The Dangers of Not Blogging Our Failures

Are all other teachers perfect?  Am I the only one making mistakes?  Should I really be allowed to teach kids (let alone teach other teachers)?  Some days, maybe a lot of days, I feel like everyone else has all their ducks in a row while mine are flapping about everywhere as though they were badly wounded.  And some days I feel like a badly wounded duck.  Some days my students act like they are badly wounded and I can’t get them back in a row.  And now that my simile is breaking down horribly, let’s move on.

I know the title of this post refers specifically to blogging, but that’s only because the people reading this are bloggers, or at least online learners.  In reality, most of what I have to say will relate to the dangers of not sharing our failures, no matter what form that sharing might take.  This post was inspired by a recent conversation I had with another learning coach in my my district.  I’m not sure how we got onto the topic at all because sharing failures isn’t something that happens too often, but I remember specifically stating, for some reason, that I felt I would be fired from this particular position next year.  To my surprise, my colleague admitted that she had been feeling the same way.   Now, we both knew that these feelings were unwarranted:  We were specifically chosen for our position because we are qualified to hold them, and our administrators often confirm the job we are doing.  But this is typically the case for most of us, isn’t it?  We know we are qualified, even if we don’t feel qualified; we know we make a difference, even if we rarely see it; we know we are on the right track, even if we sometimes fall down.  Yet we often feel alone in our failure.  The way I see it, we need to share our failures, and failing to do so is dangerous for a few reasons.

1.  Failing to share our failures leads to discouragement.

If individual teachers believe they are they only ones who struggle, it’s easy to become discouraged.  It’s hard to look around yourself and think that everyone else is perfect because their stories are full of success and advice.  This happens often on blogs, but also in our staff rooms and at conferences.  Of course, it makes sense because we like telling stories with happy endings, and we like inspiring others.  We feel insecure sharing mistakes, and I believe we think that sharing failures will lead to discouraging others.  However, it is more discouraging to believe that we are the only one who fails.  I wonder if this plays a big role in why stats are so high for teachers leaving the profession in their first five years teaching.  Do they look around and feel they fail more than anyone else?   My school, a K-12 with approximately 210 students, recently had 5 new teachers come to us.  All are in their first few years of teaching.  We only have 16 teachers in the school, including these 5, so they make up a significant percentage of our staff.  These teachers have made such a huge positive difference in our school climate and we are lucky to have them, but there are certain times through the year when it’s noticeable that being a new teacher takes it’s toll.  I’ve talked with these teachers and have heard the discouragement they feel from time to time, and it’s tough to hear them say that they can’t wait until they get more experienced and things get better.  I remember thinking this.  It hasn’t happened yet though.  Things haven’t gotten better for me.  I don’t think they do if we are continually pushing ourselves and if we refuse to become complacent.  I still have trouble keeping up with my marking and planning.  I still have lessons that go horribly wrong.  I still can’t believe how I’ve let my kids down after learning something eye opening from someone else.  But I rarely share these failures with others.  I rarely let others know I’m not as perfect as I try to appear.  And this failure to share is discouraging other teachers in my school.  Going back to my conversation with the other learning coach, after we shared with each other, we both expressed a sense of relief that we were not the only ones feeling inadequate.

2. Failing to share our failures leads to not learning from our own mistakes.

When I feel that I’m the only one failing I tend to have one of a few reactions.  If I can, I will quit.  A few years ago I was interested in kayaking.  I went out to the Grande Prairie kayaking club’s open night at the pool to get more involved.  Now, I’d been out a bit before with my brother who was also a beginner, but in that pool I was surrounded by people who knew what they were doing.  I’m pretty introverted, and it was a big risk for me to even show up there by myself.  I felt out of place.  I felt inadequate.  I felt like the only one failing, so I left and didn’t go back.  It was easier to quit than it was to face my mistakes and learn.  Other times when I feel that I’m the only one failing, I will ignore my mistakes and focus on something I’m doing well.  I don’t want to admit to myself that I’m not as good as others so it’s easier to forget my shortcomings.  This doesn’t help me learn and grow though.  Another common reaction when I feel like everyone else is perfect and I’m struggling is that I deflect fault.  When I make excuses or blame others, however, I am refusing to accept responsibility for my mistakes and to learn from them.  The opposite is true though when I realize that others struggle as well.  I take responsibility for my failures, confront them head on, and persevere until I’m successful.  Rather than feeling like I am inherently flawed, there’s a sense of challenge for me when I realize that things are difficult for others as well.

3.  Failing to share our failures leads to others not learning from our mistakes.

This one is pretty straightforward, yet it should be a compelling reason to share our failures.  A common question in education is “why reinvent the wheel?” One answer to this question is that often times we are left with no other choice.  It is not good enough for us to simply share our success with others while ignoring the process of failures it took us to arrive there.  IF I become a blogger who sticks with this practice and begin to share my success story with others and tell them they should be blogging as well, but I don’t mention the many failed attempts I made at blogging consistently and the reasons for those failures, then others who try to live up to my example will have to figure out solutions to these same problems.  Some of these problems have included:

  • not knowing what to blog about (failures would be a good suggestion, read what others write about and share your own opinion, successes, something you recently learned about . . .)
  • not having time to blog (I cut back on my tv watching, I construct piecemeal using the Notes app on my phone when I have the time then pull it all together)
  • not knowing how to get started (I talked to others to figure what blogging was, attended sessions about it, trial and LOTS OF ERROR, Googled answers to issues)

I’ve started and stopped blogging several times, due to the problems above.  Sharing my “success” with blogging without the struggles I ‘ve had won’t help others learn from my mistakes.  We need to share our failures, the steps to solve those failures, then the success we’ve had.

4.  Failing to share our failures leads to not utilizing the assistance of others.

Again, this seems obvious, but how much bother could we save ourselves if we were willing to share our failures with others?  I’ve told this to my students many times, “I can’t help you if I don’t know you have a problem.” (Let’s ignore my poor understanding of the fact that part of my job as a teacher is formative assessment and that I should know they have a problem.)  Others can’t offer their assistance if they don’t know we are struggling.  There is a wealth of knowledge out there and people who are willing to help us if they only knew we needed it.

5. Failing to share our failures leads to turning others off.

No one likes taking advice from a know-it-all.  When we fail to share our failures we set ourselves up as perfect in the eyes of others, and the consequence of this is that others begin to resent us.  We all know no one is perfect.  We all know there are no easy answers.  We all know.  Therefore, people become suspicious and wary of us when we set ourselves up to be experts.  Personally, I prefer to listen to speakers who humanize themselves rather than those who set themselves up as experts.  It turns me off to be sitting in a session with someone who feels they are better than me (I know you are already, so help me learn rather than preaching at me).  When people come to read our blogs, are they turned off by how we present our ideas, or do readers feel a sense of connection to other us as learners?

I believe we need to be more open to sharing all of our stories with each other, not just the successes.  We need to come together as educators and create a community of learners rather than an expert vs. learner hierarchy.  Failing to share our failures will lead to some dangerous consequences, but sharing our failures with one another will lead to all of us becoming better teachers for our students.

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using polleverywhere.com to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.

 

***Amendment***

I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.

Teaching for 21st Century but Assessing in the Past

I learned about 21st century competencies nearly two years ago, and from that moment my teaching practices began to transform.  These competencies provided answers to many of the questions that I was asking regarding the disconnect between what I was currently doing and what I believed I should be doing in my classroom. I had been questioning my practice of copious note-taking, or rather note-giving, of how I was handling the assessment of group work, of providing answers to students and thus creating dependance, and of the use of technology in my classroom (and more).  I was unsettled, discouraged, and desperately wanted answers but didn’t know where to turn.  I felt trapped teaching in a style that I didn’t believe in.  And I continued this way for a long time, clinging to the teaching methods I grew up with in school, and must admit was never really told not to use throughout my university education courses.

Then I learned about Twitter.  I remember the edtech for my district offering an online crash course for any interested teachers, and I thought, “Why not?”  It was a bit of a risk for me at the time; those who know me now often think of me as a “tech guy,” but prior to this moment a couple years ago, I wasn’t.  I was actually scared to participate in this session.  I’d never participated in an online learning session before, and although I’d signed up for Twitter some time prior to this, it was so confusing that I never went back to the site.  But Jen Clevette, Peace Wapiti School Division 76’s edtech at the time, was extremely helpful.  She made Twitter easy to understand.  Deciding to take this risk changed the course of my teaching.

Twitter led me to QR codes, Qr codes led to me taking initiative and posting them at Teacher Convention, which led to me being invited to Peace Wapiti’s Community of Practice, which led to me flying to Calgary with Jen Clevette, where, while sitting in the airport waiting for our flight, I was brought up to speed on this new concept of 21st century competencies (at least it was new to me). And this, as I’ve said, began to provide some answers to the apprehension I was feeling about my teaching.

Now, after 2 years of growing and changing and learning, I have noticed some of these feelings returning.  They are, in part, based again on my own teaching practices, but just as much they are because of broader practices in education.  One of the main sources of my current apprehension revolves around assessment.  It seems to me that we are teaching for the 21st century, yet we are still assessing students based on methods from the past.

This became staggeringly clear after reading a passage from Alberta Education Action Agenda 2011-14:  “Transformative change refers to changing the education system by re-examining student needs, how we teach students, what we teach them, how to better engage communities in educating students and how research can be harnessed to inform change.”  I quickly noted the absence of reexamining how we assess students.  Essentially we are being told that we should teach the curriculum through the 21st century competencies, but that we, and the government, should and will continue to use outdated and now inconsistent assessment methods.  From the same website as above comes this statement emphasizing that we should be teaching students the required competencies needed for life in the 21st century: “We need a curriculum that focuses on the competencies young people require in the 21st century.” So, we are to teach the competencies, but then we are to administer standardized tests that forbid collaboration, time to think critically and creatively, and utilization of digital literacy? Implicit to this then is the need to prepare students to write these types of tests and to provide ample practice, which for many teachers means midterm and final exams in the same format from grade 10 through grade 12.  I see the unsettling contradiction between how/what we teach and how we assess as an ethical dilemma as I strive to uphold the TQS for Alberta teachers.  On the one hand I’m obliged to “function within a policy-based and results oriented education system” (TQS standard b) and administer standardized tests (TQS standard i), but on the other hand I’m to “engage in ongoing, individualized professional development” (TQS standard b) and “use the results [of student assessments] for the ultimate benefit of students” (TQS standard i).  The results oriented education system demands that my students perform well on standardized tests; however, my professional learning is telling me that I am to teach students to learn in ways that the standardized test not only ignore, but oppose; consequently, I believe assessment consistent with what I teach will provide results I can use to the ultimate benefit of my students.  I’m left wondering how to ethically juggle these competing demands.

A final quote from near the end of the Alberta Action Agenda 2011-14 states that “curriculum, including assessment and education supports, will be comprehensively reviewed and modified as needed to incorporate holistic perspectives that allow for timely evolution to meet changing needs.” I’ve seen a lot of changes being discussed regarding curriculum and education supports: Government-funded AISI projects have been initiated (and now discontinued due to a new budget) that focus on research to support 21st century learning, and discussions for modifying curriculum are occurring, in addition to a restructuring of the competencies; PWSD brought a 21st century focus to district PD, as well as initiated a cohort of inclusion, AISI, and high school curriculum coaches (I’m the ELA coach for the district); and Mighty Peace Teachers’ Convention sessions also had a very strong focus on 21st century learning.  However, what I have not heard about is any proposed changes to standardized tests. So now what?  Do I just sit back and wait patiently, hoping change comes, hoping my students can somehow manage to walk the fine line between what they’re taught and how they’re assessed, hoping that things turn out the way I believe they should?  As we approach the midterm point for this semester, I am reflecting on where my grade 10 ELA class has been and where we are headed.  I am strongly considering the possibility of radically revising my final exam for this course from a diploma style structure to a more collaborative and critical thinking based model.  I’m not certain yet exactly what this will look like, but I do know that my students are thoroughly engaged in the collaboration and critical thinking opportunities I’ve presented them with so far this year.  They are building these skills and seeing how these 21st century competencies improve their understanding of texts and their text creations.  I shudder to think that after all of this I might revert back to the way I’ve always done things in order to prepare my students for government tests that have not yet been “modified as needed.”  At what point do we demand that assessment practices shift to match the changes in teaching and learning?

Validation

I’m not typically one of those people who needs to be validated by others in order to feel confident in who I am and what I’m doing; however, over the past couple weeks, I’ll admit to being a little downhearted.  I don’t know about you, but I get like that sometimes.  My marking begins to collect faster than I can get it back to students; I get bogged down in the paperwork; I put too much stock in the politics and standardized tests; I get depressed that the technology I want is inaccessible; I lose sight of the reason I wanted to teach in the first place–to make a difference in the lives of my students–and focus on all the reasons why I feel I can’t make a difference.  These dark times don’t often last very long, and all it takes is a day like today to snap me out of my funk and remind me that teachers really do make a difference in the lives of their students.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to briefly share my day with you. I began the day at Sexsmith Secondary School in Alberta.  As part of my ELA coaching position, I was asked to judge the school’s first poetry recitation competition.  There were two levels, one for jr high and one for sr high.  I was blown away.  Memorization isn’t something I’ve required of my students before, though I offer it as an option in a couple of units.  Watching these students today was inspiring and made me want to push my own students out of their comfort zone a bit.  It was easy to see that the teachers at SSS are pushing their kids and the kids are thriving.  It was validating for me to see that other teachers are continuing to sail out of the harbour and take some risks, and their kids are right out there beside them.

Next up was my own ELA 10-1 and 10-2 combined class.  I didn’t know if I’d make it back for the beginning of this class after the poetry competition, so I lined up another teacher to cover my class during her prep.  (That cooperation was validation of its own–I love my school, colleagues, and students!)  However, I did make it back in time, only to have this teacher offer to sit in with my class anyways.  I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and set aside my plans for the day in order to talk one-on-one with each of my students.  It was a great experience.  I let the students know upfront that the conversation was not because I had any particular issues to discuss, but rather that I wanted to give them each a private forum to voice their concerns and opinions about the course so far.  These conversations reminded me that each of my students is an individual:  I had varying comments on different issues, ranging across the spectrum of possibilities.  For instance, workload was a hot topic for some, feeling that I expected too much, while others were content with the expectations, and some felt like they could certainly handle more.  This was a great reminder of one of my goals for this term, which was to bring a deeper individualization to my courses.  It was also validating to hear that my students were unanimously appreciating the “book club” feel that I am attempting to bring to the course, where we are much more conversation oriented as we study texts.  They enjoy the critical thinking inherent in this framework, and many of the students mentioned they were much more engage despite harbouring a distinct disliking of ELA in general.  It also deeply moved me that each student willingly shared their ideas and opinions with me, something I was a little wary about when I decided to hijack these 84 minutes today.  (By the way, when they weren’t talking with me, students appreciated the time to work on a couple of the tasks we have on the go.)

Finally, I had my junior high drama option for the last two periods of the day.  I’ve decided to take a different approach to this course this year, bringing a “short film” focus to the term.  I’ve done this for a variety of reasons and have heard a variety of opinions from students and parents about the decision to do so.  But this isn’t the point.  Suffice it to say, the goal is that each student will create a short film on a topic of their choice, in a genre of their choice, by the end of the term, and we will present these in our own film festival.  Over the past couple of classes students have been creating the plot and point of their short film.  Last class we began to peer review the stories they’ve written.  Today I wanted to introduce them to the notion of critique.  We talked about the differences between critique and criticize.  We talked about the life applications of learning how to provide critique to others, as well as accept the critique of others.  I began the critiquing session by sharing my own ideas for my own short film.  And the students amazed me.  They asked smart questions for clarification, mentioned positives in my ideas, but more importantly they offered polite suggestions for how I might go about improving my idea.  It was validating to hear them interacting as I had hoped, but feared to expect.  This continued beautifully through student volunteers who shared their project ideas with the class, faltering only slightly as a grade 7 boy decided to persistently question his older sister.  All in all it was a great end to a great day.

Sometimes we teachers can get so caught up in all the responsibilities of teaching that we forget our number one priority needs to be our students.  Luckily, we can’t ever escape these same students, and it won’t be long before they  remind us that we do make a difference in their lives.  At that point it’s up to us to decide whether we will have a negative or a positive difference.  That’s certainly an easy decision to make; we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we weren’t always striving to better the lives of the kids we love.