Education

It’s Our Job to Make Them Drink

It happened again this week.  Someone who was watching an amazing teacher doing incredible things in a classroom used my least favorite expression.  “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

I understand the intent.  For generations people have thrown this around to explain all manner of things…food not eaten, advice not taken, lessons not learned.  The idea is simple. We can provide even the best of something, but we cannot force anyone to consume it.  We cannot force a toddler to eat her food.  We cannot force a newlywed to heed the advice of his grandfather who has been married fifty years.  And we cannot force a student sitting in a classroom to learn.

I disagree.

No, we cannot make a horse drink water.  But we can certainly make the walk intriguing, and we can certainly make the water enticing.  The best teachers do it everyday.

They make the walk long.  They spend enough time to build background and provide the necessary scaffolding to help every student succeed.  They know that every child is in a different place with every lesson.  They assess what students know and fill in the gaps before they ever get to the activity.

They make the horse thirsty.  They understand that motivation and self efficacy are keys to the success of every lesson.  They supply the why for each activity.  They help students want to learn.  And they use the long walk to build a strong relationship, the most important thing our best teachers do.

And then they make the water irresistible.  They design engaging lessons that are impossible for students to resist.  They find stories and music and movie clips and speakers and field trips and projects that address multiple learning styles and allow each child to learn.

Our job as educators is not simply to design aligned curriculum and research-based instructional models.  Our job as educators is not simply to provide materials and experiences.  Our job as educators is not simply to provide a quality lesson and hope our students learn.  Our job as educators is to ensure, to guarantee as our mission so boldly states, that students learn.

It’s our job to make them drink.

I have been in many classrooms in the last month, and I have seen teacher after teacher doing this hard work.  It is happening everyday in our schools.  It is not easy, but it is our life’s work.  And I cannot imagine a more important job.

The Long Road

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I saw a former student this week.  He is one of those of those kids I will never forget.  There were three of them actually- Joe and Dalton and Jack.  They are forever connected in my memory.  Fun and full of life, they made each day an adventure.  I was on a half team that year, so I taught both English and reading and had a study hall.  Some of those students had me three times day- that was a lot of Mrs. Phipps.

Those three came back to visit sometimes when they were in high school and on one of those visits taught me one of my harshest lessons as teacher.  In an attempt to save precious instructional time, I would list each assignment on the board along with the last name of any students who did not have it turned in.  It made it faster and easier for me to remind them what they still needed to hand in.  Great system.  Well the boys came back to visit and there happened to be no assignments on the board.  They asked, “What happened to the Wall of Shame?”

So that happened.  Something I thought was a great system to save instructional time was actually a shaming experience for my students about whom I cared deeply.  Of course it was.  Seems so obvious now.

The road to Master Teacher is long and filled with moment after moment of hard-learned lessons. While I am not in the classroom anymore, I feel like I am still learning more and more about best instructional practices.

I regret the times I used word finds in class.  I regret the time my students spent making stuffed pigs and pig cakes as final projects for A Day No Pigs Would Day.  I regret the countless days spent typing “final copies” in the computer lab.  I want that instructional time back to do close reading and make actual meaning of language and vocabulary.  I want that time back to turn student loose on research questions of their own design about Shakers and agriculture and the Depression and family life.

When we know better, we do better.

Education is a reflective profession.  We are charged with a challenging, ever-changing job that matters deeply.  Our systems and our structures need to allow for data-based decisions, collaboration, common planning, Professional Learning Communities, and time for reflection.  Our leaders need the vision to make time where there seemingly is none.  Our teachers need the tools to plan, teach, reflect, change.  Our schools need the culture and climate to encourage risk and reflection.

As I look back on a lifetime in education, I really should not regret those lessons that failed, those projects that lacked purpose, or those systems that defeated my real purpose.  I learned so much from each of them.  When I knew better, I did better. I was blessed to have students who were honest about what worked and what didn’t.  I was lucky enough to work with colleagues who mentored me and who showed me a better way.  We learned together.  And I was privileged to have leaders who allowed me take risks and to fail at times in order to learn and to grow.

As the beginning of the year honeymoon comes to an end, and the real day-to-day work takes shape, I wish you all a year of risk and reflection.  I am overwhelmed everyday by the masterful work happening in classrooms all over our districts.  Our students are in good and caring hands!

The Struggle is the Best Part

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This feels good.  Sitting at the computer, looking out at the surprisingly still green grass and the blooming flowers in my backyard.  Typing a new blog for a new year.  This feels good!

Don’t get me wrong, summer has been amazing.  Taking time to rest and sharpen the saw is important.  I have traveled and read and napped.  I have relaxed, and I have reflected.  I feel energized.  In fact, my favorite thing about our profession is the school year cycle.  Each year we get the chance to plan, to implement, to reflect, and to redesign. We get to start anew, and I for one am grateful for that chance.

This past week we welcomed our new teachers, and tomorrow we will welcome back our returning teachers.  I know some of you still have summer left, but we are all closing in on those first days for staff and students.  The excitement is palpable.  What is your hope for those teachers this year?  What is your hope for students?

For me this time of year is about energy.  It is about sharing a vision and generating the energy to make that vision come to life.  We get the unique opportunity to start over each year.  It is a gift not to be taken lightly.  Use this time well.

In our District, we have been focusing on college and career readiness skills.  Are we doing all we can to be sure our students have not just the content but the life skills necessary to be successful in this century?  Our superintendent asked our new teachers to not just teach but to model grit and perseverance for their students.  Easier said than done.

My sister is an amazing mother.  Already so much better at things than I was when I had a 3-year-old.  I am learning from her all the time.  This summer I learned something about creating this grit and perseverance…and about modeling it.

Like I said, her son is three.  And he is curious.  She recently posted the following video on Facebook.  Of course (because he is adorable), she got plenty of comments on how cute and clever he is.  My first thoughts though were different.  I thought, ‘He is going to break those blinds.’  I am sure that if that were my child, and I was the one holding the camera, I’d have told him to stop because he might damage the blinds.  I am sure that I would have gone over, taken the cords from him, and just showed him.  And while he might have learned how to open the blinds (the content), he would not have learned to stick with something until you figure it out (the life skill).  My sister is an excellent teacher.

My hope for this new school year is that our new teachers, and our returning teachers as well, are willing to risk damaging the blinds.  A neat and tidy and quiet classroom might look great from the outside, but it is usually the messier, louder work that results in the greatest learning.

Good luck to you all as you kick off your new school year.  Enjoy the gift of a new start.