Middle Me This: A Professional Crush

Middle Me This: A Professional Crush

When a teacher's advisory game leads to a lesson learned

New clothes, new friends, and new advisory classes were in motion, which meant the new school year was underway! And, as true for some years, an imbalance of boys and girls seemed to be the general configuration that semester. It was no surprise to find my advisory roster included 12 boys and only 4 girls; a tremendous disadvantage for the young ladies in seventh grade that particular year.

As a way of building relationships between my students—and knowing the majority of my boys played football—I decided to use the NFL angle to engage the group. It was the mid-90s and Troy Aikman was a rockstar for the Dallas Cowboys, so unbeknownst to him, he would become an unsuspecting ally in my game-plan for building relationships at the middle school level.

In the beginning, I used knowledge of football, players, and events to motivate team-building. Our table groups were named after NFC and AFC teams; current events often revolved around sports updates and highlights; and a fantasy football school-wide competition was established to promote friendly class competitions.

Slowly, I began name-dropping Troy as my "secret boyfriend." The students would giggle, roll their eyes, and basically indulge me in this pseudo-relationship. On many Tuesday mornings following a Monday night football game I would share fictitious conversations I had had with Troy about his game performance and any secret signals he had sent through the TV to show his love and devotion. And as one might expect with young adolescents, mysterious love notes suddenly would appear on my desk "from Troy," complete with Dallas Cowboy ensignia stationary.

The kids were all in and LOVED every moment of this game! They often asked me to relay messages back to Troy as well as invitations to visit our class. I always responded with, "Well, he is pretty busy, but I certainly can ask!" And, as unconventional as this tactic might seem, it truly built peer relationships and bonded our advisory for the year.

As the class "Advisory Mama," as I was affectionately referred to by my students, I often attended events outside of school to support my kiddos. I would cheer them on from the sidelines at sporting events, bring cupcakes to birthday parties, and helped supervise cookie sales for local scout troops. I was even invited to a pet rabbit's funeral, but reluctantly (and secretly relieved) had to decline! In addition to the non-academic responsibilities, I participated in my share of IEP meetings, parent-teacher conferences, and counseling interventions when needed for any of my kidlets. It was at one of these support meetings that my most embarrassing and humbling experiences as an educator transpired.

It was early December, when our school counselor called a convening of teachers, administrators, and support staff who worked with Lucy* (*name has been changed) to discuss her progress, and set new goals for the second semester. As Lucy's advisory teacher I attended the meeting more for moral support, and to attest to her cooperative nature and positive disposition as a learner. Each member of the group took turns sharing Lucy's progress as her parents nodded and smiled.

When it was my turn to share, I echoed many of the team's sentiments and highlighted what a privilege it was to have their daughter in my advisory class. The parents just stared at me. No head nods, no smiles, no comments shared, in fact their body language actually looked somewhat hostile toward me. I was confused, but simply "passed the ball" back to the counselor to wrap up the meeting. As the principal proceeded to thank all participants for coming, and asked the family if there were any last comments or questions, the mother sat up straight and said, "Yes, we would like to have a final word with Ms. Cameli."

The group instantly was silenced by the tone expressed. My body stiffened and I sucked in my breath. Why did they want to talk to me? There's nothing academically-related to advisory, therefore no goals were set on the IEP. And, I had nothing but positive comments to share about their daughter. What could they possibly want? My head was spinning. "Sure", I finally exhaled, "What can I help you with?"

The counselor, unsure of where this conversation was headed, paused the group and excused the other teachers. The principal and counselor remained as I spoke, "Please let me know how I can continue to support Lucy", I invited the parents to share. Their demeanor lacked a friendly vibe, although their daughter sat next to them smiling ear-to-ear, not in a Cheshire cat sense, just her normal happy self, oblivious to the potential conflict.

Her mother broke the silence, "Lucy tells us you know Troy Aikman...", Her husband then interrupted, "...and, we would like you to get us his autograph."

Well, if there was ever a time I needed a proverbial rock to climb under, this was it. I literally could not speak. My principal stood up from the table to leave and gave me the you-got-yourself-into-this-mess-have-fun-getting-yourself-out-of-it look, as the door closed behind her. The counselor was stifling her snickers by trying to sip tea, but had to turn away from the table to compose herself. And as I sat facing these very determined parents who were expecting either an NFL autograph or a viable explanation, I turned every shade of red under the sun. "Um," was literally all I could muster at the time. "Well, it's … um", it was as if I had lost all ability to compose rationale thoughts or interact with human beings. I was dumbstruck.

"Well???" Lucy's mother prodded, while her father leaned his large statured build and tattooed forearms across the table.

"So ... we have been using the NFL as our theme for team-building this year," I tried to explain, "And, well, as a fan of the Dallas Cowboys, I reference Troy … um … Aikman, as a role model for the kids." My words were choppy and I was beginning to sweat. The parents' eyebrows were raised in unison, hanging on my every word waiting for an explanation. "So," I continued, "as a way of personalizing the experience, and to increase enthusiasm for the theme, I pretended to know ... um … Mr. Aikman." I swallowed hard.

"So, you lied to the students?" the father challenged. The mother's eyebrow hiked up another quarter inch.

Realizing this conversation was going south fast, I tried to regroup by inviting Lucy into the conversation, "So, Lucy", I smiled and pleaded, "You do know I'm just playing when we talk about Troy Aikman in class … don't you?" I silently begged, prayed, and sought a higher-power to get me out of this mess. "Oh, sure," the bubbly child responded. I looked at her parents who were not swayed an inch by their daughter's response. So I tried again.

"It appears we have had a slight misunderstanding, and I apologize for any confusion this may have caused Lucy, or either of you," my heart was beating out of my chest as I awaited their response. Her father readjusted in his chair and then just looked down at his hands, but her mother continued to glare. "Well, we just don't think it's right for a teacher to mislead or exaggerate stories since our kids look up to YOU...," she emphasized the last word with a punctuated tone, "...and, if you don't know someone famous, you shouldn't pretend to know them!"

I nodded emphatically, profusely apologized, and did my best to assure these skeptical parents that I would be more responsible with my team-building activities, as well as the characterization of who I knew outside of our small town, while the counselor stood up to see the family out to their car.

By the time the counselor returned, I was a puddle of sobs and blubbering my humiliation while she tossed me a box of tissue and began laughing hysterically! She walked me back from the emotional cliff I was teetering on and got me to giggle at the whole event. The fact that one of our darling students somehow convinced her family that a beloved Advisory Mama was dating an NFL star quarterback, took the "ordinary" out of what should have been a routine IEP meeting!

As the year wrapped up and football season (thank goodness) was on hiatus, Troy naturally faded into the background and eventually off the radar for the students. But what remained was a hard lesson learned, humility acquired, and a long-lost love note tucked into my teacher's planner "from Troy" that will forever be a keepsake from the most memorable faux pas in my middle level teaching years!

Sandy Cameli, Ed.D., long time middle level advocate, currently serves as an educational specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education. She facilitates Na Kumu Alaka'i - Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) and publishes its blog: http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/.

Published June 2019.
Author: Sandy Cameli
Number of views (1676)/Comments (0)/
Why I Teach

Why I Teach

Building a safe space for students—and you, as teacher—to grow and learn

Ms. Bunting,
It has been such a pleasure getting to know you over the years. Having you in my life has been such a joy. Specifically, English 4 was, by far, the best thing to happen to me at Peak to Peak. You created such a safe space for everyone to be themselves. A place of wisdom and heart. A place of acceptance. To this day, those kids and you, are the best support system I have at this school.

Thank you for always supporting me in my struggles and believing in me. Thank you for giving me the space to come as I am and showing me love. Thank you for supporting my passions and starting a fire in me that won't die.

I wouldn't be anywhere without you.

Love Tay

As a teacher of middle school English for more than 16 years, I understand the changing landscape of the educational world. There is an understandable push toward innovation and technology, and as the years go by, the pressure mounts to add more into our strategies and practices.

At times, the frenetic pace of my life as a classroom teacher takes precedence over everything, and I need to find the passion and grounding to bring me back to the why. Why do I teach? I teach because of letters like the one above.

At the core of who I am as a teacher is love and creating a safe space where the affirmation of self and others can flourish and grow. I believe with the foundation of this safe space, students can be challenged to learn with a deeper sense of who they are. Yet this transformation must come first from the teacher, and this means entering the classroom with an open and accepting heart.

But how does one learn to become vulnerable with others, including our students? This authenticity is a lifelong practice and does not come easily. As a teacher surrounded by myriad personalities, I notice when I am triggered. Rather than responding to a trigger in an unhealthy way, I take three conscious breaths and check in with my emotions. How can I respond to this student with respect, care, and concern? Or do I need to? How can I repair the harm if I have responded in a disrespectful way? The success of my work as a teacher and the success of my students is tied to relationships, and I am, most often, the navigator of these relationships.

I recently attended a seminar on mindfulness practice in classrooms, and I was surprised to see how many attendees use mindfulness techniques with their students, but didn't have a mindfulness practice of their own. How can teachers help students navigate their own complex emotions and learn how to self-regulate if we are not modeling these techniques in our everyday lives?

A colleague at the same conference shared his definition of mindfulness as creating quiet space to breathe, with a sound cue at each end. He didn't understand until this conference that the practice of mindfulness is complex and includes a number of strategies to build trust and maintain that trust throughout the year. For example, if a student has experienced a significant amount of trauma, long periods of unguided open silence can be a painful experience, bringing up memories from the past with no container to hold them.

I begin each school year building trust in a safe way before I ask students to go deeper. For example, on the first day of class, I play the "pop up" game. I ask a question, and if this question is affirmed by the students, they stand up. I ask questions like, "how many of you play a sport?" These types of questions are low-risk, and therefore encourage full participation, allowing you to get to know your students.

Other activities I use to build trust at the beginning of the year include signed classroom agreements for each period I teach, and sharing personal stories to reveal my personal investment in the creation of our safe and inviting classroom culture.

As we dive into the curriculum and I have gained the trust of my students, I encourage personal connections to the material, including a deep look into themes and symbolic connections. One of my favorite projects, the "Inside/Outside" project, is based on our study of the novel Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. The essential question for the unit is, "how can perceptions of personal power transform your life?" In the novel, protagonist Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a confident, team-oriented leader who strives to create a sense of community within battle school. However, on the inside, Ender struggles with issues of self-confidence, guilt, and how to find his voice.

For the project, students create a visual representation of the Inside/Outside aspects of who they are, using only object and color symbolism. An artist statement complements their visual projects during our classroom gallery walk, an opportunity for peers and other staff to come and comment on each project.

I am always touched by the depth of self-reflection in many of my seventh graders during the entirety of this project. I find using symbolism allows them to communicate safely as they are the only ones who understand what each symbol means. In the modeling and crafting of their statements, to be shared publicly, I encourage them to take risks outside their comfort zone, but understand if they are not comfortable doing so. To foster even more trust, each year I make an "Inside / Outside" project of my own and share it with my students.

Last year, I had a student who struggled to stay on top of school work. He had significant focus issues and therefore had a hard time completing work. I spent some one-on-one time with him, helping to craft plans for his visual project and artist statement. After we were finished, I was deeply touched by what he shared with me and his classmates. This information also proved valuable to our entire staff who worked with this student, including support staff and members of the administration. We had a deeper understanding of his personal struggles and how to help him. Below is an excerpt from his artist statement and a photo of his visual project.

"On the inside, I am passionate about art, Halloween, and humor. I love Halloween because of the art behind it and creating events for the kids in my neighborhood. I love to make people feel surprised and excited within a safe space. Another color I used on the inside is purple. This is an important color to me because it symbolizes ceremony. Because I have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), my mind creates ceremonies so I can calm myself down. These ceremonies protect me and allow me to talk to myself and calm myself down. The symbols I used communicate challenges, mental issues I struggle with, and how much I love to laugh. The dragon represents my protectors: my mom and sister. With them, I am able to to talk about my challenges and tame my dragons. My sister allows me to share my feelings and take risks, allowing me to express my anger and anxiety."

As the end of each school year, I create intentional closure activities, including reflection circles and opportunities for review. As a teacher who strives to keep an open heart in anything I do, I feel blessed and successful when I receive feedback in the form of an unsolicited letter. I treasure these letters and notes and keep them on the wall behind my desk as a source of inspiration. Thank you, Taylor, for your inspiration and love and for allowing me, as your teacher, to be myself!

Monika Bunting is a middle level language arts teacher at Peak to Peak Charter School, Lafayette, Colorado. She has been teaching for more than 15 years.
Published April 2019.
Author: Monika Bunting
Number of views (8302)/Comments (1)/
Curriculum is Not the Answer

Curriculum is Not the Answer

It's about the people who bring learning to life

Ok, so before you start freaking out and telling me how important curriculum is in a school, let me preface this whole article by saying that yes, curriculum is a very important part of a school's program. The purpose of this article is to clarify the purpose curriculum should serve, expound on my experiences using curriculum as a panacea, and explain why schools are still, at their core, a people business.

What Should Curriculum Do?

Curriculum, in its ideal state, should define the learning and pedagogical priorities of a school. There is a vast difference between offering a course called Basic English and Female Superheroes in Literature. Which one would you rather take? The content of any curriculum should teach kids technical skills in the context of ideas and material that is interesting to them. Sorry to the "purists" out there, but I just don't see much use for teaching Shakespeare to a bunch of middle school students. If you want students to learn how to read more difficult and complex material, why not give them options that focus on material they can identify with and relate to?

Additionally, curriculum should reflect the pedagogical preferences of a teacher, school, or district. If a curriculum guide is filled with worksheets, pages in textbooks, and amorphous ideas about concepts, then you can readily imagine what that particular classroom will look and feel like. If, however, you have a dynamic curriculum that includes ideas for project-based learning, multiple means of assessment, is technology rich, and incorporates collaborative learning, then you can easily imagine an engaged and eager student body.

Are You an Expert or Something?

For four years I led the technology department at a technology magnet school. I believed, more or less, that if only I could find or write the perfect curriculum, that would solve every conceivable problem out there. My colleague, Robby, and I wrote a grant proposal that ended up getting funded for $20,000 per year for three years to write and develop a class called Innovative Minds, whose focus was solely on having middle school students use technology to solve real world problems.

We added courses in which students learned to code by developing their own video games; students built robots and programmed them to perform any number of actions; and students designed their own products using a computer aided design program that they saw come to fruition via a 3D printer. All of these were exceptionally cool ideas for curricula focused on having students learn difficult concepts in the guise of fun and interesting byproducts (games, 3D objects, apps, etc.). We were able to boost the demand for the school and become a model for how to use technology to enhance learning.

Teaching is Still a People Business

After four years of pursuing the curriculum path, however, we still continued to have gaps in achievement that were predictable by race. We had periodic disruptions to learning from students who were not engaged or interested in the course content (although to a much lesser extent). After several years ruminating on this I concluded that curriculum is not the answer. Yes, we had much better course offerings and content within those courses than just about any other school out there. Yes, we figured out ways to make courses relevant to student lives and gave them choices about what and how they learned. At its heart, however, teaching is still a teaching business. And I say this with the knowledge that there were excellent teachers instructing students in the aforementioned Innovative Minds program. The quality of the individual that the students see every day makes a greater difference in student engagement than the content they learn. Students will learn about dramatically less intrinsically interesting subjects if they believe in the adult in their classroom and know that the adult in their classroom believes in them. I can write the best curriculum in the world but if there is not a skilled educator who can shape those ideas to the specifics of each of their students on a daily basis, then I can already predict the results in that classroom.

As schools continue to look for ways to engage students as 21st century learners, by all means, examine curriculum and get the best of what's available. Don't forget, however, that curriculum alone will not magically improve a school. The deft hands of an expert are needed to mold that curriculum to the needs of the students in their classroom.

Peter Crable is assistant principal at White Oak Middle School, Silver Spring, Maryland. Peter_v_crable@mcpsmd.org
Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.
Author: Peter Crable
Number of views (1993)/Comments (0)/
The Problem with, "Show Me  the Research" Thinking

The Problem with, "Show Me the Research" Thinking

Understanding the limitations of education research and accepting responsibility for contributing to moving it forward

Most studies in education are observational studies. This means that investigators pore over data previously collected by others. They seek correlations between different variables. This approach is far less expensive than other methodologies because it is easier and faster. With research budgets stretched thin, cost is a major consideration. The trouble is that observational studies are subject to biases that sometimes make the results unreliable. If results can't be replicated by others, the conclusions lose credibility.
—Walt Gardner, Limitations of Education Studies, posted on July 20, 2012

Ask any of us why we teach the way we teach. Our honest response includes a combination of years of teaching experience, how we were taught as students, our personalities, what we gleaned from professional development, administrative policies, faculty culture, and whether or not we're getting enough sleep that week. We stick with this fragile alchemy as we plan our lessons, sure that ours is the most effective instruction possible.

Then a colleague or school declares they'd like us to teach in a different way, and the first cries of, "Show me the research, or I won't accept it," tumble into faculty back-channels, the first bricks of defensive walls are laid. We're so sure of our own sense of things, devoid of formal research protocols as it may be, yet we demand those same protocols before considering anything new. And for some, anything short of incontrovertible proof of a new strategy's provenance and direct impact on student learning is grounds for complete dismissal, and occasionally, indignation.

Critique of new ideas in education is often the way many of us sort our thinking and evolve as teachers. It's actually quite healthy and should be invited with all new building initiatives. We want initial skepticism, as investigation and discussion create robust engagement with new ideas. We explored this more thoroughly in, "The Grief of Accepting New Ideas," AMLE Magazine, April 2018.

Here, though, we're looking at practitioner paralysis and the lack of effective instruction that comes when educators do not understand or accept the limitations of research in social sciences, and consequently, base their decisions to use or not use teaching strategies on their perceived presence or lack of "hard science" evidence. Attending to the influencing factors of social science studies is key: Many of my own students over the years could have learned so much more if I had been more aware of the helpful insights—and clear limitations—of education research.

In his August 24, 2018 blog, math teacher and chief academic officer at Desmos, Dan Meyer, discusses a New York Times op-ed piece and its rebuttal on how math should be taught. He pulls the pedagogical lens back at one point in the debate and observes the power of tightly held beliefs affecting our actions, good or bad: "I'm absolutely convinced that a) we act ourselves into belief rather than believing our way into acting, and b) actions and beliefs will accumulate over a career like rust and either inhibit or enhance our potential as teachers." He ends the piece by asking educators to share moments when beliefs were overturned by new evidence or perspective and we were forced to change our teaching as a result. This is a scary thing for many of us, for we are not used to not knowing.

On Greg Ashman's, July 1, 2018 "Filling the Pail," blog, math and physics teacher, Lee McCulloch-James, posted a reasoned plea in their spirited debate on how teachers accept or deny education research claims:

I am a … maths-physics teacher instinctively more partial to maths/physics research itself … than to the educational research (with its "Mastery" talk) focused on its dissemination… For me much of this learning theorising needs to be packaged more cogently… Between the extremes of quoting acronyms or vacuous phrases to that of the … padded academic research papers (which merely pitch to their own), there is a need for more writing in the spirit of this Blog for us time-poor teachers. Give me a list of the ongoing debated theories and map it … to their implementation techniques in the classroom… I will find out in time what is working for the students' learning in my best efforts to churn those teaching methods deemed to be the latest best practice, while having scope for the hobbyist scientist in me to also model in my classes the process of science thinking as it is actually practised. (July 5, 2018)

The comments of assessment and teaching researcher, Dylan Wiliam, were significant factors on both sides of this debate. After a serious back and forth, however, Wiliam states,

…[The educator whose work they are discussing] does not want teachers to have to become "amateur psychologists". As teachers, our main … job seems to me to be to get our students to learn stuff. The idea is that after some time in our classrooms, our students know, understand, and can do things that they couldn't do before. As teachers, we are in the learning business. For someone professionally involved in education to be incurious about how this happens, and how to do it better, seems to me rather odd.

Then, he follows with this humbling admission in his own learning curve with cognitive load theory:

…[F]or many years (most of my teaching career in fact) I taught mathematics in a very similar way… I used problem-solving, mathematical investigations, and extended projects, and my students seemed to enjoy mathematics. I was dismissive of cognitive load theory because I did not want it to be true. I did not want to believe that the way I had been teaching was in all likelihood less effective, especially for lower-achieving students. But then I looked at the evidence, and although I could quibble with details here and there, the overall evidence was so overwhelming that I was forced to change my mind. We still know relatively little about how to apply the lessons of cognitive load theory in real classrooms, but I remain convinced that it is the single most important thing for teachers to know; students can be happily, productively, and successfully engaged in mathematical activity and yet learn nothing as a result. I don't like the fact that our brains work in this way, but it seems they do. (July 6, 2018)

Wiliam is one of the most research-discerning minds in education today, yet he struggles with the research just as we do. It's hard to do any kind of deep dive into the latest education studies when we have so much competing for our time and energy as educators. It would be crippling to have to research every move we make as teachers: What's the research say about greeting students at the door? What does it say about the number of practice problems I should give when assigning in this particular topic? Should I teach adverbs before adjectives? How about how to set up my seating chart, incorporate Chromebooks in the lesson, or if it's okay for a student to read a novel other than the one assigned? Well, yes it can—sometimes only with these variables and not those, and, of course, what this study just declared effective contradicts the conclusions of that other study, and gosh, where do I even find reliable data? Yikes, what's a teacher to do?

Avoid Physics Envy

It is a misconception that the only research in education (social sciences) that is acceptable for education reform is one that adheres to proper-protocol, juried journal, always reproducible, randomly assigned, third party confirmed research such as exists in physics and similar "hard" sciences. This is the "physics envy" referenced by Dylan Wiliam and others. In that envy, we seek models that include these steps:

  • Develop a theoretical model and hypothesis.
  • Test the hypothesis with large sample size, randomly-assigned subjects in multiple situations, controlling for variables as needed, using double-blind investigations.
  • Publish results.
  • Invite others in the field to reproduce the investigations with same elements, controls, and conditions, and get the same results. Experience validation when seemingly causal relationships established: "When A is done, B occurs. If A is not done, B does not occur."
  • Publish those verifications.

Hard science investigations in physics and chemistry, for example, can often control for their variables, which helps us isolate the impact of a particular change in the experiment's factors and outcomes. We all yearn for such assurance and clear connection between teacher decisions and student learning, but it is rarely achieved. There are often too many intersecting parts, each influencing the other, to make an absolute, unequivocal, it-always-works-like-this conclusion about one particular teaching factor in diverse students' learning. Wiliam notes, "A recent review of one hundred research papers published in top psychology journals found that fewer than 40 percent of the studies gave similar results when the same experiments were run again but by a different team. Chasing the latest fads is likely to result in trying to implement ideas that turn out to be ineffective even in the laboratory, let alone in real school settings" (2018).

In reality, data investigations often do not align with classroom realities or allow for direct transfer of a study's conclusions to successful implementation in a school. We can rarely replicate exact conditions or account for all confounding variables when repeating experiments to test theories in education. The results of any given study can be affected by: student maturation, readiness levels, cultural/family backgrounds, local politics, access to technology, English language proficiency, gender, attendance, class disruptions, community support for schools or lack thereof, presence/absence of school counselors/nurses, hunger, diet, sleep patterns, family dysfunction, parents' education, socio-economic status, access to discretionary monies, transiency rates, community violence/gang membership, afterschool care, grading practices, presence/absence of libraries, curriculum, leadership, teacher training, emotional climate, teacher-student ratio, childcare services for students who become parents at a young age, opioid use—and the new variables introduced by the intersection of any two or more of these factors.

Develop a Critical Eye for Education Research

When reading the limitations of studies, we find that some do not follow sound research protocols, but if we're not reading them with a critical eye, we don't see the issues. In some studies, for example, researchers or those interpreting their results may confuse causation with correlation, but just because two things are statistically correlated doesn't mean one element is the direct result of the other or even influences the other. The study's conclusion over-stepped its data indicators, making unfounded claims. Some studies, too, indicate great success in an early pilot with a small control group, but the positive impacts disappear when scaled up to use in a large school or district. As Wiliam notes, "Everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere" (2018).

Of particular concern is how unethical it would be in some cases to use a control group of students who are not provided with a given experimental factor in order to test that factor's effect on another group's learning. This is especially a concern if there's no time to go back and re-teach the control group students effectively if they achieved less than the experimental group, such as when one group of students is taught mathematics without benefit of manipulatives while another learns with them. And really, no parent wants to hear that teachers are experimenting on their children—It sounds sinister.

Just as importantly, though, is the fact that not all that is wise and wonderful in education has a robust research base; it doesn't exist. Where it does exist, it's usually correlational, relying more on qualitative than quantitative data analysis, studies of studies instead of true field studies, and looking at patterns/extrapolations over time, sometimes with limited data sets, or data for a large population but losing correlation when applied to an individual learner.

In his article on the research about teachers' professional learning, professor Tom Guskey (2012) points to several universal cautions about educational research in general. First, he asks us to always begin with the outcomes: What is it we are seeking for our students and teachers, and how will we know those outcomes have been achieved? Second, Guskey says we should consider the perspectives of the stakeholders. He relates an impassioned story about how the outcome of a program's use in a school carried more weight with the school board he was advising than all of his study's empirical data and charts combined, concluding: "Even when planners agree on the student learning goals … different stakeholders may not agree on what evidence best reflects improvement in those outcomes."

Education writers and reporters make every effort to get it right when it comes to research. Debra Viadero wrote a highly recommended guide for Education Writers Association (EWA) called, "Making Sense of Education Research." She cautions that, "It can be comforting to think of research as the ultimate authority on a question of educational policy or practice, but the truth is that usually it is not. The best that research can do is to provide clues on what works, when, and for whom, because classrooms, schools, and communities inevitably vary."

Viadero urges education writers, and indirectly, us, to ask the important questions about the research they're reporting:

  • "Who paid for the study? …{B]e suspicious of information generated by anyone with a stake in the results.
  • Where was the study published? In terms of trustworthiness, research published in a peer-reviewed journal almost always trumps research that is published without extensive review from other scholars in the same field.
  • How were participants selected for the study? Reporters should always be on the lookout for evidence of "creaming"–in other words, choosing the best and brightest students for the intervention group.
  • How were the results measured? It is not enough to state that students did better in reading, math, or another subject… Was it a standardized test or one that was developed by the researchers? Did the test measure what researchers were actually studying?
  • Was there a comparison group? Reporters should be wary of conclusions based on a simple pre- and post-test conducted with a single group of students.
  • What else happened during the study period that might explain the results? For example, were there any changes in the school's enrollment, teaching staff or leadership?"

Accept a Little Professional Humility

Just as I finally accept some great truth in teaching, someone comes along and shows me that the Emperor has no clothes. Take a short trip into the world of today's education research, and you'll find many teaching practices we hold dear now suspect. For example, there is considerable evidence that a diet of only project-based and inquiry learning is not as effective as we intuitively think it is, and that guided and direct instruction have clear places in the modern classroom. In a study by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (Educational Psychologist, 2006), the authors write:

"After a half-century of advocacy associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners…. Not only is unguided instruction normally less effective; there is also evidence that it may have negative results when students acquire misconceptions or incomplete or disorganized knowledge."

For those of us so sure of the veracity of our inquiry and constructivist methods, this is a real head scratcher, and our pulse quickens as we prepare rebuttals. There are other practices that current education research questions: use of rubrics, learning styles, single gender classes, coed classes, grades as motivation, technology integration, 1:1 initiatives, charter schools, teaching coding to young students, individualized/personal learning, and cultivating grit programs. ['Nodding with readers, speaking in a raised pitch, astonished and commiserating voice] "I know!"

If We Have No Time to Do the Research Ourselves, What Can We Do?

When it comes to using different instruction, standards-based grading, teaching coding to young children, and similar initiatives, we often ask for the proof that such an approach works before we embrace it. The fact is, however, that we don't have incontrovertible evidence about any of these in their entirety. What we have are focused studies within the larger category. For example, Benjamin Bloom and his mastery learning research showed that providing time and additional lessons to reteach and reassess students who did not master the content in the same timeframe as their classmates resulted in higher achievements in those students. In Classroom Instruction That Works (ASCD, 2001), Robert Marzano reports a 20 percentile increase in outside-the-school test scores when students redo assessments until they achieve a satisfactory level of performance regarding the standard. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers re-do experiments and problems repeatedly until they solve challenging problems. From these, other studies, and life itself, we see the value of re-do's and re-takes.

To my knowledge, there has never been a full scale, amply sized, inclusive of all elements, random-selection, double-blind, causal relationship, official study of standards-based grading or differentiated instruction. And why is that? Because it's physically impossible to conduct either one, as there are too many confounding variables and intersecting elements for which we could control. It's prohibitively expensive, requires so much inference and extrapolation as to be functionally inconclusive, and in some cases, is unethical to control group students. To demand such studies and full proof of positive effects of either one before discussing their potential use in the classroom is toxic contrarianism for its own sake, and not helpful.

Education author and leader, Todd Whitaker, often reminds us that we didn't have full-proof research about going to the moon when we took that trip in 1969, but we did it anyway. There's a heck of a lot in teaching and learning that we do because of "gut" sense that it will work, brave though it may be. No parent teaching a toddler to pull up and button his own pants for the first time stops everything to go read dissertations on, "Learning to put on our own clothing," when the first attempt results in Spiderman underwear stretched from ear to ear. Common sense dictates we coach the child and ask him to try it again and again, providing feedback as needed, until he can fly solo with the task.

Properly conducted research in education is welcome. It catalyzes our next investigations and invites critical analysis from thoughtful educators. It informs our decisions, but it rarely identifies definitive action. Teacher experience, professionalism, testimony, context, and reasonable attempts to gather more information are also valued.

We can't paralyze our instructional efforts, however, by worshiping at a limited research altar, claiming we only do research-based practices, especially when the research isn't plentiful or clearly correlating. Declaring, "Show me the research that this works, or I will refuse to do it," is a form of professional cowardice disguised as prudence. It takes professional courage to remain open to new possibilities, especially with the ones that threaten the status quo or our personal way of doing things. We can be skeptical instead of cynical, and we can ask questions instead of dismissing ideas outright.

Let's read and respond to the research that is there–seriously, there's a lot out there that gets read only by other researchers, not classroom practitioners. Once we've read and discussed what's out there, let's get more invested in the research ourselves, conducting teacher action-research, forming Critical Friends Networks and Professional Learning Communities, and sharing what we find with each other and inviting its critique.

Let's be thoughtful about what we do on a daily basis, and ask the questions we never have time to ask: How do I know this works with each of my students? What am I missing in the teaching-learning dynamic? What assumptions am I making with this teaching practice, and how are they getting in the way of student learning? What biases do I need to shed? Am I comfortable with the agenda this practice perpetuates? Is this practice born of faculty politics or sound pedagogy?

Let's put ourselves in places and experiences that are likely to connect with education research by mentoring and being mentored, reading professional journals and books, maintaining reflective journals, participating in online communities in our subject areas or educator forums, participating in Ed Camps, videotaping ourselves and analyzing our teaching with a colleague, attending workshops and conferences, watching webinars, video-conferencing with researchers and authors, and seeking National Board Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

We are imperfect, and our field is imperfect. We'll shake apart, though, if we can't accept the ambiguities and messy evolutions that form our enterprise, or if we lose interest in keeping up with an ever-changing profession. Too much is at stake to remain aloof or instructionally impotent. It's unsettling to not have a clear view of the path ahead, but that's an enticing challenge—to boldly go. The successful among us see the merits of informed discussion and the limits of argument from myth. Though we might lack the tools to get it right every time, we are attentive to others' research while contributing research of our own. We make the most conscientious decision we can, given our growing expertise and the context of any given moment. For most of us, that'll do.


Ashman, G. (2018, July 1). Filling the Pail - Mike Ollerton critiques Cognitive Load Theory [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/mike-ollerton-critiques-cognitive-load-theory/

Guskey, T.R. (2012). Focus on key points to develop the best strategy to evaluate professional learning: The rules of evidence. Journal of Staff Development, 33(4).

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., Pollock, J.E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Meyer, D. (2018, August 24). Drill-based math instruction diminishes the math teacher as well [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blog.mrmeyer.com/2018/drill-based-math-instruction-diminishes-the-math-teacher-as-well/

Viadero, D. (n.d). Making sense of education research. Retrieved from https://www.ewa.org/reporter-guide/making-sense-education-research

Wiliam, D. (2018). Creating the schools our children need: Why what we're doing now won't help much (and what we can do instead). West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences International.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2018.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (20608)/Comments (1)/
Redefining the End Goal

Redefining the End Goal

Seven ways educators can help students look beyond grades

"There's no way I'm taking honors biology next year," Katie told me. "It's going to wreck my GPA." She was in eighth grade and contemplating the high school course options.

I knew Katie collected insects for fun and had memorized every bone in the human body. "The honors class will move faster and cover more ground,"

"Not if I end up with a B+," she replied.

That stopped me. The threat of a B+ was enough to deter her? I tried one more time. "If you get a B plus, then it really is the right placement. Plus, you'll have access to higher-level classes down the road."

At the time, I thought I made a compelling case, but I now know I took the wrong approach. Kids like Katie can't shift their focus beyond extrinsic motivators until their fears are addressed. If you lead with logical reasoning, they won't hear a word you say.

There can be real consequences if they tune you out. Students may write off a subject because they think they're bad at it, not realizing that mastery comes from exposure. Here are seven ways educators can help students think more flexibly, take more risks, and look beyond grades.

Validate their feelings.

No matter how ridiculous a student's fears may seem to you, they make complete sense to them. You don't have to agree with them to validate their emotions. Try to figure out their underlying concern. You can then say, "I get it. If I thought a B+ would wreck my GPA and my future, I'd want to play it safe too." Or, "If I thought my parents would be mad at me if I got a B, I'd be hesitant to take the honors class too." When kids feel understood, they let down their guard and are able to consider other perspectives. It's futile to reason with an anxious student.

Talk about their interests.

Follow up on the details they divulge in papers or class discussions. If they share memories about collecting shells with their grandmother or crying after a Little League loss, bring it up in conversation. Point them to websites that classify sea shells, or recommend biographies about baseball players. Make personal connections, show delight in their curiosity, and encourage them to delve deeper. You'll help them value their many dimensions.

You'll also combat the misconception that academics matter above all else. Any kind of hard work creates new neural pathways, whether students choose to develop photographs, sketch portraits, play the violin, or build robots. And in a recent study, researchers at Stanford and Yale-NUS college in Singapore found that students who believe that effort and ability are intertwined are more curious, motivated, and likely to uncover new interests. They believe their potential is limitless, maintain a growth mindset, and are less likely to make comments such as, "I'm terrible at math" (" 'Find your passion' is bad advice, say Yale and Stanford psychologists," by Ephrat Livni, June 26, 2018, Quartz).

Keep the stakes low.

Students take their emotional cues from their teachers. Brandon, a seventh grader, told me he loved one teacher because "he was strict but never made tests feel scary." The teacher was loose with labeling. Everything was an 'in-class exercise.' "A final exam was an in-class exercise. A quiz was an in-class exercise. A worksheet was an in-class exercise. Things had points, but the teacher didn't make a big deal about that," Brandon explained, adding that he was able to adopt the same attitude.

It can be hard to keep the stakes low, particularly when middle school students enroll in courses for high school credit. One school system recently stopped calculating those grades into students' high school GPA. The practice was deterring too many kids from taking classes such as world languages. As a director in that system told me, "We felt strongly that middle school should be a time for academic exploration."

Some teachers don't grade every assignment. They may give feedback informally or use narratives instead of letter grades. They may focus more on process than results by evaluating a project at multiple stages. Or they may factor in social-emotional competencies such as collaboration and leadership. Celebrate failure by asking students to share their "biggest blooper" of the week. After they disclose the setback, praise them for taking a risk.

Lighten the mood.

Look for creative ways to incorporate humor. One history teacher bought his students United Nations weapons inspector hats, then promised extra points if they wore them to the final exam. The kids felt silly, but everyone did it. As one student noted, "it's hard to take anything too seriously when you're wearing a duck hat."

Humor can be used in other ways. When teachers poke fun at themselves, students are more likely to accept their own imperfections. Don't hesitate to make self-deprecating comments or to share funny news stories or video clips.

Offer a menu of coping strategies.

Dana, a sixth-grade student, told me that she felt less stressed and more engaged in science than any other course. She attributed this to her teacher, who began each class with a mindfulness practice. Dana used that time to shake off daily stress, settle her thoughts, and ease into learning. More importantly, she felt the teacher cared about her and prioritized her well-being. She was able to stay focused on the present and the task at hand.

Different students benefit from different strategies, so offer a menu of choices. You can try incorporating movement breaks, setting the mood with music, discussing inspirational quotes, or encouraging kids to log their thoughts in a journal. As an added bonus, they may bring these ideas home.

Underscore that life is more zigzag than straight line.

Encourage students to read biographies and autobiographies or watch documentaries about people who are leaders in a range of industries. They'll see that everyone experiences peaks and valleys—and that both are critical to success. They'll start to understand that mistakes are opportunities for learning, not reasons to give up. When students expect some adversity and absurdity, they're more likely to tackle challenges.

Discourage discussing grades with peers.

All kids talk about grades to an extent, but some take it to the extreme. I hold at least one morning meeting on the topic with my seventh graders. Students lead the discussion and ask their classmates to think about the pros and cons. The kids always conclude that there are far more cons than pros. They'll note that talking about grades is "conceited and obnoxious," or "raises everyone's anxiety," or "takes the focus away from doing your personal best."

My students generally agree to stop talking about it, but there are inevitable lapses. When that happens, remind them they don't have to engage. They may want help with the language or need permission to assert, "that's personal." The less time kids spend talking and thinking about grades, the more time they can devote to actually learning.

Phyllis L. Fagell, LCPC is the counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, DC, a therapist at Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and the author of Middle School Matters, (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019). She regularly contributes articles on education, parenting, and counseling to The Washington Post.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2018.
Author: Phyllis L. Fagell
Number of views (4048)/Comments (1)/
Is There Enough of You in Your Teaching?

Is There Enough of You in Your Teaching?

Defining your classroom and inspiring students by honoring your own voice and interests

As I look around the classroom, I'm reminded of all the things I like about teaching. Photographs feature our ongoing service project, and displays highlight our unit on globalism. I've also created a modest space that showcases me, where I inspire myself by sharing my interests with students. I feel at home in this room; I feel I'm where I belong, doing what I was called to do.

But for some years I was worn down as a teacher. The growing change and demands of the classroom left me feeling overwhelmed and unfulfilled. Finally, I decided to go back to my decision to teach and to the joy of the early years to figure out what I had lost along the way.

I started to look closely at my values and interests, my talents and goals. I began looking at how I related to others, how I used time, how I took care of myself (or didn't), and whether or not I was making the best use of strengths I was rediscovering.

Change began when I decided to trust my instincts and intuitions in the classroom. Sometimes, it meant interrupting a lesson to take it an unexpected direction. Other times, it meant stopping everything to listen to students. Then there were the very interesting times when it meant contending with ideas that wandered into my head, intent on staying there until I found a place for them in my teaching.

I'm beginning to see that teaching for me is an inside-out process, thriving on internal hunches and urges that work their way out through my decisions and actions. Thinking back, this may have been true of my own best teachers who seemed to go beyond the advice of experts and the practices of colleagues to listen to something unique within themselves. Like these teachers, I want to hear my own voice and be free to honor it in my teaching.

Teaching has a personal face; teachers need to see themselves in the choices that define their classrooms.

You were privileged to personal faces in your own schooling. Perhaps you had an English teacher whose dramatic and practiced style left no doubt as to why literature required your time; or maybe a math teacher, able to bewitch by spectacularly unfolding precision logic on a daily basis; or a history teacher, gifted at engaging the imagination through stories.

These talented teachers had discovered a way to make teaching a reflection of themselves—an expression of what they believed in, what they enjoyed, and what they were good at doing. They were on a journey, and you, as their student, were privileged to travel along with them.

Giving the personal face life in the classroom is different for every teacher. As an instructional leader, I have experimented with ideas that accommodate these differences and have found two ideas that are practical and that succeed consistently.

Consider Why You Chose to Teach.
We begin with discussions about teaching—taking a look at the influence of our own teachers, considering our earliest attractions to teaching as a career, and recalling the immediate circumstances surrounding our decision to teach. We move on to identify our greatest strengths and talents, not only as teachers but as people. We reflect on past and current feelings of satisfaction in the classroom, and on events that precipitate those feelings. Throughout our discussions, conversation is focused on finding our most comfortable and rewarding space as teachers, a place we can call our own.

Teachers are encouraged to follow-up on discussions by doing something different in their classrooms to reinforce emerging strengths and motivations. The focus is on taking small steps in directions that hearten and inspire the teacher.

Periodically, teachers meet with other teachers to discuss what they are learning about themselves and how they are putting it to use in the classroom. Some keep journals on a continuing basis, while others find partners to talk with regularly. All are working to connect with their strengths and interests in a way that will pay off for their students and themselves.

Negotiate for Your Needs.
Bringing the personal face forward requires that teachers know how to negotiate for what they need. Whether it's money to attend a conference or time to visit another classroom, teachers should be able to ask for what they need and be prepared to give something in return. This might mean sharing a professional skill or insight with other teachers, taking on a new responsibility, or using a special talent for the benefit of colleagues.

Negotiating and bartering are significant skills for teachers to master and practice. They are never taught in education courses or in workshops, but they can be learned in life and in the workplace. For teachers who want their classrooms to reflect a personal face—to be about who they are—the ability to bargain is critical.

Is there enough of you in your teaching? Possibly not. All too often the need to see yourself in your work is overshadowed by the lockstep of the latest new fix or the demands of the next new program.

Putting a personal face on teaching requires a different way; a way centered in who you are. It thrives on thinking and talking, receiving and giving back. It is independent of new programs, recycled reforms, big money, or debilitating pressures. It simply asks you to go inside yourself to find what you believe in, what you enjoy, and what you are good at doing.

Carolyn Bunting, a former teacher and public school administrator, and teacher of teachers, now writes about education. She is author of Getting Personal about Teaching, a small book of stories and reflections on teaching.

Published August 2018.
Author: Carolyn Bunting
Number of views (4287)/Comments (0)/
Magic in the Classroom

Magic in the Classroom

The power of reflections and experiences for a professor returning to the classroom

At last year's AMLE Annual Conference for Middle Level Education, I was surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable preservice and inservice teachers, veteran and new administrators, and early career and retired professors. We were enlightened with lively discussions that captured our hearts and minds with stories and data, and we were challenged to think and rethink how we reach out to one another and to our students.

For one of my presentations, I shared a professional activity I had engaged in for a year. I serve a university as a professor in the education department, and I left the university to return to the classroom to teach eighth grade math in a rural county in western North Carolina. The school I joined was in their second year as a middle school and their first year as a one-to-one school.

We were not a high performing school, and our population of children received free lunch and breakfast for all children. In addition, we were considered a full-service school; the support our children received ranged from food to medical assistance to social and emotional advocacy.

I worked on a five-person team of teachers and with faculty, staff, and administrators committed to collaborating to meet the needs of our students. As a school new to the middle school concept, our teachers engaged in teaming, collaborative team projects, advisory, and clubs. The students participated in Battle of the Books thanks to our librarian and Science Olympiad thanks to the science department and other teachers.

Students wrote essays, honored veterans, and participated in talent contests in our community. Two groups of teachers were given the autonomy to set up school-wide support groups. One group of teachers designed and implemented a club for young men and another group implemented a peer tutoring club. My team's students made banners to support Red Ribbon Week and Earth Day.

We were grouped by teams and were set up for professional learning communities by content areas. Our school improvement team created school-wide goals and worked with our PTA to support and celebrate our community.

At the end of the year, our school met growth, and 98% of our Algebra I students passed the end-of-course exam. I worked with dedicated teachers, a dedicated parent teacher association, and supportive administrators who embraced the challenges and opportunities associated with advocating for young adolescents.

My goals were to (1) embrace the experience to glean what is needed in teacher preparation; and (2) serve a school as an educator, walking next to those closest to the field. The following are my takeaways.

Intentional Reflection
My first takeaway involved the power of reflection. I wrote 97 blog posts over the course of the year as part of my professional development plan. For each reflection I listed at least three pieces of advice. I used the 16 characteristics of This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) to label each blog. I wonder how many teachers reflect on their year and use the experiences to begin to plan for future years? I'm thinking—and hoping—that many do! Had I not purposely reflected through the year, many experiences, insights, and aha moments would have been lost. I highly recommend teachers reflect intentionally on their experiences.

Sharing and Learning with Colleagues
It's helpful to find someone to reflect with. Over the course of the year, I reflected with two colleagues intentionally. I drove to work with a colleague at least three days a week. The time we spent driving to and from work became a think tank, a reflection pool of our day, of our students and colleagues, and of our personal insights and dreams.

I also participated in a virtual reflection activity with a friend who teaches science in another state. We focused on "engaged learning" as part of her professional development plan. We celebrated successes, and sometimes just listened; well, actually we all were participant-listeners. I truly believe these two experiences made us more reflective, and gave us uninterrupted time to process our days and our ideas. We all agreed that we are better teachers because we had the chance to debrief, sometimes vent, and to celebrate and advocate for one another.

Keeping the Big Picture in Mind
There are so many facets to teaching, and so many expectations including, but not limited to, college and career readiness, critical thinking, literacy integration, technology, ethics, standards, objectives, civic engagement, social and emotional development, leadership, exploration, lesson planning, differentiation, assessment, parent involvement, homework, projects, communication, grading, collaborative planning, interdisciplinary units, clubs, safety and wellness, teaming, and mindfulness.

Focusing on academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and creating environments that are challenging, empowering, and equitable can seem a bit daunting. Fortunately, there are tools to guide you. I recommend that you use This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (NMSA, 2010) as an overview to give you a framework, a common language, and to remind you of the big picture.

Remember that teaching is a journey to embrace and grow. One thing we often forget is that along with teaching content, our job is to advocate for all of our students, our students' guardians, our colleagues, and ourselves. Find ways to celebrate and appreciate all who advocate for middle school students.

Finally, I hear from administrators, professors, and district personnel who say, "I wish I could go back into a classroom." I would encourage professors, administrators, and district personnel to find a way to become part of a team for a week, a semester, or a year. When I was teaching in Gainesville, Florida, my chair, Paul George, would spend two weeks teaching a social studies unit to eighth graders. He inspired me to seek ways to stay in touch with middle school students.

There is magic in classrooms. The true spirit of middle level education lives in the halls and classrooms and with teams of teachers across this country. Living this experience every day was powerful, inspirational, enlightening, and necessary to me as a professor of education. If not for an entire year, I recommend a semester, or one class for a semester, or work with a team to plan and implement an interdisciplinary unit, to revive your own knowledge and to live the power and spirit of middle level education.

Nancy Ruppert is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville and serves as a trustee and past-president of the AMLE Board of Trustees. She has taught middle school math and science in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, coordinated middle grades programs at Shorter College and Charleston Southern University, and served as president of the National Professors of Middle Level Education (NaPOMLE).

Published July 2018.
Author: Nancy Ruppert
Number of views (4055)/Comments (0)/
The Choice to Teach Abroad

The Choice to Teach Abroad

Teaching overseas offers opportunity, adventure, and professional and personal growth

In the summer prior to entering middle school, I dove deep into the Choose Your Own Adventure book series. On page 11, as commander of a spaceship, I chose to put up the energy propulsion shields to try to escape a black hole; miraculously, though the propulsion system failed on page 22 and I ended my story quickly and happily in a sweet, new utopian world. Certainly, I appreciated that these stories allowed me to escape from my routine life amidst the cows and cornfields of mid-Michigan into castles, jungles, and spaceships. Even more significantly, I was enchanted by the act of making small choices that eventually led to entirely different outcomes. Simply by turning left or right, I might end up a hero or lost for dead.

Forty years later, teaching abroad continues to give me a similar sense of possibility and choice in life. Over the past 12 years, I have worked in international schools in Nepal, Morocco, and, currently, Austria. My choices—rather than an arbitrary turn to right or left—are now based on real-life considerations: financial, professional, and personal.

Twelve years ago, when I left a teaching position in the Oregon public schools to travel 180 degrees around the globe to Kathmandu, Nepal, I sought the mighty Himalayas and an immense distance from a fresh divorce. When I moved to Rabat, Morocco, I was drawn by a continent I'd never visited as well as a more streamlined teaching position. When I applied to Vienna, I knew that my rate of savings would diminish substantially, but I was certain the overall quality of life—working in arguably the world's most livable city—would rebalance the equation.

Though the decision to teach abroad is intensely personal and complex, here's a look into the opportunities and realities I faced living and working on three different continents, which may reveal considerations and insights to guide such a life-altering decision.

Exceptional Teaching Conditions

The year I left a public teaching position in Oregon, my work was split between two small suburban middle schools. I called myself the quadruple head of department because I was the only Spanish teacher and the only ESL teacher at both schools. Somehow, I enjoyed teaching, guiding, and monitoring all 35 ESL students and 50-60 students of Spanish each day. Certainly, it was better than my previous position in Portland, in which I'd taught six classes of 30 or more students every day, changing all 180 students every quarter.

Today, as an international teacher, I teach just five classes out of eight. Because I am a specialist, my classes are limited to 12 students. Mainstream classes typically hover around 16 students, but rarely number more than 20. As a result of these remarkable teaching conditions, I am able to reflect, research, differentiate, and collaborate much more frequently and effectively than I could as a US public school teacher. Though I look back with satisfaction and pride on my years teaching in Oregon, I do not think I could endure current conditions with so many students, so many external demands, and so little freedom to act as a professional.

While teaching conditions are enviable in the three private international schools in which I've worked, it's worth noting that I felt more ethically aligned and personally attuned to teaching in the inclusive and diverse US public schools. The students I teach currently are culturally and linguistically diverse, but socio-economically they are consistently the elite. Inclusion of those with significant disabilities is also extremely limited. In addition, I'm no longer teaching the fundamental language of my home country, but instead offering the opportunity to learn an additional language. My sense of essentiality as a language teacher is thus somewhat reduced; still, my responsibility to guide students towards ethical, balanced, and healthy life choices remains intact.

Opportunities Open

Professionally, my 12 years on three continents have offered abundant, satisfying career opportunities. Perhaps because the schools I've chosen have been fairly small (300 to 800 students), and because there was rather high staff turnover in Morocco and Nepal, opportunities have regularly presented themselves. I have headed the National Honor Society, served as the IB CAS coordinator, coordinated service-learning efforts, represented my middle school in our regional professional organization, and served on four visiting teams for accreditation agencies. Rather than becoming career-teachers in a single school district, most international teachers change schools every few years. There is little to no stigma tied to changing schools as long as you complete your contract.

Teaching abroad also builds in numerous opportunities to travel. Travel supported by the school for coaching, service activities, cultural opportunities, and educational conferences is frequently both an option and a mandated responsibility. This year, for example, I will travel to Copenhagen for a conference, Zurich and London to plan an educators' symposium, and to Kazakhstan as a member of an accreditation team. Bear in mind that these are school-sponsored trips, so there are work responsibilities and institutional rules to follow. Still, such opportunities to walk new horizons are frequent.

Of course, school vacations offer the freedom to pursue your own adventures. Each of my job locations has served as a useful pivot point to explore countries in the region. From Nepal, I visited Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia. From Morocco, I traveled to Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Now, in Austria, I enjoy traveling up into the Alps and down to the Mediterranean coast of Italy and Croatia. My last passport was as thick as a wallet thanks to numerous visas and added pages.

Consider the Financials

There is no doubt that working abroad has increased my invested savings. Because the cost of living was so low in Nepal and Morocco, and schools in both countries covered housing costs, as a single person without debt, I was able to save more than 50% of my salary. In Austria, with housing unprovided and surrounded by tempting and costly experiences and products, my savings rate has dipped to about 30%.

While this savings rate is certainly higher than most teachers I know in the United States (and higher than many in international schools as well), it may or may not provide the same comfortable, predictable retirement that teachers with generous, consistent pension plans receive. Furthermore, my Social Security payouts will be substantially lower given that I have not paid into the fund for the bulk of my career. Finally, it's worth noting that exchange rates introduce an additional variable. Both in Nepal and Austria, the exchange rate of local currency to the dollar shifted dramatically during my stay. When converted to US dollars, my paychecks lost approximately 20% of their value. For teachers who had dollar-based debts, this was equivalent to a substantial pay cut. For those with expenses only in local currency, the shift in exchange rate made essentially no difference.

Adventure and Invigorating Life Experiences

It's true that I've trekked to Everest Base Camp, learned to scuba dive in the glass-clear waters of Thailand, and climbed high into the dunes of the Sahara. Smaller, more daily events are often equally memorable: haggling for the fisherman's prized crab each Saturday morning at the beach-side market outside Rabat, jumping rope on my rooftop terrace in Kathmandu as the sun set over the Himalayas, or listening to a concert cellist busking in the streets of Vienna.

Browsing guidebooks and websites prior to departure, it's easy to romanticize the adventures ahead. Miscalculations, missteps, and just plain bad luck are also a part of the experience. I was robbed, alone and in load-shedding darkness in Nepal. I was robbed again in Marrakech with a knife to my neck. I've been stuck several days between two flooding rivers in the Sahara without proper shelter or food. Similarly, even daily habits and routines abroad can be tiresome and disheartening. In Nepal, I used to lock myself in my bedroom each night because of the risk of burglary. Air and water pollution in Kathmandu turned tissues black and made my stomach churn. Even in charming Vienna, I daily struggle with the challenges of the German language's three forms of "the" and four grammatical cases.

Still, though these misadventures and challenging living conditions generated fear and annoyance, I feel that I have lived a wider breadth of experience, and therefore I am stronger. I know myself better because I have been stretched further. As a girl who grew up in a peaceful, safe, rural setting, I would have predicted that experiencing a robbery, alone in a foreign city at night, would have induced petrifying fear. I'm pleased to report that in both robberies, I lost my bag, but kept my wits.

Culture Comes to Life

Though perhaps not apparent on my professional resume, my time overseas has deepened my cultural understanding of the students, families, and colleagues with whom I work. With 40 to 60 nationalities represented within each of the schools I've taught, culture is no longer at risk of being presented at a food and flags level; rather, it becomes a part of daily conversations, practices, and choices. Like a wide-eyed sixth grader on the first day of middle school, I've entered each new position alert and curious about the unknown norms of the place. At the most basic level, I've learned to avoid certain cultural taboos: I always take my shoes off in an Austrian home or Gasthaus; I'll never again step over a Tibetan's outstretched legs, and I most certainly eat in private by day during Ramadan if I'm in a Muslim country. I've also learned to savor and adopt certain cultural practices. Like the Viennese, I keep my voice low in public places, and, most definitely default to discussion of vacations rather than work. Now that I live in Europe, I often keep a certain Nepali habit private, but I still love to eat with my hands. (A fork really does feel foreign, cold, and metallic in my mouth!)

As an ESL teacher, my experiences educating students from diverse language backgrounds have given me insights into the particular challenges students may face in learning English. Most Asians and Russians struggle mightily with articles, while many German speakers need focused practice differentiating their pronunciation of F and TH, V and W. The diversity of cultures in each school has also pushed me to question and justify certain teaching practices. Asian parents, for example, frequently ask me to justify a perceived lack of homework, while Scandinavians often challenge me to explain the importance of any homework. Such conversations help me clarify my own underlying beliefs rather than rely on unquestioned norms or habits.

These international experiences have also helped me look at my own culture through a lens perhaps reminiscent of my ESL students. I remember, in particular, one winter day shortly before Christmas when working in Nepal. Thais, Tibetans, Nepalis, and Japanese made up my class, and though none of them celebrated Christmas as part of their own culture, they were curious about the holiday. Off we went to the library to select some picture books on the topic. One student chose a book focused on the wonder of cutting and decorating the Christmas tree. One chose a book featuring the Three Wise Men and the birth of baby Jesus. And one chose a book on Santa Claus coming down the chimney. Needless to say, my students were even more confused about Christmas traditions after reading the three disparate books. What, after all, does Santa have to do with Jesus have to do with a decorated fir tree? Suddenly, I understood that, from an outsider's perspective, my cultural traditions could look as convoluted and illogical as the abundant Hindu gods and their various incarnations did to me.

Wherever I Go, There I Am

Though living abroad has brought me deeper into a real-life experience than most tourists encounter, I remain a foreigner in my life abroad. In Nepal and Morocco, I was immediately physically recognizable as an outsider. In Vienna, sometimes I can "pass" but my first syllable marks me as an Ausländerin. Smaller actions also reveal my identity. Sometimes, I still speak too loudly, forget the obligatory "Prost!" before the first sip of any drink, and I always use a knife poorly. In those moments, I am subtly embarrassed for myself and the tell-tale signs of my American-ness.

It can also be surprisingly hard to sink into local culture and make strong local friendships. Every work day, I pass through the walled and guarded entry to school—into a "Little America." Within these walls, staff members, textbooks, teaching strategies, conversations, grading criteria, and even the cafeteria food are all very much dominated by American culture. In Nepal, the contrast between the rutted dirt road outside the campus and the immaculate grounds within its fortified walls was so great that it made me feel that I was visiting an America Epcot Village each day.

Living abroad has also certainly stretched some of my relationships into dissolution. It has caused me to miss the funerals of my four grandparents, and to learn of my mother's cancer on Skype. At the same time, those friendships that truly count remain meaningful and vibrant.

When I go "home" each summer to Oregon, I appreciate the solid, immediate understanding built into my conversations and actions. I am liberated from maps, translators, and TripAdvisor reviews. I immediately know what to do when I get a parking ticket, and I know intuitively when shops will be open or closed. I understand cultural references and historical influences. Back in the United States, I know more clearly who I am, and how I am interpreted and perceived. Old friends know me and our shared history is spontaneously resurrected. I feel a greater sense of ease, calm, and confidence walking through the streets of Portland than I suspect I ever will in another country.

Yet Still, I've Chosen This Adventure

Four years ago, I was ready to seek a new position. After struggling with the cultural differences and developmental challenges of both Nepal and Morocco, I was ready to relax into a lifestyle that gave me certain essential freedoms that were largely unavailable in Kathmandu and Rabat. I wanted to walk alone again at night without apprehension; I wanted to ride my bike without unwanted attention; I wanted to sit alone in a cafe and feel normal. With these basics as my guiding principles, I chose a position in Vienna. Now, four years later, it seems my choice may have been such a good one, that I will stay. For the first time in my career abroad, I have signed a contract for my fifth and sixth years.

For more than a decade, I have chosen my own adventure and watched the consequences of those choices unfold. As I make my decisions, I maintain only limited control over the actual outcome; indeed, living in a foreign culture arguably yields even less accurate predictions than those made in my home culture. It is perhaps this factor—the willingness to accept and even seek out the unknown—that is at the heart of my ongoing decision to remain abroad.

Alex Dailey is a middle school EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher at the American International School of Vienna.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Alex Dailey
Number of views (4599)/Comments (0)/
The Grief of Accepting New Ideas

The Grief of Accepting New Ideas

Changes in school or classroom practices unleash a variety of emotions. How can we support each other in the process?

The faculty lounge crackles with disagreements about the new grading policies suggested by the standards-based grading committee. The English department debates whether or not grammar proficiency is a requisite for writing proficiency, and whether or not to assign whole-class novels or let students choose their own. Civics teachers discuss how to help students process the latest wave of incivilities among politicians and why we should respect the rights of free speech for groups like white supremacists and the Westboro Baptist Church.

A new teacher evaluation policy declares that all teachers must show specific strategies used to meet the needs of diverse students in their classes, but some teachers say this is coddling students and thereby not preparatory for what they'll face next year. Some teachers make pointed arguments against using John Hattie's Visible Learning meta-analyses, citing issues with his research procedures, while others use Hattie's research to inform almost every classroom practice.

To quote Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin'. We wonder, though, if teachers have the dispositions needed to make fundamental changes to their teaching practices in order to respond constructively to our changing times, especially when those changes reveal that what they were doing was less effective than their egos thought they were.

The way we teach is often a statement of who we are. If someone questions our practices, it's like they're questioning our value as teachers. Our classroom instruction, including assessment and grading, technology integration, student-teacher interactions, and more, are expressions of how we see ourselves; they are our identity. Can we navigate these frequently troubled waters without invoking self-preserving egos and drowning in resentment?

Robert Evans opens his classic book, The Human Side of School Change (1996) with a quote by education reformer, Michael Fullan, who says that, "The fallacy of rationalism is the assumption that the social world can be altered by logical argument. The problem, as George Bernard Shaw observed, is that, 'reformers have the idea that change can be achieved by brute sanity.'" Teacher leaders can cite logical, well-reasoned statistics and arguments for new building initiatives, but nothing really changes in classroom practices unless leaders also appeal to teachers' ethics and the lens through which they perceive leaders' arguments.

Human ego can be a good thing. It insulates us from otherwise incapacitating personal attacks and moderates those monologues we tell ourselves as we attempt to shape reality to our private theories of the world and our role in it. A healthy ego also helps us maintain confidence and conviction in the face of adversity, fuels hope in positive outcomes, and powers that critical driver of our self and work—that we matter.

The ego is fiercely protective, however, of its own view, for fear that if its perceptions were found faulty and needed changing, everything else it declared as truth would also be suspect, forcing us into uncomfortable uncertainty, and even, change. We'd have to lose a piece of ourselves and what we accepted as normal, we think, in order to accept that new idea. As physicist Max Planck declared, "Science advances one funeral at a time." (Derek Thompson, "Why Experts Reject Creativity," The Atlantic, October 10, 2014).

For any of us educators trying to coach teachers, convince a colleague to try something new, or change a school's culture, it's helpful to remember that our teacher beliefs are held tightly, with and without close examination, and for one of us to let go of an accepted truth requires grieving over the loss of that truth, at least to some degree. We're not talking about the grief one feels over the death of a loved one, of course, but it's something that is a surprisingly powerful factor in idea acceptance and behavioral change. It can make individuals dysfunctional, if a time to grieve is denied. Evans cites James Gleick here:

[People] … cannot accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it … would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. (Gleick, 1987, p. 38) (Evans, p. 30)

And Kaufman here:

The humiliation of becoming a raw novice at a new trade after having been a master craftsman at an old one, and … the deep crisis caused by the need to suppress ancient prejudices, to push aside the comfort of the familiar to relinquish the security of what one knows well. (Kaufman, 1971, p. 13) (Evans, p. 48)

It is not too far flung to remember Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief (On Death and Dying, 1969): Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. One or more of these stages is experienced by each of us when we are asked to discard something we hold dearly and accept something new in its place. Yes, we fake-rationalize ourselves into, "This will not actually happen," and, "It'll just pass like another education fad, and I can wait until everyone comes to their senses."

We can become so concerned about what the change means for us in the classroom that we become vulnerable, as Kaufman suggests above, and that vulnerability and sometimes, confusion, can often come out as anger and depression directed at specific others or at the general ether. We may even accept the logic of the new idea as well as the limited nature of our former idea, but we still resent the threat to our perceived competency. It's interesting, too, to note that acceptance doesn't always mean, "content," as Julie Axelrod writes in her online article, "The 5 Stages of Grief & Loss" (www.psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/). Acceptance can be a time of great sadness.

In his Psychology Today blog, "Supersurvivors: Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong," Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University, Dr. David B. Feldman, writes that when grieving, "[W]e may start to question our faith in ourselves." He says that some people may ask who they are with the lost loved one, and that many of us, "…define [our]selves by the roles [we] play in close relationships." (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/supersurvivors/
, posted, July 7, 2017)

Not as intense, but still a significant consideration, we teachers can wonder who we are and how we will be defined from now on if we are forced to give up that which made us, us. Why don't the others see that I'm still a nice person, a solid teacher and positive contributor, we reason, and stop attacking me? Of course, we can still be ourselves, but we can embrace the insights and professional shift, and be an ever-evolving version of ourselves, one that perceives course correction as strength, not weakness. Feldman adds, though, that, "It's important not to rush grief … [G]rief is very personal, and each of us is entitled to our own schedule."

David Ropeik, an instructor at the Harvard University Extension School writes in his Psychology Today blog, "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Changing Somebody's Mind, or Yours, Is Hard to Do," that we can, "…argue the facts, as thoughtfully and non-confrontationally as [we] can, but the facts don't seem to get [us] anywhere. The wall of the other person's opinion doesn't move...Shouldn't a cognitive mind be open to evidence...to the facts...to reason? Well, that's hopeful but naïve, and ignores a vast amount of social science evidence that has shown that facts, by themselves, are meaningless." (www.psychologytoday.com/blog/how-risky-is-it-really/201007/why-changing-somebody-s-mind-or-yours-is-hard-do, Posted Jul 13, 2010)

Ropeik says that we hold on to our opinions and beliefs so strongly in order to protect ourselves from those perceived as enemies because they have opinions different than ours. We also conform to the groups with which we identify, such as conservatives with conservatives, liberals with liberals. This, "Strengthening [of] the group, helping it win dominance, and having the group accept us, matters … Humans are social animals. We depend on our groups, our tribes, literally for our survival …The more we circle the wagons of our opinions to keep the tribe together and keep ourselves safe ... the more fierce grow the inflexible 'Culture War' polarities that impede compromise and progress."

As teachers, when we encounter an administrator or colleague who says something about teaching or mandates a new policy that is deeply flawed (okay, incorrect), especially when declared publicly at a faculty meeting, we have several constructive responses we can make. First, we talk with him or her privately about the issue, as public correction often invokes the need in the other person to, "save face," not hear our message. Second, we can make efforts to correct him or her in such manner as to not invoke self-preserving ego, such as:

  • Ask her to tell you more about her statements, posing questions here and there in a sincere interest in knowing more, but letting her shore up her own thinking. This is a form of cognitive coaching (see October 2017 AMLE Magazine for more).
  • Acknowledge that he's having a tough time (if he is), and come across as supportive, not adversarial. Ask how you can help.
  • Help her see how her message came across, and ask if that was what she wanted to communicate.
  • Offer him alternative compromises between his needs and our needs so that both are served.
  • Affirm what the leader or colleague brings to the conversation, don't dismiss her wisdom and experience. Then, however, educate her graciously on the topic by speaking from understanding about how some people, maybe even we, held that misconception for many years, but then revised our thinking in light of new perspective or evidence, which you're sharing with her as well.
  • Present concerns about the misstatements as well as ideas on how to correct them publicly in a clarifying, or diving-deeper-into-the-issue-I-changed-my-mind moment at the next meeting.

The goal is to not invoke threat, which can harden those walls against acceptance, making the grief at having to change all the more difficult. Citing Evans again, "People must be sufficiently dissatisfied with the present state of affairs—and their role in maintaining it—or they have no reason to endure the losses and challenges of change" (p. 57). Thomas Newkirk's wonderful new book, Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning (Heinemann, 2017) sheds a lot of light on the challenges of change and acceptance, particularly when it comes to our fears of embarrassment or humiliation when interacting with others: student to teacher, student to student, and teacher to teacher or administrator. Without hyperbole, it has the potential to be one of the most affecting faculty readings you'll ever conduct. It is highly recommended.

We are all fellow travelers, and we are all inconsistent with ourselves and one another. No one likes to have protective layers pulled bare, revealing old scars or sensitive places still raw. To survive the day, we tell ourselves that our truths are THE truths, and they form our version of reality. When we're confronted with their illusory nature, we're no longer on solid ground. We grieve for former students we may have wronged, the real or not perceived loss in status among respected colleagues, the time and energy that will be spent in changing who we are, and for the loss of self that was once so sure.

Let's help each other: Let's interact in ways that invite thoughtfulness, not invocation of self-protecting egos. Let's give colleagues time and encouragement to pushback and resist new ideas, and rather than be so self-assured ourselves, let's look for new insights we need to hear in our colleagues' arguments. And finally, let's extend the compassion to others we seek for ourselves, and honor the grief process that happens when asked to give up something we've held so tightly all these years—a truth, reality, perception, or practice—as they struggle to accept something new. Instead of leaving them to struggle alone, we can walk that path together.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from www.amle.org/store. His new book, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Second Edition is available from Stenhouse Publishers.

Published in AMLE Magazine, April 2018.
Author: Rick Wormeli
Number of views (58311)/Comments (1)/
10 Life Lessons from a Principal Who Led a Middle School for Four Decades

10 Life Lessons from a Principal Who Led a Middle School for Four Decades

Michael Gordon ran a middle school for 40 years. That's right, four DECADES. As principal, he got tough kids to soften and overprotective parents to loosen their grip. Under his watch, troublemakers fell into line and struggling teachers upped their game.

As I collect information for my book on parenting middle schoolers, I've been talking to dozens of experts. Gordon has a reputation as a legendary principal, so I called him from a local Starbucks armed with questions. I quickly set them aside and just listened. If middle school is a metaphor for life, then this man has accrued some serious wisdom. Here are 10 of his tips for running a school, parenting, managing uncertainty, and finding purpose.

Protect kids physically and emotionally.

On 9/11, Gordon had to make a snap decision. His students were in class when the planes hit. He decided to lock down the school, and he told his staff he didn't want anyone using their phones or listening to TV or radio. They were in Roslyn, not far from Manhattan, and many kids had parents who worked in the Twin Towers. "Parents called to tell me they were coming to pick up their kid, and I said, 'no, we're under lockdown and I'm protecting your child.'" Some of them were insistent. He told them that if they came, he'd have to call the police. He knew that as soon as some showed up, there'd be a ripple effect. The other kids would realize something was wrong and start to worry.

"The next day, a group of sixth and seventh graders said, "you lied to us," Gordon recalls. "I said 'I didn't lie to you, I wanted you to know your parents were alive and okay when you heard the news.'" One of the boys said, "he's right." He turned around and walked away, leaving the first kid standing there alone.

Enforce unpopular rules.

The most important thing in a middle school is that kids experience natural consequences, Gordon says. "Kids love consistency. Many parents will threaten their kid that they won't be able to go to a ball game or a party, but then they relent. I had a rule that kids couldn't have cell phones in school. Parents were texting during English to see if their kid wanted pizza for dinner," he says. The first time the child pulled out his phone, the teacher took it. The second time, the phone was given to Gordon, and parents had to come in to pick it up. If a student broke the rule a third time, the child's parents couldn't have the phone either.

I asked Gordon for clarification. "Wait, you kept the phone FOREVER?" I asked. Yes, that's exactly what he did. "That only happened three times, and then I never got a cell phone again," he notes. He adds that parents appreciated the fact that there was evenness in the school. His no-nonsense predictability left no room for craziness.

Be straightforward with underperformers, but don't be hurtful.

Gordon was straightforward with underperforming or malicious teachers. "You should be able to tell people they're not cutting it." Occasionally, teachers would lie to him. He'd always call them out. "They'd get indignant and say, 'are you calling me a liar?' I'd lean forward and say 'absolutely.' But I believe you tell people the truth nicely, not in a way that hurts," he says.

Gordon believes that leaders need to appreciate that people's lives are complicated and there's no need to be disrespectful. "Issues come up with staff members," he says. "They may be impacted by illness, death, or divorce. We're not always at our peak. Teachers may go through a time when they have two kids in college and they're nervous about money, and their behavior changes. I'd deal with them straightforwardly and with humanity and I'd get that back," he adds. "It can be like throwing cold water on them—they'd say, 'I didn't realize I was floating down the river.'"

Teachers also knew they'd have to answer to Gordon if they got mean. "They had to back away, apologize and fix it. If people say things that are hurtful and nasty, you have to call them on it and say it's unacceptable."

Go back to kindergarten.

Even as a principal, Gordon regularly returned to a feeder elementary school to teach kindergarten. He thinks it's critical that educators remember where their students started. "After a while, you begin to focus on the age level you work with, and you really have to understand where they are now compared to where they began," he says. He once observed a kindergarten teacher who said to the children, 'we're going to the buses now, so pack up your lunch boxes, put on your coat and go to the door.' When the 5-year-olds tried to put the coat on over their lunch boxes, they got confused and upset, Gordon recalls. "I said to her, 'look, it's all about sequence. Coats first, then get the lunch boxes.' When you get to middle school, it's more complex but it's also the same."

To that end, he's in favor of order and systems at school and calm studying environments at home. "Whether your kid is 10 or 14, if your house is chaotic, that's how they come to school. Organization is the only way they tie themselves to reality—otherwise they spin out of control and worry about what's coming next. And when I worry, I may do things to clown around because I'm not focused, like pull the girl's hair next to me."

Model what you expect.

The principal always should display the values of the school, Gordon says. He dealt with every student in a caring, respectful, responsive, and sensitive way, and he expected teachers and front office staff to do the same. "If you behave that way, they will too. You get back what you give," he says. "Everything is done by modeling. They're always watching and listening, and they'll do what you do, not what you say. If you win a child's heart, their head will follow." As he notes, you don't teach English, you teach children English. "You're always dealing with the kid first, and the tools you use are math," he explains.

Don't be intimidated by anyone.

Gordon didn't let parents rescue kids. If they brought in their child's lunches or homework, he turned them away. "They weren't strengthening them, they were weakening them," he explains. "I'd say, you have to understand that when you do that, it's about your need, not theirs."

When parents were anxious about their kids' social status, some got scared and pushy. "They may have wanted their child to be the most popular, but there can only be one most popular, and those kids are always striving. You just want your child to move toward the right friends as they change and mature," he says. And while you're helping them shift friend groups, he notes, teach them that talking in person softens a message. "When they text each other, if they're not skillful it can be like sticks in the eyes."

Parents who had a great deal of authority in their work lives would occasionally grow frustrated when Gordon said "no." "They'd say, 'I'm going to take it above you.' I'd say 'let me give you the telephone number.' You can't be afraid, can't be intimidated. I'd say, 'I'm sorry you feel that way."

Imprint values.

If you want kids to make good decisions, they need to learn good values. Gordon tells parents to imprint their value system on the baby seal. "From the time they cry in the crib until they leave home, imprint all the values that have to do with caring, responsibility, and responsiveness," he recommends.

Next, deal with their peer group, which can either support or go against that baby seal imprint. If kids do nothing else, he says, they should stop and think for 10 seconds before acting or posting. Adults can remind them to pause and ask themselves, "is this something I would be comfortable sharing with my grandmother or my school principal?

Teach critical thinking.

At dinner with his own daughter, Gordon encouraged critical thinking. "I used to take a piece of paper, fold it in half and label the two sides positive and negative." He'd then say, 'okay, this girl has been bothering you at school, what can you do?' "She might say, 'I'd like to punch her in the mouth.'" He'd calmly follow up with questions. "Okay, what positives and negatives would come from that? That's inductive and deductive reasoning," he notes.

Understand that change is hard.

Gordon was always sensitive to the rising sixth graders who were making a major transition. "If I'm in elementary school and I've been skipping down the hall holding hands with my friend, and now I'm going to a building that's new to me, I'm going to be scared and excited," he says. He tried to set the stage for a smooth transition long before they arrived. "When elementary kids came for their older siblings' middle school shows, I'd keep everything in the building bright and open, not just the auditorium. I wanted the little kids who were not here yet to get comfortable," he says.

He adds that change is hard for adults too. "There's a season for everything. First a tricycle is acceptable, and then a bicycle, and then you suddenly need a minivan. And then one day they take the keys from you because you're bumping into everything."

Give troublemakers a sense of purpose.

Gordon had a group of twelve students who frequently got into trouble. "They were bright but always into something," he recalls. He created a technology squad and gave these kids responsibility for managing the expensive computerized lighting systems and sound systems in the auditorium. "They put on shows and did incredible things, and we bought them black outfits with Tech Squad written on them," he says. All of the kids learned technology skills.

At Gordon's last graduation at the middle school, the adult who was supposed to run the equipment called in sick. "This sixth grader, a tiny 11-year-old, stepped forward and said, 'don't worry Mr. Gordon, we've got your back.' Not a single thing was off, and it was the best graduation we ever had. His mother came in in tears and said, 'this kid who used to hate school now eats, sleeps, and dreams school.' If you want to give kids self-esteem, give them responsibility," he notes. Those kids were never reported to him for anything again.

Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, MD, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post. She is the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019).

Published February 2018.
Author: Phyllis Fagell
Number of views (6351)/Comments (2)/

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