Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Teachers, let’s face it. Most of the issues and predicaments that suck the joy out of the teaching profession are beyond our control.
Maybe you make barely enough money to live on, and there’s no pay raise in sight. Or the district changed insurance plans, and none of your doctors are “preferred providers.”
Or maybe your principal announced at the first faculty meeting to forget about purchase orders for classroom supplies. Your parent booster group can’t generate enough membership to have a full complement of officers. No one at your school is willing to collaborate with you on instructional units.
Your administration won’t back you up on the discipline plan. Your teaching assignment has you teaching back-to-back classes on opposite ends of campus. The new teacher evaluation system is a mystery to everyone. Your classroom’s roof is leaking…again.
Sure, all of these situations are real. In fact, during my 35 year teaching career I have experienced every one of them. Some predicaments resolved themselves over time. Other times I just had to move on to a different school. But in none of those circumstances was I in the least bit of control.
Yes, we can pinch pennies, cut-out box-tops, and establish classroom discipline in spite of a permissive principal. We can march for higher wages, attend workshops about the new evaluation system, and buy a bucket to catch rainwater. But our actions rarely solve the problems; we only make them bearable.
I call these problems Glass-Drainers.
Most teachers are optimists; we see the glass as half-full, not half-empty. But sometimes our emotional and professional glass shatters, the glass has too many leaks, and we simply run out of metaphorical fingers with which to plug the fissures.
Some teachers fight to solve problems at their school, and I guess there’s a place for that. They wave placards at the roadside in an attempt to gain public sympathy and support. They speak at school board meetings about insurance problems. The take photographs of decrepit school buildings and e-mail them to the local media. I’ve even seen teachers go to war with their principal over school policy. That didn’t end well, by the way.
What I will tell you is this: effort made to add more positive experiences to your teaching career will pay huge dividends, and provide you with a happier teaching experience. Adding to your glass will compensate for those glass-drainers.
Sure, the glass-drainers will be there. I’ve worked at some outstanding schools, and each one had its share of challenges and disappointments. But teachers and faculties that thrive in adversity have learned to focus on the good parts of their school, and supplement those parts with positive professional experiences. The bad parts don’t go away – but they do fade into the background.
Time to fill your glass! (Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. Giggle twice. Let’s move on.)
In this TeacherScope column, I’ll outline some glass-filling professional experiences that will keep your morale glass half-full, even if it’s springing several leaks.
Develop Your Curriculum
When do teachers feel their best? No, not Friday afternoon! (Some of you are still giggling about that “fill your glass” metaphor.) Teachers feel great when they teach an outstanding lesson! You can experience that success more frequently by developing excellent instructional units for your class or subject.
Here’s an example: let’s say that you’re covering tornadoes in your upper-elementary or middle school science class. Your current lesson plans involve reading the chapter, taking a test, watching an instructional video, and filling out a couple of puzzle pages that you downloaded from Teachers Pay Teachers (ouch, hit a nerve there.) Okay, you’re probably covering all of the standards, but is that instructional unit really a source of pride? How about inviting the local Red Cross supervisor to speak about disaster preparedness and relief efforts? Maybe the meteorologist from the local TV station will visit or Skype to explain how tornadoes impact the local area. Your assistant principal could pop-in to talk about how the school’s weather safety plan protects everyone. Integrate language arts skills with a novel unit - Night of the Twisters (Ruckman), I Survived the Joplin Tornado (Tarshis), Tornado (Byars), Runaway Twin (Kehret.) Are you thinking of your own resources? Great! Keep going!
I’ve been fortunate in my teaching career; I’ve taught classes that depended on my unit development. I didn’t have a textbook for television production, multimedia production, and digital photography classes that I taught. I needed to create units of study and projects for the students. Some of those units and projects worked really well, others needed a little tweaking, and a few were total failures. But after a couple of years – and very patient students – I began to have fun teaching those courses. If I can do it, you can too!
Become an Expert
As you develop your instructional units, you will probably become quite interested in one or two of the topics. Continue to fill your glass by becoming an expert in that scientific concept, historic event, math strategy, or literary genre.
Let’s say you teach US History at the middle or high school level. You’ve always been interested in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but your knowledge involves only what your textbook teaches. You can continue to learn by reading books and diaries (yes, they exist), studying maps, and watching videos about the voyage. Even if those materials aren’t appropriate for your students, you can still use them to increase your knowledge base. Maybe your summer vacation plans will include a trip to the Museum at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis or the Lewis and Clark National Park in Oregon. You can even hike part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail. Soon, you’ll be an expert about the Voyage of Discovery.
How long does it take to become an expert? Experts disagree (that’s a joke.) But really, your students will appreciate and benefit from all of your knowledge. Besides, you really hadn’t planned to write your own book or lecture at the university (but those things can happen, too!) You simply wanted to fill your glass. Mission accomplished!
Attend Conferences (and present)
There’s probably an educational conference in your state or region that you can attend. (And I’m not talking about a required summer workshop.) Ask your district curriculum coordinators, or search the Internet. At a conference you can learn about the latest teaching materials and strategies, and network with other teachers in your state. There’s usually time to relax and socialize, too! Start the conversation at your school, and gather a group of friends to attend with you. Even if you have to pay for your hotel and meals yourself, it’s worth the expense.
And if you’ve become an expert (as mentioned above) consider presenting a conference session. One-hour sessions are the main attraction at educational conferences, and you can add your knowledge to the mix. Whether you decide to present, or just soak-up the information, you will return to school with a full glass.
Maybe you’re more comfortable behind the keyboard than in front of an audience. Consider writing articles for you state professional journal. Although it may seem a daunting assignment at first, educational magazines are often interested in your articles and essays. Check a journal issue or their web-site for the process of submitting an article. E-mail the editor to determine the topics they plan to cover in future issues. You may just be the writer they’re looking for!
If you’re looking for a more informal writing experience, consider starting your own blog. Several online companies – Weebly is my favorite – offer inexpensive web space and a simple drag-and-drop editor. For a few dollars a month, you’ll be able to express your ideas about teaching, learning, and the educational system (wait, that’s my tag-line!) As your fellow-blogger, I encourage you to keep it positive and avoid ranting. Once you put it online, it’s out there for everyone to read.
Serve on Professional Committees
You’ve probably seen notices on the faculty bulletin board or received e-mails about opportunities to serve on educational committees at the district, state, or national level. Instead of walking-by or clicking that e-mail to the trash, carefully read the proposal and ask yourself if you’d be a good candidate. Professional committees establish educational standards, align curriculum to those standards, and write and evaluate test questions for student and teacher examinations. I’ve had the opportunity to serve on several committees, and I have enjoyed them all. This is a great professional opportunity to fill your glass.
Be Yourself in the Classroom
I’ve written about this topic before, but one of the biggest keys to teacher happiness – keeping the glass full – is sharing your positive personality and interests with your students. Gather and display items that reflect those interests on a bookshelf or in a corner of the classroom. I used to have the Mr. Kyker Shelf (actually two wall-mounted shelves) in the back of my classroom. I filled those shelves with my favorite books, vacation photos, and knick-knacks that illustrated my hobbies. I would exchange the items on the shelves every month or so, to keep it interesting.
Historic family photos of my grandparents and great-grandparents generated the most interest (I made photographic copies so as not to risk damage to the originals.) One middle school boy who always seemed to be on the cusp of a discipline referral asked me one day, “Mr. Kyker, are those your ancestors?” After I got over the initial shock of his mature question, I picked-up the photographs and named each person. He asked questions – Where did they live? Are they still alive? When was the picture taken? We talked for about five minutes before the bell rang. The next day he found me in the hallway before school. He had taken pictures with his phone-camera of the antique family photos hanging in his home, and he couldn’t wait to share them with me. Turns-out, his family was really into genealogy. And pardon the cliché, but he never gave me a problem in class again.
I’ve always preferred a subtle approach to such displays, as opposed to an all-out, in-your-face indoctrination. I’ve been in classrooms where seemingly every inch was decorated with memorabilia from the teacher’s favorite sports team, movie, or tourist attraction. I’d rather save most of my classroom space for interesting displays featuring student work and curriculum resources.
How does sharing your personality in the classroom help fill your glass? Because we’re most comfortable when we have the liberty to be ourselves. I spent the first several years of my teaching career trying to be someone else – wearing clothes I didn’t like, talking about things I didn’t know anything about, and trying to act a lot more sophisticated and worldly than I really was. In reality, I was a small-town guy from a lower-middle class neighborhood. Like most teachers in their mid-twenties, I was living paycheck-to-paycheck in a small apartment and driving an old car held together with prayer and baling wire. I compounded my dismal economic status with a self-imposed disguise, and I was miserable. Over the years, I slowly learned to be comfortable with who I was and to focus on the teaching. That’s when my glass became half-full, not half-empty.
Teaching is a human profession. It will be imperfect. There will be challenges – some ingrained and institutional, and others transient and unpredictable. And those challenges will drain your glass. Your best insurance: plan, develop, and create positive professional experiences so that your cup will continue to run over at the brim.
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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