Tuesday, 26 June 2018

You’re The Best!

You’re the Best!

We’ve all heard it before, maybe especially at this time of year.

You’re the best teacher I ever had! I’m going to miss you.

We smile and think to ourselves, “I bet you say that to all the teachers.”

But what if this year you actually let it in, even just for a moment? What if you took some time to celebrate what worked so well for you and your students this year that you must absolutely do it again next year? What if you considered the hours spent on lesson design, the work only a professional teacher can do in a way that takes into account the curriculum, the students in front of you, and the evidence of learning that tells you who needs what next? What if you gave yourself credit for the relationships you build with your students, believing in them even when they struggle to believe in themselves? What if you celebrated the collaboration and learning you have done this year with colleagues?

What if?

Teaching (and we are all teachers my friends) is deep thinking work that engages our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Not if we’re lucky, as some would have us believe, but if we’re intentional. The next time someone gives you a message about your impact as a teacher, just let it in. Don’t deny it, don’t shrug it off, and for goodness sake don’t worry about the spelling. That’s what I’m doing with this message from a Grade 2 student.  J

Happy summer!

Monday, 28 May 2018

Building Efficacy

I’ve had a long history with the idea of efficacy… dating back to when I decided to become a teacher (age 5, true story) and knew only one four syllable word (Mississippi – again, true story, but admittedly an odd choice for a girl from small town Saskatchewan).  I became a teacher because I wanted to help others love learning… and I believed in my ability to make it happen. This belief was based on evidence, not arrogance. Year after year I watched my mother and her Grade 2 students do amazing things that decades later would be explained by research into the brain and learning, differentiation, and quality classroom practices. Armed with twenty-one years of this research and a newly minted B.Ed., I began my teaching career with a clear end in mind – fostering a love of learning in my students.

Like all first year teachers, I was challenged by my thirty-two Grade 1 students and all they needed to learn. The path that we followed that year was not direct, not perfect, and certainly not without setbacks. But I did not give up or take it personally. Because I believe in the power of teaching and the ability of a skilled practitioner to make a difference for learners, I became what Regie Routman calls a teacher-learner. For the next twenty years I studied the art and the science of teaching - learning from my students, colleagues, mentors, professors, authors and then applying my learning to my teaching and reflecting on the impact on student learning. All the while believing in my own ability, and that of my colleagues, to make a difference in the lives of children.

I learned the word ‘efficacy’ when I began training as a coach.  I still credit the word with being hired as a consultant. As I remember that interview, I was asked about the qualities of a person who, in my opinion, would make a good consultant. I responded that I believed they wanted someone efficacious – someone who believed in her or his own ability to make a difference, and further, believed in the efficacy of teachers and would view the role of consultant as supporting and developing that efficacy. This has been my mission for the last fifteen years.

On my reading list this year was Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning by Jenni Donohoo. It is helping me think about something that occasionally happens when I do a demonstration lesson or work in residence, teaching a class with a group of teachers observing. In the debrief following the lesson sometimes a teacher will say, “Of course that worked. They had to pay attention with so many of us in the room.”  And each time it happens I pose these questions:
  • For what reasons was this carefully designed lesson successful with these learners at this time?
  • What factors within our control might have contributed to the success of this lesson?
  • How might we develop the capacity to talk about the power of the thinking, planning, and impact of a professional teacher and leader?

What we do matters. Why we do it matters. How we do it matters.

Collectively, we need to both believe and live this.


Donohoo, Jenni. 2017. Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning.Thousand Oakes, CA: Corwin.

Routman, Regie. 2000. Conversations: Strategies for Teaching, Learning, and Evaluating. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

To be inspired, or to not be inspired… that is the question

Teacher: How can you still be so optimistic, idealistic, and passionate about
               teaching? You are so lucky.

Me:  There is absolutely no luck involved. I make a point of being inspired by kids
         and teachers. I choose to collect and share stories of the amazing things 
         that happen in our schools every day.

This is a variation on a conversation I have had many times. It doesn’t mean I am naïve. It means that I believe you find what you look for. Take this week for instance. I had lunch with a principal, a vice-principal, and two grade 7/8 teachers from a small school with what many would describe as an at-risk population. They shared a story that moved me as a human being, inspired me as a teacher, and found its way to the top of my All-Time Favourite Inspiring Teacher and Student Chart. The story began with our writing lesson study back in September when the school decided that they were going to explore three questions all year:

·      Who am I?
·      Where am I from?
·      Why am I here?

In Grade 7/8 we decided that one of our goals was for students to understand that humans write to pursue answers to those very questions, to, as Shelley Harwayne says, “make sense of our green minutes on earth.” At lunch this week I learned how two teachers, supported and encouraged by a principal and vice-principal who lead by walking alongside teachers, could transform a group of adolescents into a community of writers and activists. And how did they do this? For me, the short answer is by dreaming big – by really thinking about what it is they want students to learn about being - a writer, a reader, indeed, a citizen of the world. And then teaching in ways that convey the power of writing in understanding ourselves, others, and the world we live in… the power of writing to really, really communicate what is in our hearts and minds… the power of writing to effect change in the world.

The longer answer is by making a commitment to finding meaningful and authentic reasons to write and real audiences to write for. To knowing your students and their passions, your curriculum inside out, and what is going on in the world, so that when Senator Murray Sinclair publishes a poem about grieving for the country, your students are invited to write about what and whom they grieve for… and the poems are shared with Justice Sinclair and the Prime Minister. So that when your students return to school on the Monday following the Humboldt Broncos devastating bus crash, the first words they say are…

“We have to DO something. What can we write?”

Thank you, Lavallee School, for inspiring me as a teacher, a writer, and a collector of stories.

Harwayne, Shelley. 2000. Lifetime Guarantees. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Monday, 26 March 2018

What's A Teacher To Do?

As a teacher I gave up worrying about what I can’t change or control long ago. I focus on what is within my power to control or influence. And frankly, I believe there is a lot of room for me to make a difference in the lives of children.  In my teaching life no one has ever said, “You must do THIS in exactly this way.”  Don’t get me wrong, they HAVE said, “You must do this” but the how has been up to me.

So what’s a teacher to do when she or he is given a set of criteria created at the school, district, provincial, or territorial level and told to use it? Because we work as part of a team, because we honour our professional obligations, because we know it is a research-based practice… we use it. But it doesn’t stop there.  Because we understand that criteria are most effective when co-constructed with the learners who will use it, we involve our students in the process.

In one school district a team of teachers and the math consultant created criteria for math problem solving.  Along with the curriculum, this criteria describes quality and proficiency for teachers. We then use it to create a clear learning destination for our students, describing what they must know, understand, do, and articulate.  Next we use samples to make this target clear to all. These samples may be student work from another year, a pair of students describing their solution during a math meeting or congress, or the teacher modelling his or her thinking (notice I said thinking, not steps or solution) during a problem solving demonstration. As the students observe, the teacher pauses periodically to ask, “What do you notice?” and records student responses, beginning the process of co-constructing the criteria in the students’ own language.

On our own or with members of our team, we connect the criteria co-constructed with the students to that we were given, looking for what may be missing, but more likely noting that students have noticed more than we ever would.