Archive for February, 2010

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an industrial manager. You have received a new directive from headquarters. You must get your employees to produce better widgets. There will be a standard by which your work will be judged and everyone will be accountable. There will be no financial increase to assist with the resources required to bring this about. There will be precious few suggestions as to how it will happen, but happen it must.

Next, you inform your foremen that they will receive their raw materials in the following manner: some wood will be from tree farms, some from the wild; some metal parts will be custom stamped, some will be cut from junk yard scraps; the hardware–nuts, bolts, screws, etc.–will all come from different sources and be of differing sizes and quality; quality tools will be at a premium and you may have to share, in short– the available materials will be quite an eclectic assortment.

Finally, you tell them that in spite of the varying quality of raw materials and scarcity of tools and funding, all finished products must conform to a strict standard and each of the completed widgets must perform at the same level of efficiency.

When they recover from the initial shock, your foremen will tell you it will be impossible and unprofessional and maybe just downright crazy.

Unless, of course, they have had teaching experience.

As a teacher, you will get similar goals presented to you all the time. Forget the fact that real world industry would think such a thing would be laughable, we have to do it everyday. The only thing that keeps us going is that our widgets talk to us, and sing for us, and calculate for us, and paint and draw for us, and we can experience true quality improvement on a daily basis.

Today, take time to look at your widgets, er…students.

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Years ago, when Edwards Deming, after researching Japanese industrial practices, brought his now famous observations and recommendations to the American production scene, I doubt he even briefly entertained the thought that any of these new paradigms would make their way into the public school classroom. TQM was (and is) a philosophy which strives to improve production by focusing on the process rather than the product. The concept is as simple as the great milk comes from happy cows marketing campaign from California dairy producers: Happy workers give better service and better service brings better products.

If you look very closely at many educational initiatives, you’ll see evidences of various industrial models (or at least some suspicious looking similarities.) Whether it is a revamped TQM, Kaizen, or 5S System, the idea of continuous improvement and enhanced production is there.

They appear to have, however, a major flaw. In each of the Eastern models, there is the “happy cow” element I mentioned.  Employee morale goes up. Stakeholder buy-in goes up. This is an obvious and intentionally stated goal. The American educational models, however, omit this. In fact, teacher morale and satisfaction, if on the list at all, are at the bottom of it.

YOU will have to be responsible for your own morale. You must find those satisfying moments when that light comes on for that student and you know they understand. Then communicate that not only to your students (celebrate!) but your colleagues as well.

Be the thermostat, not the thermometer.

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The cliché is well deserved. Many a policy is “cussed” and discussed around the office water cooler. In the teacher’s case it is more likely to be the copy machine, workroom or teachers’ lounge. It’s the place where we “amp up” our arguments and garner ammunition for our agendas. We slam NCLB,  the latest teaching technique some enlightened guru has thought up, the next book study, conference, gate duty, whatever.

I cannot help but paraphrase Joe Girard (world’s greatest salesman) by offering this bit of wisdom: stay away from the water cooler. His point was that if salesmen spent more time interacting with customers and less time complaining around the water cooler they would make more sales.

I likewise offer that advice to teachers. You must keep a positive mental attitude if your are to survive the onslaught of paperwork, government regulation, and other ancillary demands on your time, just so you can do what you really came here to do: teach. What you have chosen to do with your life demands that you stay UP. Be a positive example for your students. I have stated it before and I’ll state it again here: you can never feel bad enough to change anything, only good enough.

Anything which brings you down, feels negative, produces worry, or in any other fashion saps your zeal for teaching must be avoided. If there are legitimate issues at hand, be an adult and devise a plan do deal with it later, but don’t waste your time and energy on non-issues. Don’t participate in the crisis. remember:

There’s no game unless you pick up the cards.

And keep your water bottle with you.

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Obama and NCLB

As of this writing, President Obama is preparing to revamp our present educational emphasis (or at least rename it) into something which is hopefully more successful. On the frontlines, teachers often get the impression that these new programs must be developed by those who have not been in a classroom for a number of years because they appear to be out of touch with reality. All you have to do is Google the term NCLB and you will find ample evidence of both dislike and distrust of the program. Principals and teachers alike are dissatisfied with the way it makes blind, unilateral demands with no assistance or accommodation.

Whatever comes along to replace it, I hope it is informed by real time advice based on current experience, not on what some ideologue envisioned ten years ago to be our present state of affairs. I have news for them–we’ve moved on. My school is not the same as one in rural Montana, or L.A., or Atlanta. In fact, my school is not like the one across town. My first period is not even like my third period. And the student in row one seat three is nothing like the student in row five seat ten!

If anyone  out there in the upper echelons of edu-topia stumble across this blog, I have a request. Back the teachers! Your BEST resource for saving America’s educational future–our kids–is that man or woman who stands day after day in front of those kids with the desire to draw out the best in them. Any educational paradigm should first and foremost support them and their efforts to make a difference in that child’s life.

If any person in any government program, NCLB, Race to the Top or otherwise, wants to show themselves to be a  successful visionary leader, they need to do what all good leaders do: simply be the conduit between resources and results.

Then step out of the way and let a good teacher teach.

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In the classroom, I try to never forget the importance of my student’s sense of self worth. In a previous blog I discussed how a student’s subject self-image should inform the teacher’s instruction (not dictate it, just inform it.) In many ways, this could easily be perceived as putting the cart before the horse. I say this because, while I can use the information about a student’s subject identity to help me reach them with the information I have for them, it won’t always work unless I agree that the student’s personal self-image is also a factor.

I see so many students who I suspect are hindered by their self-image. Maybe they come from a single parent home, which, while quite common these days, is sometimes still difficult to cope with. Maybe their home life is more complicated than you can imagine. Maybe there is open infidelity, alcohol or drug use, abuse, you name it, and it’s probably in someone’s life. And even though these problems occur frequently, students can become very self conscious and insecure.

The single largest impact, however, seems to be students who do not love themselves. The symptoms? “She has it so much better than I do.” “Why can’t I get a break like that?” “It figures, what did I expect?” Failure and frustration dog their steps. They have learned life’s greatest lie “You don’t deserve any better.” “The good stuff is for others—not you.” Dig a little deeper into the life of a child who is an under achiever and you’ll uncover a lack of belief in themselves.

You cannot magically make a student value themselves or their contribution to life. But YOU can help by ascribing value to these things yourself. Find any way possible to celebrate even the smallest victory without being patronizing or coming off phony. Begin to make success a habit for that student. You might have to pay a little more attention to that student, love them a little more, be a little more patient—whatever.

Remember–on their little ship of life you might only be able to drive a few deck nails, or sew a hem in a sail, or paint a pinstripe down the hull. You may not be there when it sets sail. But when they move on from your class, you’ll know the contribution you made. And it may be that all you get to do is smile and wave goodbye.

So make it worth it.

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I’ve had high school football players remark that during away games, they like having the band in the stands with the fans. They can hear the fight song, hear their parents’ and friends’ voices and it gives them the illusion of a home field advantage. They can hear “Go long, Lamar!” or “Hold ’em Kyle!”

Since I was young, I have been amazed at how vocal athletic fans are. Especially when no one on the team can hear them. I’m talking about yelling at the television. “Come on! What were you thinking Coach?” “Good grief! I could see that coming a mile away!” “What’s wrong with you?” “Can’t you count!?” Many a football fan has spent a few hours yelling and venting at a group of people who don’t even know they exist. There is no microphone in your den, and no private intercom on the playing field. Yell all you like, they’re not listening.

Sometimes we feel like teaching is that way. You talk and show and cajole but they’re just not listening. So find someone who is listening and become their fan. “Thank you, Courtney, for listening and paying attention.” “Trey I like the way you’re doing that–good work.” Only the most die-hard rebels will continue to ignore you. The rest will get “props.” Those who look and listen will be rewarded. They will be engaged. They will be successful.

All we have to do is remember that their personal spiritual nature is what we need to connect with. They’re not on TV. They’re sitting in your classroom.

So connect already.

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If you did not  read my previous blog post, go back and read it now or this next step will be meaningless. What follows is the way I began to determine my students’ self image with respect to the subject I teach: (you can adapt it to fit your situation.)

I began simply by keeping a few notes to myself about what seemed to “click” with some of my students. For instance, if I mentioned one aspect of my subject, I noticed that two boys on my right would always perk up and want to enter the discussion. If I discussed another aspect, some other students would want to jump in.  I made notes about who was interested in what and began to intentionally formulate specific questions just to see who would respond and if I was on target. I began to notice patterns which eventually helped me to see how each of my students was responding to different stimuli.

Next, I settled on three categories, or images, which I theorized were valid and gave them names like student, consumer, and performer. I next sat down and gave a lot of thought about what types of questions the students with each of these images would respond to with a “yes.” I constructed ten questions I felt like each group could say “yes” to and then listed them in a specific order: a student question, then a consumer question, then a performer question, then a student question, and so on. to the right of each question I placed a response row based on the Likert scale (disagree, agree, strongly agree, etc) and assigned each a numerical value. In actual practice, these values are finally added up and the question type with the highest number is usually an indicator of that student’s self image.

Next, I actually gave it to several groups of students and was pleased with the results. Although the questions needed a bit of tweaking, the process was sound (mostly based on the Myers-Briggs model, but not looking for Jungian personality traits.) I was able to see clearly what I had suspected all along: that students DO see themselves with different self-images with respect to their subjects.

Now I do some type of assessment  each semester. The students think it’s fun and like knowing “what they are.” They know that I have an interest in connecting with them on a deeper personal level–where their interests truly lie–and they respond (mostly) with respect and scholarship.

The results are manifold: they feel good about my class, it makes a personal and I think spiritual impact (their personal preferences are all-important at this age), it moderates their behavior (no one in the room is an adversary), and these things combine to produce a positive environment where success and achievement can happen.

Give it a try in your academic area. Let me know how it goes!

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