One Word for 2015 – Creativity #oneword

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So I’m definitely a little late to the game (if I can call it that without trivializing the conversation), but tonight I feel inspired to craft my #oneword blog post. I first saw Sue Dunlop’s post on New Year’s Eve, then Aviva Dunsiger’s entry, followed by Vicky Loras, and most recently George Couros. I know there have been other blog posts as well as Twitter statuses by many other educators sharing their #oneword, but these are the four that stand out in my memory so far in terms of diversity of word choice and explanation.

Without much further ado, my word for 2015 is Creativity.

My goal is to continue to be creative in my teaching practice and to push myself even further in this pursuit. My timetable for semester 2 is entirely comprised of courses that are new to me, so this is the perfect opportunity to try new things.

With my leadership course at HWDSB and my participation with my PLN on Twitter I am also hoping to be more creative in a professional and leadership capacity. I am learning creative ways to be a leader and to share my thinking and my growth as a teacher and as a leader with others through conversations, face-to-face or virtual, and more frequent blogging.

Finally, since my students are at the heart of everything that I do, part of my #oneword is to foster creativity in my students to a greater degree. It comes naturally when I teach drama, as it is one of my 6 C’s at the core of the course (Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Concentration, Control, and Confidence). However, I will be teaching different courses next semester and so will be searching out new strategies to encourage creative thinking. I already know that differentiation and student voice and choice will be major factors in this part of my goal, but I am also seeking outside input and ideas for my quest to encourage student creativity in Grade 10 French Immersion and Grade 11 Health and Physical Education.

Thanks to all the #oneword sharers so far, and to all, bon courage with your 2015 goal.

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Collaborative Inquiry – Reflections on my Sixth Session of Leadership 1

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For once, I’m actually completing a timely reflection blog post, as sessions 6 just occurred this afternoon/evening! Tonight’s session was radically different for me from Session 5 on Leading Change. While the fifth session was mainly new information and concepts that are somewhat removed from my daily classroom and school experience, session six was firmly rooted in my experiences so far in my teaching career. We explored Collaborative Inquiry, the School Effectiveness Framework, and the Instructional Core, all of which I have been engaging in/with for multiple years now.

The learning for me tonight came from the cross-panel and inter-school discussions of the different forms that Collaborative Inquiry and School Improvement Planning are taking from school to school and from elementary to secondary. As well, tonight’s discussions really pushed me more toward the system view and vision of collaborative inquiry through the lens of the instructional core. My group kept coming back to all of these processes beginning with the students – with student need and with student voice. We drew a bidirectional arrow between the classroom level and the school level of the Instructional Core: student learning need informs teacher learning need which informs school leader learning need and School Improvement Plan; SIP in turn informs school leader practice and teacher instructional practice which comes back to student experience and learning in classrooms. Continual re-evaluation and readjustment are necessary, which is why inquiry is a cycle meant to have multiple iterations, in order for student needs to be addressed.

We also watched a short clip of Dr. Steven Katz on curriculum.org in which he talks about intentionally interrupting the status quo in your instructional practice in order to identify and address student learning needs. Our facilitator shared that the school leader can be that interruptor – he or she can provide the time and space for teachers to be reflective about their instructional tasks and to plan with purpose, always keeping the student at the centre.

After tonight’s session, I’ve realized that I need to revisit my developing final project, which is my personal leadership journey based on the OLF, SAT, and my strengths and growth areas. Although it’s my journey, I definitely have not put students and their needs in the forefront of my thought and initial creation of this personal growth plan. It’s been so energizing to see how much this course makes me think, question, and re-evaluate.

Leading the Change Process – Reflections on my Fifth Session of Leadership 1

Session five (the halfway point of the course! #milestone) was certainly thought-provoking, and left me with many more questions than answers. While some might find this a frustrating result, I was intrigued and energized to reflect and research. As soon as I returned home from this session, my partner and I discussed the topic:

Him: What was the topic of your course tonight?

Me: We tackled how to lead a real, transformative, organizational change process.

Him: Wow, that’s a great topic. So how did it turn out? How does one lead organizational change?

Me: (pause) You know what, I still don’t know.

That was my big question in my notes to myself at the end of the session: how does a leader or a team of leaders affect real cultural change? And how do you know when the change has occurred – what are the look-fors? Of course, these are big, remaining questions, because there is no simple answer. If there was a formula for organizational change, then the process would be easy and would happen without resistance, confusion, anxiety, or frustration from members of the organization.

With all of that being said, we did engage in some profitable discussions about possible frameworks to guide major change, as well as baby steps for understanding and managing small changes that we could each affect right now, in our classrooms or in our departments. We drew connections between the Personal Leadership Resources in the OLF (problem-solving expertise, perceiving and managing emotions, optimism, self-efficacy, and resilience) and their importance for change leaders. We also drew on various versions of collaborative inquiry as a tool to frame the change process. A new framing of collaborative inquiry that I was introduced to is the See-Do-Get Model: 1) What do I see now?/What is my vision?/What do I want to see? 2) Take an action that you think will move towards the vision 3) Reflect on the results, what you get out of your action, see if it changes what you see.

There were so many more activities and discussions: we watched a TED Talk, discussed the importance of vision and values, and engaged in a case study. As I return to my lingering big question – HOW does one lead successful organization change – I am seeking more thoughts, resources, feedback, etc. If anyone out there as anything to share about leaders and the change process, please comment.

Connecting to the OLF – Reflections on my Fourth Session of Leadership 1

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I’m definitely behind the eight ball here as session four was two months ago, but better late than never! This will also be a shorter reflection as I had to leave this particular session early to return to my school for Grade 8 Open House to welcome prospective students and act as an ambassador for Westdale’s French Immersion Program. As such, I was only able to participate in the introductory activities regarding the Ontario Leadership Framework (OLF).

Some highlights that I noted for myself about the framework were that it is evidence-based and backed by sound research. It also provides all members of Ontario’s education system a shared vision and common language with which to discuss and engage in leadership activities. After a brief introduction to the merits of the document, we were asked to skim the chart on School-Level Leadership and highlight or jot down a few points that stood out on a first read-through. The proceeding discussions with the other teachers in the course were very interesting. Although there were some similar threads touched on by multiple people, most of us each selected different aspects which I think speaks to the richness of the document.

It was at this point in the evening that I had to leave, so I had a quick discussion with Beth Woof, a vice-principal and facilitator of the session about what I would be missing. After outlining the coming activities, she said something that really stuck with me. She shared that effective school leaders know the framework and its dimensions so well that they don’t have to think about it. It is embedded in their thoughts and actions and becomes part of how they operate and interact in their school. This has stuck with me as a very profound description of school-level leaders and as a seemingly tall order right now as the OLF is still new to me.

One final piece is that right around the date of this session, I came across a beginning series of blog posts by George Couros analysing each dimension of the OLF from the viewpoint of a non-Ontario educator. He crafted posts on three of the dimensions which you can access here, and I am interested in reading his analyses of the last two dimesions.

Defining The Ideal Leader – Reflections on My Third Session of Leadership 1

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The third session was quite multi-faceted, so I’ll be concentrating my reflection on only two activities. Firstly, as a means of introduction to the SAT (Self-Assessment Tool for Aspiring Leaders), we were asked in our groups and/or individually to define some characteristics, competencies, and practices of effective leaders. Following that initial brainstorming, we were asked to walk around and share our thoughts with people in other groups, in hopes of starting conversations, and perhaps identifying some common threads. On the surface, this activity seemed simple enough (kind of like a think-pair-share), but it ended up being shockingly difficult.

The majority of the brainstorming time in my initial group centered around defining and differentiating between characteristics, competencies, and practices. However, once the walk-around began, I quickly discovered that different groups and individuals had defined each term in different ways. A large part of almost every conversation I had was focused on deciding how to recategorize their information into my framework rather than the free and open sharing of ideas.

Once we returned to our groups, we debriefed and shared the information we gathered from other people. During this time I will admit that I was not the most active participant in the conversation as I still needed to process and categorize everything from my conversations in a satisfactory way before I could move on. Using my own thoughts and those of my group, I see:

Characteristics as personality traits and the heart of a leader

(flexible, passionate, approachable, organized, resilient, honest, humble, optimistic, inspirational, reflective, empathetic, equitable, brave, adaptable)

Competencies as the skills, knowledge, and the head of a leader

(competent in the norms of collaboration, knowledge of high-yield instructional strategies, skills in active listening, emotional intelligence, mediation and facilitation skills)

Practices as the visible behaviours, habits, and actions of a leader

(building trust and relationships by talking, listening, and showing appreciation, modelling effective instructional strategies, setting high expectations, setting goals, reflecting, facilitating, communicating and collaborating positively and regularly)

Would you agree with the definitions for each category? Would you add any other traits, skills/competencies, or actions to any of the lists?

Secondly, the course facilitators introduced the SAT document and invited us to explore and discuss it within our groups, and to begin pondering our own personal leadership growth plan based on our strengths and weaknesses we identified in the document. Again, I admit that this was another discussion period where I was not very active. The first time I am introduced to something, my preference is to study it individually before talking it through with others, so I spent the majority of this time studying and absorbing the various sections of the document.

I still don’t have much more to say about the SAT or my own plan as I haven’t had many opportunities to continue my reflection since the third session, what with a four-day school excursion, midterm report cards, and life getting in the way. Unfortunately, session 4 begins in less than 48 hours and I am supposed to have a rough outline of my leadership growth plan to share with my group facilitator. Based on my (limited) thinking so far, I think I will need to bring a few ideas to be fleshed out and to receive feedback. I have yet to strike the plan that feels just right – not too small and narrow, but not too large and daunting. Hopefully I’ll find Goldilocks tomorrow.

“What’s Your Operating Style?” – Reflections on My Second Session of Leadership 1

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Between sessions 1 and 2, each course participant was given a login and asked to complete the 4D-i assessment from One Smart World. Our second session together involved examining and interpreting our individual results, connecting with others who received similar results, and learning about those who had different results.

The Assessment

The 4D-i is an inventory of your personal operating style – your preferred methods to solve problems, make decisions, and communicate with others. For the purposes of this blog post, I will be greatly simplifying the 4D-i, but for more information you can visit the website, especially the sample portfolio.

The first part of the results is your colour which indicates your overall preference. There are three possibilities:

Red – Decision-Making

Red thinkers like to stop the process and get straight to making decisions and solving problems. They use strategies such as getting to the heart of issues, relying on past experience to guide actions, and listening to their gut feelings to move forward decisively.

Yellow – Understanding

Yellow thinkers slow down the process to gather data and understand people’s feelings. They collect, organize, and analyse information, express their own feelings and empathize with the opinions of others, and seek clarity on both fronts before taking action.

Green – Creating

Green thinkers delve into the process to generate more insights, ideas, and viewpoints. They brainstorm, seek out alternative problems and solutions, challenge current ideas and methods, and use their intuition to guide decision making.

Along with your colour, you are also categorized as warm, cool, or balanced. Warm thinkers prefer emotional strategies such as expressing feelings, empathizing with others, trusting your own heart, and making decisions based on your personal values. Cool thinkers employ logical strategies, including getting to the crux of a problem, gathering data, asking questions, and using past experiences. Balanced thinkers are equally comfortable using emotional and logical strategies.

The final section is a score of your Personal Spirit, which includes the strength of your outlook on life or challenging situations, your sense of having control to impact others in positive ways, and your initiative in the face of difficult tasks.

The Results

I came out of this process identified as a Balanced Yellow, with a slight edge for emotional over logical thinking, and as high in personal spirit with my initiative being my strongest factor. After discussing with fellow yellows, I found this to be a very accurate description of how I operate. It takes me time to come to a decision. When faced with a difficult decision or problem, my first instinct is to gather, structure, and organize all available and pertinent information systematically. I also take into account how different solutions or possibilities will make me feel. Further, if other people will be implicated in or affected by this problem or decision, then I feel strongly that I need to gather their thoughts, opinions, and feelings, and do my utmost to arrive at a conclusion that will be satisfying to everyone. I would definitely classify myself as a people pleaser – I want everyone to be on board with decisions and action plans when working in a team. On the flip side, I can sometimes find the whole process of making decisions exhausting. As well, because of my operating style, I have been described by friends and family as being very indecisive, which they can find at times quite frustrating. As a future leader, I need to be aware of the way my time-consuming actions are perceived by others.

Red was my second highest preference, with a very strong score in being values-driven when making decisions as well as needing to ensure that my solutions and conclusions are valid. However, I was almost angry at myself that I scored 0 (meaning I have no preference) for following my gut intuition to make a decision. After some reflection, I realized that I do sometimes have a gut feeling at the start of a problem or decision process. And occasionally after my exhaustive information gathering and emotional soul-searching, the conclusion I arrive at is in fact the one my gut told me at the start. Yet I cannot bring myself to trust my gut and just make a quick decision. As a future leader, I will need to work on improving this strategy so that I don’t frustrate my team with the time it takes for me to arrive at decisions.

Green was my lowest preference. It was actually by far the least prevalent operating system in the room. Out of the 30 or so people in the course, I believe there were only two people who showed a strong preference for green creative thinking. As a teacher of Dramatic Arts, a class where I work to foster and encourage creative thinking and taking time to explore during the creative process, I was upset that I scored so low in my preference for using creative strategies in my own life. I also thought with further reflection that the generally low scores among the 30 of us in this course might be a symptom of the school system and of our larger society. Many of us have seen Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk “How Schools Kill Creativity”. Taking the time to brainstorm, seeking alternative solutions or even alternative questions, envisioning new possibilities and scenarios – all of these strategies are often discouraged in favour of taking decisive action and moving forward with initiatives. As a future leader, I need to remember to practice what I preach to my Drama students (and to my students in my other courses for that matter) and take time to explore and experiment, as well as encouraging my team to do so.

Finally, after hearing from my fellow yellows as well as the greens and reds in the room, the importance of shared, team-based leadership (one of my personal goals from my post-session 1 reflection) really sunk in. Successful leadership would come from a team of leaders, each with slightly different preferences, who could bring a balanced approach to challenges.

Now I’d like to hear from you – for anyone else who has done the 4D-i assessment: What were your results? Did you feel that they accurately described your operating style? How are you using your knowledge of your preferences to affect how you approach problems or how you work on a team? For anyone who hasn’t done the assessment: What colour do you think is your preference? Are you a warm emotional thinker, or a cool logical thinker? Which colour preference do you think would be the best for an effective leader to have? Do you see any other advantages or disadvantages to each colour preference? I’m looking forward to your comments.

Why Leadership Now? Reflections on My First Session of Leadership 1

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Going into my first night of Leadership 1 through HWDSB, I honestly had no idea what to expect. The facilitators had shared some documents electronically prior to the session that I perused, as well as a list of the groups we would be working in for the duration of the course. Upon first glance, I almost felt disappointed or unsure about my group, as there was only one other secondary teacher, and my group facilitator was to be an elementary principal. My first reaction was worry – would my interactions in this group be relevant enough for my situation? But I took a step back and realized my bias. Cross-panel relationships and connections could be so fruitful and interesting to enrich my perspective, and it is an area in my personal practice that I have not yet truly explored.

I ran with this idea when I arrived at the session and we were asked to contemplate our intentions in registering for this course. Looking around the room, I was easily one of, if not the youngest teacher in the room. So why would a teacher in only her sixth year in the profession be sitting in this course? Here are some of my responses to the questions of Why Leadership? and Why Leadership Now?

1) Networking

Beginning with joining Twitter in October 2012, I have been striving to build a strong PLN. Through the face-to-face contacts made in this leadership course, I can diversify my PLN with cross-panel and system connections.

2) Informal Leadership Roles

I have engaged in some informal leadership roles over my first few years of teaching. I have participated on committees for Numeracy and AER, and I have facilitated PD sessions with small groups and with a whole staff. I am hoping to find more of these opportunities and learn how to better engage other colleagues in the process.

3) Experimenting with Shared Leadership

Coordinated, shared leadership is part of the strategic directions of the HWDSB, and it is a skill that I know that I personally need to further develop. I had several roles as a student leader in university, and as stated above, I have engaged in some informal leadership as a teacher, but my comfort zone is individual leadership. I grew up much preferring to work alone than with others. However, collaboration and working within a team of leaders is essential and is part of today’s educational reality. I hope that through my experiences in this course I can reorient my preference towards shared , team-based leadership.

I am certain that with further reflection I would generate more responses to this question of Why Leadership? , but I landed on the above reasons at the end of my first session. To really address my second question, Why Leadership Now? , I think I would reply that because as a student, I was almost always in leadership positions, and it has felt unusual, and dare I say unnatural, to not be in consistent leadership roles as a professional.

Parent-Teacher Interviews – How to Make Them Successful

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I meant for this to be my March/April post since that’s when this semester’s interviews took place at my school. However, other priorities have taken over since then in my professional and personal life, and this blog got put on the backburner. Now that the semester has wound down, I’m finding some time to catch up.

 

Even though I’m now four full years into the teaching profession, I still get those nervous butterflies on Parent Teacher Interview night. My nervousness is completely unfounded as I have not yet had a negative experience in a parent interview. I’ve had a nagging insecurity since I began teaching that parents and my older colleagues will not take me seriously as a new teacher – that I’ll be seen as an amateur rather than an expert. Despite not having encountered any situations where that has been the case, I still take a proactive approach to meeting parents in order to project as professional an image as possible. Here are my tips for successful parent-teacher conferences.

 

1. Look the Part

Teaching is a profession, so it’s important to dress in a professional manner, especially when meeting parents. Some teachers only ever dress up for parent meetings and argue that the students should respect you as a teacher regardless of what you’re wearing. I can understand and appreciate this argument, but I personally choose to dress up for work every day and usually with a little extra if I have an important meeting with administration or with a parent. Certainly appearances aren’t everything – if you can’t back up your professional attire with appropriate behaviour, extensive subject knowledge, and caring for your students, then parents will see right through you. But looking the part does make a strong positive impression, and it demands a certain level of respect. It shows that you put in some time and energy in preparing for the interview and that you therefore deem it to be an important meeting.

 

2. Be Prepared

Since parents make appointments for interview night, it’s important to have a mark printout and talking points ready. Again, this is the professional thing to do, and it once more shows that you deem this conference to be important and valuable. As mark printouts can sometimes be difficult to interpret, I take the time to highlight key information, such as the student’s overall average, any very high or very low marks, and weight factors if some assignments/tests are worth more than others. This strategy also helps to calm my nerves as I have a clear, individualized plan of what to speak to for each student. I also make sure to add all of my contact information to the mark printout – phone extension, email address, Twitter account, and class website – so if parents have further questions after the meeting, they can easily get in touch with me again. Finally, I always bring a laptop with me for those inevitable drop-ins so that I can at least show a mark breakdown on the screen.

 

3. Be Open and Genuine

One thing I’ve found is often the parents are as nervous as I am, especially if their son or daughter is in grade 9 and this is their first set of parent-teacher conferences for high school. Coming into the interview with a defensive attitude only makes the parents defensive as well and sets a terrible tone for the meeting. Be open to their questions, and be genuine in your responses. Just remember the most important thing that you and the parents have in common – you both want the best for their son/daughter. Use that common care and interest as a foundation for the interview and you won’t go wrong!

Building Connections with Students – Is There a Universal Formula?

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With the start of semester 2 this month, my focus has been on building connections and establishing professional relationships with my new crop of students. There is a very subtle shift that I tend to observe between day one and the end of week two; through that time my students become more comfortable with me and I with them so that we settle in and find ease with each other. It feels less awkward, and more like we’ve known each other for a longer span of time than two short weeks. How does this happen?

The most common response I get from students to this question is that I’m young, so they find it natural to relate to me. I have every class fill out a course evaluation for me at the end of the semester to inform improvements to my practice. I have had a performance appraisal in the past from an administrator, but them observing one class only gives a brief snapshot of my teaching. The students get the whole picture, day in and day out, and they often give the best and most poignant feedback about my strengths and weaknesses as an educator. The response at the beginning of this paragraph is one of the most common answers I get to the question: “What is the best thing about me as a teacher?” on my course evaluations. So I got to thinking these last two weeks, what is it aside from still being in my twenties that allows me to build relationships with students quickly and effectively?

Names

I almost didn’t even include this point because it seemed too small to merit its own section, but it is something I spend a lot of time on and have a certain process for. Learning every student’s name is my priority on the first day of class. I get each student to wave at me during attendance so I can start associating names with faces, and if they prefer a shorter version of their name, I fix it on my attendance sheet right away so that I won’t forget. Secondly, I make sure I have an activity where they are working independently or in small groups on that first day so I can walk around and talk to each student, saying their names as I speak with each one. Finally, when students arrive to class the next day, I say their names in my head and out loud as I greet them, and if there are any I have forgotten I quickly ask the student to refresh my memory. By five minutes into the second day of class, I always know every single one of my students by name. It’s such a small gesture, but I think that it shows them right off the bat that I care, that I am interested in them as individuals, and that each one of them is important to me.

Smiling and Being Friendly

It seems so basic and obvious, but just being a friendly face in the classroom and in the hallways goes a long way. Of course, I have heard the advice from older colleagues to not smile at all for the first x number of months to establish your authority in the classroom. I understand the idea: that if you’re too friendly students will just walk all over you. However, I don’t agree with this advice for two reasons.

Firstly, for me, that’s not the type of person I am, and the idea goes counter to what I believe about teaching and learning. I can be stern when necessary, but on the whole I’m a positive, friendly, happy person. Never smiling and acting like I’m the scary boss isn’t who I am, and if you’re not being yourself, students will be able to tell, and they will quickly lose respect for you. In addition, by acting more authoritarian than authoritative, you may succeed at having a quiet classroom at all times where on the surface it appears as if students are engaged and learning. However, learning does not always occur in isolation and silence. Certainly, there are times when you need full class attention and quiet to explain a new concept, but students also need time to interact with each other and with the material in order to construct their own understanding of the new information and to integrate it into their cognitive constructs. Also, just because students are quiet does not mean that they are listening or engaged in your lesson. If they are too scared or uncomfortable with your authoritarian presence, then students will not be open to learning and are likely to be quiet but disengaged.

Secondly, I would argue that students have more respect for the teachers who reach out and treat them as people, taking an interest in them and their education. When students see that you care about them, they want to do well and behave in the proper way in your class. Moreover, if your usual demeanour is more relaxed and positive, then when it is necessary to be more stern to the class or to a group of students, they truly know when you mean business. It’s quite a large shift from smiling/welcoming/happy to a serious face and tone, so students tend to react quickly. If you always look and sound severe, how are they supposed to know when you’re really serious?

Talking to Students

Again, like my first point, this seems obvious, but many teachers don’t take the time to talk to their students about their interests or what’s going on in their world. When I’m teaching French (core or immersion), it’s much easier to work in time for these types of conversations, as one of the curriculum strands is oral communication, so simply conversing with students in French on any topic is part of the curriculum. In courses where that’s less of an option, arriving to my classroom early or staying a little bit later provides the opportunity to have these types of conversations before class begins or after it ends.

I would say part of my ease in talking to students is most likely my youth, but I don’t believe that it is a necessity. It doesn’t take much to have topics of conversation with teenagers. I watch Sports Centre and follow sports in general (especially hockey), so I can talk about last night’s game with the sports fans in my class. I listen to the radio while driving to and from work and stay somewhat up to date with pop culture so I can discuss celebrities, music, movies, and television. Sometimes I even share my own interests now or what I was interested in during high school and find common ground with my students. Small things such as the fact that I play musical instruments, or what sports teams I played on in high school, or that I was always part of the school play remind students that I’m human and that I have gone through similar experiences to them.

Humour

Humour is a tricky one and highly personal, as everyone has their own unique sense of humour. As well, a misplaced joke or a funny comment skirting the line of what is appropriate for the classroom could just as easily alienate students. My style of humour is a bit goofy and self-deprecating. I show off my nerdiness and intense love for all things to do with school and learning, especially in my subject specialties, and poke fun at myself. Most students find this amusing and even endearing, since I’m not using any of them as the butt of a joke.

Working off that last point, I will admit that I do use sarcasm from time-to-time, despite some advice against it. Sarcasm works for me with high school students, especially with seniors, but I only use it with certain students who I know can handle it and only after I have gotten to know my class and they have become comfortable with me.

Conclusion

I would venture to say that there does not exist a hard and fast formula for forging professional relationships with students, as each teacher is different and each group of students is unique. However, I know that these are the four major steps that I take and ways that I behave in my classroom each day that facilitate these connections. And hopefully, as I age and gain experience, I will continue to be relatable to students by being young at heart.

New Semester Resolutions

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In general, I’m not the resolution-making type. I was raised to continually set new goals whenever the opportunity arose and to celebrate my successes along the way. Moreover, January hasn’t held the strong sense of a new beginning for me. Having been a student and now a teacher, I’ve lived on school time for virtually my entire life. For me, September is the month that provides the strongest feeling of beginning, and to a certain extent, February does as well with the start of the second semester in secondary school. The first three years of my teaching career, February was just as much the opening of a new chapter as September because I moved to new schools for each of my first seven semesters. This year (halfway through my fourth year) is the first time I will experience staying at one location for an entire school year, and hopefully put down some roots.

Even with this particular February having less new-ness to it, this time of the year for teachers is like January for most people. With first semester courses wrapping up, we welcome new courses and new crops of students for the second half of the year. It is a natural time to reflect on our practice; our greatest successes, our wishes for do-over lessons or interactions with students or parents, and our thoughts on improvements in our teaching practice should come to the forefront as January draws to a close. Since I am without the distraction of starting at a new school in February and needing to focus on learning new routines, meeting new staff, and finding my niche in an unfamiliar environment, I can for once focus on my own professional practice and how to better myself as an educator for the coming semester. Following are my three resolutions for semester two in the areas of professional development, communication, and instructional practice/AER.

1. Professional Development: Craft a Blog Post once each month and Broaden my Professional Network on Twitter

I started a food and music blog this past August with good intentions. Once September rolled around, it got lost in the sea of teaching three new courses in a new building. I found it again this month and have been posting semi-regularly. My resolution with this new blog project is in the hope that I won’t let it fall by the wayside as I did my food blog in the beginning. I have just started reading education blogs this school year, from which I have learned countless new strategies and techniques in all the domains of teaching, and I have had many of my own practices reaffirmed as being effective. I believe I have something of value to contribute to the online education conversation, and I think that authoring this blog each month will be an opportunity for more regular reflection and personal growth.

As well, as part of my Annual Learning Plan for 2012-2013, I signed up for Twitter with a teacher account. During first semester, I mainly utilized the platform as a method of communication with students. I posted location changes for classes (eg. library, computer lab), reminders about upcoming tests and assignment due dates, and for general positive reinforcement and praise (eg. congratulating my HPE class on their enthusiastic participation that day, or expressing my excitement about my drama class’s monologue performances). Toward the end of the semester, I started following more administrators, colleagues, and professionals in the fields of my subject areas, and in just two months, I have seen the power of growing a professional network. My goal for this semester is to seek out more people in the Twitterverse and interact with them more frequently as opposed to simply reading and learning from their tweets.

2. Communication: Make More Contact with Parents

I think this resolution of mine is a common one for many teachers. With so many responsibilities and items on the to-do list, I find that the one thing I consistently push to the bottom is calling a parent. I’m ashamed to admit that, but part of moving forward and changing my practice is about being honest with where I am right now. My plan for this semester is to be more proactive about informing parents about my website (with a calendar for the semester’s due dates) and my Twitter account to keep them in the loop with what’s going on in my classroom. To assist me in ending my cycle of procrastination with making parent phone calls, my plan is to schedule in time to contact parents each month. I give progress updates to my students every month, sometimes more than once a month, because it is important for them to know where they stand and feel like they have some power over their learning and achievement. I just need to add one more step to this process – calling home to inform parents of progress. I can’t just assume that students will tell their parents how they are doing. As a new teacher, I have been hesitant about having meetings with parents. I worry that they won’t take me seriously, or will try to pressure me because I look so young. But I can honestly say I haven’t yet had a poor interaction with a parent. The bottom line is that teachers and parents are partners in the education of our children. It’s my role to include that partner and inform them of the challenges and successes of their son or daughter.

3. Instructional Practice/AER: Spend More Time Teaching Students How to Study

As high school teachers, we assume many things about our students coming in. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but just like with my admission about my lacklustre parent communication, I’m being honest about secondary teachers as a group. It seems understood that students should arrive in high school with not only the knowledge and skills of the curriculum expectations from elementary school, but also with a set of other school skills, one in particular being good study habits. This, however, is not always the case. Considering also the fact that high school tests are usually longer and more complex than those in elementary school, and that students must write exams for the first time, I think we are doing a vast majority of our students a disservice if we don’t spend at least some time reviewing the fundamentals of how to study.

I realized this one early on – during my first year of teaching in fact. I had a Grade 10 Mathematics class, and their first test was a disaster, despite strong evidence of learning on formative assessments throughout the unit. I had a class discussion about what happened, and we got it down to the fact that most of them didn’t know how to study for a math test. So, I took a break from the curriculum the next day and gave a lesson on study strategies. I talked about how different subjects sometimes require different tactics, and different students will find success studying using different methods depending on their learning style. We developed a checklist together of possible ways to study for our next math test, and I gave every student a copy of the checklist the next day. I then added the checklist at the end of each unit test for students to complete for me and for themselves. This forced students to reflect on their study habits and learn which methods were the most effective for them personally, and it showed them a direct link between studying and success on evaluations. This assessment as learning made my students better learners not just in mathematics, but in all subjects as they added to their toolbox of effective learning strategies.

So if I’ve already done this, why is it my resolution? Well, that story is from my first year teaching, and I’m now halfway through my fourth. I’ve gotten away from using the checklist and discussing study habits with students without really meaning to. I could lay some blame on my courses this past semester, as I only had one traditionally academic subject with tests (Geography) and two with virtually all performance tasks and authentic evaluations (Dramatic Arts and Health & Physical Education). I was reminded of the importance of taking time to teach studying at the end of the semester as I saw the stress of my students attempting to prepare for their first ever final examinations. I took some time in my Geography class during review before the exam to talk study tactics, but it’s something I should have been reinforcing throughout the semester.

I’m inspired now writing this post to come up with a list of other school skills that we expect students to have, such as time management, prioritizing tasks, etc. that would benefit from some revision and reinforcement in the classroom. A lot of teachers would argue that there is not time to teach these skills if we expect to get through the curriculum. I would counter that developing these skills in our students makes them more efficient, effective, and confident learners who have a stronger awareness of how they learn. As such, spending time on these skills can actually facilitate “getting through” the curriculum. My analogy is this: as an English teacher, you wouldn’t simply ask a student to write an essay without first teaching them how to write one. As teachers in any subject, why would we ask a student to write a test without first teaching them how to write a test? I think that’s a point worth pondering.

Now I’ve laid out my three resolutions for the coming semester. Assuming I stick to #1, my plan is to write a follow-up post in June assessing my progress and how well I stayed true to these goals. Then, of course, the process restarts for my new adventure in September.

Fellow secondary teachers (or even elementary teachers – it is halfway through the school year for you also): What are your resolutions for second semester?