Thursday, February 4, 2016

Let Go or Be Dragged

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. 

The calendar's shortest month is a teachers longest month. Sandwiched between Christmas break and spring break, the endless stream of dark February mornings can take a toll on our psyche. Hanging on and making the most of the learning experience until winter thaws requires a mindful approach.   

This magnet on our refrigerator at home serves as a daily
reminder that I always have a choice about my attitude. 
Sometimes the best thing we can do is to let go, 
hit the reset button and move forward. 
For me that means I "let go" of distractions at work and I focus with precision on the things that really matter. I began doing this out of necessity a few years ago and I am more fulfilled as a result.

Issues in which I have no control or influence never even make it to my inbox. And when it comes to influencing others I carefully assess how I can get the most bang for my buck.

This is not an act of defiance or me thumbing my nose at leadership. I am talking about intentionally hitting the reset button and refusing to accept survival mode. I avoid the litany of distractions that seem to surface at this time of the year. In February, efficiency and fun - often seen as opposing forces - are both at a premium.

Letting go of the following frustrations has made me a better teacher because I am more focused on the students I serve:
  • Teacher evaluations - An inquisitive 13-year-old could see past the well-intentioned legislation and recognize that the words on paper do not match reality. In too many districts, teacher evaluations that could get to the heart of teacher growth and improved student learning have been an abysmal failure. Don't believe me? Ask teachers from different buildings and different school districts. If you really want to know, check in with teachers employed in schools where teachers are being laid off based on faulty evaluation protocols. Fixing this mess while sitting in the middle of it is impossible. Let go. For now. 
  • Short-sighted "quick fixes" - School districts adopt ideas without input and then we pretend to be on board until things just kind of "drift away" and new ideas replace the old ones. We do a good job of meeting the minimum expectations, which flies in the face of what we are trying to teach our students. It is difficult to get a feel for what is really important if the communication is poor and the resources are stretched too thin. The status quo is easy. Respectful inquiry with an eye on progress simply does not thrive in group-think settings. Let go
  • Frustrated Parents Playing the Blame Game - This is rare in my experience, but I know it can be a nightmare without support and guidance. When it happens I remind myself that doing right is more important than being right. These are opportunities to educate parents, and as teachers we are professionally equipped to educate and learn. Having witnessed some skillful administrators navigate these situations first-hand has helped me improve in this aspect of my craft. I am pro-active and empathetic and that defuses most conflicts. When difficult people require my attention in February I do my best to do what is right and I stay mindful of the fact that I am tired. Then I let go.  
  • Administrators too busy to notice - I get frustrated that many of the good things that my colleagues do appear to be taken for granted by our leadership. It's not intentional and I have the ability to shine a light on the great things happening in education (Maybe my next blog will highlight some of my colleagues who inspire me?). In other words, I cannot afford to be too busy to notice. I am not even certain leadership is taking things for granted and I remind myself it could be a communication challenge more than a gratitude deficiency. A culture of creativity and empowerment is worth fostering and that does not require a specific job title to get it going. That's on me. It is energizing to offer genuine praise to others and I turn to gratitude and praising others when I get the winter blues. Time to let go of disappointment in school leaders.   
  • Contract Negotiations - This is difficult because I have often felt the negotiation process is a direct reflection of how teachers are valued. Thankfully, how we are valued by students day to day has nothing to do with the employee contract and the hard work that goes into good faith negotiations. When I have strong feelings or animosity about school business I work very hard to consciously let go once I have taken some type of action.   
  • Bad Days - How does it go? First Attempt In Learning = F.A.I.L.  So, if the bad day was due to a risk or trying something new then it probably wasn't a bad day after all. If the bad day was due to something else, it's normal with so many variables at play in teaching. I try to find the humor in those situations, especially in February when everyone seems a bit worn down. February is the time to take yourself less seriously and reach out to others and share experiences. It's also a time to focus on letting go
  • Legislation out of Lansing - Pay attention. Engage. Be respectful. Speak up. Vote in every election. Repeat. 
Exploring should be part of our job description
as teachers. I decided I to create my own job 
description and it has made all the difference 
in my career.  Photo by me. 

Finding my niche 

I enjoy exploring different ways to express my ideas and elevate my voice. In the process I want to help others discover their voice. I am inspired by colleagues who live their passion as educators without falling victim to a culture of compliance.

Engaging in writing and photo-journalism projects gives me an outlet and connection to a greater purpose. I value exercising professional judgment about how I manage my time and I replace the mundane with creative outlets where I can have a broad impact. This has made my career more fulfilling and I am a better teacher for recognizing and walking away from the unimportant things that suck the life out of teachers. 

When I wrote about the crisis facing Detroit Public Schools and the failures of our state governor, the opportunity to share and discuss the topic was energizing. There is no substitute for dialogue in our profession. Writing about mentorship and mindfulness pushed me to articulate professional values that ultimately help students. Even this blog entry helps me prepare for handling the rest of February with an eye on improving.

The time dedicated to arbitrary "school business" that has nothing to do with student success has virtually disappeared. My writing and photography help me stay focused on students and building positive relationships. Basically, I devote most of my energy to honor why I teach and how I can promote learning as a meaningful experience. I am not interested in proving I can check off boxes.   

In a rut? Try Twitter. Endless ideas and connections that promote
collaboration. Look into #COLchat or #MichEd  as great places to start. 
You can connect with a new community of leaders and learners.
Twitter has been a useful tool for me.  Art by Liz Francis
With a nudge from the Michigan Educator Voice Fellowship, I turned to Twitter this year to build relationships and learn from other teachers. I regularly interact with educators in Twitter chats that support our profession. I explore education topics on a nation-wide scale and my interaction on Twitter has increased my motivation and confidence. My Twitter colleagues give my learning more meaning. They also raise my self-awareness about my need to improve. In terms of professional development, my Twitter community has helped me approach challenges with more creativity than my brick and mortar PD experiences.

Twitter has been a risk worth taking for me and my students. I post several tweets every week with our class hashtag (#fhsSS) to supplement our learning. Students regularly contribute and I get great feedback. An unplanned Twitter community grew out of our learning and we explore class topics on student terms. I love it. Twitter gives us a voice, a community of learners and access to loads of information. I have made room for new learning by letting go of old concerns and embracing an unplanned experience.

What it Means to Let Go  

As an educator, "letting go" simply means I have found a new place for the situations that were more likely to control me than the other way around. I am typically a glass-half-full kind of guy, but even I have to admit that life as a school employee has too much uncertainty without built-in incentives to take risks. I decided to write and execute my own job description and I make sure I build in some risk, laughter and time to reflect.

Moving forward together in our schools requires an honest 
evaluation of our priorities. In the absence of clear priorities 
we should simply create our own. Photo by me.
Teachers are not the only ones dealing with the prospect of getting worn out by moving targets and mandates that water down the culture of learning. For school administrators who battle being reduced to "middle management" tasking away at the day, it is difficult to keep up with education reform.

If we are not vigilant about recognizing our priorities, that sense of authenticity that makes our profession so great can fall victim to an institutional mindset. 

As a state, we need to change the way we address education policy. According to Education Trust-Midwest, Michigan is in the bottom 20% for funding equity and the bottom 10 % for reading levels among fourth grade students. The Michigan suspension rate for African-American students is the third highest in the nation and we have nearly 100,000 students attending schools led by state-appointed financial managers. It cannot be denied that we need to do better as a state.

The Common Core is a step in the right direction, and unfortunately the ideas coming out of Lansing have little to do with the principles behind the Common Core. Michigan has beefed up the teacher evaluation process and promoted policies that increase charter school enrollment. The problem with these priorities is that many school districts fail to carry out the new teacher evaluation expectations with any degree of consistency or emphasis on growth. Charter schools are not meeting student needs any better than their public school counterparts and there is a lack of trust in the state government to do what is best for Michigan children (Flint and Detroit come to mind most recently).

February is the perfect time to step back and decide where you want to 
put your energy. In the big picture, choose wisely what you let go of 
today in order to avoid being needlessly dragged. Photo by me
Educators can spend countless hours reading spread sheets intended to measure student growth, evaluate student data centers and check the box that indicates a learning target was appropriately provided. None of those "measures" help us adequately determine the value of a teacher, or the education provided to children.

When the teacher performance evaluations are shoddy, tracking data just for sake of doing it is futile. In some cases, administrators do not have the resources to actually carry out useful teacher evaluations that help teachers and students. In other places, high evaluation scores for everyone ensure the silent agreement keeps the district running smoothly - all the teachers get high scores and therefore do not complain.

All of that can be acknowledged and simultaneously let go ... for now.  Letting go, from time to time, is a healthy choice unless you wish to be dragged.
I will continue to advocate for children and raise concerns, but I have given myself permission to prioritize what's left on my plate and let go of most of it. My students benefit from my rational choice.

DISCLAIMER: This blog includes ideas and topics serving as a composite of issues from various sources. The issues raised in this blog are not specifically or solely motivated by the policies within the author's own school district.

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.

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