Get Out of Your Own Way

Looking back on 25 years of classroom teaching, I can say that the greatest changes that I made to my classroom practice began in 2006, when I had a principal that pulled me aside and told me that I should really push the limits and rethink my classroom. What she actually told me was, “Some teachers I feel need me to guide them to change. I think I can help you best by getting out of your way.”  I had a green light, blank check, clearance from the tower.

But in retrospect, at this point where I had the institutional barriers to change removed, I built my own.

I was teaching full inclusion Special Ed US history in a room where ⅓ of the students had IEP, ED, BD plans. I had confidently volunteered to teach the class, saying that I knew exactly what I would do. Which was a combination of wishful thinking and bravado. My cooperating SPED teacher and I were eager to try new things and started of the year by rethinking homework, due dates and tests. We implemented test retakes and test corrections. I read books, talked to my principal regularly and had a clear vision of what I wanted to do.

But in every instance, I created obstacles and limits on these changes that prevented my classroom from moving forward.

I limited who could do test corrections and how often any one person could do them. (If these processes are learning, why would I limit their chances to continue to learn?)

I was flexible on turning in work, but I limited how often I was flexible and I still imposed harsh penalties for timeliness. (If I identify a hard working student, capable of learning but who needs more time to do so, why would I make time a key continuing factor in their grades?)

I changed classroom activities to be more student centered, but I still maintained dominion over what those activities were. In the back of my head, my current mantra “Choose the destination, not the path” was forming but I was still creating narrow, singular paths to the learning objective. (So long as they arrive at the objective, how concerned am I really about the path that gets them there?)

In hindsight I think there were many reasons for holding back. I was certainly concerned about other teachers. It was my first year at a brand new school.

I was very aware of how parents saw what I was doing, and concerned about helping them to understand and see value in what I was doing. I felt an uneasiness each time we used cell phones in class, secretly set up a wifi network, or threw away the textbook.

Now I see that these were excuses that I made, because there we little to no actual instances where any of these fears were made real.

If I could go back in time and give myself one piece of advice knowing what I know today, it would be “Get out of your own way.” I knew what I wanted, I was on the right path, yet I kept building roadblocks. Often, (but certainly not always) institutional roadblocks were perceived, but disappeared as my resolve to change grew stronger. What really held me back was me and my perception of how big of a leap I could take.

What are the changes that you believe you need to make? How are you limiting your own ability to achieve them? What personal roadblocks could you remove today?

Get out of your own way.

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Building the New

On my busiest and most stressful days I like to remind myself that my life is a compilation of my past choices.  You don’t make choices in your life just once. You choose and then with each and every day that passes you choose again and again the things that matter, make you happy, and are worthy of your time.  So I remind myself that I get to choose EVERY DAY. The alternative to this (for me) is seeing only the obligations and requirements before you. When I get in this mindset, I tend to get frustrated by all of the immediate WANTS that I can’t have because of all of the MUSTS on my to-do list.

Last year at about this time I decided it was time for a new challenge. I’d been offered several jobs over the previous year that while interesting, were not the right fit for me or my family, or weren’t the direction I wanted to go.   So I sat down with my wife and we talked about what the right job would look like. I was really worried (afraid even) about how a move would unsettle the many pieces of my life that were in balance; being present for my wife & kids, teaching and the classroom, traveling and presenting at conferences, my consulting work, writing and publishing, all of the pieces of life that go together to give each day meaning.

Shortly thereafter I applied and was hired to be a Social Studies Department Chair.  This year has been about adapting to that role, getting to know the people in my department, getting to know the school and community and working to reconstruct a strong classroom and course curriculum.  Surprisingly the hardest part of this was rebuilding my classroom because I had so many ideas about what I wanted that new experience to be like for my students.  You have to surrender the comfort of habit to build something new and ambitious.

The upside to the change has been the growth that comes with challenging yourself and the opportunity to help others grow as teachers. That is what I have loved about twitter from the very start (back in the wonderful early days of #sschat) and my favorite part about working with teachers across the country. There is no better feeling than hearing what passionate teachers or students want to accomplish and then helping them to get there.   Despite the challenges, actually more BECAUSE of the challenges,  I’m loving the job, and I’m glad I made the leap for all that I have learned.  I have gained so much and I feel i’m in a place where I have much to offer.

While the actual jobs skills are important, the most important things that I learned were about what is and is not important to me.  Crisis makes you prioritize and clarify.  I have an idea of where I want to go now, and what I have to do to get there. My vision for the next few years is taking shape.  That is exciting, and it is what led me to make the change in the first place.

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One of the things that I put aside in order to find balance was writing, both articles and for this blog. In hindsight I think that was a mistake.  The time I spend writing has always helped me to sharpen my thoughts and serves as an outlet, something that I now see would have been welcome this semester. Rather than taking my time, I think it would have been a welcome opportunity for expression.

I feel I’m in a better place, with a better vision of my future and where I’m g(r)o(w)ing.