(Un)Prepared.

Nine contact days in and I’m ok. The kids are great, my colleagues are helpful, our schedule is more or less settled, the year is truly underway. I’ve done this ritual at least 20 times before: started a school year of teaching elementary physical education. At this same school. I have experience. One might even say I’m a seasoned faculty member.

And yet.

My plans are rough. Not vague, but rough although we have a fairly detailed curriculum map with plenty of supporting documents and resources. The google doc planning sheet that I share with my team colleague is prepared week for week. Every class, I write my agenda on the board for students to read and work with. I prepare.

And yet.

It seems no matter how long I work at this, how many students I shepherd through a school year’s worth of physical education, I never, ever feel well prepared. Into every class, each section, in contact with each student, there’s a portion of doubt that stays in attendance. Like a spying question mark that sits heavily on my shoulder, at times whispering: “Was that really necessary?” “What makes you think that idea will work?” or “That’s your best solution?”

This heap of doubt I carry around lives to judge and dissemble.

I have thousands of class periods under my belt; by now also hundreds of students whom I’ve taught for multiple years. I know some stuff and I’m constantly learning and evolving. Every group is different, each child so wonderfully unique, and I of course have changed, too. In this way I have dedicated a significant portion of my life and livelihood to coping with and courting change; to making the most of and coming to terms with development.

My little heap of doubt is resilient, reliable and robust. Teaspoon sized today, boulder heavy the next, my heap can grow or shrink as the context and my reactions warrant.

So I plan and envision. I record and document. Confer and rehash. I also improvise on the spot. Change my mind in the moment. I decide to run the risk of failing miserably, succeeding wildly or both. I watch what happens. I encounter the unexpected along with the strongly probable and respond to the best of my ability. At the end of the day, we all emerge on the other side: the experience behind us and our options for reflection before us. We choose. (And even when we don’t choose we’re making a choice.)

I believe my students are going to be all right. Some of them, no, many of them will be fabulous. We are going to make some discoveries this year. We’ll run into some surprises. We’ll reach an impasse or two and get beyond it. I’ll make some mistakes right before their very eyes. Some of the mistakes they’ll notice and others they won’t.

The year won’t be perfect. It will be full of learning and growth and doubt for me and my students. It will be entirely our year. We are prepared and we’re not. It’s on, ready or not.

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Learning involves stretching…still, again.

image:  (c) @edifiedlistener Sherri Spelic

Pay Dirt in Advance

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I don’t know how you start off your school year but I’m just realizing that my colleague and I manage a small miracle with our first few classes. Let me explain.

I teach in an international school where elementary students enjoy the benefit of several specialists. In our schedule Physical Education is taught opposite German language and English as an Additional Language (EAL) classes. Strings classes also enter the scheduling mix for all 2nd graders and some 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students. We see most of our students 4 days out of a six day cycle (which is to say frequently) and on some days with strings classes, my colleague and I will collapse two sections into one.

The schedule is complex and confusing, has lots of moving parts and amazingly it works pretty well for kids.

At the start of the year, as a team of specialists, the EAL and German teachers only have partial information about new students so that they need a couple of days in the first week to screen and place students into the correct levels. What this means is that in the 2-3 days of the school year, my colleague and I welcome a whole grade level  (45-60+ students) into the gym for 60 minutes while our three German-speaking colleagues work with small groups in a nearby room. This is a process we adopted some years ago and it has a some real advantages.

Right now I want to focus on that miracle I mentioned: 45-60 kids in a gym with 2 teachers for 1 hour on the first and/or second day of school. We introduce ourselves as the PE teachers, clarify a few essential cues they will need to participate successfully (start, stop & ‘come in’ signals; toilet locations) and slowly we get started. We practice finding a space, checking it at different levels, moving safely without bumping. We play stop and go with the music signal and have them try different locomotor movements. We do a round of whole group stretching and then practice making groups of different sizes. In a nutshell my colleague and I run an introductory class almost as if we were on our own with a group of 12-18 students (normal ratio).

The miracle is that this is possible. Not once, not twice, but every time, with every grade level. On their first day in the gym.

It’s possible because…

  • the majority of the students are returning and entirely familiar with our protocols.
  • new students take their cues from veterans and see among their peers that PE is something to look forward to and celebrate.
  • new students find a culture of inclusion where they find partners and groups who are welcoming and kind.
  • there is consistency from teacher to teacher. Whether returning students had me or my colleague the year before, the general expectations are the same so kids can feel confident in their anticipation of how things will work.
  • My colleague and I are comfortable sharing the planning, the “mic”, the follow-up work.
  • My colleague and I share an appreciation for what kids need during the lesson (i.e. time to talk and have fun with their friends and make new ones; more action and less talk).
  • We’ve built this program over several years and while my current colleague and I are only on our 2nd year of direct collaboration, the pattern of team teaching and shared planning has been in place for almost a decade.
  • My colleague and I like our jobs, enjoy kids, understand fun and build on each others’ strengths.

The results are actually amazing and worth highlighting. They are not accidental; rather they provide clear evidence that sustained teacher collaboration and team consistency are fruitful endeavors that benefit students and teachers.

In another day we will separate big groups into class sections and assign ourselves as teachers. Students will know who their teacher is and the school year will proceed as planned (more or less). They will also be happy and able to combine into big groups again from time to time. We’ll stride ahead knowing that they and we can handle both kinds of classes.

Beginning the year with this generous show of student trust, enthusiasm and relative clarity about what we are about in PE bolsters my confidence and stokes my desire to deliver on the promise we’ve already laid out. Pay Dirt in advance – may not happen often in our teaching lives but when it does, it is glorious.

 

image via Pixabay CC0

Too Real

Tomorrow marks the return: Return to school schedules, to the fellowship of colleagues, to the routines we teachers use to prepare the path we will travel with our students.

I look forward to the mass reunion, to the hugs, smiles, waves and quick catch-up conversations that remind us of where we left off. I’m prepared for the variety of meetings, large and small, in which my colleagues and I question, clarify and plan our first steps into a new school year. I have participated in this ritual over twenty times – always with variations – but in its essence it remains a kind of constant. At this stage of my career, this offers a certain degree of comfort, a sense of orientation. I know where things are. I am familiar with how things begin and how they are likely to proceed. I am a veteran. I belong here.

On the other hand, …

I fear the crush of speed chatting, the sense of overwhelm in the face of sudden exposure to too many elements at once. I worry about not being able to respond adequately, that my smiles may run out; that I’ll freeze up and wish I could run away and start again on another day. I know there will be meetings with too much information and not enough time to digest it so that my questions 2 days later will seem like stupid ones. In those meetings I will either talk for too long or not at all and it will never feel like I said the right thing. I will go home drained and nervous because maybe, after all, I don’t belong here.

These are feelings. They are mine. They are real and they are all over the place; never static.

At the beginning of his keynote at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute, Chris Gilliard took some time to address a topic that had been on many participants’ minds during the week-long event. To a musical backdrop, he read a series of statements which were impactful and emotive even if you lacked the specific context they were generated to address. Particularly his first statement gives me pause.

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“being too real”

This is truly something to fear. And the more often I read the statement and listen to Chris speak it, the more deeply it reveals itself to me; where it fits in my story, how it relates to my yesterday, my now and my tomorrow.

“Being real” is something I can do quite well in my classroom with my kids. In the course of the school year my students will know me serious, silly, annoyed, patient, harried, calm, forgetful and attentive. They will see me perform miracles and manage epic fails. They will see all of my hairstyles and comment on them. They will ask me questions and figure out if I will respond with a question of my own, answer directly, tell them to ask a friend or just look at them and wait. By the end of the school year my students will have a strong sense of knowing me because I will have been real with them all along.

Being too real is more of an adult-adult conundrum. How I show up with and for my colleagues will have a lot of contextual dependencies. While I can and strive to be respectful and kind to everyone in our community, being real means that I can also be honest when things aren’t going so well, that I trust you enough to listen in a helpful way. Being real means that I can tell you what’s really on my mind with regard to a given topic and not fear your judgment. Being real means that I can tell you what it means to belong and not belong at the same time over decades in the same institution.

Yes, Chris, there are a lot of spaces in which I fear being too real. Overcoming that fear every day is my personal and professional development project for life. Thankfully I work with children who mirror that struggle in myriad ways and together we practice being real with each other day after day. Over time, they and I get better at it.

 

Timely, Relevant Feedback

Today I had a second grade student give me some honest feedback at the end of class.

“Mrs. Spelic,” she said, “I feel like you don’t respect us when we do good. Even if we do everything we’re supposed to, you do this,” she covers her eyes and lowers her head, imitating me to a T.

I looked her in the eye and said, “You know what? You’re right and I’m sorry.”

At least that, at least I was able to admit my shortcoming and let her know that I understood what she was telling me. But as I went through the rest of the day, her words and the sentiment lingered. I definitely see her point. I clearly don’t give enough credit where and when it is due in that class. Rather, I let the three or four mega attention-seekers steal the show, time and time again.

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I also wish I were this beautiful while thinking about my students and their needs.

Every lesson I wish it were different. I wish I was different.

And yet, empirically speaking, it is certainly not every lesson that feels like a management parkour rather than a well planned set of learning experiences. There are certainly days, classes and moments where we accomplish all we set out to do and end the period with smiles on our faces and they leave with an Awesome Gym Day Award in hand. That happens, too. Sometimes. Not frequently but sometimes.

And in the student’s feedback there’s a very clear way forward.  She told me what I need to do differently. She’s been in school long enough to know what works for her and has learned how to ask for precisely that. Quite an accomplishment in and of itself, actually. So if I have any claims on being a growing, learning professional, I will heed her advice and get on task with acknowledging students ‘doing good’ and stop overemphasizing the negative.

The first step is listening. The next is making a tangible change. If I succeed (or if I don’t), I am certain that relevant feedback will not be far behind.

 

image via Pixabay.com

Resourced Learning

I’m almost finished with the springtime cycle of parent-teacher conferences. This is a part of my job which I really enjoy. Meeting parents provides that rare opportunity to communicate in person how marvelous and amazing my students, their children, are. It’s a chance to share my specific observations and to hear particular concerns or questions.

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One parent said at the end of our talk, “You really know my son, you really do.” A compliment of the highest order. This is what I am here for.

I ask myself ‘How do I know this child? How do I get to know each child?”

First of all, I have the benefit of frequency. I see students between 2-4 times per week, depending on the grade level. That’s a lot of contact time. Time is a resource.

Next, I teach in an environment in which although there is relatively high turnover in our student body (about 1/3 on average per year), I often get to teach or at least see many children over the course of a few years. I get to participate in their development. Shared history is a resource.

I spend time observing students. As the years have gone by, I have stepped back from extensive direct instruction and encouraged more student-led and independent activities. Besides cultivating a culture of choice and self-direction, these opportunities allow me to stop and look, to study and analyze student behaviors. Children reveal a great deal about themselves their tendencies during these times. Creating space for observation is a resource.

In my PE classes, I am who I am. My students get to know me in a unique and deeply individual fashion. The multiple filters and mental models each child brings to our encounters shapes the development of our relationships in unimaginable and hard to document ways. When I teach I show a ridiculous number of behaviors, emotions, capabilities which all reach students differently. Over time, kids develop ideas about who I am and what I represent to them. And these ideas are constantly being updated, revised and reworked to accommodate new input and fresh perspectives. Awareness of dynamic, evolving relationships is a resource.

Above all, my students share themselves with me. They talk to me, they ask questions, they run wild with their peers and hang back by the water fountains. They buddy up quickly or pace around the margins, they shout out their favorites and broadcast their dislikes. In everything they do, they are tireless communicators. And it’s not that I understand everything they are saying, offering or demonstrating at the time. Rather, I take their input into account when attempting to grasp their intentions and determine how best to meet their needs.

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Students compel my curiosity and I learn. I learn about them. I learn from them. I learn through them. This is how I get to know my students: I open myself to what they can teach me.

When we look for resources in teaching, we tend to bypass our students.

What if we recognized our students as the most precious resources available to us in developing our teaching and learning?

What if we learned to ask students more often about what they know and understand about the world so far?

What if students were in the habit of being able to tell us who they are before we rush to categorize and file them?

Imagine a world where “the educated” believed that their mission was to stoke the fires of curiosity wherever they went and see the potential for learning in everything that came their way.

Imagine then how well resourced education would be.

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

The Unsettled Here and Now

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I’m going to get personal for a minute here.

Sometimes I can be particularly observant of what’s going on around me and also in me. At present it feels like my powers of observation are a little out of whack. And I think this has to do with my increased traffic on social media platforms.

Since the US Presidential election, I’ve delved more deeply into my online engagements. Twitter has become my primary news source as well as my go-to space for a sense of community in troubled times. As incredibly grateful as I feel for the tremendous wealth of good will, necessary political resistance, and human warmth I experience, I also recognize the slow drain on my attentional and emotional resources.

Every day and on every tweet that I raise my #resist flag, I know this is what I must do, at the very least. I have picked a side and it happens to be against the incoming administration and majority aggressively Republican legislature. Even though I am geographically very distant, I experience the sense of dangerous and targeted upheaval on a very personal level. I fear for individuals as well as systems. And as I watch a group of overwhelmingly white, straight, so-called Christian males parade before multiple TV cameras and announce their policy plans, I feel sickened to know how quickly the country will likely find itself flat on its back not knowing how it got there.

I fear for our individual and collective exposure through our very willing and often enthusiastic embrace of digital tools and platforms which offer us convenience, speed, and seemingly unlimited choice. We are, at the same time, in fairly constant danger of becoming hostages of all the data we give away daily. With our clicks and instrumentalized acquiescence, we have created our most sophisticated and unforgiving monsters yet, which still maintain a miraculously rosy veneer of being society’s new great helpers.

All told, I’m feeling a lot of fear.

At my core I am an educator. My dialogues with students provide some of the richest contours to my thinking and doing. I look forward to starting classes soon in order to get grounded again; to be brought back to my core mission of helping students “Get fit, get better, and get along.”  We’ll have conversations about how we include, nurture, challenge and respect each other. They will remind me about the importance of fair play and being kind to one another. They will remind me to keep working on being my best. Perhaps more than at any other time in my teaching career, creating a classroom where fairness, openness and care are built into everything we do is the most important work I can do – for my students and for myself.

 

image: Spelic/@edifiedlistener