Friday, July 28, 2017

The Heart of Teaching

This last year as a teacher has helped me learn so many things about what it means to be a teacher and I wanted to share my thoughts.

I teach adults partner social dancing (Kizomba, bachata sometimes salsa).
I coach high school girls on volleyball.
I teach 7th grade students Math.

At first, I focused on learning the skills and content because I loved it. I spent a lot of time learning to be good at dancing, volleyball and math. I then spent time learning how to teach in a school, coach a sport and teach evening recreational classes to adults.  I would go to a coaches clinic for volleyball coaches or take classes on how to be a better teacher, etc. My teaching methods were tied too closely to my content.

One thing to know about me is that my mind works to find common elements in everything I do. I love finding a pattern for disparate things: what did that have to do with setting a volleyball or dancing or solving equations? I decided that if I have a pattern that works for many things, that's a great thing! Perhaps its me being lazy or inherently efficient. I guess I just think the more things I can find that I already know and can apply, the less I have to remember.

I already do many common things across all the different disciplines and students groups that I teach: it only makes sense and it saves my energy and sanity for the differences I do have to deal with. Recently tho, one other thought has popped up in my head about being a teacher. Its crystalizing more and more as I just finished taking a week long course called "Designing Groupwork in Math".

The course title describes the course accurately but says nothing about what I learned and believe to be the HEART of the course.

A bit of context setting about the course: Groupwork comes from Complex Instruction (or CI). There's a lot about the research that went into CI by Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan. It stems from the need to make learning more accessible to everyone. By everyone that includes some very loaded things like learning styles, cultural bias, gender, race/ethnicity and many other social issues. What this body of learning and practice brought to light for me is to get student engagement, a teacher must address (among other things) the issue of social status in a classroom (or team).

There was lots of great stuff that I'm still marinating in and the one big idea that I'm really resonating with is this:

Learning is most powerful with collaboration. In order to get students to learn collaboratively, we as teachers need to help our students learn about who they are as learners and influence their beliefs  about what it means to learn. As teachers, we ourselves have to be familiar with our own beliefs about learning and be thoughtful about the words and actions we take with our students because we are usually working to shift a mindset which can only come from practicing and coaching the behaviors and actions that support a learning (or growth mindset). 

Have you noticed that nothing I've written since I mentioned the title of the course even mentions math (the content that is being taught)? Did you also notice that none of the language is about being right or wrong?

As a teacher, I am responsible for creating a classroom/community that supports everyone to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and work collaboratively to learn more content. 

Another person expressed things this way: if you change the way your students think about what a classroom is and focus on that community of support through communication and collaboration, the learning takes care of itself.

I soon to realized that while I am actively thinking about what to do for my math classroom, why not also think about what I can do for my coaching or when I teach social partner dancing classes? I started to think about my own biases on how to learn and realized that they way I teach reflects a lot on the way I myself was taught and often those teachers who I love and respect, were not really teaching with the same focus on how students learn.

I also assume that adults as learners will already know who they are. The truth is, students are students no matter what the age group and its important to remember that as a teacher, I am modelling how to learn and how I view my students' learning status in the ways I speak and act with them and in my community.

Sure, I want to teach my content but before content can be taught, I have to recognize that learning happens best when those who learn have access to the material in a supported and collaborative environment. I realize more and more that the way I teach has come from following the practices of teachers that I learned from and respected a lot. Its no wonder that there are some things I don't do very well and its because I don't myself believe in them intrinsically.

I personally love learning. I think its a state of mind like no other: it allows you to be open to possibilities, to be creative, to put yourself in a space of pure discovery without judgement. I am energized when I'm learning because it teaches me about myself, the world around me and the people I interact with. Of course,  there is also that satisfaction of getting something done, of having accomplished something whether its being finally be able to do a triple turn on one foot without falling over OR solving those damn rate problems without second guessing.
What is the HEART of teaching? I believe its this ability to recognize who my students are as learners, support them by helping them recognize their strengths and weaknesses, and giving them access to information in all different ways to help them see the connections they can make in themselves and with their community.
Its a pretty big task and a powerful thing but I love it. I have some ideas how that will look like in my 7th grade classroom for next school year. I'm not quite sure what that will look like in my dance classes or in my coaching but I'm pretty excited to figure that out. I'll share it as I go in future posts but if you have something to share, please comment and reach out, I love to geek out about this sort of stuff. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Hello, Let's Try This Again

Wow, its been a while. My silence doesn't mean I've run out of things to say. There were so many things going on in my life that I felt like putting thoughts into concrete words on a blog just didn't quite cut it. I was also embroiled in lots of  things that my "be happy" self censored from writing because "that's just not me".

Its the 1st real day of my summer.

For the past 2 years I've been teaching in the 7th grade of a private school (6 through 12) that my niece and soon my nephew attend. The job landed on my lap quite unexpectedly on October 2015 and I, with much trepidation, took the chance. A leap of faith with so many uncertainties and insecurities. Just about the only thing I had faith in was that I would be earning a steady income again.

As I ponder what to focus on for this particular post, I'm most struck by a conversation I had with a parent of one of the students I just taught this past year. It was a conversation that I was apprehensive about because I wasn't sure what we were going to be talking about and I really wasn't all too thrilled about a talk with a parent about potentially stressful topics on my 1st real summer day.

Instead, what I was gifted with was a wonderful conversation filled with many, many connections and beautiful insights into am amazing person that I briefly got to know as a student in my classroom. Just goes to show, that sometimes things are never what you would expect them to be and indeed, all's well that ends well.

Or maybe I should just say: "What a great way to start my 1st day of summer!"

For the last 3 years or so, I've been in a weird sort of limbo. Events in my life left me questioning myself and what I wanted and I found myself at a loss to connect with the spirit I had when I started this blog and when I started my fun-employment. It was a state of mind that I was not used to: I'm usually extremely optimistic, open-minded and able to find the shiny silver lining in everything. I felt a little tired and unmotivated. These things that I used to find so much joy in were no longer a source of joy. They made me tired. They made me doubt myself and my choices and they made me want to retreat. Even dancing wasn't as enjoyable (oh yes, saying this IS a big deal). While in this state, the introverted side of me took over while the extrovert in me was at a loss for what to do.

To be clear: I didn't hate my life and I wasn't sad about anything in particular. I was tired, and I felt disconnected and uninspired. There were still moments of enjoyment and happiness but there was nothing that I ever really got excited about and when someone suggested I reconnect with the purpose that originally gave me a lot of joy I was stumped: what was it again? That thought just made me tired and then I wanted to just retreat to watching and reading my guilty pleasures: anime and manga.

I found comfort in being with my sister's family. My niece and nephew are growing up fast and they continue to have the magical ability to make me smile. They do ignore me from time to time and I no longer can get them to smile and do something cute for me but they still give me hugs, which I love, so I'm milking that until the day (hopefully never) when they say "ok, no more hugging."

What was interesting too was that the judge in me also took a hiatus. I wasn't really doing anything earth shattering or life changing. I was just coasting. Normally the judge in me would be making me feel guilty about the misuse of time, of wasting my life doing nothing, or making me feel guilty about not living up to me full potential. Throughout this limbo, that voice was absent. Ultimately I told myself, this way of being is ok for now. I know things will evolve into something else eventually.

In the midst of that there was family crisis and old injuries resurfacing and my body going through change. All these things would create moments of emotion, but nothing that drove me to do anything differently. In fact, when I started to think about things more, I just got more tired.

For a while I wondered if I was suffering from depression. Here's a list of symptoms and I underlined the ones that applied to me:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech (actions observable by others)
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Sure, if I was depressed it was certainly in its early stages but I thought, why worry? and fell back to watching and reading and sleeping. Occasionally I would go out and socialize, bake goodies for friends, make toys, fold origami and take classes to learn something new. These moments took a lot out of me but they were good: it connected me to the things that I always enjoyed and had fun doing and it made me be more of myself and not this person that wasn't interested in much else in life.

About the only thing that drove me was teaching in school. For some reason, I felt it important that as a math teacher to 7th graders, the one thing I didn't want to be is "that" math teacher who scars a kid for life and makes them "hate the math".  This drove me to try different strategies in the classroom and it made my teaching year quite fruitful and rewarding and slowly but surely, the state of limbo is starting to dissipate.

Teaching dance wasn't the same. I felt that my dance "career" was in limbo as well. It was a place where my expertise and relevance were constantly being questioned or unappreciated or overlooked. I wasn't really up for some of the drama that comes with the territory and when I did surface, somehow drama found me and I just wanted it to "go away". Dancing itself was fun when I danced. It was hard because old injuries aggravated my body so the pain and maintenance after was also tiring. There were moments of light: learning from other instructors, collaborating with some other dancers and many people who told me how much they appreciated what I've done and accomplished (thank you all!).

So here I am, ready to write again. (slowly but surely) which also means ready to re-engage. I'm still taking things slowly but they are starting to change. Limbo is not an option anymore and I'm slowly getting acquainted with who "me" is becoming.