What YouTube Taught Me About Learning

April 11th, 2013

This week I’m giving a post-dinner talk in Niagara Falls, Canada.  I’m never too sure about how such a thing can be done, but as I prepared the presentation, I asked myself, what would I want after teaching all day, driving to a conference, and having a nice dinner?  Aside from a short talk, I thought, I suppose I wouldn’t mind watching some videos and talking with my friends.

So that is what I decided to do.  The presentation summarizes six ideas about learning, both personal and professional, illustrated by some of my favorite video clips and quotations.  I’ve included the clips, ideas, and quotations here.

1.  Learning that dehumanizes carries the seeds of its own failure.

This clip, for me, captures a simple idea, that life should be fun, joyous, playful and human. Margaret Wheatley says it beautifully:

There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what’s possible. Being willing to learn and be surprised.

The learning we experience and the learning we provide should celebrate that humanity.

2. Learning involves partnership.

This conversation, for me, illustrates that no matter how different our level of expertise or status, we can still engage in respectful, partnership conversations.

When we do learning to each other, using what Paulo Freire refers to as banking education, we decrease humanity. An alternative is to learn with people in partnership, that is, to design learning that recognizes each adult or child’s need for autonomy.  Peter Block, whose work really introduced me to the idea of partnership, writes about it this way:

Partners each have a right to say no. Saying no is the fundamental way we have of differentiating ourselves. To take away my right to say no is to claim sovereignty over me. For me to believe that I cannot say no is to yield sovereignty.

3. Learning occurs in a culture.

Learning in any system — a classroom, a school, a school system — occurs in a culture. Therefore, one of the true challenges for a leader (a teacher, principal, superintendent, whomever) is to shape culture. Edgar Schein, who literally wrote the book on organizational culture and leadership, puts it this way:

The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.

4. Coaching accelerates learning.

For more than a decade we’ve been learning how coaching can help people improve practice.  When coaches help teachers set goals, work as partners with colleagues, demonstrate what Michael Fullan refers to as impressive empathy, they provide a very important service for their colleagues.  Atul Gawande’s New Yorker article is the best writing I’ve seen describing the challenges and potential of coaching.

5. Learning involves striving for personal bests, striving to do things we couldn’t do before.

What I notice about this clip is how profoundly empowering it is for Cooper in this clip to do something he couldn’t do before. There are at least two ways to understand learning. One way is to assume that people need to be motivated by leaders, and therefore learning requires extrinsic rewards and punishments if people are going to move them forward.

An alternative is to assume that people actually want to do good work; people need to be trying to improve, to be striving for personal bests, to feel they are living a fulfilling life.  One of my favorite authors, George Sheehan, puts it this way:

My end is not simple happiness. My need, drive, and desire is to achieve my full and complete self. If I do what I have come to do, if I create the life I was made for, then happiness will follow.

6. Learning involves moral purpose.

One thing, I believe, that characterizes Mr. Rogers is that he clearly did what he did because he cared about other people more than himself. For professionals, for educators, focusing on something bigger than ourselves is very important.  Michael Fullan, who’s written several books about moral purpose and moral imperative, put it this way:

Moral purpose, defined as making a difference in the lives of students, is a critical motivator for addressing the sustained task of complex reform. Passion and higher order purpose are required because the effort needed is gargantuan and must be morally worth doing.

I love all these quotations and clips, and like so many things, I see them through my perspectives. I hope you see them from your perspectives, and that you benefit from watching them too.  I’d love to know what other clips and quotations you think truly illustrate key ideas about professional and student learning.

What clips and quotations inspire, encourage, and educate you?

Words: The Power of a Shared Vocabulary

April 5th, 2013

The Eskimos have 52 words for snow because it is so special to them; there ought to be as many for love. Margaret Atwood

We tried to talk it over, but the words got in the way. Leon Russell

Margaret Atwood is right, of course. We could communicate more effectively with more words to describe different kinds of love. But having just one word is infinitely better than none. Words, despite their limitations, help us talk about topics we would not otherwise be able to discuss, and see things we would not otherwise be able to see. A word is a candle held up in the darkness to help us move forward.

Words might be humanity’s greatest invention. A shared vocabulary helps us share emotions, share ideas, learn, grow. And this is just as true in conversation in schools as it is in conversations at home.
An important shared vocabulary in schools, as Phil Schlechty has explained, could be developed around student engagement. Teachers can have meaningful conversations defining and acting on the terms authentic engagement, strategic compliance, and off-task behavior. And once the words are defined, teachers can share ideas and strategies to increase authentic engagement.

Educators can also benefit from coming to a shared understanding of positive reinforcement, and defining such ideas as growth mindset, ratios of interaction, and positivity. When people develop clear definitions of positive and negative reinforcements, they begin to see interactions in a clearer way in the classroom. Some words make the invisible, visible.

Powerful professional learning also happens when teachers agree about the meaning of other words, such as those describing reading strategies, like text-to-self or summarizing, or writing concepts such as sentence fluency, coherence, or voice. The simple act of talking about a word like voice, and working to develop a shared, deeper understanding, can be very meaningful professional development.

Teachers, of course, are not the only people who need to develop a shared vocabulary. When administrators and teachers do not share a common vocabulary about the meaning and importance of observations, admin evaluations have little positive impact on teaching and learning. What good is an administrator’s evaluation when the teacher and administrator can’t authentically talk about what was observed? Worse, what good are observations when observers can’t clearly define what they are seeing?
A clear picture of reality is an essential part of growth, but the picture does have to be clear, and people need a shared understanding if they are going to talk about it.

Students should also be a part of developing a shared vocabulary. When students understand authentic engagement and strategic compliance, they can give meaningful feedback to their teachers on what works and what doesn’t work for them. Sandi Silbernagel, for example, a teacher in Slidell, Louisiana, learns a lot by asking her second graders for their feedback on their level of engagement.

No doubt Leon Russell was right. Sometimes the words can get in the way. But without words, we can’t talk. Language is the means by which communication takes place. And as in life, so in schools. We should do all we can to develop a shared vocabulary. When we can truly talk about what we see, important learning—for teachers, administrators, and students—can really happen.

Teacher Observations, Teacher Evaluation, and Shame

March 22nd, 2013

Shame … is like an exposed nerve on a wisdom tooth, something to be avoided at all costs.

The shadow of shame kills art.

Seth Godin, The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly

Getting a clear picture of reality is an essential part of professional growth. When teachers look at video of their lessons or review their students’ work, they can identify professional learning goals and plans that can have a real, positive impact on students’ learning experiences. And clearly understanding current reality, as Robert Fritz and Peter Senge have explained, is a critical part of the creative tension that stands at the heart of growth. Senge writes:

The juxtaposition of vision (what we want) and a clear picture of current reality (where we are relative to what we want) generates what we call “creative tension:” a force to bring them together, caused by the natural tendency of tension to seek resolution. The essence of personal mastery is learning how to generate and sustain creative tension in our lives.

Teacher observation, therefore, should be a good thing — a way to set up the creative tension Senge describes. Unfortunately this is not always the case. When teacher observations are used solely to show what teachers have done wrong and point out their deficiencies, observations can actually make things much worse, rather than better.

I saw this first-hand in a large US school district where I was invited to lead a workshop on effective teaching. I was asked to present to an entire faculty in a middle school that was at the heart of a high-poverty urban community.

Before I gave my presentation, an important person from the central office stopped in to address the group. “I have looked at the scores for your school,” he said. “They’re not bad scores. Do you know what they are? They are shameful scores. You should be ashamed of these scores. We’re not going to fire you,” he said. “There are worse things than firing.”

And then, I suppose, to ensure that the group would listen to my presentation, he said, “Now here is Jim Knight to tell you what you need to do.”

That was my introduction.

How enthusiastic do you think the teachers were about embracing the ideas in my presentation? The truth is they were so overcome with emotion, they probably didn’t hear much of anything I said. But what they did hear, they hated. Yes, they might implement the practices to comply and keep their jobs, but they didn’t implement the practices out of love. They did so out of fear and shame, and no doubt their students felt that same fear and shame in their classrooms when their teachers did what they felt they had to do.

There are at least two ways of looking at teacher observations. One way is to try and motivate teachers, as this administrator tried to do, by shaming people to act. In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin explains how shame can be a soul killer, and destroy the creative imagination at the heart of any artist:

When those in power use shame to bully the weak into compliance, they are stealing from us. They tell us that they will expose our secrets (not good enough, not hardworking enough, not from the right family, made a huge mistake once) and will use the truth to exile us from our tribe.

This shame, the shame that lives within each of us, is used as a threat. And when those in power use it, they take away part of our humanity.

An alternative to shaming teachers is to start with the assumption that most people actually do want to do what is best and learn. No doubt, teachers who have experienced years of soul-crushing evaluations and compulsory, top-down professional learning will struggle to trust others when those others start to treat them as partners in their own development. But, my experience has shown, when teachers are authentically respected, they embrace real learning opportunities.

If teachers are offered meaningful choices, if their knowledge and expertise are acknowledged, if teachers have a voice in what they do, and if they are partners in developing their professional learning, they will blow you away with what they can do. (I have written about a partnership approach to professional learning in Unmistakable Impact.)

Shame might get teachers to comply, but shame doesn’t inspire teachers to passionately and imaginatively strive to do their best for students.

This, then, is the question: What kind of teachers do we want for our children? Do we want teachers who use every ounce of their creative imagination to reach their students, or do we want teachers who are shamed into complying with decisions they had no part in?

We know what we want. How we use teacher observation data and teacher evaluation has a huge impact on what we get.

The Power of Clear Explanations

March 15th, 2013

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes

 If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you watch Joe Smith’s four and a half-minute explanation of how to use a paper towel.  His simple explanation changed my life.

What makes Mr. Smith’s explanation so effective?

There are at least four strategies Mr. Smith uses to make sure we know exactly what he is describing. If we apply his strategies to our own explanations, I’m convinced we can be much clearer as teachers, instructional coaches, or presenters.

Why: How to use a paper towel is not that sexy of a topic, but in just a few words, Joe gets our attention and explains why we should care about what he’s describing.  One paper towel per person per day would save 571,230,000 pounds of paper in a year.  Wow.  Even if I’m not that concerned about the environment, I would find it hard to resist those numbers. If nothing else, Joe has captured my attention at the start.

Simple:  Smith doesn’t give us a lot of extra information.  In fact, his talk is built around two words:  shake and fold.  By telling us only what we have to know, he makes it extra easy for us to learn and remember what he is explaining.

Modeled:  Mr. Smith shows us several times how to do this. He even sets up a little sink on the stage so that we can see exactly what to do.  Some of the viewers the TED website give him grief for using too many paper towels during his explanation, but I think he does exactly what needs to be done.  He makes sure we get it by overdoing it.  Too often modeling is cut too short and people are left a little confused. Joe leaves no doubt in our mind how to do what he’s describing.

And, for the record, I’ve already saved dozens of pieces of paper thanks to his explanation, so I’ve made back the few he used up modeling.

Memorable.  Smith helps us remember his explanation in simple ways: getting the crowd shouting out “shake and fold,” displaying a sense of humor, connecting the twelve shakes to twelve to the twelve apostles, twelve zodiac signs and so forth.  After less than five minutes, he makes it almost impossible for us to forget what he has to say.

These are simple strategies, but they are powerful. If we (a) explain why, (b) keep our explanations simple, (c) model, model, model, and (d) make our talk memorable, more people, (children and adults), will remember what we say. Our explanations might just change people’s lives.

Joe Smith changed mine.

What is the Value of a Coach?

March 11th, 2013

Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance. Atul Gawande

A district administrator recently wrote to tell me that her district was facing “tough financial decisions” that are naturally causing lower morale.  Everyone in her district feels under attack. And “the coaches are naturally questioning their value.”

All of us experience dark times when we wonder if we are making a difference, and coaches are no different.  So I thought I would do my best to answer the coaches’ question.

What is the value of a coach?

Coaches Support & Encourage Teachers. A coach is a trusted friend to educators, a colleague, a sounding board, and a witness to the good.  These days can be difficult for educators, with increased expectations, decreased funding, more pressure and less encouragement.  Coaches provide an incredibly important service by listening, empathizing, and encouraging their colleagues respectfully and nonjudgmentally.

Coaches understand teachers because they are teachers themselves and most model practices as a part of coaching. For that reason, they can empathize with teachers in ways that are more difficult for others. Coaches get what it is like to have a great day and an awful day (sometimes in the same day).  They know how rewarding and tough teaching can be.

Many coaches have told me that an important part of what they do is to listen to their colleagues when it seems like their colleagues have no one else who is able or available to listen.

Coaches Encourage Meaningful Conversation.  Every organization improves or declines based on the quality of the conversation within it. Michael Fullan, who has written more than 30 books about educational change, sums this up in his great book Leading in a Culture of Change:

We have found that the single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve. If relationships improve, things get better.  If they remain the same or get worse, ground is lost.

Coaches study the art of communication—often video recording themselves and reflecting on how they ask questions, listen, encourage, and connect. They know how important each interaction can be, and they strive to engage in positive, supportive, honest conversations at all times.  In this way, coaches move a school forward one conversation at a time.

A coach is a second set of hands.  I don’t buy the line that teachers don’t want to learn.  In my experience, when teachers are respected and treated as professionals, most of them are passionate about their own learning and growth. The trouble is that teachers are swamped with urgent tasks. Often teachers have too much to do to organize learning how to implement new practices.

Coaches make learning much easier. Coaches do the work of organizing materials, explaining the practices, modeling, and providing support.  Thanks to coaches, teachers around the world finally are able to do what they most want to do: find new ways to reach more students.

 A coach is a second set of eyes.  The task of teaching, as I experienced just a week ago, can be a complicated and crazy ride demanding every ounce of a teacher’s attention. When you are locked-in to ensuring that your 33 7th-graders are on-task and learning, it can be difficult to pause and deeply reflect on what is actually going on the classroom.

A coach can gather data a teacher would like to gather if they weren’t so busy actually teaching.  Also, coaches can gather data that might otherwise go undetected, recording, for example, how teachers use their time, students’ levels of engagement, teachers’ positivity ratio, and the kind of questions asked by teachers and students.

A coach leaves a legacy. We go into education because we want to make a difference, to leave our world a little better than we found it. George Lucas sums up what we all know to be true when he writes about the teachers who taught him:

 Apart from my parents, my teachers have done the most to shape my life.

Few people can be more confident that they are making a difference than a coach.  Every time a coach helps a teacher implement a new teaching or learning strategy, the coach is helping every other student that teacher will teach. One step forward for a teacher is one step forward for hundreds or thousands of children.  Multiply that impact by all a coach does every day, and you get a clear picture of the value of instructional coaches.

Education is the way we move society forward. And coaches are one important way we move schools forward. For that reason, if you want to make our world a better place, there are few ways more powerful than being a coach.

What is the value of a coach?  A coach is as valuable as a better future for our children. That seems extremely valuable to me.

My Day As A Substitute Teacher

March 1st, 2013

Yesterday I volunteered to be a substitute teacher in a local private school.  After a snowstorm grounded me at home, and a seventh-grade teacher had an unfortunate injury, I found myself in front of 25 energetic middle school students.

The day reminded and taught me a lot about how I teach and also prompted me to think about some ways schools can make it easier for substitute teachers.

Here are a few of my thoughts.

What Schools Can do to Set Up Substitute Teachers For Success

Go Out Of Your Way to Support Your Substitute Teacher For Success.  A few minutes after I got to my classroom, the school principal visited me, welcomed me to the school, and took the time to just chat about the students I’d be seeing.  She had a million fires to put out—the school was in real need of more substitutes—but she took the time to put me at ease.

That little gesture was worth a lot. She made me feel good about being in the school, welcome, and I started the day a little more at ease.

Then, throughout the day, even though I was in a portable away from the school, other teachers sought me out to provide support. One teacher made sure I found the staff lounge. One teacher had a nice conversation with me over lunch about teaching English.

One teacher offered to teach math for me on his planning time when I told him I wasn’t great at math. I told him I’d be OK and he should use the little planning time he had, yet still, he kindly made a point of dropping by just to make sure I was fine.

Each of these actions were simple little acts, but each one made me feel welcome, and as any substitute teacher can tell you, it can feel lonely in the classroom even though there all those squirming bodies in front of you.

Provide As Much Information As You Can.  This is probably a dream, and it would have been impossible in my case since I didn’t volunteer until after the school day yesterday, but I would have loved to have had an email the night before class that described what I would be teaching. Then, I could have done some planning ahead of time.  Better plans = better teaching, and the more I know, the better prepared I can be.

Provide Guidelines on Different Kinds of Learning Experiences.  Sixth period I monitored a students’ study hour.  I’m pretty sure that meant the students were supposed to do their homework, but many told me they didn’t have homework, and that left me a bit high and dry.  Students in middle school with nothing to do can be a problem waiting to happen.  I came up with a plan, but it would have helped to have had a description of what study hour is and what students need to be doing when they don’t have homework to do. As always, the more that can be done to help the sub know what to do, the easier subbing might be.

What I Learned About Being A Substitute Teacher

Relationships Are Essential.  Most of the time, my students kindly and respectfully did what I asked them to do.  Part of the reason, I think, is that I did my best to quickly build a relationship with them. I particularly paid attention to positive ratio of interaction, but one simple strategy seemed to work wonders.  I asked all the students to write their names on name tents, and I called on them by name, right from the start. When students heard their name, they sat up and smiled.

I worked hard to memorize their names, and when they quizzed me in the cafeteria and I knew, I could see it made them happy.  It’s a little thing, but using name tents might have been the best idea I had.  I actually think the students were more inclined to stay on task because of this little strategy.

Be Extremely Clear About How Students Give Each Other Feedback. In one class, the students gave little presentations.  I asked them to give each other “thunderous applause,” but for one student, the joker of the class, they offered up paltry applause, kind of joking back at him.  He was a resilient kid, but I could see he was a little crushed by his colleagues. I was disappointed with myself.

I should have been really clear on what applause looks like, modeled it, explained that everyone gets a lot of applause and why, and had the students practice it.  Like so much of teaching, I didn’t realize my mistake until it was too late, but I hope I’ll remember next time.

Compelling Content and Activities Are Crucial.  I could feel myself losing the class right in the first few minutes, and I knew I had to catch their attention, so I pulled out an old trick of mine, memory pegs, which are a lot of fun and also, I think, useful.  The kids enjoyed learning how to do something they didn’t think they could do, and they were a lot more engaged from that point on.  What I learned was that from now on I’ll always have a few highly engaging, simple activities up my sleeve just in case I need to get the kids’ attention, which I probably will have to do every time.

It’s Harder Than It Looks.  Policy makers who think teachers will be “motivated” by rewards for higher test scores should spend a couple days subbing.  Something like a small financial reward would be the last thing on the mind of a teacher standing in front of 25 (or 40) middle school students.  A more basic concern is survival.  Substitute teaching is a bit like riding a wild animal. You just do everything you can think of to stay on top. Teachers need better support, like instructional coaches and meaningful opportunities for collaboration, not old-time carrots and sticks forms of motivation.

All in all, my day was wonderful.  The school could not have been more supportive. And, as usually is the case in schools, the students were the best part. At the start of the day, hoping to set a positive tone, I asked the students to write down what they like most about learning.  One student wrote this:

 ”Knowledge leads to wisdom; wisdom leads to understanding, and I love to understand things. I want to be wise and have some answers.”

Profound words for anyone, let alone a young teenager.  Don’t we all want what he or she wanted—to have some wisdom and some answers?  I hope I gained a bit of knowledge yesterday.  Many of you who read this column may have started as substitute teachers.  What helped you, or could have helped you, succeed? What did you learn?  We’d love to hear.

 

The Most Important Part of Instructional Coaching? Setting a Goal

February 22nd, 2013

For most of my career, I’ve been studying teacher growth. I’ve found, as I’m sure many readers have found, that one-shot workshops and other quick-fix forms of professional development often have little impact on teaching and learning. For that reason, my colleagues and I have spent more than a decade studying instructional coaching.

Our research has uncovered that one factor plays an incredibly important role in successful instructional coaching. When coaches set measureable student goals with teachers, and provide effective support, coaching can really make a difference. When coaches and teachers do not set goals, coaching can be a waste of time.

Successful goals have three characteristics

We’ve found the following to be essential characteristics of effective goals:

1. The goal has to be based on a clear picture of what is happening in the classroom. The easiest way to do this is just to video record the class. Coaches can also gather data such as Time On Task or Ratios of Interaction if that is what they prefer, but teachers need to see the data as reliable.

2. The goal must be a student goal. If coach and teacher set a teacher goal, they can’t be sure that the goal will make a difference. When a student goal is set, coach and teacher keep working until something significant happens for students. Setting a student goal also takes the focus off of the teacher, which often helps the coaching relationship.

3. The teacher has to care about the goal a lot. If the teacher doesn’t care about the goal, not much is going to happen.

How the Process Works

We usually complete the following steps to set goals:

1. The coach video records the teacher’s class or gathers some other data.

2. If video is recorded, the teacher and coach watch the video separately. The teacher might watch the video using the surveys “Watch your students. Watch yourself.”

3. When they meet after they have watched the video, the coach asks a few questions to help the teacher identify a goal, such as the following:

• On a scale of 1-10, how close was today’s class to your ideal?

• What would have to change for it to be closer to a 10?

• What would your students be doing if that change happened? Describe what the students would look like.

• How would we measure that change?

• Is that a goal you would like to try to achieve?

• Which teaching strategy can we use to achieve that goal? We offer a list of teaching strategies from High-Impact Instruction that teachers can choose from, but coaches could use other books or instructional frameworks such as Robert Marzano’s Art & Science of Teaching, or Jon Saphier & Mary Ann Haley-Speca’s Skillful Teacher

4. Once a measurable student goal is established, the coach should confirm that the teacher really is committed to implementing the goal, by asking questions such as “Is this a goal you really want to achieve? Does this matter to you?”

If the teacher is committed to the goal, then coach and teacher move forward. If the teacher isn’t committed, then coach and teacher revisit the goal until one is identified that matters to the teacher.

Our research on instructional coaching has led us to many insights into the importance of modeling, effective questions, effective communication skills, how to explore data and so forth. In my opinion, our most important finding is that goals are incredibly important. When teachers set a measureable student goal, there is a good chance the coaching will really improve instruction. When there is no goal, there is a real danger that coaching will have no lasting impact.

What Can Gandhi Teach Us About Standardized Testing?

February 12th, 2013

“The means may be likened to a seed, the end to a tree; and there is just the same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree… We reap exactly what we sow.” Indian Home Rule, M.K. Gandhi

When I first read Mahatma Gandhi’s collected writings, I felt I had found someone who saw the world with a clarity and simple wisdom that truly could change me and change the world. He profoundly affected my world view. And of course, Gandhi changed the world. He may have been the greatest leader of the 20th Century.

Gandhi believed that the means never justify the ends, no matter how important the ends might be. Looking at his homeland, India, where there was dire need for revolution, Gandhi was crystal clear that violence should never be used to create a better nation:

Violence breeds violence…Pure goals can never justify impure or violent action…They say the means are after all just means. I would say means are after all everything. As the means, so the end… If we take care of the means we are bound to reach the end sooner or later.

Too often at home and at our schools we lose sight of Gandhi’s wisdom and try to justify a quick fix because of an important end. And that can especially be the case with our obsession with standardized testing.

Schools go to great lengths to get a short-term boost for their test scores. In some buildings students get water bottles or granola bars on test day, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing. In other schools countless hours are spent teaching quick-fix testing strategies, and students spend days and weeks learning how to get a slightly better test score.

In the worst-case situations, school becomes all about standardized testing, with much too little regard given to student learning and well-being. Teachers become demoralized, and students see no joy in learning. When students pass the test but fail as learners, something is very wrong.

Gandhi suggests a better approach. Focus on the means. If we focus on doing all we can to ensure that students are learning all they can, the scores will take care of themselves. As Gandhi said, “action expresses priorities.” Our priority should be children, not scores on a test.

Everything Is Amazing and We Still Don’t Change: What Louis CK Can Teach Us About Personal Growth

February 4th, 2013

In his best-known comedy bit, Louis CK takes all of us to task for failing to see how incredible it is to live in this time. As he says, “everything is amazing and nobody is happy:”

http://barefootmeg.multiply.com/video/item/56

He is right of course. Everything is amazing. We fly through the sky. We have a tiny machine that can direct us to anywhere we want to drive. We download music, videos, and books in seconds. We find the answers to all our questions on the internet. We visit with people live on camera from any where in the world. How can we forget that everything is amazing? The reason is simple. Over time we almost always get used to whatever we experience. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as habituation.

Habituation occurs when our response to any experience or stimulus decreases over time. Simply put, no matter how beautiful or disgusting a stimulus might be, we can get used to it if we experience it a lot, and we may not even notice what at one time would have been impossible not to see.

Habituation can desensitize us to something beautiful. For example, one of my best friends lives in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, my pick for most beautiful place in the world. A few years back I told him how awestruck I am by the mountains he sees everyday. “The truth is I’ve lived here so long,” he said, “that there are many days when I don’t even notice them.”

Habituation can also desensitize us to very unpleasant stimulus. For example, when I have traveled through towns built by pulp mills that fill the sky with disgusting sulfurous smoke, the locals always tell me, “You know, I hardly ever notice it.” Good or bad, the truth is, we usually get used to it.

When habituation happens to us in the classroom, it can have dire consequences.

First, educators can forget about the true joy of this work–how important and beautiful it is to teach, to empower students to read and write, to become numerate, to help them transcend their social status, to mentor them to be the first in their family to go to college.

Second, teachers can stop seeing children when they aren’t learning. They can stop noticing students who are bored, wasting time, or hating school. They can come to believe that off-task behavior and poor performance are all that can be expected from students.

Finally, people can get used to their our own counter-productive behavior. They can get used to treating students as objects who simply need to comply rather than complex human beings who deserve to be respected. They can let their own need for control trump their students’ need to learn and grow.

Habituation, however, is not permanent, and it can be broken in many ways. Teachers can video record their classes and watch the video to gain insight into their teaching and students. They can work with a coach to get another professional’s perspective. They can visit a colleague’s class to see how another teacher promotes learning. Or they can learn turn to their students and ask them for feedback on how they are experiencing the class.

Over time, people can get habituated to just about any experience or they can teach themselves to see reality for what it is. In schools, it is clear which path is best for students.

How a Good Girl Faces the Real World

January 28th, 2013

Sharon Thomas is an outstanding teacher who truly inspires me with her deep commitment to students.  She is also one of the most positive people I know.  I asked her to write this column about what it takes to choose to see the world from an optimistic perspective, and she was kind enough to write this guest blog.

I have always been a Good Girl. I play by the rules. I meet expectations. I am punctual. I like pleasing my superiors. I excel at following directions. Being a Good Girl helps me to be a good teacher, a good employee, a good person. My principals tend to think I’m wonderful. My students often look up to me as a role model. My colleagues respect me. I have gone far in my little universe because I am a Good Girl.

Teachers usually are Good Girls and Boys. Typically, we were good students; we knew how to follow orders and bell-tones. Most importantly, we are people who want to do the right thing. But there’s a problem: The world doesn’t make sense to Good Girls and Boys.

The contrast between the way we think the world should work and the way the world actually is can break our hearts. That dichotomy makes us feel as if we are alone in upholding standards. It makes us feel as if no one appreciates how hard we work. It makes us feel as if we are fighting a losing battle—day after day, after day. The stress we feel as a result of those dashed expectations is what leads to bitterness and burnout.

To stay positive and focused in a job that can continually involve bashing one’s head up against the proverbial wall, I have found that the secret to staving off burnout is to change my expectations, to change my view of the world, to change my definition of “Good.” Bruce Springsteen1 says, “The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.” He is right. The conscious acknowledgment that the world is not all we thought it would be is the first step in taking charge of our world. The next step is taking responsibility for it.

I changed my view of the world by taking complete and total responsibility for my own sense of happiness and fulfillment. Every morning, I make a conscious decision to be happy at work. I say to myself (usually silently, but sometimes—when I really need it—I say out loud), “I am happy. I am going to a job I love with students who need me. I am so lucky.” Sure, it sounds a little Oprah-esque and more than a little cheesy, but it works. Starting my day by focusing on what is good about my life not only keeps me directed to that side of my emotional makeup, but also it reminds me that I (and only I) am in charge of how my day goes. Only I decide whether I am having a good day. Bad things will happen. A lesson will go awry. Students will behave badly. Parents will make choices I do not like. Administrators and other teachers will not keep their eyes on the collective ball, and I will have to deal with the consequences of those decisions. I do not expect the world to treat me fairly and kindly every day.

Rather, I will treat myself kindly. I will remember why I entered this profession in the first place: to help kids have better lives by giving them better communication skills. I will remember who I am in every interaction: a human being, an educator, a public servant.  I will remember that everyone in my building and in my school system is doing the best he or she can (yes, this is really difficult to remember sometimes) and is also trying to do the right thing, even if we disagree on what that thing is. I am not alone. I am surrounded by like-minded good people. I am surrounded by students who want love and care and knowledge, and, by God, I am going to give them all I can. I am in charge here. The days are long and hard, but I have a mission. I am that mission’s leader.

As a result, I feel incredibly powerful in a job that most people view as powerless. I feel in control when so many of my colleagues feel as if they are spiraling out of control. I feel happy. I feel purposeful. I feel strong.

Sometimes I decide that I have had a bad day. I feel lousy. I text my husband that I will be needy and hungry when he gets home (and to brace himself accordingly). I call or message my best friends. I cry. And then I pull myself out of it. The next day I say, “I am happy. I am going to a job I love with students who need me. I am so lucky.” I am still a Good Girl, albeit a different kind of “Good.” I get up every morning and go to school believing in what I do and in what my students do.

I teach a unit on Holocaust literature to my 10th graders every year. That unit led me to the work of Viktor Frankl,2 a noted psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. During Dr. Frankl’s most terrifying moments in various concentration camps, he clung to mental images of his wife. He imagined conversations with her, imagined her face gazing at his. Frankl theorized later that it was his ability (and the ability he also saw in fellow prisoners) to focus the mind on people and ideas that he loved that enabled him to survive the camps. He chose how to focus his mind; he did not allow his captors to choose his focus for him.

Teaching is a difficult job. To survive, and to have our work continue to be meaningful and to be a source of happiness in our lives, we must embrace the power and satisfaction that comes from taking charge of our lives. We must chuck our images of ourselves as Good Girls and Boys in a Bad World. We must not let others choose our focus for us. In the words of Dr. Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I choose my own way every day, and I am happy. I am going to a job I love with students who need me. I am so lucky.

 

1Springsteen, B. (1988, 15 September). Amnesty International Human Rights Now! Tour [press conference]. Toronto, Ontario, Canada

2Frankl, V. E. (2006). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.