The month of June ended with a lot of changes for me personally. I concluded my year as a mentor for the North Carolina Digital Leaders Coaching Network in Asheville. I have spent this year as a mentor to three outstanding digital educators who are working tirelessly to provide opportunities for their staff to learn the latest and best possible ways to become innovators in their classroom. We work specifically on how to become better coaches through sharing various best practices and access to innovative ideas. I highly encourage anyone who works in an instructional coach capacity to apply to this dynamic program. It will truly help to grow your professional learning network and become a strong coach better suited to serve the needs of your colleagues. I also received an email inviting to learn about an exciting opportunity at a high school undergoing a renewal. I met with the principal and she shared her vision and strategy to redesign the high school. I recall several years ago a speaker who mentioned that the most innovative thing that most schools have done in the past thirty years was to adopt block scheduling. I remember chuckling then and even do now. Sadly, many of our current practices in schools are reminiscent of the education that my grandparents would have received. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the education that they received, their education was geared toward creating citizens who would most likely work in an industrial setting and possibly some higher level management positions. They were prepared for jobs that currently existed and I doubt that there was very little attention directed to the evolution of jobs in the future. Currently, technology has expanded and has changed the trajectory of the factory model work. We can no longer forecast what types of jobs or career jobs will be available for the students of today as these jobs do not even exist today. Further, many jobs are often crisscrossed mashup blends of distinctly different areas that are increasing merging together. Couple with these changes is the proliferation of digital information. While I still see value in knowing information and even specific facts (gasp), it is actually more important for our students to develop skills in learning how to find information that they need and determine its validity. Increasingly, we must also focus on teaching various others skills. As an adjunct chemistry instructor at a nearby college, I have observed over the past years that students are increasingly challenged in working collaboratively with each other. Some groups are productively working together in lab; however, there are usually connecting factors such as they play on the same athletic team or know each other from the past. The groups who struggle are those who have no previous connection or familiarity with each other. I have learned that I, as the lab instructor, need to work on these groups to help them learn how to collaborate effectively with each other so they are prepared for the future. In doing so, I have also noted that the importance of the group learning to communicate effectively with each other while critically thinking about the data and information they are collecting in lab. Increasingly, I see some of the college students struggle with questions that require them to apply what they learned in a new way. A lot of them struggle with seeing connections between what they have learned and how they can apply that to a different situation. This usually requires creativity. I think that we, in schools, have done a great job of reducing creativity and making students focus on more tangible things such as memorizing facts or being able to recite a repetitive process of solving a math problem over and over. As I reflect on this, I am increasing seeing the importance of stressing the 4Cs (collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity) in the learning the process. In my discussions with the principal about this new opportunity, she shared that the staff chose to develop a framework for their curriculum that revolved around the 4Cs. I find this incredible. I love that the focus will be shifted into a commonly agreed upon framework that was developed by teachers as a way to improve the learning outcomes of their students. This truly could be a game changer. As I considered this opportunity, I am truly inspired by the vision of the principal and her willingness to empower her staff to work collectively to create something that is so out of the ordinary. In many ways, I can see this as extraordinary actually. I applaud the school's willingness to step out of the proverbial box and, instead, erase the walls and barriers that keep us from fully serving students. Much like I experienced with the NCDLCN, I love that they are working to maximize each student's potential for success by equipping them with the skills needed for a future that we cannot yet forecast.
I have spent today working with the North Carolina Digital Coaches Leadership Network (NCDLCN) in Asheville. NCDLCN is administered by the Friday Institute and funded through the NC Legislature. I have worked with NCDLCN over the course this year as a mentor and attended it last year as a participant. NCDLCN has been a great opportunity to transform into a stronger coach to better support teachers to improve student learning. I am very appreciative for this opportunity. While I had many "aha" moments today, one experienced that stood out occurred during the mentor session where we investigated effective professional learning. We looked specifically at how we create professional learning experiences with our school staffs and how adults view professional learning opportunities. One specific take-away that I had involved the idea of "creator bias." As a person who is charged with creating powerful and transformative professional learning, I always strive to create professional learning opportunities that engage staff members and help them improve student learning. But I had never considered the role of my individual bias toward creating these sessions. I am partial to interpersonal activities such as discussions and forums. I strongly feel that conversations allow individuals to synthesize their thoughts. While I still believe that this is an effective strategy to incorporate into professional learning, it helped me realize that some teachers may find this kind of activity or other activity stressful since it may not be inline with their particular strengths or aptitudes. This also leads to a larger epiphany that professional learning should include a variety of strategies to appeal to all learning styles. Additionally, activities should be geared to compliment the identified strengths of all staff members. Those, like me, who offer professional learning must incorporate and play to the strengths of those receiving the professional learning. With the creation of any professional learning, we must apply UID in which we begin with the "end in mind" and determine the learning outcomes. We must carefully choose strategies and activities that best serve all staff involved. As I begin planning my professional learning development for the coming year, I will definitely be aware of my personal bias and will activity incorporate the strengths of teachers that I am serving.
Our school year has concluded. My son just completed a successful year of kindergarten and I am so proud of him. He has grown leaps and bounds thanks to a dynamic teacher and an outstanding instructional assistant. He is reading above grade level which is awesome. At the end of the year party, the teacher recognized each student with an award. My son was the next to the last student to be recognized. As I listened to the awards that his classmates received, I began to wonder about what award that he would receive. I thought to myself which award would I love to see him receive and it hit me. While I value academics and will always push him to do his absolute best, it was at this moment that I began to think about the importance of how he treats others. I was hoping that he would receive an award that would recognize his ability to treat others with respect and value. And then it happened - his teacher called him up to receive the "Exceptional Kindness" award. It was an amazing experience for me to watch him walk up to receive his award. I was almost moved to tears as this award reaffirmed something that I had always stressed to my son. The importance of kindness is often overlooked in today's competitive world. This also made me think of a particular impressive activity that one of our 7th grade teachers completed with his students. This teacher, only in his 2nd year of teaching, is an outstanding math teacher. I had the opportunity to know him for many years as his mother is a long time colleague. Watching him grow up and mature into both an outstanding young man and educator has been extraordinary. But one of the most amazing things that I have ever seen him do as an educator did not involve teaching math standards. It actually involved having his students understand the value of kindness and being kind to their fellow classmates. His students created posters to place around school that promoted being kind to others. He also stressed and reinforced the importance of students being kind to each other as a routine action. As a result, he impacted students and through his actions, students started being kinder to each other. His emphasis on treating others with respect began to infect many students in our school. As a result, this young man made a far more positive impact on students that will carry them further in life So just like my son, I am proud of Mr. Tyler Downs for valuing and promoting the importance of kindness among his students. We need more educators like Mr. Downs to stress and promote this quality among their students at times since kindness does matter. Let us never forget the importance of being kind and treating each other with respect and value.
A lot of recent focus in education has been on resiliency, the condition of being able to recover from setbacks, adversity, or challenges. Too many of our students face challenges that we, as educators, can only imagine. This past semester, I was reminded of this in my online course. I teach high school chemistry online. While chemistry is quite a challenging subject in itself, taking it online adds another dimension of challenge. Students who enroll in my online chemistry course do so for a variety of reasons. For some, it is a schedule challenge. But for others, it has to do with personal challenges. During the six years that I taught chemistry online, I have had students who are unable to attend their face to face high school for a variety of reasons that ultimately relate to some type of trauma or adversity. In doing so, their schools have determined that the students are best served by taking the course online. For these students, their challenges are far greater than just making conversions, balancing chemical equations, and calculating pH. I am very appreciative that I am able to help these students continue in their learning despite some of the challenges that they are personally experiencing. Sometimes, I know the reasons for their challenges but other times, I do not. Regardless, it does not really matter as long as I know that the students have some type of adversity that has negatively impacted their ability to attend their face to face school. This semester, I had several students who fell into this category. Two students in particular had a profound impact on me. I have been working with the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) over the past year in developing resiliency training for educators statewide. I have learned that many of our students often have adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that serve as obstacles to their success and ability to focus on obtaining a quality education. One possible example may involve parents who are addicted to pain relievers and unable to provide their full attention to their own children. While neither of these students had this kind of ACE, both had challenges that would have been insurmountable for other students. Both often fell behind in submitting work, another characteristic of students experiencing trauma. As I reflect on my experience with both of these students, I observed a couple of commonalities. Both had supportive parents with which I was able cultivate positive relationships to help the students. Both had someone at their school that I could reach out to as needed. But I think that the most important similarity involved my ability to build a positive, supportive, and non-judgemental relationship with these students. When these students fell behind, I continued to stress that they still had the ability to be successful and could do so if they would continue to put effort into the course. I provided encouragement when they were successful. It was authentic encouragement, not insincere encouragement that they would viewed as empty and hollow. I stressed their strengths and always referenced them in the feedback that I left for them on assignments. Instead of pointing out their deficiencies, I stressed their strengths. This is one of the keystones of building resiliency among students facing trauma. I also never stopped believing that they could do it. I am not staying this to "toot my own horn;" instead, I am staying that it was important to let the students know that I genuinely believed in them. As a result, both students were able to complete all required assignments for the course. Just a few weeks ago, this goal seemed highly unlikely given how far both students. Through regular contact and supportive messages, both students came through in the end. I let each student know that, often it is not about where we finish, but more important that we finish. I am so thankful to each of these students for helping to remind me of the important role that educators can play in helping trauma impacted students. Further, I am so appreciative that I was able to experience this kind of success virtually. It is amazing that if I saw these students in a mall or public place, I would not know them since we never see photos of them unless they share. But what is important is that we, as educators, have the ability to impact our students regardless of time and space when given the opportunity. It relates back to the importance of building relationships and taking the time to understand our students along with a dose of empathy. So to these two students, I am so proud of each of you finishing the course and persevering given the unique challenges that each of you experienced. Let me never forget the important lessons that you taught me.
(Here is an awesome resource that I found from the Virginia Department of Education if you are interested in learning more about this topic)
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.