, I'm competent, but not a master; knowledgeable enough to have the basic idea, but not so much to call myself much of an expert. 

Except in teaching. Teaching is the one area of my world that I feel like every part of me was made for. I am confident in my ability. I'm comfortable saying that I'm good enough to be able to really push my own limits and challenge my skill. I love being able to learn new things and ignite students' thinking with it (hence the name of the blog). I love how complex it is and - this feels really selfish to say - how it gives me a chance to really take off, be a great example, inspire other teachers, and lead the pack. I say it feels selfish because teaching is supposed to be a selfless, thankless job; I find it to be almost the opposite. 

Teaching fits with this balance theme as well, especially where I'm at right now. My current classroom is the perfect platform to give me the freedom I need to exercise my own control and creativity, yet still have a larger objective to work toward and answer to. I can move between independent learning and large-group discussion. Teaching, for me, is the perfect blend of physical movement and focused desk work; working with people and working solo; working with adults and working with students; business and, well, not business. 

When I was three years old, I decided I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to be able to draw on the chalkboard in Sunday School. As I got into elementary school, I made my own grade books, asked for old textbooks, had my mom buy a couple flip-top desks from a garage sale, held "school" on our days off (how exciting to be able to bring my pretend class to music at the actual time I had music in my class!), and gave lessons on the chalkboard for hours. 

Now, I'm in a position where my educational background and fire for teaching is in the minority. Most of my co-workers are content specialists, giving up a job in the industry to teach or using teaching as a way to make something of their field. Not many of my fellow faculty members have had much in the way of teacher training, and it's certainly not on the forefront of their minds. 

And so it appears that I have a rather large, although unspoken, opportunity staring me in the face. There are new balances to strike, and I'm totally in for the challenge. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 3: "Observation" Improvement

In my family, there is the actual time that is set and there is "Teresa time," which is approximately 10-15 minutes later. We joke that if you want to meet at the restaurant at 6pm, tell Teresa 5:30 so she's there 10 minutes early. Fortunately, most of my girlfriends run on the same clock. When five of us set up to meet for book club at 3pm, there's usually only one of us actually there at 3pm. The other four show up sometime between 3:10pm and 3:30pm.

Estimating time is a weakness of mine, as well as other members of my family. My poor mom used to sit in the car, with it running, anxious and furious because church started at 10:30am and it was now 10:15am and my sister and I were still getting ready. Then she'd get even more anxious and furious because we'd finally hop in the car at 10:20, completely confused by how 10 minutes early could be 5 minutes late. (My mom has since at least stopped calling me in the morning to check if I woke up early enough to leave on time, but hints of that anxiety pop up once in a while when we need to make an airport run or have an appointment.)

Reflective Teaching Blog Challenge Day 1 & 2: Goals, Technology

To promote reflective teaching, the staff at TeachThought have created a list of prompts for teachers to respond to in their blogs throughout the month of September.

Day 1: Goals for the School Year | Day 2: Technology
I'm a do-er. I have a dozen lists posted in my office that hash out the detailed tasks of each project I've got going on, many of which I initiated myself. I have a daily to-do planner on my desk. I am a faithful user of the "Tasks" feature on Outlook. I go through a stack of sticky notes in a week. I have an entire notebook dedicated to ideas that hit me as I talk to my co-workers and read the Daily Lumina articles. So when it comes to my classroom, I like to come up with new in-class activities and projects.