Sunday, November 11, 2012

Word Choice

Besides the usual swears, the words "pig" (as in "you're a pig") and "hate" (as in "I hate you") were considered profanity by my parents (who, by the way, swore - one frequently, the other only occasionally, thereby producing in me a swearer, too). Of course, I'm talking about nearly fifty years ago, when somehow we were collectively more proper and less culturally sensitive all at the same time. Between now and then, our society has become more word-aware, and while some deride the term "political correctness," I believe in it as movement toward thoughtfulness, compassion, and ultimately, equality. I raised my own children to abhor and refrain from using "retarded" and "gay" to signify anything but their literal meanings, and I do not tolerate anyone else (read: students, colleagues, friends) misusing them, either. 

As teachers, our awareness exceeds words like the aforementioned, though. We pick and choose our words in every moment of our professional lives, especially with two specific groups: students and parents. With students, we know our words can help, hurt, mislead, misinform, sway, or encourage. Whether we're complimenting a student on her work or criticizing another's, we must always be thoughtful. With parents, this thoughtfulness is just as, if not more, important. 

We get a student for a year, maybe, if looping is still done, two. Parents have had that child for six, ten,   fifteen years. Seems obvious, but sometimes we talk as if we know a child better than his parents do. I recently advised a colleague who was struggling with some parents that, like customers, parents are always right. They are, and it behooves us to think in this mindset as we work with them. Do we see things the parent might not? Yes. Are we aware of issues that a parent might be ignoring or denying? Of course. Are we experts in our field who can offer strategies and solutions that parents don't know about? Certainly. But conveying all that we know and believe is a game, just as any kind of communication is a game. And our tactics for winning the game must be thoughtfulness and proper word choice. Our words must always reflect our genuine concern; they must be authentic, supportive, and clear. 

Every so often, a list of "Report Card Comments We Wish We Could Use" or some kind of Teacher Jokes list makes the rounds. In the laughs and pointed comments of some teachers we can see real resentment. Some of us simply chuckle. I wish we all found the material offensive, though, because it is. My colleagues might argue that these jokes are a way to ease frustration and to commiserate. Perhaps. But they're still at the expense of our students and parents. And since they're not anything we'd share with either of those groups, I'd suggest that they're not jokes at all.  

Some will call me overly sensitive or politically correct. I'll take either as a compliment, literally

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Page from Chip Kelly's Playbook

Watching the Oregon - USC game tonight, I couldn't help but draw some analogies between Coach Chip Kelly's novel approach to the game and what we do as teachers every day.

How many plays do this guy, his staff, and his team employ? Lots. Lots and lots. Kelly tries everything to move the ball, to make the next down, to win a ballgame. We do the same as we alter lesson plans, improve our methodology, increase our use of technology, engage our parents in more and different ways, and employ interventions that assist our students, all in the name of achievement of goals, of student success.

Want to see exciting football? Watch the up-tempo pace of the Ducks; marvel at their no-huddle offense  and see the speed with which they move the ball upfield. And upfield and upfield and into the endzone.   Likewise, we must find new and exciting ways to draw our students in. Old-school doesn't cut it anymore. To keep them engaged, we must be engaged, too, in the ways in which they are learning. Soon enough, we will all be paperless and textbookless. All of our classrooms will be flipped. We need to release our fears of the new and different and embrace the opportunities for these new ways to learn. To refuse to do so is to welcome a swift defeat.

And in Chip Kelly we find a coach who's got it right when it comes to mistakes, too. His "Next Play" philosophy allows his players to not necessarily ignore their missteps, but rather to move beyond them to the next play, the better play, the winning play. And that's exactly what we do with our kids, every period, every day, every week. We offer them ways to recover from their mistakes and to find real success, for it is in the knowing and growing that real success occurs. When we do this part right - no grudges, no expectations of failure, no pre-conceived notions - kids know they have the opportunity to get it right, too.

Chip Kelly and his Ducks are changing the game. Education is changing, too. Let's make it just as much fun to watch as Oregon football.

Why We Do

It's always encouraging to be reminded of how much the work we do matters, and it's even more exciting when those reminders are surprises, or at the very least, unexpected. It's interesting, too, to consider why we teachers don't expect all those positive outcomes from our work with our students and their parents and our colleagues.  Have we gotten that far away from conceptual success that when it happens, really and truly, we are stunned? I'd like to think it's because part of our natures as professionals to know we're doing it right, to worry that it might not make a difference, and to be humble in the discovery that, indeed, it has.

I've been on a run lately. A lucky, meaningful, bring-tears-to-my-eyes run. Parents praise me for my communication initiatives. An administrator shares with me another parent's positive comments, but precedes the sharing of that information with her own appreciation for my insight and support that is somehow making her job "worth it." A union colleague thanks me for always responding to his questions and for my "years of advocacy." Yesterday, a former student, now a dear friend, visits from far away and tells me that if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't be who he is. Mind you, I deny this. I say, "I only showed you the door, maybe held it open." He replies, "No, you pulled me through it. You were consistent when my parents weren't. You helped me with my college applications. You loved me no matter what. You made me." Okay, I did help him a lot, and I still would do practically anything for this late-20's kid, but really? I'm responsible for his awesomeness? No way!

I know he would read that and say, "Way!!" But still, I cannot help but think that it was simply my job to hold the mirror up for this kid so that he could see his progress, his passion, and his potential. For this one, and for all the others, too. We don't do it for moments like last night's. In fact, we really can't see them happening five, ten, fifteen, twenty years before they do. There's no anticipation, just crossed fingers, I suppose. Perhaps that's what makes the realization so deep and rich. We wanted it, we hoped for it, but we released it, too, somewhere along the way. And then, there it is again: hope realized, in the form of a man whom I am proud to call my friend, in another former student's Saturday morning text that says, "I owe you a lot of praise for inspiring me to teach," and in every child in our classrooms, year in and year out, whether we - or they - recognize it yet or not.

And while that's probably not why we chose teaching, it just may be why we continue teaching.