Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Teachers as Leaders: The Importance of Feedback, Modeling, and Innovation

Educators change. Educators evolve. Sometimes, we get it right. Other times, we get it wrong.

Right now, my focus is leadership.

Why leadership?

Teachers by definition are leaders. Every August, we are charged to lead a group of young minds to deeper levels of learning and achievement. We strive to reach every child in the classroom, and go above and beyond to make magic happen. This requires vision, planning, patience, and an ability to accept constant feedback (both positive and negative) from students, parents, and administrators. Over the summer break, I will study what great leaders do by researching the following....

* Feedback- Leaders must be willing to accept feedback whether positive or negative. They must look at it with an open mind knowing that everyone makes mistakes, but what actions can be taken to improve. I watched a great video from the Harvard Business Review on mistakes that leaders make, and it brought up some excellent points to consider as I lead a new group of students in August. It's essential that teachers see themselves as leaders in order to bring out the best in ourselves and our students.
* Modeling- Leaders must not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. If I want my students to treat each other with dignity and respect, then I must be the example first in how I treat my students and colleagues. Additionally, if I want my students to bring their best every day to the classroom, then I can never waiver in my lesson planning, dress, or speech. I set the tone and example every day, every hour, and every minute. By holding myself to a high standard, my students will grow to trust that I am consistent and an example that they want to follow.
I recently watched a video on this topic by Jack Welch on trust and authenticity. The video is for business, but I believe it applies to school leadership as well. As a teacher, the trust I build with my students is vital for their achievement, and my ability to teach. Teachers can't make false promises, go against their word, talk badly about students in front of their peers or other teachers, because children have the most to risk. Our students believe in us so deeply, and when we hurt them, the wounds stay for a lifetime. We must keep the teacher/student relationship strong and healthy.

*Innovators Mindset- It seems that innovation is one of those terms that elicits immediate anxiety, almost like creativity. Many people believe that creativity as well as innovation are innate gifted qualities only from God himself. I know this because I am one of those people. However, I know that is the wrong mindset. We all have the potential for creativity and innovation, we just need to think like innovators. The following is an excellent video on how to think like an innovator. It focuses on the importance of questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting. I would challenge all teachers to take some time to expand your thinking this summer along with me. It never hurts to try.


Feedback, modeling, and innovation are all important elements of great leadership. I'm looking forward to exploring these topics further throughout the summer. If any readers have suggestions or knowledge on the topic I'd love to know your thoughts. Feel free to comment.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Importance of Authenticity in Teaching and Leading Students

"How would your life be different if....You approached all relationships with authenticity and honesty? Let today be the day....You dedicate yourself to building relationships on the solid foundations of truth and authenticity." Steve Maraboli, author of Life, the Truth, and Being Free

Students want authentic teachers. They want teachers who are genuine. What does that mean? According to my students it means the following....

Don't Say One Thing and Do Another-- Actions speak louder than words, and students are always watching. If one thing comes out of my mouth, but my actions are the complete opposite, my students will not believe in me anymore. They won't take me seriously either. This is one area that I worked on heavily this year, because I believe authenticity is vital for achievement. My students have to trust me in order for me to lead them. Living up to my word is everything.

I had one particular student this year from my remedial class who deals with a difficult home life. She didn't have much of a mother figure, and had serious trust issues. Always playing it cool, she didn't participate much in class, but she was always watching me, testing me, wondering when my "true" self would come out. It wasn't until about the last week of school that she determined that--this is who Mrs. Farmer is--and she began to open up to me. On the last day, she wrote me this....

Dear Mrs. Farmer,

Well, this year has been something! But, there is something I wanted to tell you before the school year ends. You are the best teacher that I've ever had, because your the only teacher that told me I could do it! And I could do anything!

At first, I was like, "Oh, she is just like all the other teachers..they say they care, but they don't. But then I started to notice you're nothing like those teachers--you're way better! You never gave up on me or anyone in this class, and I never stopped believing in you! Your awesome! And amazing! I couldn't ask for a better teacher!

I remember one day I was having a really bad day and you said, "Don't shut down, and don't shut me out!" That was the most encouraging thing anyone has ever said! I lighted up when you said that, and I put everything behind me. I just wanted to say thanks for not giving up on me, and I am so thankful to call you my teacher. I'll never forget you! Have a good summer! I'll miss you forever!


my sixth grade student

I was so thankful to this student and this letter. This letter and others I received this year all seemed to have this focus on authenticity-- the importance trust in a relationship--and our students' desire for it. As I go forward, I will continue strive to be an authentic teacher leader--one who doesn't just talk, but walks the talk every time. It is everything.


Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Elements of Successful Teaching

Recently, I watched this video by the Teaching Channel. They interviewed several National Teachers' of the Year. I enjoyed watching the video, and it offered some insights into the importance of culture, content knowledge, accountability, and collaboration--all elements needed for successful teaching.

The Importance of Culture:
It is imperative that teachers know their students, and take the time in the first few weeks of the year to establish a safe learning environment. This includes rules, routines, and schedules. However, it also includes interest surveys, goal setting for the semester, and discussions on the importance of academic achievement. Once a strong culture is established, the class can begin move deeper into the content areas.

Content is King, along with Accountability:
Students must learn the content for achievement to take place. It's vital to utilize every minute in the classroom for learning, and check for understanding through formative and summative assessments. Then, reflect and determine which students are in need of  instructional help.

Beyond knowledge of the content, students need to be accountable for their learning. It's not enough to give a student a "0" for not turning in a paper. Students must do the work, even if it means they have no recess, lunch with their friends, or extracurricular activities. If students aren't held accountable to an unwavering high standard, they will not reach their full academic potential.

Teachers must also continue to learn their content. We are never done, and the minute we think we've learned all we can, or have perfected our teaching is the day we should receive our retirement papers. We must strive to be better every day.

Collaboration is the Stuff of Champions:
Champions don't run from adversity, they run toward it. There are problems we face as teachers that should not be conquered alone. Seeking help, saying, "You know, I just don't know how to help this student. Can you help me, please?" to another teacher is a great way to seek solutions. There is some pride swallowing and humility needed, but it's important to know that we are all stronger together, so why not be the first to take the plunge? Teacher collaboration creates a bond and strength that is necessary for the overall well being of a school's culture and success.

Below is the link to the video that brought me to write this reflection. I suggest all teachers follow the Teaching Channel. It's a wonderful resource for growth and inspiration.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A Letter to Me on My First Day of Teaching

Recently, I saw this video created by Edutopia and Soul Pancake.

They asked teachers to write a letter to themselves as first year teachers. I loved the video, and as a reflection for this week, I thought I'd write one to myself.

Dear Laura,

Well, you made it. You are a teacher--a prize won, and a dream fulfilled. But, your journey is just beginning. You are a little cocky, and you kind of think you have it all figured out. Sorry to break it to you--you've got a long way to go. There is this part of you that still holds on to the hurts of you're own childhood--the education you wished you'd experienced--the resentfulness and blame. You see similar traits of those past teachers in ones standing next to you, and you want to judge them. You want to scream and say, "Don't you know!" But, the truth is--you--don't know. What you don't know is this.....

First lesson-- Teaching is Tough. Get ready to take your vitamins! It takes a tremendous amount of energy to teach with passion every day in the classroom. There will be days when your legs feel like lead, your head pounds, and your eyes get blurry. But, the kids don't care. They want you- all of you every single day, and you will want to give it to them. So, you do what it takes. You drive to the Kroger Pharmacy and pile your cart full of vitamin drinks, supplements, and calcium chews. You stay up late and work your tail off to create meaningful lessons--not for praise--but for the kids. You will do this every single day, while also feeling more humbled by the teachers that work around you, knowing that they have dedicated blood, sweat, and tears not just for one year, but many years. Your perception of teachers will change, and you will respect even the burned out and tired ones more deeply realizing with each passing day how tough teaching really is.

Second lesson-- You will love it. You think you love teaching now. You've had a great time in your student teaching experiences, but that is just the beginning. You'll get up at 4:30 in the morning- working to be a great wife and mother, but then you will stay up late into the night dedicating yourself to the profession that God gifted for you. Nothing will give you more pride than unlocking your classroom door every morning. Nothing will make you happier than greeting your students each morning in the hallway. Above all, nothing will give you more satisfaction than seeing your students succeed, because that is where the true glory lies. The spark for learning cultivated in your classroom is worth a million headaches, tired muscles and bones. It is priceless.

Third Lesson-- You will fail. There will be kids that no matter how much you work with them, they just can't seem to make progress. This will eat at your soul, and knowing that you are a perfectionist, this will drive you to a near point of insanity. But, I ask you to be patient, and know that you are a great teacher, and remember that teaching is a journey. You will not always get from your students exactly what you desire, but by maintaining a positive attitude and a desire for excellence in each one of them, you are sure to make a positive difference in their lives. No test score equates to the deep impact of a positive teacher who emphasizes the fact that students are more than a test score. They are change makers, dream catchers, and all that is good and honorable. So, don't get discouraged by failure. The sun will come out tomorrow.

Fourth Lesson--Not everyone will see education like you, and that's okay. Don't point fingers, but strive to bring out the best in those around you. Remember that teaching is tough-- most teachers are trying their best. So, help them. Look for what is good in them, and help to cultivate that--support them, and in the process they will teach you all their fabulous teaching secrets. Above all--by believing in them you will see the jewels that lie deep in their hearts, their desire to make a difference in students. We don't all have to think alike, but we can all work together to make a contributing difference.

In closing, remember to be yourself. Be silly in front of your students sometimes, let them see who you are. Know that you will do great things, and your dreams will be achieved. All it takes is a sprinkling of passion, planning, and perseverance, and like magic, your dreams will come true. You will be awesome!


Your Future Self

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Driving Excellence Through Collaboration


In my last post, I wrote on a few lessons that I've learned which drive me to pursue excellence in my career as a educator. Today, I would like to continue on the subject of excellence by delving into the tricky navigation of collaboration.

Americans in general are known to be competitors. We like to win. As a proud American, I'm the toughest competitor around. However, the way in which I go about it is changing, and I find myself desiring collaboration over competition.

1. The Desire to Connect:  As a teacher, I would like to see more bridges being built than walls going up. I want to collaborate and discuss education with other educators in neighboring counties and cities. If I see a neighborhood school doing an awesome project or using technology in an innovative way via Twitter than I want to connect! I want a piece of their greatness! I believe an open door policy among neighbors grants a certain trust that we are all in this together for our students. We all have excellent ideas to offer, so why not learn and grow together.

2. It's All About the Students: Collaboration lends itself to focusing on the students. When we get too worried about the numbers on standardized tests scores, education becomes less personal. I know this is a difficult thing, because we are all evaluated so heavily by those tests. However, I want to rise above the test! Of course, we continue to prepare students for the test, but the mentality shifts from being all about the test to a desire of providing every child quality instruction in order to be successful during school and in their future endeavours. It's important for all of us to remember that students know and feel the transparency of teaching to the test. They desire something deeper.

3. The Power of Driving Excellence in Others:  I've always worked harder for someone who wants me to be excellent and values my ideas. That is a wonderful quality for a principal to have, but that task should not be solely on his shoulders. As teachers, we should be valuing each other by collaborating, demonstrating our work with each other, and staying open to each others ideas by using them in the classroom. There is no greater satisfaction than a colleague using an idea of mine in their own instruction. That is what drives excellence--giving, receiving, and validating each others contributions.

These are just a few thoughts on how collaboration drives excellence. I hope to do more of it as I grow as an educator.