Thursday, February 28, 2013

Teaching is Like Driving a Car (Dear Katie, V1, #10)

Dear Katie,

When I was a college student, I had a part time job as a delivery driver for a florist.  I know what you are thinking, my ogre uncle could never have worked in a flower shop.

Actually, it was a great job.  You spent most of your time driving around listening to tunes, and sometimes even received a tip for your work.  The hardest days were Mother's Day, Easter, and especially Valentine's Day.  You were constantly on the road with little breaks (you would place your lunch order with the shop before your morning run, pick it up with your afternoon run, and eat on the road).  You would have to remember and coordinate your route so you didn't have to back track, remember the address and how to get there, all while keeping your eyes on the road knowing the name of your employer was emblazoned across the van.

It may not sound tiring, but mental labor can be exhausting, especially when you don't want to get into an accident.  I give a lot of credit to long distance truckers.

The year before I married your aunt, I rented a house with a few guys.  One of them used to get on me about taking naps after I got home from work.

"How can you be so tired, you're a teacher."

My response:

"Teaching is like driving a car.  
Taking your eyes off the road can lead to tragedy."

Mental exhaustion is real.  When you are driving your are constantly looking at what is in front of you, on the sides, behind you, while keeping your destination in focus for what could be hours.  When you are teaching you are:

1) thinking about your lesson

2) thinking about what you are going to say next

3) listening to your students

4) answering and asking questions

5) maintaining classroom control 

6) all while making sure the 20 or so students in front of you are listening and not, texting on their cell phone, stabbing their neighbor with a pencil, sticking gum under the desk, among many other crazy things that could happen.

Daydreaming as a teacher could cause terrible consequences.
-or at the least, embarrassing ones-

A few years after I married your aunt, I ran into my former roommate.  He had decided to try change careers and was currently a student teacher.  He recalled what I had told him and he said,

"You were so right, teaching can be exhausting."

PS  I worked one last summer delivering flowers after my first year of teaching.  Most hospitals had flower rooms and candy stripers usually would take the arrangement up to the room.  There was one memorable delivery I made of a floral and balloon bouquet on the birth of a baby.  The hospital permitted me to go directly to the newborn's mother's room.  I delivered the arrangement to the proud parents and they allowed me the honor of walking with them to the hospital nursery where I laid eyes on my new born niece for the first time.

And since that day I have only grown in pride for what YOU have accomplished.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Becoming a Wealthy Teacher (Dear Katie V1 #9)

"He laughs in our times of joy, encourages us in our times of doubt, and always has a story to tell.  From simulations of war, to video skits, to globe ball geography...this teacher will be remembered for his complete commitment to our class and his evident desire to see us grow and mature as fully as possible."

Dear Katie,

The above sentence is a quote from the greatest award I ever received for teaching, the yearbook dedication from the Class of 1999 at Christian Heritage School, in Trumbull, CT where I first began teaching.

I was compelled to pull out the yearbook and read the dedication again due to a happy circumstance.  I had mentioned the historical video skits I assigned to this class in a Facebook post and one of the students dug up an old video from his parents' basement and posted it on his page.

Seeing those kids at 16, and realizing they are all double that age today, brought tears to my eyes.  They were great kids, and as each one made their appearance on the film, memories flowed through my mind of specific events about each.

The boy who found the video needed a pair of sneakers one day for gym.  Since I coached, I had a pair under my desk that I offered to him, but he couldn't wear them.  They were too small.  He was in 7th grade at the time.  (I wear 10 1/2's, I believe he wore a 16 by senior year in high school).

The boy who played "Napoleon" was one of my best baseball players and captains of the team and  I still remember a great talk we had while fishing for bass on the lake in my old backyard.

And several of the girls in the video would remind me to treat my newlywed wife (your aunt) with respect since they had me for several years as a classroom teacher and knew the unsmiling ogre I could be.

And 11 minutes later, it was over.  After watching it I wished I could have just one more class period with those kids.  But that's life, we had a season together, but life moves on.

You see, I love history, and I love teaching it...

But I have a passion for kids.

What I appreciate most is the second part of what was quoted above.  It was obvious to the student(s) who wrote the dedication that my teaching methods were to instill something more important in them, growth and maturity.  Games and video skits were to reach them at their level, to move them beyond that level, and hopefully help create deep thinkers who can express their thoughts to the world.

You are never becoming rich as a teacher, at least how the world sees wealth.  (You probably knew that since you have been to the old farmhouse your aunt, cousins, and I live in). Your wealth will come in the number of students you impacted.  Your investment statement might be displayed on the pages of Facebook, as you see the kids you taught graduate college, begin careers, and then start families of their own.

You will cheer with their successes and mourn in their losses.

You will do this because you will care for them.  They have inherent value because they are human beings created in the image of God, not as a student ID number on a grading program or based on the utilitarian view of how they are useful to you.

I can not promise you a high paying career as a teacher, but I can promise you a treasure chest full of memories...and some may have a digital footprint, like a class history video on Napoleon, where Napoleon has a top cabinet meeting while lounging in a hot tub and has a clown crash his funeral.

And I cannot promise dividends on your investment in the classroom, but sometimes they come...

One day, your grandfather and brother came up to watch a baseball game I was coaching.  We went out to the diner after the game when a young man walked out as we walked in.  It turned out to be a former student of mine from 6 years earlier.  We talked for a few minutes about the college he attended and what he was studying, and as we said good-bye, he turned to your grandfather and said,

"I want you to know, your son was one of the best teachers I ever had."

A student saying that to you is comparable to receiving an amazing tip as a waiter.

A student saying that to one of your parents, whose hard work molded you into the man and teacher who stood in front of that student's classroom, now that's priceless.

Like I said, a treasure chest of memories...

Prepare yourself, teaching will make you a very wealthy woman!

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

PS The house on the lake was an above ground basement apartment we rented from the home owner at an unbelievably low price.  So I wasn't worldly wealthy to afford a house on lake, especially from the salary I was pulling at a private school.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Broken Record (Dear Katie V1 #8)

Dear Katie,

I believe it was one of my education courses at The King's College that Dr. Anderson first introduced me to the concept of the broken record technique.

Katie, in case you don't know, before your phone played songs that were downloaded, you had to go to these places called record stores with names like "Off the Record" and "Turnabout" (in fact, that one still exists in the town your Mom and I grew up).  You bought these black plastic discs called records, and placed them on these machines called record players where a needle ran along the grooves creating music.  If you scratched the record, the needle could keep on repeating what you last heard, over and over again, thus the idiom...

"sounding like a broken record."

So if you are teaching and several groups of students around the room are still talking as the class is beginning, you would say calmly, "Please stop talking, class is about to begin", over and over until the desired effect takes place.

That's one way of thinking about the "broken record".

At the same time, if you find yourself repeating the same admonition like a "broken record" for days, weeks, months, its time to find out why people aren't listening.

If you find yourself repeating the same challenge like a "broken record" for days, weeks, months, its time to find out why people aren't listening.

The days of people listening to those in authority just because of their position are over.  Our society has fully embraced the 60's call to "Question Authority".

Ask them why they aren't listening.  
Most people won't ask that question due to pride.

People, especially those who hold positions of authority, do not want to be told by those under them what they are doing could possibly be wrong.

Don't be that teacher.

Ask your students why?  Tell them to be honest.  I have done that on occasion.  Most times I have to tell students I can't change, but there have been times where I have listened to what was said.

Students need to know that changes to your class they suggest will be considered, not necessarily followed.  In this way, they will know that you care about THEM, more than you care about your subject, your classroom structure, etc.  At the same time, you are keeping the final decision on all matters in your hands.

Explain what you can't change, accept what you can.
(Unless of course you can't defend your classroom practices.  If you can't, you have bigger issues)

If you do not provide an opportunity for suggestions to be voiced, you will find their disobedience is their way of "shouting" their dissatisfaction.

And don't do the "talk to me privately" if you have a suggestion.  You'll have only one or two students approach you and you'll dismiss it as a small fraction when it could very well be the whole class is in agreement with what the two privately told you.

I think the "talk to me privately" is the cowards way out.

Ask the whole class for suggestions for change.  Yes, one voice could turn into a chorus calling out for no homework, tests, or essays ever again.  Trust your will find out there will be those who defend your classroom structure.  You may not even have to speak in your defense.

Remember it's not MY class it's OUR class.

I tell my class in the beginning of the year that the classroom is not a democracy, but led by a benevolent dictatorship, and there is nothing wrong with the dictator receiving suggestions from the citizens of the classroom on how things should be run, because ultimately, the final decision rests in the hands of the dictator.

Sadly, most benevolent dictators are too insecure; as if changing a routine based on a suggestion from a student will somehow lessen his/her ability to lead.

Don't be that benevolent dictator!

Just my opinion.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Leadership--Creating Value (Dear Dan #1)

This year I have seen a good friend of mine making the transition from classroom teacher to school administrator. It seems like it was just the other day he graduated college and was asking me to prepare him to take the PRAXIS teacher's exam in Social Studies. After only a few short years he finds himself in school leadership. Every so often he asks me for advice. So Dan here are some thoughts...

Dear Dan,

I hope you the best in your career in school administration. I'm not going to say, you're a better man than me, because teachers are not wanna be principals. I love what I do and do not want to leave the classroom. Some are called to sitting in the principal's chair, such as yourself, and I think that is awesome too.

Besides, if I became a principal, the days of me wearing dungarees (aka jeans) and sneakers to school would be over and I would have to wear a tie. I hate ties. What's the point of a tie? What function does it serve other than to be used as a napkin during lunch?

One thing I appreciate about you is that you want to be in administration because you genuinely believe it is the best place for you to help kids.   I wish that could be said for all in administration. Some are there just because they love power. The power to tell people what to do is an alluring intoxicant.

I have been thinking a lot about leadership lately for many reasons. Here is what I know... I have served under some great principals, bosses, and pastors (when I was in youth ministry years ago), and the ones I appreciate(d) most...


A pat on the back and saying, "Great Job!" is just the rudimentary level of valuing people.  What I have learned, especially serving under my current principal is that:

"Great Job" is devoid of meaning 
without actions that show people you value them.

When my principal calls me, "One of the best teachers in the state", I don't get mad because it seems so trite (because he tells everyone on staff that), it means something because he TREATS me and everyone else like we are the best teachers in the state.

Here are 3 ideas that create an environment where people feel valued:

1) Have you created a forum where others feel comfortable to kick around new ideas to begin or improve on what is already being offered or are all your decisions unilateral or made by only a select few. When people believe their opinions are valued, they begin to constantly think of ways to improve; they will seek ways to be involved. If every decision you make is top down, people will not be invested in your ideas, ways to improve, or invest more of their time.

If you listen to the same voices you either have surrounded yourself with "yes" men or will fall prey to group think (where you can longer think outside the box and you will feel comfortable because "this is the way we always did it" rather than questioning "Is this the best way of doing it").

The others under your lead will trudge along when they have no voice.

For over ten years, I was a director for a week long camp for several churches in the NY-metro area. Every morning staff meeting ended with me asking what was working, what wasn't, what could we do differently. It didn't mean that I agreed to do everything they said, but since they were my eyes and ears with the kids, they could give me info and insight that I didn't have.  I always trusted their judgement.

(Some of my best times were serving at that camp.  Some of the people I worked with there are life long friends, and I miss spending time with the others.  I never saw myself greater than my counselors, always equal, just serving in a different role.  I hope that came across to them in my approach).

When people realize you trust their opinions enough to take actions on some of them, they will come to trust you when you reject the others (although they won't always be happy at the moment)

I have used the same technique as a baseball and soccer coach. At the end of each game I ask the team if they have anything to say, positively or negatively to improve for the next game.

Allowing opportunities for people to share their opinions on direction gives ownership to any organization.

It moves people from "spectator" to "participant".

It moves the view of it being MY team, to being OUR team.

2) When you are at a faculty meeting, what do you see? A sea of adult  "students" who couldn't tie a shoe without your guidance or a gathering of educational leaders?

One view keeps them subordinate to you, the other allows them to grow with you.

Who provides most of your inservice? If you are constantly relying on people from the outside, what does that say your thoughts are about your staff.

No presenter has EVER said anything that was so earth shattering that someone in the room hasn't thought or tried it before. We just don't have the time to share what we do in the classroom with one another because we are rarely given the time or we don't have the time to promote what we do.

(And I guess people would rather spend thousands of dollars on an outside "expert" or maybe they just trust them more than the people they have)

Your school is FILLED with experts. I don't care if the speaker spends 3 hours or 3 months with your staff.  Your staff is going to trust and listen to a person who has shared their struggles and joys for years with them more readily than someone they have just met.

It will also show to your staff, that you VALUE their leadership because you VALUE THEM!

If you are not willing to allow your own people, the ones who are in the trenches with you for years, to rise up to leadership within your building and instead you constantly promote some other person as the "expert" than you devalue your people.

If you aren't creating leaders, then you are just extending the age of the "children" under your care.

If you aren't creating leaders, you are not doing you job.

3) Who do you spend your time with? Some leaders spend time with other leaders. They can't get their hands dirty talking with the "pawns", when the King, Queen, and Bishops are around.

You may need the higher ranking pieces to "win the game", but its the pawns who are willing to do the "dirty work" are who put you in the position to "win the game".

In chess the piece moves because you want it to, in real life, the piece has to want to move.

Be someone that people WANT to follow 
rather than someone they are FORCED to follow.

Continuing being you.

Continue spending time with the kids, spending time with the staff. Again, it is a display of what you VALUE.

And don't listen to people who say a principal needs a separation from the kids and staff to be effective, cause it's a lie, and I know it's a lie because...

I see my principal doing it on a daily basis and he is HIGHLY EFFECTIVE!

You're probably wondering when I have the time to think about such things.  It is long, quiet ride over Schooley's Mountain everyday.  Lots of time to think.  I know that may be a shock to you, the fact that I think, not that I have a long, quiet ride to work.

Another thing I appreciate about you is that you have worked your butt off to get to the position you are now in a very short time where others get to their positions in leadership by kissing the right ones. You know the all people are VALUABLE, you know you will make mistakes, and you always seek counsel on how to improve.

That makes you teachable, 
and if you are teachable as a leader, those under your charge will be also.

Then again, what do I know, I'm just a pawn.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Think Pink:Dear Katie (V1#7)

From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

I am not the most organized person in the world (ask your grandparents and your mom what my bedroom was like as a kid), but in one area I have been consistently organized, the color of my tests and quizzes.  PINK.

Why pink?  It is not because I like the color.  I will admit I did wear a pink polo shirt in the late '80's with the collar popped.  This wasn't because of a love of pink.  I wanted to be cool and me, I wasn't cool and hip with a pink shirt on.  Real men don't wear pink, at least not this real man.

When I first began teaching, I had a problem with student's talking during tests, particularly in one class. Willing to try anything, I remembered reading an article in Sports Illustrated about University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart and how he painted the visitors locker room pink because he heard it calms people down.  I decided to give it try and it appeared to work.  So I began running off my tests in pink for that class.  The pink tests started a trend.  Since I taught multiple courses, each class began to receive a color for their tests, blue for US History, pink for World History, yellow for Civics, etc.

At my current position, I only teach one course, six times a day, so I chose to stick with pink for all the soothing and calming thoughts it supposedly evokes.  Since I have never completed a scientific study, Im not really sure pink tests work.  It has other benefits.

One thing you will not be prepared for as a teacher is the sea of paper that will seemingly flow unendingly into your classroom.  I swear, sometimes it feels like a tidal wave (and sometimes my desk will look like a swell of paper about to crash on to the floor).  In this tsunami of paper I can point out my tests because they are pink.   

And now I create my handouts for a unit all in one color (except pink).  So when a student prepares for a test, I can say, "Study all the blue notes".  (And this helps me keep straight all the notes the students have in their notebooks).

For being the kid who always had to bum a pen or pencil from some sweet girl in my classes growing up, I'm amazed with myself for stumbling upon this organizational idea.

And the more organized you are, the more time for planning and preparing the next great lesson.

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Video for a Blue Monday: Dear Katie (V1#6)

From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

When I was in college, my history professor, Dr. Vos, would begin his Western Civilization classes with a "Thought for an Un-Blue Monday."  They were little factoids to get you pondering anything but the realization that the weekend was over and the work of being a student was beginning again.

About 5 years ago, the nexus of the Internet, Youtube, and a video projector in my classroom gave me an idea, to revive the practice of Dr. Vos.  Every Monday (or whatever is the first day of classes for the week) I show my students a brief Youtube video called "Video for a Blue Monday".  Most of the time, they are just to make you laugh (like the famous "Charlie Bit My Finger") and others are inspirational (like the autistic basketball manager who made the most of his chance to play by scoring 20 points in 4 minutes).

Now, you may be learning about "time on task" and one of your education professors may have told you things to save valuable minutes, such as having students pick up handouts on their way into a classroom.   The thought of showing a 2 minute video that doesn't relate to your topic is anathema.  However, this little diversion will earn you big dividends when you want them to pay attention.

Here are the reasons I show a Blue Monday Video:

1) No one likes Monday, or the day your break ends and you have to go back to work.  It is a small way to acknowledge that and soften the blow.

2) It creates anticipation.  Students come into class looking forward to what video will be played that day.  Having them think about your class will also stir up thoughts of the lessons they have been learning or the assignments that are due.

3) Your students are entertainment focused, it may not be the ideal, but it's a fact; your competition for teaching your students are the Internet, iPhone, X-Box, HD-TV, etc.  It is your choice to fight it or embrace it and enhance their educational experience.  You are not going to match what can see in those mediums, but there is still a place for the human touch which those devices cannot provide.  You being physically present in the room, and adapting and creating an atmosphere for your students to interact in an entertaining way can be a great help to capture their attention.

Remember, technology is a valuable classroom tool, but nothing replaces the human need for interaction within close proximity to others.

4) The Video for a Blue Monday recognizes the fact that students are not pieces on an assembly line.  With all the focus on testing and scores, we are losing the fact that students are flesh and blood people, not numbers.  A piece of metal can be molded and constructed without it getting tired or complaining, teenagers cannot.  Sometimes the classroom needs frivolity to motivate  your students to reach the educational goals that you want to see them achieve.

When I was a young teacher, I often opened my class talking to the students about their lives.  One year in a parent-teacher conference, the parents of one of my students confronted me on all the class time I "wasted".  Very sternly, the mother stated the number of minutes I "wasted" talking about basketball, skiing, ice skating, and the school play.  I calmly explained  that the time that the students and I got to know each other in the beginning of class will make them realize that I care more about them as individuals than the subject I teach.  And when I do teach class, they will focus on what I care about (the lesson) and the 2 minutes I spent in the beginning of class might be a trade off when I do not have to spend those 2 minutes getting the classroom under control when they lose focus during the lesson.  

The father, who started the conference as stern as the mother, soon started smiling and shaking his head in agreement with me as I explained myself.  He got it (in two ways; what I was saying and probably at home too because I don't think his wife accepted it).

Anyway, It's Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Every Student is Your Student: Dear Katie (V 1 #5)

From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

When I was in elementary school, your mom had a first grade teacher named Miss Posunko.  She was a very kind lady, and many students who had her will tell you she was one of their favorites.  I did not have the fortune of having her as a teacher.  However, I still remember the day you mom and I came on to the blacktop for the start of the school day and Miss Posunko came up to her, said hello, and then lowered herself to my level and asked, "Eileen, is this your little brother?".  She introduced herself to me, asked my name, and told me she had heard wonderful things about me.  Over the next four years, whenever I saw Miss Posunko she would always say hello to me by name, even ask me a few questions.  She treated me as if I had been one of her students.

Isn't it interesting how 40 years later I can remember something that is seemingly so trivial.

It wasn't trivial.

Looking at what occurred with my teacher's "glasses" on, Miss Posunko taught me that the physical space of your classroom is not your classroom.  The building, the blacktop, the gym, and parking lot, it is all your classroom.

Get to know as many kids as possible.  One of the nicest things I ever read online about me as a teacher was from a list of memories a former student had about his middle school experience.  He wrote, "You thought you were tight with Mr. Cullen even if you never had him as a teacher." 

I try.  My principal is the best at it however.  If he cannot remember a student's name by mid year, he gives them a Snapple or snack at lunch.  The first few months he is stopping every kid asking their name, trying to find out a little about them.  Usually all that is needed for someone to feel part of the community, is knowing that someone else knows their name, especially when it is a leader of the community, such as the principal or teacher.

Students learn best when they are comfortable.  A school becomes the place to be when everyone feels included.

They say the sweetest sound in the world is the voice of someone else saying your name.  The other day, a student at my school who never had me as a teacher said hello to me in the hallway as she was walking with some friends.  I told her hello and used her name.  As she walked by I saw her turn to her friends and with a big smile, say, "Hey, he knows my name."

Such a small effort on your part can be a big deal to someone else.

Thank-you Miss Posunko for teaching me a great lesson even though I never sat within the four walls of your classroom.