Late October/ early November of a (N. Hemisphere) school year – by this time we know some things: about our students, our schedules. We may have a sense of the way things might go for the year. Or, we know that so much is up in the air it would be absolute folly to try and predict where things may end up. I’m at that stage in the school year where I’m beginning to hit my stride; where my routines with students are familiar; we may even have a rhythm.
Here we are (in Austria, mind you) holding regular school in the middle of a pandemic. As a learning community we’ve been blessed with very few cases, all of which could all be traced to contacts outside school and turned out to be asymptomatic. Every week without a significant change in the building’s population has felt like a victory. We seem to be getting things mostly right.
Among the adaptations my PE colleagues and I have had to make is shifting to majority outdoor teaching. Particularly for me and my team colleague, this has meant truly changing our ‘regularly scheduled programming.’ There’s a lot to appreciate with getting kids outside and taking advantage of different parts of the campus. We’ve gotten both creative and clever in developing plans that get us close to what we have planned in the pacing guide. That said, it has also been hard.
Not hard as in gut wrenching or emotionally draining but mistifyingly frustrating. Yes, my colleague and I have been conducting our PE classes – differently, yes, but still. I even did a kind of question mind-map at the beginning of October to try to help me understand.
It took me literally until this past week to figure out why.
My colleague commented on teaching indoors due to wet weather and how much easier he found it. “We’re by ourselves, there’s nobody else kicking a ball around … there’s not a leaf, or wind…” Oh my gosh! Exactly when he mentioned the leaf, I laughed out loud in recognition. And then it dawned on me: for at least 2 classes I am outside during middle and then high school recess! I’ve been trying to “teach” my classes next to big kids playing soccer on the field, basketball on the redtop, strolling, laughing, chilling. When I march my 1st graders and Pre-K out to the field and back, it’s a given that someone will be collecting something along the way. Of course! They’re children, they’re curious and all kinds of things can be fascinating: bugs and leaves and big siblings; jackets in the wind and water bottles along the fence.
What’s striking for me is that I couldn’t put my finger on what the real differences were until now. Over 9 weeks in. Instead I focused on what I was doing wrong or that the kids were distracted while functionally excluding the impact of the context we’re suddenly trying to operate in. How could I behave as if teaching next to recess should proceed normally? What on earth would lead me to believe that my students would find having PE outdoors instead of indoors an easy transition?
Here’s my theory: As educators we spend years building (or attempting to build) a positive track record. We develop a sense of what works, what we do well, how we maneuver towards success. When the success doesn’t happen when and where we expect, many of us will attribute that to ourselves. We look first to see what we’re doing wrong. Or, we locate the trouble in our students’ behaviors or histories. The point is, on our own, the picture we’re most likely to create will be incomplete. We will focus on what occurs to us with remarkably little awareness of what we may be missing.
Even under these extenuating circumstances many of us are still very wedded to our sense of “normal” in how we operate. Yes, we’ve changed modalities (multiple times even) and adapted to new schedules, dramatically shifted our approaches to any number of routines and habits – and still, when things go south, go off or don’t go at all – how many of us are quick to blame ourselves? To ask what we did wrong? Our self-constructed picture can easily leave out some little (or big) things that may, in fact, be having a sizable impact on our capacity to do even the least of what we intend with our students.
All this to say, it’s not just us. It’s not just the kids. It is literally EVERYTHING. We are doing the best we can with what we’ve got. The more we talk to each other, the greater our chances of expanding our field of vision for what’s going on both in front of us and behind the scenes. And as I learned, this may take a minute. (9 weeks, y’all, just sayin’.)
Let’s be both gentle and generous with ourselves and each other; with our families and students; with colleagues and neighbors. We don’t need to be superheroes especially when it’s already asking a lot to just be.
(Below is the text of my keynote talk from August 18th, 2020 including a sample of responses from participants.)
Thank you, NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), for inviting me to spend some time with you today. I am honored and nervous.
Thanks, too, Jane Anne for the very kind introduction!
I want to share some thoughts about our field, PE, and how we can incorporate anti-racism into our daily practices with students.
First of all, I want us to consider a few things:
This is my first keynote address.
I’m an actual teacher. A PE teacher, in fact, who just finished her first day of classes.
I want us to interact, so I invite you to use the chat to respond to a couple of prompts later and we’ll also leave some time for Q & A at the end.
You heard a bit about me in Jane Anne’s introduction. Here’s a slide to go with that. 😉
Thinking about what a good keynote should do for folks, here’s what I hope you’ll be able to take away from our time together.
I want us to appreciate what’s special about what we do.
I hope to encourage us to be braver and more critical observers of our own practice.
Help prepare your hearts and minds for the learning ahead.
That’s a lot and think for a moment about our classes: We have students of mixed abilities, interest levels and preparedness, put them all into a class called “PE” and in many cases manage to help those students find ways of engaging, contributing, and applying themselves that can be fun, challenging, awkward, or awesome or all of those, and have most of them leave feeling as good or better than they arrived.
So of course I’ve planned a talk with multiple positive aims!
PE tends to be an all-comers affair, right? and because we as teachers can anticipate that our students will each have their own way of appreciating and/or coming to terms with our offerings, we know that we have to adapt; that one size never fits all. We differentiate and modify our activities. We offer a wide range of movement experiences to give students ideas about the many different ways they can enjoy physical activity. We read up and stay current on new developments in the field and open ourselves to change as we grow and progress. These are the steps we take to be able to serve the remarkable diversity we find in each of our classes, every time we see them. We also know that no two lessons that we give are ever exactly the same.
Given that, I want us to think about what it means for us as PE teachers to become anti-racist and wholly inclusive in our teaching practices. Now that anti-racism is topping the bestseller lists and making its way into institutional policy and mission statement revisions, most of us are familiar with the terminology and have come to expect to hear about it from a variety of organizations, but what does anti-racism really mean? And what does it mean to teach from an anti-racist stance?
Christina Torres teaches 8th grade English at an independent school in Hawaii. She’s also a prolific writer on education whose thinking I hold in high esteem. She recently published an article on the Teaching Tolerance website that I’ve been quoting a lot lately.
“Anti-racist work means acknowledging that racist beliefs and structures are pervasive in all aspects of our lives—from education to housing to climate change—and then actively doing work to tear down those beliefs and structures. Those beliefs and structures don’t just exist in primarily white and/or privileged institutions—they thrive there.” – Christina Torres, “All Students Need Anti-racism Education,” Teaching Tolerance, July 30, 2020.
Consider, throughout your day and beyond, that last part about racist beliefs and structures not just existing in our privileged white institutions but actually thriving there.
A good part of our work from here on out relies on us
1) Opening our eyes to see those beliefs and structures.
2) Adopting beliefs and structures which demand and support full inclusion.
Much of the rest of your learning plan for today with Erica Corbin, Lauren Stewart, Worokya Duncan, John Gentile and James Samuels involves unpacking the specifics of what anti-racism is and is not, how racist beliefs and structures show up in our PE practices and also the ways we can mitigate them. They’re the main event. I’m calling them “The Highlights!”
I’m the warm-up act.
Opening our eyes and ears for equity and inclusion takes practice. And that’s where we’ll begin: with a thought experiment. To practice.
Three years ago I was asked to contribute a video response to a provocation for a workshop my friends were doing at a conference on open education.
The prompt was this: What would you do to create a non-inclusive learning environment?
It is truly a provocation!
I made my response specific to physical education and the result ended up being surprisingly clarifying.
Before I go on, I’d like to ask you to imagine what you would do to create a non-inclusive learning environment in PE.
To do that you need to create a picture of what non-inclusive might entail.
What kinds of behaviors would you encourage and for whom?
Which criteria for success would you set?
Please add some of your ideas in the chat box.
[Reading aloud some of the responses.]
Audition. Group kids by ability level. Assume everyone understands the game. Only focus on the students who need the most skill work. Certain sports for girls, other sports for boys. No positive feedback. Only play “American” sports. All games competitive. PE for athletes only. Group by body size. Make every game about winning. Focus on Win/lose only. Play the game without explaining the rules. Charge for PE participation.
Y’all are great at this!
Now I’ll share my response:
In my own response, I identified three main things I would do:
Design all the learning around my needs and preferences
Keep my evaluation criteria a secret
Be absolutely OK with failing students
“What learns us this?” – this is from an old Austrian friend of mine who remembers using this question learning in English back in the 1970’s. It always makes me laugh to hear it but it also reminds me that learning often happens without explicit teaching. How does the experience change us?
What can we learn from such an exercise?
First of all, what I like most is that it forces us to think in practical terms. What am I doing in my classes? What does it communicate to students about our priorities?
Second, it can help us see our practices in a new light. We can really ask: where is the truth in the ideas I’ve just put down? How much time do I really spend on the things that I love versus the things that I like less? Thankfully, at my school my colleagues and I have a pacing guide to keep us on track.
And third, It helps us clarify what the most desirable steps in the opposite direction, that is, towards fully inclusive learning environments, could be. For instance, it has become a much higher priority for me to discuss the assessment criteria with students and agree with them on some of the parameters. Transparency.
Here’s the second opportunity for practice:
One of the struggles we face as high achievers is the not always conscious striving for perfection. We want to get things right. We want all of our students to get it right. In my opinion, education and educators tend to wear out superlatives, especially “best”: best practices, best scores, best schools. Because in pursuit of those highest achievements, we may lose sight of growth, progress and movement. We get so tied up with the end goal, the shiny results, that we take less time and effort to appreciate and recognize the deep value of the process.
When we talk here about clarifying our practices towards inclusion and even better, the assumptions underlying those practices, my request is that you and I, let go of our need for perfection and instead be deliberate in our process (which I expect and hope will be a long one. :-)).
What that means for each of us will vary. We have unique social identity intersections which will influence our starting points and hold particular meanings in our respective contexts. And this is where we have to be radically honest with ourselves:
we can no longer pretend that who we are does not matter in the school house.
I am a middle aged Black American woman teaching in a predominantly white American international school. I am cis-gender, straight, of Christian upbringing and the product of a decidedly elite education. All of those things matter in how I show up professionally and personally with students, colleagues and parents. My challenge, our challenge, is to use our experience and expertise to create learning environments that honor the complexity embodied in each of us and in each student we encounter.
Take a moment to identify yourself. Use the chat box if you like. Just say it in your head or toss a few words down in your notes.
Father. / Black. Cis woman. Mom. Wife. / White privileged male / Woman, White, Lesbian / black american cis gender male christian from low socioeconomic class / Latino adopted male / White, cis, male, straight, christian, able body – / white woman from the midle east living and rasing my kinds in the usa today / human / white male, older in age (young at heart), blue collar, middle class / Asian, Female, Christian, Aunt, Sister …
What do you notice when you do that?
[Reading aloud some of the responses]
I see that I’m not the only one. Ideas I hadn’t thought of. Diversity of who is here. Identity is more than I think. Hard to decide which comes first: race or gender. We’re all more than one thing. my own definition has become broader in listening to others. you feel pride. What matters? What doesn’t?Complexity. Exciting with so many things that identify you 🙂 I noticed many of us stated our race when defining self.
Thank you for sharing those.
My students can see that I’m Black. How each of them assigns meaning to my being Black will naturally vary. I also know that I might easily be the only Black teacher these students even encounter in their entire school careers. Their experience with me really counts in a particular way and I want us to develop awareness for those kinds of nuances.
Another example: I wonder about how we honor the complexity of gender identity and acknowledge a spectrum rather than a binary. I’ve trained myself to say “friends” and “folks” instead of “boys and girls” or when forming groups ask students to include “all the genders” (which also gives us an opening to talk about what that means).
And I still feel new at this, still very much ‘under construction’ in this area. I’ve had to let go of perfectionism and embrace the process.
When we look at our programs, I see a few areas where identity and inclusion are very much at the center of students’ thinking in PE, whether we acknowledge it or not. During this talk, we’ve practiced thinking about inclusion and identifying ourselves. We can begin to think about how we invite students to identify themselves, the methods we use to form groups, our protocols and norms for class discussions. These are aspects of our field that are familiar and well worn. Let’s take the opportunity to review these habits and see where we can make them more inclusive, more sensitive to and welcoming of difference.
Remember, process over perfection: Make the attempts, make more attempts, notice growth.
Finishing up here… As you begin your new school years under challenging circumstances, I want to remind you and also myself that students are partners and resources in our classrooms. Yes, they learn from us AND they also use all of their powers to teach us. While they are learning about who they are and wish to be, they are pushing and pulling us to be real with them, to tell the truth.
And guess what! You already have all the resources you need to welcome your students as partners and resources in your learning endeavors!
It’s called listening.
I want to share a little anecdote about dodgeball in a 5th grade class which highlights this idea of students as resources. In a nutshell, some of my more dominant boys wanted to make it harder for tagged players to get back into the game. Some girls objected and pointed out the disadvantage it would create for certain players. Another student, a boy, suggested an alternative way to get back in the game by doing some exercises on the sideline. His idea was shot down in a heartbeat. We had a discussion.
While there was much more to the conversation – more voices, more opinions than the ones shared here – the point for me was developing their awareness. We’re talking about a game and we’re also talking about who we are in the game, and who has power in the game, and how the game makes us feel when we play it and according to whose rules. The conversation was not about dodgeball, yes or no, this conversation was about how we play and what we are creating in the way we choose to play it.
And there’s the key – how we – actually they, students, choose to play. What rules can we agree on and how do we negotiate rules which produce fair and satisfying game experiences not only for a few ‘skill privileged’ but for the entire group? These are the questions I want us to wrestle with from time to time. Because the notion that “it’s just a game” strikes me as a cop out, a way of denying how much more we invest in becoming and staying ‘players’.
In closing and with this example I want to emphasize again the wealth of creativity, passion and purpose we have in our students. They are amazing and so are we!
It’s going to take all of us to create learning environments that are fully inclusive, that make space for complex identities and challenging discussions. We have to be able to see ourselves as champions of equity, not spectators. As PE folks we are action and movement oriented, let’s show that in our anti-racist stance. I’m with you.
We have a little time for questions.
Thank you all so much for having me. All the best for the rest of your learning and for a successful school year!
Video on. I jog in front of the camera and start the exercise. A bear walk, a crab walk, bunny hops, hopscotch. I jog back to the iPad, stop the camera. Over the course of almost 8 weeks I have adjusted to putting myself, my living room and balcony on display in the interest of teaching and learning. I have tossed, caught and kicked socks, stuffed animals, t-shirts and scarves. I have crawled, rolled, skipped, jogged, hopped and galloped across the floor, the yard, my mat; sometimes smiling, other times, serious. And the constant is that I have to watch myself again and again performing a kind of instruction.
Performing instruction. Teaching by video, in my case, means creating a visual invitation to either join me directly or to watch my example as a template for practice. With video I can show things in a way that encourages imitation. My students and I are currently working with an “I do – You do” model. What we’re missing is the “we do” piece in between. They respond with a video or picture of their own, with a note or a voice message to tell me how it went. I watch, listen or read and convey my approval. I write, use emojis, or speak my appreciation. It’s a transaction, not a dialogue. It’s friendly and there’s evidence of relationship, yet we lack the opportunity to genuinely build on what has transpired. As soon as one lesson has been completed/consumed, it’s time to make space for the next.
At no other time in my teaching career have I ever spent so much time watching myself attempt to teach. And what do I see?
I see myself trying to remain familiar and recognizable to my students. I wear the same PE garb as usual. I’m showing the movements we’ve done before.
I see a healthy relationship with imperfection. I mess up, I try again.
Smiles that seem to come out of nowhere which means I just gave myself the internal reminder.
I see a surprising level of flexibility and strength and I also notice my age. Post-video I also feel my age significantly.
I see a repertoire of good guesses about what might work and for whom.
I see someone who actually enjoys a lot of what she’s trying to do.
A manner of presence specific to the particular audience (“Hi Pre-K!”) and not designed for universal consumption.
I’m thinking about what all this “seeing” is good for. How will it change my practice? What’s different already?
I never wanted to be that performer teacher who had all the moves and little understanding of the curse of knowledge. But on video for my kids I may seem like that, which is part of why my misses and flubs need to be in the mix. I also notice how some of my students deliver a kind of instructional video in response to my lesson prompt. Like young how-to youtubers, some will introduce their plan, narrate the steps, and of course, thank me for watching. It’s charming and also a stark reminder of this shared online reality. They recognize platform templates and begin to imitate them. And what I am shown are literally snapshots of effort. I have no control over or confirmation of how long or successfully anyone worked on a given task. So much of this emergency teaching and learning endeavor requires a new level of relational trust. I have to trust my students and they must trust me that we are all doing our best at the moment.
What makes the video “lessons” for my students different from some Youtube PE teacher? It’s the relationship. My students will watch and follow a video by me because we have some history, we know each other. They respond to me personally. What begins as a teacher to class initiative becomes a collection of unique one-to-one exchanges. When we started distance learning, I’m not sure either side, teachers nor students were fully prepared for the oddity of this dynamic. That said, through our individual interactions it’s also true that this is how we remain present for each other; entirely real, the opposite of imaginary.
When I watch my videos it’s also one way to make my efforts entirely real to myself. There I am, that middle aged Black woman moving to and fro, here and there, up and down. Hopefully doing more than entertaining. Ideally, I’m inviting, encouraging, welcoming; offering reminders of what we do and think about in PE even without mats, balls and all of our classmates. Before this I had very little visual documentation of my years in the gym. Tons of pictures and video of kids and classes but almost none of me doing what I do. Seeing myself now, 25 years in and on the daily feels like both a gift and hurdle.
It’s no longer a question of if that’s me, it’s what will I do next to shake the tree of student interest and engagement?
See Mrs. Spelic teach.
See Mrs. Spelic skip. See Mrs. Spelic run.
Watch her jump! Watch her hop!
See Mrs. Spelic turn a cartwheel!
Teach, Mrs. Spelic, teach!
*The jury is still out on the title, “See Sherri teach.” I keep asking myself: does showing constitute teaching?
“See Sherri Invite Her Students To Do Something, Anything Related To PE On A Given Day And Share A Response As Evidence Of Engagement” – just not as catchy, right?
I went for a long walk this morning and for the first 5 minutes I wanted to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. And what for? What’s there to cry about? It’s a gorgeous sunny day, I can leave my house and walk up into hills with lovely vistas, vineyards covering the landscape. I’m free to leave for an hour or more if I choose. My middle school child can manage his tasks well enough on his own. My spouse is working from home and is available if necessary. I’m not due on a call before 12 and it only makes sense to begin responding to my students’ responses to their posted assignment in the afternoon when most have had time to complete it.
My list of privileges is long. In this time of outrageous uncertainty, I live in a country where social distancing is well established and the health care system is both universal and functioning. My own teaching situation is advantageous to say the least. PK-12 1:1 devices, iPads, chromebooks or PC laptops. At the elementary level, lessons are currently asynchronous. We’re finishing our third week and considering the circumstances, I suppose we’re doing very well.
Nevertheless, as I continue to create short videos for my students encouraging them to stretch, strengthen, toss, catch, jump and balance, after a while it becomes hard not to wonder at the purpose of it all. Yes, it’s meaningful for students to be able to still connect with their specialist teachers in addition to their classroom teachers. I see it in the smiles and exclamation points that come back to me in response to the assignments I post. Yes, it’s a useful pedagogical exercise to consider the best ways to offer physical education activities that are creative yet simple to practice and differentiated for various grade levels. Yes, I’m learning as I go – about myself, about my students, about families.
That said, I’m still asking myself about what I’m doing; what all of this emergency distance learning is.
I create mini lessons that I upload onto a platform. These can be scheduled so that they appear in the student’s feed at the appropriate time. Sometimes I make a video demonstrating the things I want them to try. Other times I may create a slide that asks them to follow a video or two and then tell me which one they preferred and why. I try to switch it up and keep it varied. Novelty and surprise have a new role to play in sustaining motivation to keep tuning in.
What I create is a performance. A performance with an invitation. “Follow along!” or “Alright, everyone, try this at home!” Literally. I am not delivering content, per se. No, I am cultivating relationships with students, often with parents and caregivers, and it’s centered on presenting movement as enjoyable, valuable and familiar. I’m not trying to teach discrete skills. Instead, I set up possibilities for students to practice. In one video I pull out my imaginary jump rope, in another I show 3 kinds of target games that I played with my own son. You hardly see us in the video, only the socks and stuffed animals we’re tossing in our living room towards a laundry basket or bucket. As a response, I asked students to create their own target game and send a picture or short video. (I could not have predicted how much joy I would feel watching some of their game ideas.)
None of this is rocket science. I see the difficulties of my own child navigating this new terrain. Even with the most engaged teaching and class meetings per hangouts, it’s hard to stay motivated. Yes, we want kids to be able to keep learning but how does it not become a differently moderated series of homework tasks? Everything that students do now is homework because home is where we all are and the fact that tasks are completed in response to teacher assignments makes them a form of work. I’ve called distance learning with a device “interactive to-do lists.” That seems unfair considering the remarkable work I know my colleagues invest in developing lessons that are engaging, topical and invitational. But from the child’s point of view, how does it seem?
I worry about our educator tendency to respond heroically to the storms with which we are confronted. I worry about our tendency to make lemonade out of lemons even if there’s no sugar in sight to sweeten the deal. I worry about the ways we rise to the occasion when we are also carrying our own children, elders, or other major concerns on our shoulders throughout. Our perpetual drive to remain productive poses a real risk to our health and well being over the long haul. These are not normal times. We are not simply having an interruption. The world is fighting a pandemic that ” is deadly, but not too deadly. It makes people sick, but not in predictable, uniquely identifiable ways.”
While my own family here seems safe, I worry more about family in the US where medical care and attention can be very uneven and likely, racist. While I think about what good my “teaching” may or may not be doing, there are other, deeper concerns that lurk in my mind. None of this under my control. Whether or not my lessons seem long enough or evoke enough of the right kind of engagement is not what I can or will fret over.
If you’re in a similar boat, and many of us are, let’s agree that we’ll take some deep breaths. Let’s steal some time for exercise in whichever ways we can, ask for help when we need it and even when we don’t think we need it (that second part is hard, I know). Let’s stop pretending that this is an occasion for business as usual. I’m not saying toss out routines or healthy family habits, I am saying please check your pulse and your blood pressure, figuratively and literally. Notice when you’re overwhelmed and spent and know that you have every reason to feel that way. If I go out for my walk and I need to cry, I’m giving myself permission, even if the tears won’t come.
Recently, Amanda Potts asked a few of us on Twitter if we had a teaching philosophy to share. I said, “I’ll look in my files.” Now nearly a week later, I finally remembered to follow through on my promise. I found one. From 2012 and wow, it’s kind of stirring, in its own way. It’s a bit more formulaic than I would like but OK. My beliefs are recognizable and still feel very true. Here it is:
Statement of Philosophy of Education
Connection, curiosity, struggle, and celebration: These are the four elements of my philosophy of education.
All humans are wired for connection with other humans. We are the quintessential social animal. Much of our learning is motivated by our desire to make connections with others through communication. Understanding this principle is central to surviving a room full of chatty 5th graders or squirrelly kindergartners. When children are left to their own devices, they are remarkably adept and entirely prepared to carry out their own versions of psycho-social research. They play tag. They approach and run away from each other. They exchange secrets. They form groups. They select leaders and determine outcasts. They build hierarchies and create rites of passage. They initiate, react, observe, assess and reassess. They are marvels of social activity and organization at every stage of their development. For this reason, the social life of the child at school becomes his or her bottom line. Who are my friends? How will I keep them? What do they like about me? What will make them like me more? These are only a few of the questions which drive children to engage in the types of social “research” described above.
In the classroom, it is important to acknowledge this reality and work with it rather than against it. Remaining sensitive to our students’ needs of connection and belonging goes a long way towards setting the stage for academic learning to take place. Successful teachers are masters at creating the safe, welcoming and encouraging environments which allow children to explore and develop their very individual paths towards friendship and participation in the group.
The second element in my model is curiosity. Because children are innately curious from an early age, I wonder what we as adults and educators can do to foster and enhance the curiosity mechanisms that are on fire at age four and often seem to peter out by age fourteen. What types of educational experiences help children and adults maintain their natural and very individual forms of curiosity? This is the question that most interests me. And I have no definitive answer to this. What I do have is a deep appreciation for programs in which care and attention are devoted to developing students’ confidence and competency in raising their own questions and where students are also given opportunities to seek and present their own paths to solutions.
Struggle is closely tied to curiosity and stands as the third element of my model. When we are curious about something we are often willing to work to close our “knowledge gap” (Heath and Heath, Made to Stick, 2007). We struggle to find the answers we feel we are missing: How can I get accepted to the college of my choice? How long will it take me to lose 5 more pounds? What do I have to do be able to run a half marathon without stopping? The key lies in the fact that the struggle is specific to us as individuals and its outcome must hold meaning for us. When we struggle with a task, our internal curiosity rises: Can I really do this? How far have I come? How much further do I have to go?
Our students need the benefit of struggle. They need opportunities to grapple with bunches of goal related questions and derive their own responses and test these repeatedly before arriving at one solution or several. In its ideal form, the struggle turns into an experience more valuable and rewarding than arriving at the destination. It becomes the tale we love to tell, the story that leads to new ventures, questions and the next struggle.
The fourth element in my model is celebration. I use celebration to indicate any instance in which we acknowledge to ourselves and perhaps to others that progress was made, a goal reached, a milestone passed. There needn’t be fanfare and champagne, but stopping along our paths of struggle and recognizing the signposts of success along the way enables us to prepare for later successes. If we fail to celebrate our accomplishments both small and large then we cut ourselves out of a significant opportunity for growth. Indeed, celebration and recognition whet our appetite for more challenge and embolden us to strive towards the next opportunity to flex our struggle muscles.
Connection, curiosity, struggle and celebration are the four critical ingredients I would look for in a classroom, on a faculty, in an administration, in a school community. Every individual has a need for human connection and belonging. Each of us has a natural, intrinsic curiosity which needs opportunities to stretch and grow. The gift of struggle lies in its capacity to stimulate our resourcefulness, persistence and resilience, while celebration and recognition have the power to stoke the fires of our ambition and spur us on to new adventures.
These four elements of my educational philosophy are interrelated and interdependent. They begin and end with the experience of the individual, yet they also apply to groups and systems. Looking back, I see that I have spent my teaching career cultivating these elements in myself and my students. Mine is an experientially based philosophy and its formulation here confirms my belief that some of my best teaching happens when I step out of the role of knower and become a student again.
“Welcome to our soccer unit – highly anticipated for many of you – it’s on!”
(Some of them can hardly contain themselves, can’t wait to launch the ball towards the goal at record speed. Watch this one dribble like a pro, make the cross then execute that heel pass into the net right through the mystified goalie’s legs.
See how they run – chasing down that ball, beating the opponent – so much glory in 5 seconds before the ball is reclaimed by the better dribbler.
Soccer, my least favorite unit to teach. There, I said it. Yet, every year I get a little better at it. I let go of the reins a little more; observe and coach. I take on their input. I spend less time “curbing” their enthusiasm; more time letting them find their way into games they will deem satisfying. The know-it-all-bend-it-like-Beckham-watch-me-I’m-Messi Saturday morning experts can get under my skin if they press me too hard. But now I’m prepared for them: Yes, there will be games throughout the unit but small-sided. No, we’re not playing boys against girls, ever.)
*Students engage in free soccer play around the gym. No one is idle.*
(Why do I resist this unit so deeply? What am I afraid of? I can answer that. I am afraid of failing, of looking foolish, of missing the mark, of being mocked for my lack of visible expertise… Is that enough?
Every time I meet my classes, this fear is lurking beneath the surface – what if they resist my plans? What if they don’t follow the plan? What if they hate what I’ve written on the board? I am steeled for their push back and it almost never comes. Or when it does, it’s perfectly understandable. Like my Pre-K friends who resist anything with too much teacher directed structure. They all run in different directions and in their own way broadcast to me “WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR, WE’RE FOUR!! Which absolutely makes sense and they are simply demanding that I, too, make some sense.
So when it comes to soccer I am programmed for pushback. “Why can’t we play a game? When are we gonna play a match? This isn’t real soccer…” Feels like I have heard it all but actually, things go fine when I let them lead with their interests and introduce one bit of skill practice, a quick skill oriented activity and then another low stakes game that’s fun and lets players choose their level of active risk. It’s fine, fine, fine. I’m ok.)
“What? It’s time to go? Are we doing soccer next time, too?”
One final kick into the goal. Smashed it.
Balls in the bag, please. Thank you. Tomorrow’s another day.
I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.
I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.
Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:
Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Waslay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.
You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.
There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.
I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.
I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.
Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.
I used to think that I understood children and that therefore I could become a good teacher. Now I see that my understanding of children is only partial, and with regards to individual children, actually illusory. I think I understand them but really I’m just applying rough proxies which don’t work for this child. Or this child. So for some children I need to go back to square one and rethink everything I thought I knew about children and learn some new things about this child and break down my myths about understanding children and becoming a good teacher. I used to think I knew kids and now I see that my purpose is to learn kids, one at a time, always ready for a surprise.
I used to think that my strength as a teacher required standing my ground in the classroom; being firm and confident. Now I believe that my strength as a teacher requires being firm and confident in my capacity to be imperfect. I can admit mistakes. I can ask for help. I can do things over. I can apologize and ask how to be better. These things don’t just help me teach more effectively, they allow me to become a better colleague, friend, adult.
I used to think that in order to lead, you needed to have a title and get paid more. Now I see that it is possible to lead effectively by example; that people often find it easier to emulate and follow behaviors that they like and appreciate in others. I also see that leadership by example can go either way; it doesn’t have to be positive and constructive. Negative leadership is equally possible. That’s the conundrum. (Although few would admit to liking destructive behaviors, every time that we tolerate and accommodate them, we demonstrate where we really stand.) Given that, I try to set the example I (hope to) observe in others. I envision leadership less as a tower of relative importance and more of a circle of engagement with added facilitation responsibilities. There are no titles or formal recognition in this mode of leadership and it has the potential to have influence in some of the most unlikely places.
As a teacher I enjoy the opportunity to sit with the parents of my individual students and to talk about their accomplishments their challenges and our relationship. There’s a similar structure to each of my conferences and although I teach about 130 students on average I feel like I know each of them well enough to speak to parents and say some things about each child individually.
First of all, I thank parents for coming.
Next, I ask: what have you heard about PE so far?
Whatever the response, the question puts the parents and their child in the spotlight. My task is to listen carefully.
Based on their responses I can begin to share my observations about their child or children with them. Most often I have plenty of good news to share with a few anecdotes of recent wins.
When I have difficulties to share or describe I spend a considerable amount of time providing context. I tell parents about the structure of our class: what the expectations are, where their child shows signs of struggle and I always emphasize the expectation of change over time. It’s vitally important to me that parents understand that each child is working on something; each child faces or will face a challenge of one kind or another. As will their teacher. Process, process, that’s what we’re about.
While it seems that conferences are built up as a sort of reporting structure where teachers prepare a sort of ‘show and tell’ about students and their progress to date, it’s also an opportunity for teachers to learn about families. In my case, parents are often eager to share some information about themselves and their child’s sport enthusiasms and disappointments; previous injuries or wonderings about potential areas of brilliance. In fact, parents often want to know if I perhaps have a hot tip as to which activity might offer their child the greatest joy or opportunity to shine, or both.
In these listening moments, I find all kinds of inspiration. These are the windows which allow me to envision a student more fully and accurately with plenty of light and the proper shading. This is where the conversation becomes animated and we’re no longer focused on the nuts and bolts of Physical Education but the blossoming of a wonderful young person. I enjoy exploring possibilities with parents by asking about previous sports experiences and learning more about how students see themselves in various physical contexts.
10 minutes. That’s how long I have to talk with parents about their child in my PE classes. For new parents I often focus on my observations of the child seems to have landed in their new school and how this seems to be playing out in PE. For veteran parents we can talk about new demands in the program and how their child is adjusting. What I love is the back and forth, the element of surprise for either of us at learning something new, the chance to put a concerned parent’s mind at ease about a difficulty.
This round I hosted about 40 conferences over two days. In the spring there will be more students in the mix as student-led versions become the norm. In these bursts of dialogue, I feed my calling to listen and respond with care. Honesty is at the forefront of my mind along with compassion and good will. I want us all – students, parents, teachers – to be successful because of each other. Conferences are a chance for me to truly “use my words” and lay the foundation for student successes that stretch well beyond the gym and gallop all the way home.