The Learning Curve

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It is been a while since I’ve ‘put pen to paper’ here, but it is nice to be back. In light of my experiences and the challenges I’ve faced so far this school year, I’m dedicating this post to the ‘learning curve’.

For me, good teaching is about learning. It is about taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and collaborating with colleagues to improve the learning experiences and outcomes of our students. As an educator, taking risks and exploring new ideas is not an easy or straightforward process; and without leadership support, you are likely to fail. It is one thing to dream up an innovative idea, it is quite another to implement it within your school community.

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This year, with the benefit of a FIRST Australia grant, and the support of my school leadership team, I found myself teaching an extracurricular LEGO robotics program, preparing two teams for the FIRST LEGO League (FLL) competition. I’d never worked with these sophisticated robotics kits before, and I wasn’t sure how the program would run in our school, let alone how I’d teach it. After many hours of internet research, watching YouTube videos, and adapting teaching materials from EV3Lessons.com & Carnegie Mellon University, I set up my Google Classroom groups, and set to work.

Admitting that “I don’t know, but let’s try it and find out” is not an easy thing for a teacher to say to their students.  Yet, this quickly proved to be a common refrain in my robotics class! Learning isn’t linear, and sometimes it can be messy. I based my teaching and learning approach on the idea that we could explore robotics concepts and skills through guided problem solving and hands-on experimentation. If it doesn’t work, let’s keep experimenting, and work out why. I was teaching out of my comfort zone, trying to stay one step ahead of my students. I could hardly pretend to be the font of all knowledge – I was often building and testing programs and mechanisms an hour before my students arrived for class.

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Our FLL robotics program was never intended to just be about ‘teaching girls to code’, or capturing their interest in ‘STEM’ careers, although these were important underlying goals. We were interested in teaching our girls to think, and empowering them to become confident learners and problem solvers. Now, a little over three months into the program, I’m starting to appreciate the impact of this approach, particularly for those girls whose academic results would usually deny them this kind of opportunity.

Learning how to teach robot programming and engineering with LEGO EV3 Mindstorms has been a steep, yet extremely rewarding learning curve. My teaching programs are covered with notes about what worked, and what I’ll need to do differently next year. Yet, by taking risks, experimenting with new ideas, and facing my fears – I am not only growing as an educator, but I am making a difference in my students’ learning.

At the end of the day, that’s what teaching is all about.

Meeting My “First Year Self”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with a group of student teachers and a few new relief (substitute / casual) teachers, and been given ample opportunity to reflect on my early career experiences. I still have vivid (painful) memories of my student teaching practical experiences, and remember how I graduated from university in 2008 with high hopes and a completely unrealistic sense of my readiness to teach.

It is hard for my current colleagues to believe that the eccentric relief teacher that they see now was the epitome of the ‘angry young man’ just a few short years ago. Nevertheless, it’s true. It took me years to accept that my university had not properly prepared me for the profession, and that teaching was a much harder, more savage profession than I’d ever imagined.

This is my fifth year ‘on the road’, although I’m only just entering my fourth year of teaching (in terms of days worked). I’ve yet to have a class of my own, despite spending three months in a school (an unpleasant story with unexpectedly positive outcomes). It has been an interesting journey, but despite all the setbacks and disappointments, I’m actually a better person for it. And besides, with most graduates quitting within three years, I’m one of the survivors.

I’ve come a long way

I am a different person, a different teacher than I was just a few short years ago.

It has taken me over four years to feel competent, to feel like that I actually know what I’m doing. Yes, I make my mistakes, but I’m making fewer of them … Yes, I still struggle to manage some classes, but I have a better classroom management toolkit and approach to help me get through the difficult situations. And perhaps most importantly, with an extensive national and international education network, I no longer feel angry, isolated, and alone.

So, as I reflect on my pre-service and early career teaching experiences, I found myself mentally composing the advice I wish I’d been given all those years ago. For those of you about to graduate your teacher training, and those starting out in our profession, this is for you.

 

First Year Teaching is Hell Hard.

 
cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo shared by wakingphotolife:

Please don’t enter this profession with rose coloured glasses. Please don’t expect to easily get a teaching position in a good school, in a good class. Don’t expect to be the perfect, well organised competent classroom teacher from Day One …

Teaching is not an easy profession, and your first year will be, to put it mildly, hard slog. It is a matter of survival, resilience, and perseverance. The meetings, the dealings with parents (who can be difficult), the planning, the extracurricular activities, the classroom management challenges … and the list goes on.

It is easy to be disillusioned, isolated, and alone as a new teacher, particularly when you’re a relief teacher or new graduate in a ‘horror’ class. Research shows that virtually all new teachers go through a process of survival, disillusionment, and rejuvenation, although some people take longer to go through a phase than others.

Image via http://www.weac.org/professional_resources/new_teacher_resources/beg_handbook/phases.aspx

(Image source:  http://www.weac.org/professional_resources/new_teacher_resources/beg_handbook/phases.aspx. BTW, I highly recommend the Survival Guide at this link)

As a relief teacher, I didn’t have the support network that most new teachers have when they’re posted to a school. I was lucky that I had a few schools which were willing to forgive my horrific management mistakes, and give me the teaching experience I so desperately needed.

I am indebted to those relief coordinators who gave me a chance to learn and improve, who didn’t ‘spit me out’ after one or two days in their school. I went through some very traumatic experiences, yet I was one of the luckier ones, as I wasn’t stuck in a horrible class or supportive school for my first year of teaching.

It isn’t really possible to adequately prepare for the challenges of first year teaching, but there are some strategies and resources you can access to help ease the transition.

 

Develop your PLN / support network BEFORE you graduate from your teacher training course!



cc licensed ( BY NC SA ) flickr photo shared by Alec Couros

If I could go back in time and change one thing about my university teacher training, I would have started building my online support network as a first year teacher. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest teacher trainers should provide some information about online education networks and support communities as part of the first year teacher curriculum and graduate teacher programmes, as this would make a significant difference for many early career teachers.

My online support network has helped make me the teacher I am today. From providing emotional support behind the scenes through some of the most traumatic episodes of my career, to giving me the empowering chance to present at my first online conference, and to the ongoing collaboration that I contribute to, my online network has stood by me, and helped me grow over the past few years.

And remember, if you’re employed in a school community, don’t forget to develop your local support network as well. You’re not expected to know everything (although we often think we should), and don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues (teacher next door) for help and advice. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, as you can’t survive in this profession if you try to go it alone. You’re working to create a learning community in your classroom and school, so don’t be afraid to practice what you preach!

 

Engage in State/Union Graduate Teacher Professional Development opportunities. 

In Western Australia, I was lucky enough to be one of the few relief teachers to progress through the Education Department’s teacher induction programme. It is called different things in different states (see here for details) and different countries, but early career mentoring and professional development programmes are truly invaluable. You’d be truly mad not to participate if you’re eligible, and I was certainly glad I did so.

 

Try and maintain your health

This is vitally important, and something that I probably should have paid more attention to in my first few years. Eating healthily, aiming for regular exercise, and maintaining an outdoor hobby are critical to surviving first year teaching.

I must confess that while I became a skilled ballroom dancer during this time (it was my only social outlet), ignoring chronic stress-related health problems saw me end up in hospital. I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only first year teacher who went through this experience, and I can only stress that setting some time aside to look after yourself, however hard, is critical when you’re starting out in this very stressful, and time-consuming profession.

 

Document the Journey

As you progress in your career, there will be times where you will want to look back, and see how you thought and acted in your early years. In fact, I’m doing that now …

A private journal or blog is an essential medium for first year teachers. Believe it or not, it really, really helps to just take a moment to write down what you are doing, how you are feeling, and what you’re planning to work on. In my first year, I took a few hours each school holidays to sit and write, and what I wrote makes for interesting, if admittedly painful, reading.

In more recent years, this blog has replaced my journal, although I have always maintained a separation between the raw emotion of the journals & the more professional tone I use here. I’m not sure I could have publicly blogged my first year experiences, although I do know, and greatly respect those teachers who do so.

Keep hold of your dreams, passions, and reasons for entering teaching.

Each person comes into teaching for different reasons, and there will be times in your early career where you’d will be wondering if it is all worth it, whether you’re actually achieving anything, or making a difference.

Don’t let go of your dreams, find something to cling on to – through the good and the bad. If you’re lucky enough to discover a passion for something, hold on to it with both hands. Having a sense of purpose and direction makes a huge difference when you’re going through the rough times, and will help you stay in what is, at the end of the day, a wonderful profession.

Remember, you’re never alone. And you ARE making a difference.

 

Enjoy the ride

First year teaching will be a challenge, but it is just the beginning of what we hope will turn out to be an amazing journey. As I enter my fourth year of teaching, the painful memories and traumatic experiences have faded, replaced by the triumphs, successes, and positive learning experiences of the past two years.

They say “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, and that seems to have defined my teaching journey. For all the highs and lows, I’m a better person, and a better teacher. I’m looking forward to an exciting future in my chosen profession, and can’t wait to discover where it will take me.

Yes, I may not have (yet) had my own class, or a school to truly call home. Yet, I’m a teacher, and I’m proud of it.

All that remains is to wish my student-teacher and first year colleagues ‘good luck’ for your future. You have the potential to become great teachers, and I look forward to working with you in the years to come. Welcome to teaching.

 

The Story of an Image

In preparing for my Science, ICT, and the Global Classroom presentation at the Science Teachers’ of Western Australia Conference this weekend, I’ve learnt some valuable lessons about global connections, crafting powerful presentations, and about connecting science to the real world.

But perhaps the greatest lesson has arisen from my endeavours to model the appropriate (legal) use of images in educational presentations …

This is the story of an image, and there’s quite a story to tell ..

Image:  Jordi Rios. Reproduced with permission

I first came across this image through Twitter, where it appeared on the Facebook page of a prominent Science communicator in the USA. With the intention of using this quote and image in my presentation, I contacted the owner of the site – only to discover that he didn’t own the image!

With his kind assistance, I traced the imaged to the 500px site, where you can view the original version.

What followed was fascinating …

After leaving a comment on the site, I received an email from the artist in Spain, who was quite surprised to hear from me – for several reasons!

Firstly, he had no idea his image was being used in the above form, and secondly he wasn’t particularly happy that the image didn’t (and still doesn’t) attribute him as the artist!

With the help of Google Translate, and several emails later, Jordi kindly gave me permission to reproduce the image (and quote) for educational use.

But, this whole experience has left me with an important lesson about images on the Internet  Just because it’s there, doesn’t mean you have a right to take it and use it. I’ve also learnt that that asking for permission can have some unintended, unexpected consequences. But I’m glad I did.

Struggling to Teach Creative Commons

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Scott McLeod


Would you believe that our education department ICT policy makers, in their infinite wisdom, have blocked student access to Flickr.com?

And that this means, that no less than four out of five Creative Commons images sites, which are SUITABLE for students, don’t WORK AT ALL? Even the site recommended by the Department doesn’t work properly due to these restrictions!

How I’m supposed to teach students ‘appropriate and ethical’ ICT practices regarding copyright, I don’t know …

The ONLY site I could get to work was Google Advanced Image Search; however, this makes it exceptionally difficult for students to a) check the terms of the CC license, and b) attribute the image.

I mean, students can access these sites from home, but how am I supposed to teach and model appropriate use if I can’t access these resources in class?

Suffice to say, I am (still) not particularly happy about this!! I’d love to hear about potential workarounds (other than sharing my 3G connection with students …)

 

Engage, Connect, Inspire: My Teaching Philosophy

 

Whist preparing a recent job application, I took the opportunity to update my teaching philosophy statement, the ‘reflective ‘manifesto’ which defines my beliefs about 21st Century teaching and learning practices. I’ve posted it here.

What impressed me the most was not that my ideas and approach had necessarily changed over the past 3 years, but how I now have the practical experience and language to describe how I apply these ideas in my professional practice.

And then today, I found this video (via @HonorMoorman), and was lost for words … It seems I’m not the only one who believes in the power of technology to Engage, Connect, and Inspire …

I couldn’t explain why any better myself.

Digital Citizenship (#flatclass Book Club, Part 4)

 

Chapter 5: Citizenship, focussed on the complex educational issue of digital citizenship.

I was particularly interested in the idea that we could examine digital citizenship through 5 lenses, the areas of technical, individual, social, cultural, and global awareness.

As I am not a classroom teacher, I really struggled to relate this chapter to my own teaching practice. Personally, the guiding discussion questions for each area enabled me to critically examine my relatively limited understanding of this topic,  and I am sure that this chapter will be a useful resource in the years to come.

I’m going to close with a thought-provoking video on this topic, the keynote for the next Flat Classroom Project (2012). It is well worth watching, as it explores the various facets of our digital lives.

Walking Down Memory Lane

Yesterday, I met a former student … and the memories came flooding back.

 

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by The Wandering Angel

Three years ago, I was a student teacher on my final teaching placement. I was teaching a troubled, angry, and violent 8 year-old student … whom my cooperating teacher simply couldn’t stand.

“Roy” was (and remains) one of my most memorable “little characters’ … I’ve written about him before (September 2010). Back then, he was “liable to throw things at the teacher, run away from the class, and draw the teacher into power struggles”.

 

Yet, over those eight weeks, I forged a positive connection.


I made a difference … even if only for a short time
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“He made an effort to moderate his behaviour, and he never “exploded” into his aggressive chair-throwing & escape act while I was teaching him.

Working with him again last year, I believe I was one of very few, perhaps the only teacher Roy ever came to respect and trust.”  (September 2010)

Anecdotally, I know that Roy returned to his old ways when I left his classroom. Sad, but not particularly surprising given his life and school experiences.



Roy was a life-changing experience

My experiences with Roy had a defining impact on my teaching and classroom management approach. He taught me so much … and I still carry “his lessons” with me today. In fact, there is “a little bit of Roy” in most of my blogged classroom management reflections, which continue to bring so many visitors to A Relief Teacher’s Journey.


Yet, when Roy moved schools, I feared we’d never meet again.



Today, I went for a walk down memory lane …

“While out on duty today, I was approached by a student, and to my amazement, Roy walked into my life again. We went for a walk together … I shook his hand, and thanked him.”

“I finally had the chance to tell him that I’d never forgotten him … the chance to tell him that he taught me so much about teaching and about life.”

I know, from my conversations with his classroom teacher that “Roy” hasn’t changed much over the years; and perhaps has become slightly worse.


Yet, years ago, I once told Roy that I believed in him. I felt, deep down, behind the facade, he was a ‘good kid’. Angry, yes. But not bad.
I still do. I have hope. I care.


I still believe that my most memorable “little character” can make it. And one day, I hope he will read this and understand.

Every Student Has a Story


As a new teacher, it is so easy to get all-consumed with the teaching.

Yet, it is important to remember that we are teaching students … we are teaching children.


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Pink Sherbet Photography


Some of my students, my “little characters”, are not easy to teach.

Some make me laugh, some make me cry. Yet, I enjoy working with, and teaching every one of them.

 

I believe in building bridges with my most alienated, challenging students. I invest significant time and effort in building trust and mutual respect. I try to find that connection, that one little thing we have in common … and I’ve learnt “that from little things, big things grow”.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m preoccupied with my own teaching and learning, but today I received a powerful reminder about the foundation of my teaching practice.

A student told me her story.

It wasn’t an easy story to tell, and not an easy story to listen to. Yet, it was a first step, a little breakthrough …  from which, I believe we can move forward.

Every student, every child has a story …

But as teachers, do we take the time to listen?

Today, I Lost A Bet

Today, I had a reason to smile.

I’ve spent the last four weeks teaching a Year 6 class at my old school. I’m a relief teacher, but I’m part of the furniture. In these few weeks, I’ve helped run a global project, and learnt a lot about myself and my students. I’ve loved the opportunity to treat a class as my own, even for such a short time.

Now, I have several students, mostly Indigenous, for whom school attendance is a significant issue. One charming young lady usually turns up about 1-2 hours late every day, … let’s call her Ann.


Yesterday, I made a bet.

Ann was literally jumping ‘up and down’ wanting to be the official ‘school bell ringer’ for the day, a responsibility recently delegated to our class. I had to point out that turning up each day between 9.30AM-10.30AM wasn’t a good start.

So I made a bet that if Ann “could actually, just possibly, turn up to school before 8.40AM” [i.e. on time], she would be our bell ringer. If she didn’t turn up, I’d give the job to someone else.


I lost.

I walked into school at 8.15AM, a little bit wet and keen to see the outcome of my little wager … and who was the first person I saw as I entered our undercover area?

A triumphant, wet and beaming student, beside herself with anticipation.

I fell over. Not literally, but close enough. This was quite an achievement.

While I made a big deal of “moaning” about losing my bet, I will never forget this moment. I’ll never forget that triumphant smile .. my little victory.

I’ve had some sad, stressful times as a teacher. But these are the little  moments which make my job special.

These “little victories” are what teaching is all about.

Reflections on Classroom Management (Index)

My Experiences, Philosophy, & Reflections

  1. My Jigsaw Approach to Classroom Management
  2. The Conscious Competence Ladder (Skill Development)
  3. The Four Stages in My Teaching Practice
  4. Classroom Management – Summing Up

The 3 R’s of Effective Learning Environments

  1. Setting the Scene
  2. Overview of the 3 R’s
  3. Transforming a Year 3 class into a learning community
  4. The Third ‘R’ – Shared Responsibility for the Learning Process
  5. My experiences with the Third ‘R’

‘The Theory of Bumps’ (Bennett & Smilanich, 1994)

  1. The Key Principles
  2. Explanation & Suggested Strategies

The 3 Keys to Working with Challenging Students

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a “problem” or challenging behaviour?
  3. Part 1: Building Positive Relationships
  4. Part 2: The Classroom Learning Environment
  5. Part 3: The Teacher’s Attitude, Actions, & Management Approach
  6. Responding to Anger

Building Positive Relationships

  1. Small Talk: “From little things, big things grow”
  2. Relief Teaching – Chalk & Small Talk!
  3. Get Involved with Breakfast / Lunchtime Clubs
  4. The Importance of Active Listening

Top Tips for Teachers – Behaviour Management (Video)

Cracking the Hard Class