ego is the elephant in the room

This really is an important aspect of having the courage to reflect on one’s teaching. It speaks to both awareness and attitude. Once we become aware of something that didn’t work well in the class, do we have the courage to admit that and then work to make the necessary changes to improve the situation?

Reflection really does take courage.

It takes courage to admit that, although we always want to do our best, we are not perfect and can always improve our teaching practice. That’s both the challenge and the joy of teaching.

(In my rush to post this before midnight, I don’t think I really did this wonderful idea justice. Consider these my initial thoughts on this idea. I plan to revisit them at a later date.)

Teach and reflect and teach…

Teach and reflect and teach and reflect and teach… (and repeat) (Of course, if you truly reflect on your teaching, you never repeat yourself.)

This is one of the last posts written on my vacation in Portugal. During this week I’ve tried to clarify the different aspects of the declaration I posted last month. Even if not all the posts were directly connected to the main topic of this blog, they still shed light on my ideas and beliefs about teaching and learning.
One of my key beliefs is that teaching and reflecting go hand in hand. It’s quite obvious that teaching without reflecting is possible. But is it possible to reflect without teaching first? I don’t think it is because reflection implies that we need something to reflect on.
Two of the purposes for reflecting on our teaching are to find reasons why something didn’t go as we planned or to build on something that went well. That’s why if you truly reflect on your teaching, you never repeat yourself. In the first case you’ve made changes based on your reflections and in the second case you’ve clarified your beliefs about teaching and learning and therefore are teaching more purposefully.

Pretty simple really.

Small changes

Make small, tiny, minuscule changes.

Sometimes we think that we have to do grand and amazing things in the classroom. And then we don’t do anything because we don’t know where to start. We’re dissatisfied with our lessons and teaching, but don’t have the time to develop all our own materials and then write our own textbook. And so our intentions don’t lead to actions.
Don’t defeat yourself before you even get started.
Small changes can have ripple effects that are more lasting than you might realize. Introduce an activity differently than you have before. Try a new kind of follow up exercise. Or (a classic John Fanselow idea) teach from the back of the classroom.
Current brain research shows that when we make more neural connections, we learn more effectively. Small changes in your normal teaching practice can pique your students’ curiosity and help build those neural connections — the ripple effect has begun!

What tiny change in your teaching practice can you make today?

Be micro-ambitious

“…passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious.” Tim Minchin

Two days ago I wrote about the phrase “way leads on to way” and how it reminds me of the drawbacks of trying to plan our lives out. We really have to take a step before we find out what the next step will be. And simply taking that first step changes the map.

We don’t know what will appear on the horizon. If we only dream about what’s possible now, how will we be able to recognize new opportunities when they appear? Passionate dedication to short-term goals, because you’re committed to excellence, can also help you prepare to be ready for what is coming next.

Here’s something I read today that’s connected to the topic of this post.

Life is so simple and beautiful

Life is so simple and beautiful; change your thinking and your life will change.
Das Leben ist so Einfach und schon —
Andere dein denken–und du Anderst dein Leben.

I found this quote in my notes. It’s about life, but I think it could also apply to teaching.
Teaching is so simple and beautiful; change your thinking and your teaching will change. Or perhaps, “change your thinking and your life has already changed” is more accurate?
(Unfortunately, I don’t remember where this quote came from, although I know I found it with the translation from the original German.)

Way leads on to way.

Have you ever discovered a saying or proverb that really resonated with you? Perhaps you wrote it down and kept it in a special place. You looked at it often enough that you had it memorized. But after a while, it didn’t have the same impact on you that it used to have.

“Way leads on to way”, a line from the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is that kind of phrase for me. It describes the idea that even when we make plans for our lives, we don’t know if they will actually come to pass. Simply taking a step can lead us in a different direction than we first intended to go.

For me it became a good reminder not to make too many detailed plans for my life. Often when I have made plans for what to do next, they didn’t come to pass. Like when I decided to relocate to a new city in Japan, applied for what I thought would be the perfect job, interviewed for it and then didn’t the job. Later on, when I learned more about that school, I realized that I would not have been happy working there, even though I had been convinced that it would be the perfect place for me.

“Way leads on” is actually a Quaker idea.* We can try to identify what the next step in our career or life should be, but we don’t know where this step will lead us. Despite that, we step out in trust and faith, knowing that the results of this step will lead us to the next step.

We have to take the first step before we find out what the next step will be.

* I’ve also read about “way leads on” in Parker Palmer’s writing (probably in The Courage to Teach, but can’t cite it now since I’m on vacation without the notes on my laptop and writing this my phone.)

The lighting of a fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Apparently this wasn’t something that W.B.Yeats said, despite all the websites that say that he did. (They’re probably just quoting each other.)

No matter who said it, this quote speaks to me of the reality that learning never ends. We can, and should, keep learning for our entire lives. There’s always something new to discover about the world, about our students, and about ourselves.

It also speaks to me about the challenges of being a teacher. If education was like filling a pail, then at some point we would be able to say that our job was finished. But if the analogy of lighting a fire is true, then perhaps our job is never finished. A fire that’s lit needs to be tended. It doesn’t simply burn forever. Too much fuel can smother it. Too little oxygen can make it go out.

If this is all true, then the question remains — who helps teachers keep their fire lit?

The last thing you need?

Sometimes, the last thing you need is yet another activity for Monday morning.

Are you like me? Do you have a thick file of activities that you picked up at conferences and workshops? “Fail-safe!” “Fool-proof!” “Works with any level.” These are just some of the things that you’re told when you collect another one.

But what do you do when one of those activities doesn’t work? When the students don’t respond as you hoped they would? What about when an activity works well with one group but not a different group?

We can hide behind new and innovative ideas for only so long before we have to acknowledge that unless those activities lead to student learning we’re just wasting time.

Make small changes

After 20 days of successive posts, something a little different. I’m off to Portugal today for eight days and I don’t want to forfeit my “WNFIN” challenge. I won’t be able to write 500 words every day, but I will post something connected to my declaration daily.

Make small, little, tiny changes.

Small changes can have big impacts. (Think jalapeño peppers in a salsa!).

I-Thou-It – I

We teach who we are.

Parker Palmer

At first you have space for only one question – what am I going to do in this lesson? You might say, “What are we going to do?” But what you really mean is “what am I going to get them to do?” And the next day the same question, “What are we going to do?” And the next day and the next, until you think that the teacher’s most important task is to get students to do the things you want them to do.

This lasts a while as you figure out how to plan lessons and choose supplemental activities. You read the textbook and study the teacher’s manual and follow its suggestions and sometimes venture outside of your comfort zone and do a variation on the activity.

Then one day you try something different, maybe an activity that you created. And it works. At least, it seemed to help the students learn the material and be able to do something with it that they weren’t able to do before. They learned. And you helped them do it.

And you know that you are beginning to understand what helps student learning. Actually, that’s not completely true. You’re starting to figure out what helps your students learn.

And you’re hooked. It’s that pure joy when your students achieve their goals. When they are communicating, talking, laughing, using the words, phrases, sentences that you taught them. They’re communicating with each other – new information is being shared.

Some people think that because you’re a teacher you are noble and selfless, but you know that you need your students just as much as they need you. Maybe even more so.