A Sight to Behold

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My students are always a sight to behold.

Sometimes when I meet a line of students and lead them through the hallway to the gym, I turn around to look at them. Often, I admit, I am giving them the “Don’t-make-me-ask-another-rhetorical-question-about-our-understanding-of-line-behavior” look. And sometimes I look at them and smile.

I look at them and actually see them in their 6, 7 and 8 year old bodies. I see them smile back at me. I see them skip and wiggle at the same time. I see them jostle to get closer to their closest friends. I see them doing what kids do. I see them being who they are.

My students surprise and amaze me. They race into the gym whooping and hollering because they are HAPPY. They chat with each other because they know friendship. They will stop and listen to me for a hot minute because we practice respect.

I have first graders who can pair up and do their own set of stretches together. I have students at all levels of the elementary for whom a handstand or cartwheel is no big deal. I have fifth graders who have shown me tricks for juggling a soccer ball and managing a back walkover.

My students blossom and bubble when they talk, when they move, when they share. How quickly they comfort one another when someone is hurt, how sincerely they apologize to each other when feelings have been bruised. How open they are when they feel listened to.

How often I forget to drink in the beauty of the students I have before me. How accustomed I become to our habits of discourse that I forget that each child who tells me a bit of news is sharing part of their very special story, their very distinct view of the world WITH ME. I should feel honored and humbled. I forget that sometimes.

My students are lovely and wonderful and miraculous and sometimes I forget to look at them. I forget to see them. But when I remember, they are always a sight to behold.

 

image: courtesy of AISVienna

Why “Teaching People, Not Poses” Matters

Teaching People, Not Poses by Jay Fields offers 12 principles for teaching yoga with integrity.  When I picked up the book three weeks ago at a friend’s apartment, I got chills as I began reading. Much more than a book about yoga, this concise manual unpacks some truths that lie at the heart of teaching.  Here are her 12 principles:

  • Be yourself.teaching-people-not-poses-home
  • Practice.
  • Show your vulnerability and your expertise.
  • Teach from your own experience.
  • If you don’t know, say you don’t know.
  • Stay in your body.
  • Don’t take it all so seriously.
  • Remember that your students are people.
  • Learn anatomy.
  • Plan enough so that you can be spontaneous.
  • Remember who and what supports you.
  • Don’t try to please everyone.

http://graceandgrityoga.com/read-the-principles/

While you may have to think a moment about how “Stay in your body” and “learn anatomy” transfer to the classroom, when you read the explanations that follow, it’s likely that you will discover what applies to you and your situation. “Learn your subject matter” is what came to my mind instead of anatomy, for instance.

What’s so remarkable about reading Jay’s fully open and honest account of her own journey as a yoga practitioner and teacher, is that she makes you feel right at home. She describes the awkwardness, vulnerability, hubris of teaching as readily as she captures the actual miracle of connection that applying the principles affords.

I could go on but I’d rather let Jay have the floor. (From the conclusion):

When it comes down to it, Teaching People, Not Poses is about having integrity. Integrity in the sense of being more whole. More yourself. Bringing together all the parts of you and not hiding or holding back.

But also integrity in terms of alignment. In this case, alignment with your truth, as opposed to contorting yourself to fit what other people expect of you…

If you’re willing as a teacher to go to the places that scare you, to soften when you want to get hard and to attend to the complexity of your life through your practice, your students will also learn to do so. And that means more people in your community and in our world who dare to live in integrity. And that, my friends, we need for oh so many reasons…

At the end of the day, Teaching People, Not Poses isn’t really only about teaching yoga. It’s about playing your part to help create a world full of people who have the courage and spirit to set aside fear and to live in alignment with their deepest, truest most full self.

It happens one person at a time. And it starts with you. You as you are right now, no transformation necessary.

Shine.

Of all the resources available for teachers on how to improve our skills and develop our expertise, too few, I fear, address the needs of our teaching souls. Kid President can’t do it alone. The 12 principles offer nourishment and sustenance for teachers at every level. More tech and professional development and stiffer standards do not nourish teachers. If we want more teachers to stay for longer, we need to actively foster and strengthen each other’s capacity to live and teach with integrity. We have to do this because the system certainly will not.  Reading and sharing Teaching People, Not Poses is an excellent first step in that direction.

Teaching People, Not Poses by Jay Fields, 2012

Special thanks go to my dear friend and soul mate, Cathleen O’Connell, who introduced me to this life changing text.

I’ll Meet You There – Easier Said Than Done

You plan to go out with a friend and you agree to meet up in specific location. The plan assumes that each of you will travel some distance to reach the common meeting point. In teaching we may operate on a similar assumption.  I, the teacher, will travel a ways to meet my students where they are in their understanding. And in turn my students will use their skills, effort and drive to strive in the direction of that designated learning goal.  So much for the plan.

pixabay.com

pixabay.com

Anyone who has ever tried to instruct, teach or impart anything to anyone, will know that the reality is always much murkier and messier  than “the plan.”  Learning anything is rarely cut and dried. And the notion of teaching as a process through which knowledge is given or passed on to someone  misses the point of the interaction.  When I try to build a bridge between the knowledge and experience that I have and what I believe my students are supposed to learn, then I will have to travel. Building that bridge may well become an extremely arduous process.  While I am planning, engineering, and constructing,  what are my students up to?  Some of them are watching me work up a sweat, as I run back and forth gathering materials and begin putting in the foundation. Many of them, however, are talking to each other or staring into their gadgets or generally just hanging out. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest in my bridge.

And there’s the catch. It’s my bridge. I have to build it, right? To get to where they are…  What kind of traveling are my students doing in this scenario? How are they moving to meet me? Well, they’re not. They are spectators at my teaching show. They have not been asked to help build the bridge. They’re just going to wait until the bridge is done and see what happens.

Let’s do this differently: When I try to build a bridge between the knowledge and experience that I have and the understanding that my students have shown me they are seeking, then they and I will need to travel, and gather resources, and put in some effort to meet up at the designated learning goal. The planning, engineering and constructing will look different than when I chose to do it all on my own. The process will likely take longer and guess what? My students and I will learn not only how to build bridges, we will have learned much more about each other – our individual strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations in addition to discovering what we are capable of as a group.

Shifting my role from teacher, in the traditional sense, to lead learner requires some important steps on my part:

Before:

  • I need to have awareness about where I am in my development as a person and as a professional. How comfortable am I with sharing leadership?  How do I cope with ambiguity and uncertainty? Who do my students need me to be in order to be able to embrace this kind of approach to learning?

During:

  • patience and more patience.
  • openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, confusion
  • Staying connected to the vision which led me to venture down this road
  • Heaps of faith in myself and my students in what we are undertaking together
  • Humor

After:

  • ample opportunities to celebrate as a group and as individuals
  • time to step back and really take in the scope and magnitude of accomplishment. That is, not just looking at the finished products, rather, reflecting on the many steps it took to get there and all the mini victories those steps represent.
  • Closure: How do we want to remember what we did here?  Where are we headed next?

While it appears that I have replaced one “plan” with another. The real shift has less to do with the format and much more to do with what has happened in me. In order to shift from control and command “teaching” to the shared responsibility and distributed leadership stance of a lead learner, I, as a person, need to be aware of my strengths and vulnerabilities and be able to acknowledge them openly.  That is real travel. It is the journey of a lifetime and it never ends. The gift we can offer our students is to respect where they are on their unique journeys even as we acknowledge the twists and turns of our own expeditions.  As the lead learners, we are then in a position to accompany and support them as they get acquainted with new terrain and increase stamina. That’s when we can confidently say to our students, “I’ll meet you there” and mean it.

To the child who says “I can’t”

I respond: “you say, you can’t.”
I suggest, “you can’t YET and you can learn to.”
I may say, “You say you can’t and thank goodness, because that’s why I am here: to help you learn how to.”
I may say, “Show me what you can do and we’ll go from there.”
I may ask, “Exactly what is it that you say you can’t do?”
And then, “What would you like to do about that?”
Or “How can I help you with that?”
Later I may ask, “So how long have you been working on this?” (usually a matter of a few minutes). Therefore grounds for the next question: “How long do you think it might take to learn something like this?”
A reminder may be useful: “Do you remember when you learned how to … And now you can?”
Or I might admit: “You know what? I don’t know how to do that either right now. Who do you think could help us out with this?”

Always trying, always learning

Always trying, always learning

What I’ve learned from nearly two decades of teaching Physical Education: when kids tell us they can’t, they mean it. They are not making it up, they really feel like they can’t perform the skill, play the game the way that we’re asking them to do it at that moment. Whether it’s a temporary or  habitual “I can’t,” we need to acknowledge that child’s reality first before offering strategies to get beyond “I can’t.”

Encouraging a growth mindset by adding yet to their negative statement as in “You can’t skip rope yet” plants that seed of understanding that this particular state is temporary (although some of our kids may feel like it’s forever). Open questions (i.e., starting with how and what) invite students to problem solve and become masters of their own progress and send the message that we see them as capable, creative and whole.

“I can’t” is also an opportunity to remind kids of past challenges and successes. I sometimes raise the rhetorical question, “so when you were born, did you already know how to walk?” This tends to put their current struggle into perspective, often with a smile.

Truth be told, I actually appreciate every “I can’t” ever heard from a student. It reminds me and my students just what we are there for: to create something new together: a new competency, understanding, a new way of seeing ourselves. We’re all growing and changing the whole time. Welcoming and working with those inevitable “I can’t” moments in the process only serve to deepen the potential learning.

An Unusual Honor

On Wednesday at my school it was “Dress up as your favorite teacher day” and it was a surprise for teachers.  The Elementary Student Council, comprised of some very clever 4th and 5th graders, came up with the idea and organized the whole activity without the knowledge of their teachers.  Parents were informed through the secretary and the results were simply amazing.  Imagine coming to work and being greeted by 3 or 4 (or more) younger versions of your professional self!

My colleague, the art teacher, managed to get a picture of her assembled fan club – many of them sporting colorful smocks and aprons.  So many inspired Ms. Sabinas laughing into the camera. I can hardly express the thrill of having students tell me: “I’m you today!”  There simply can be no higher compliment than that.

Dress up as your favorite teacher Day!

Dress up as your favorite teacher Day!

Heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, this remarkable display of student ingenuity and generosity struck me as a powerful reminder of how much there is to be grateful for and that who I am and what I do as an educator matters. What an unusual honor.

Parent-Teacher Conferences – Cause for Celebration

I really enjoy parent-teacher conferences.  I see it as a wonderful opportunity to share perspectives on some very important individuals: my students; your child or children.

I sit down with parents for 5 to 10 minutes and it never ceases to amaze me what I can learn, what I can offer and how much connection parents and I can actually build-up. My field is Physical Education and while several parents of the children I teach sign up to see me and I also invite some, I only see a fraction of them during conferences.  Yet for that fraction I have bundles of information to share and my curiosity about each child we consider typcially rises as we talk.

Last year my colleague and I began sharing short video clips of kids in class with parents during conferences.  We use an app called “Coach’s Eye” and it allows us to capture footage of kids in action and also use it for instant feedback with students in class.  At conferences, the opportunity to show Marika in action or Luke taking it easy opens the doors for genuine conversation that often gets to the heart of the matter much more quickly than words or “the data” might allow.   A father and I talked about his son, who was clearly marching to the beat of his own drum on the video, and we both observed that while he seems both distracted and distracting in the example, his movements also convey a great deal of joy.  His son is happy and not following along. It’s easy to talk about what’s wrong with this picture.  I prefer to see and point out what’s right. It makes for a very different and often much more constructive conversation than if we did it the other way around.

Some parents have genuine concerns about their child’s gross motor performance and seem to arrive prepared for the worst. That’s when a short video clip can make all the difference in the world.  “Look at this!” I say, pulling up a recent success on the screen.  Then I listen. I hear about the difficulties in the past; previous negative experiences and prevalent fears. I learn about family histories and self-confessed physical inadequacies.  I hear reservations: “Well, we know he’ll never be a professional… (fill in the blank)”  And that’s when I cannot wait to say – “Well, we actually don’t know. She may become a pilates whiz or a deep sea diver!  We just don’t know… isn’t that great?”  This often produces a smile at the very least and a sigh of relief.  Progress is the goal and your child is well on her way – that’s my message and it matters to all concerned.

Other parents are eager to find out about their child’s specific strengths. Is s/he good at…?  What I have found over the years is that while I can comment on certain tendencies and and preferences, my main message to parents in response is: follow your child’s lead.  What interests does he show? What is it that she likes to do and with whom?  And I remind them that many children have hidden abilities and skills which often don’t show up at school: there are remarkable skiiers, disciplined martial artists, daring skaters or brave backpackers. There’s so much more to our students and our children than meets the eye and when looking at physical education performance, there is even more that we teachers and their peers will never witness. That seems important to recognize, especially when the dominant movement culture (soccer, basketball, more soccer..(in Europe)) tends to obscure that reality.

Looking back at the conversations I had with parents during this cycle, I realize that I spoke a lot about happiness, joy and progress.  Many of my students have challenges of one sort or another, yet they all seem to want to be in the gym.  They want a piece of the action and they get it.  Being in a position to communicate to parents: Yes, this “thing” [ – name the challenge] is going on and your child is happy.  That is cause for celebration. Again and again and again.

“Could you make the teams, please?!”

This blog post is dedicated to all my colleagues who are willing to sacrifice the time and endure the messiness of allowing students to solve their own problems in the classroom and beyond.
The Agenda
It never fails. On the whiteboard my 4th and 5th grade students read: speedball mini-games. They know what we’re going to play and most have a good sense of what that will look like. Then comes the challenge:
“Please get into co-ed groups of 4-5 and make sure that the teams are balanced in terms of skill levels, enthusiasm, boys/girls, etc.” They know the routine.
They get started. Friends grab friends and migrate towards a pair of the opposite gender who present the most favorable option (or least objectionable possibility). There are complaints: “They’re always together.” “They’re too good.” “We don’t have any girls.” “We don’t have any boys.” They keep trying – sending individual students to and fro: “You go to that team…” “No, we already have our team.”* I stop them and ask if they are finished.
There’s a sigh of frustration. “Are the teams co-ed?” “Are they fair?” I ask.  Hands go up and it doesn’t take long for the plea to arrive: “Will you please make the teams?”

One of my favorite teaching moments has arrived and it is gift wrapped.

“To answer your question: yes, I could make the teams, sure. But, what would you be learning?”
Aha. They sensed it. Another grown-up lesson they unwittingly walked into.

I persist: “What is it that I want you to learn and practice by making your own teams?”

They begin to respond: “To be fair.” “So that we learn how to solve our own problems.” “Teamwork?”

“Who’s going to play the game?”

“We are.”
“What kind of games do you want to have?”

“Fair games.”

”So, do you see what I’m saying here? The games are in your hands. You get to decide what kind of games you want to have. If you want fair games, then you have to make fair teams and I think you know how to do that.”
“But people want to be with their friends,” a student interjects. Several nod.

“Aha. So you may want more than one thing when you get into a group. You want to be with your friend and you want the teams to be fair. I guess you have to know which is more important to you and if you can make it work within the group. So what do you want now?”
“We want to play the games.”
“Okay, so let’s see your groups.”
There is renewed shuffling and within 40 seconds we have four groups that look a little different than before. I ask everyone to look around. “Satisfied with these teams? Do they look balanced and fair?” Nods and expressions of relief.
“Okay. Let’s play.”

*One added caveat: When students begin to order each other around while forming groups, I use this maxim: “Before you send someone else, you go yourself.” And I explain that it’s usually easier to tell someone else to do the thing that we don’t want or are afraid to do on our own. And many of us do not like being told by our peers where to go and what to do. So the responsible solution is to move yourself. This has been a very useful tool in helping students see that our actions often express more than we realize.