Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Practical Tips for Mindful Teaching

Conversations, by Nick Gregory
This past weekend I took some time to put the brakes on after a whirlwind start to the school year. A lazy Saturday drive led to this photo (right) and some time to just enjoy the ride without any plans.

In addition to teaching, I have been getting in on valuable Twitter chats, reading interesting education blogs and elevating my involvement within my school community. I am an adrenaline junkie who binges on big ideas and feeds off student energy every September and October. This past weekend though, I embraced the reality that teaching is a marathon and not a sprint. I know this from 15 years of experience, but in the past I would wait until a November crash to face my demons.

I cannot express enough how important it is to take the time before October hits to step back and breathe. Slow your roll. If we are not mindful, we can get sucked into the day to day without appreciating the important nuances of our craft. We get so busy that sometimes we substitute movement for meaning.

Four Tips to Remain Mindful as an Educator 

1. Breathe and observe 

Set aside five minutes per day for silent observation. Take in the learning that is happening all around you. With some patience and permission, you may be surprised by what you notice unfolding in your presence.
The Curious Walk, by Nick Gregory
The photo to the left happened because I set my camera aside and noticed surfers climbing a hill in the distance ten minutes prior. By the time they re-appeared there was a two second window to capture this moment with everything in harmony. In the classroom, we spend so much time trying to be "on" that we sometimes forget to appreciate the joy of just being.

To capture and live the moments that matter, it pays to slow down. When students are engaged and on-task, it is a credit to the expert in the classroom. Our default mode is programmed to juggle and multi-task. Choose to be intentional about noticing what is going on around you - the sounds, the sights, the feel. Live in those harmonious moments (Harmony can be many things in a classroom -  designed chaos, loud, messy or even quiet, low-key and deliberate, etc.) A positive classroom environment is to be appreciated, not taken for granted. At the very least, observe recess or the lunch room to breathe it all in. Be present. It works.

2. Make meaningful 1-minute impressions daily

Choose 5-10 students that you will get to know a little better each week. These will be those "1-minute moments" to listen with more intention as they are in group work or to read homework a little closer. Find your opportunity to dig a little deeper. Simply make a point to intentionally engage those 5-10 students more than normal. It could include reaching out to a family member, checking in with past teachers or noticing something unique and sharing your observation with the student. Whatever means you employ, take one valuable minute to personally connect and it will enhance the learning experience. By Thanksgiving you will have connected individually with all of your students in a meaningful way. If you have fewer students (elementary or special education come to mind), you could alter this idea to fit your classroom and maximize these personal connections early in the school year.

3. Connect your talents to your work 

Drifting Together, by Nick Gregory
Take something you already enjoy and build it into being a better educator and colleague. The connection can be loose, but it's a risk worth taking.

So for me, I enjoy photography and writing. Connecting for me means making post cards to share with colleagues (There are samples below from a gift set that I will give to some friends and colleagues). I even made business cards which fed into my interests designing. I intend to design stationery using my photography for notes to students, recent graduates, colleagues or families from time to time.

The idea is that you take interests you want to develop and play around with them. It is not a race. These initiatives bring you to a place where you are enhancing your experience in your professional life. Let's come to terms with the fact there will always be things we have to do, but applying your interests to your career is something you will enjoy doing. And besides, when you let people in and they learn more about who you are then a more meaningful work experience is right around the corner. We all have talents (fixing things, building things, planning things, organizing events, art, gardening, web design, writing, exercise, yoga, music, video, etc.) that inform who we are and match up with values within our profession. When we can sneak something personal into our professional life it brings us back to our center and it enhances the experience of others. It is worth the energy to experiment. Acting on this idea has brought me immense gratification. It is a win.

4. Seek the company of people who make you smile 

Sometimes we need to put the fun back into work. When the grind of education becomes a challenge, feed off others. Every school building has a zany goofball who is ready to supply a hearty laugh. Better yet, we all have students with this gift. Find them. Now. The gravitational force of helping others can create a roller-coaster experience and laughter can make for a lighter and more enjoyable ride. Seek opportunities to smile. We all know this is important, but the reminder never hurts.

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Honoring our craft (See No. 3 above)

The photographs included in this blog above represent a sample from a set of postcards I will pass along to others over the course of the school year. I have included a few more of the postcard photos below. Each card represents a big idea that is central to learning and the craft of teaching. On the postcards, the "big idea" is printed on the front of the card (listed in the captions for this blog post). The recipients can display them or they can pass them on to someone else. It is entirely up the recipient and it honors our profession.

Resilience, by Nick Gregory
Resting point, by Nick Gregory

Imagination, by Nick Gregory

Mindful, by Nick Gregory

Monday, September 14, 2015

Teacher Growth & Performance Evaluations - an Oxymoron?

The issues raised in this blog are not specifically motivated by the policies within my own school or within my district. I write about many topics that are often related to discussions with educators who do not work in my school district. This blog in no way is intended to reflect solely on any specific leaders or my place of employment. 

Dear School Leader,
Cartoon by Dan Piraro, Bizarro! 

You surely noticed the elephant at the the kick-off to the school year staff meeting. He was the one sighing as we moved through PowerPoint slides detailing the formula used to determine our effectiveness as teachers.

We have a teacher evaluation problem to deal with as a staff.

There, I said it.

Now, can we work together for teacher growth?

This letter is my invitation for you to begin talking to the staff about how we can make teacher improvement the linchpin of the evaluation process.

Whether you know it or not, your evaluation process is on the minds of a lot of teachers under your leadership. We don't know how to talk about it because it is a topic fraught with questionable methods and a flawed process. No one wants to sound like a whiner or be misunderstood so it has been safer to quietly comply and find ways to "score" better. We know that you too must struggle with what you are being tasked with as a school leader and it must feel overwhelming. Teacher evaluations and the talk surrounding them - in the media, the community, the hallways of our building - have changed our building climate in ways most of us did not see coming.

Teachers want to be invited into the conversation about how we can make the entire teacher evaluation experience meaningful. You want evaluations to be more useful and so do we, but starting that messy work is tough. Consider sharing my words with your staff and we can get the conversation started with our focus on WORKING TOGETHER.

GUMBY By Highlimitzz, Flickr
Your staff understands that you often find creative ways to adjust to the legislation out of Lansing and since you do not have a crystal ball, you have had to twist in more ways than Gumby to keep us in compliance. Thank you for steering the ship. Really, thank you.

As the winds of change continue to swirl around teacher evaluations, your teaching staff is your best resource when it comes to transforming the process into something that is robust and meaningful.

You may not have as much influence with legislators as you would like but you can influence your staff by broaching the topic of teacher evaluations with sincerity and sharing your expertise as an educational leader. It will help us understand you better and it will serve as a reminder that we are all on the same team. We need those reminders that you understand the frustration many teachers feel and that you are committed to supporting teachers with a teacher evaluation process that will serve students and teachers.

  • Can we talk about the teacher evaluation process and what it means to you as a leader in our school district?
  • Can we break down the walls, get past the legalize and get some assurances from your heart and your experience as an educator that we will use the evaluation tool to inform best practice?
  • How can we re-think and use the mandated teacher evaluation process so that it helps teachers improve and helps students learn?

Our staff wants to hear from you and we want to know what you value and expect from our staff. You are an educational leader with expertise in leading teachers and running a school. Quality teachers are supportive of an evaluation process that promotes growth.  We are begging for an opportunity to be heard and to gain insight into your ideas about how we can build a growth mindset and a collaborative learning culture together. We understand that it will take work, teacher leadership and new ideas to make this process the best it can be for our school. Let's roll up our sleeves, potentially make a mess of it, grow with it and roll with it and do this together.

Our students and families will be the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts and our staff will feel a greater sense of belonging. We need that sense of belonging now more than ever. Our profession has been under attack and funding has not kept up with the demands of twenty-first century student needs. The teacher evaluation process is a great opportunity to help teachers grow and improve. Let's do this. Together.

To the contrary, if we treat teacher performance evaluations as this thing we have to do then I am afraid you are telling me that it's just another thing I am subjected to and it has no real benefit for student learning. I may "measure up" in the evaluation, but what I am most interested in is measuring up for students and improving as a teacher. It is your responsibility to help me achieve and strive for improvement.

What this evaluation means to you is more important to me than what it means to the State of Michigan. You are a person I respect, see regularly and if I know precisely what you value and how you value, I am more likely to have trust that your evaluation of my teaching is intended to help me. I want to have more confidence in your evaluation and your feedback is critical to this process. I need to be reminded that we share goals and that you welcome risk-taking, encourage collaboration and you support me in my effort to put students first. I need to improve and I am counting on you to guide and help me be my best.

The evaluation should reflect all of this, but it can't until we talk about it.

Sharing your expertise and your stance will help your teaching staff understand that you too are navigating a windfall of challenges and your aim is to keep students as the top priority. The evaluation has to support that mission, both in theory and in practice. Teachers want to be part of meeting this important challenge.

  • Can we invite teacher leaders to have some say in the evaluation process and to take some responsibility for making it better?
  • Can we work together to re-frame the evaluation process as something that can help our staff and not divide us? We want desperately to give the process more credibility, and we also feel defeated using an evaluation tool that no one seems to understand and a process that is inconsistent.
  • Can you help us understand the role of the evaluation process in our school? We get nervous about re-assignments or lay-offs based on evaluations that many of us fail to find professional value or understand.

You can't erase all of the anxiety surrounding evaluations, but simply knowing that we are tackling this challenge together will give us more faith that the outcomes can have relevance for teacher growth.  

I realize that the struggles with our process are not necessarily a reflection of you or any single leader. Despite that fact, our problems are still real and we have to stop pretending it will just be okay by saying little and doing even less to change the situation. We can do better.

Trust me, if we address the challenge of improving our evaluation process then more of our energy will be devoted to the craft of teaching rather than "acing" evaluation measures that we're not even sure translate to best practice. We want to believe in the process as an avenue for improvement. Even just a little.

In closing, teachers want to improve and we will thrive in a culture that supports teacher growth. We are better when we collaborate, take risks and occasionally fail. But you see, all of this talk about "highly effective" or "minimally effective" and [INSERT potentially arbitrary measure here] student growth are topics we desperately need help unpacking before we can move forward.

We respect that you have a unique set of challenges with teacher performance evaluations and teachers can help make this entire process better if you invite the conversation and lead. Educators and their leaders are creative and passionate about helping others. Those qualities will serve us well if we are serious about transforming teacher performance evaluations into opportunities that encourage risk-taking and collaboration rather than competition and completing tasks.

Invite the conversation.

You might be surprised by the sigh of relief from the staff and the results.

We got this.


A dedicated and concerned teacher
Any School, Michigan

DISCLAIMER: This letter is a composite of topics that are not specifically motivated by the policies within the author's own school district. The author wrote this letter based on his own experience and after conversations with teachers in school districts across the State of Michigan. The letter is intended to serve as a notice that compliance is not a substitute for best practice and teachers can and should have a voice in the performance evaluation process.

Other Resources about Teacher Evaluation and Improvement:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Gregory has been a social studies and journalism teacher at Fenton High School in Michigan since 2000 and he has been a National Writing Project Teacher consultant and a junior varsity basketball coach since 2003. He has exhibited photography related to Detroit and social justice causes since 2011 and he loves to travel. Gregory, who has a Masters degree in Educational Leadership, believes that building positive relationships helps students grow their passion for learning. Gregory is a member of the Michigan Education Voice Fellowship.