This semester I’m an occasional teacher, and I’m excited for all that I will learn from it! I think being able to experience so many different schools, classrooms, courses, teaching/admin methods, room set-ups, etc, and to interact with so many students will be a great learning experience.

I’ve gone in several times already, and somethings I’ve learned are:

  • choice for students is crucial, but needs to have limits
  • according to students, every teacher is the best one ever and the worst one ever (a good reminder to not take comments personally)
  • a whistle for gym classes is an absolute must (also: I love covering gym classes!)
  • always better to have extra work for students than not enough
  • the more teachers/staff/admin who are on board with policies makes them so much easier to implement
  • there is a huge variety of teaching strategies being used out there, and students roll with it for the most part (reminder: don’t be scared to try different things)
  • perhaps my favourite: high school students are hilarious (I need to write down some of the things I hear!)

I hope to add to this list that I can spell “occasional” correctly on the first try!

I’ll keep writing about my occasional teaching experiences as the semester goes on!

Posted in Learning, Reflection | Leave a comment

Failing Students

I read a post today over at Smarter Classroom Management about how failure can be good for students.

As a proponent of growth mindset, I’ve know that failure is where we do a lot of our learning. I am often heard saying this in my classrooms, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized that “failure” included actually failing assessments (less than 50%).

Since starting teacher’s college, I’ve be trained to think of failure as more like trying something (a math problem, creating a chemical solution, building a model space probe, etc.), not getting it at first, then figuring it out.

I still think the latter type of failure is an important part of the learning process, but I am also reminded that we should not be afraid of exposing our students to the first type, especially if earned.

After I read this article, I thought about my assessment practices in my first semester of teaching high school. I think I  could have challenged my students more, and I also think I gave too many opportunities to get high/additional marks. For example:

  • I began the year by offering bonus tickets if students completed certain extra tasks that they could apply to assignments or tests (I did this for the first 2 months as motivation, but I think it backfired because they began asking for them)
  • I found marking via a rubric made it very difficult to give students less than a 50%. I started adding a “level 0” as the lowest level so I could give lower than 50% if warranted
  • I feel that I sometimes was too lenient on tests. I always focus on marking process, not just getting the right answer. I still feel this is appropriate at the high school level, but I think I need to think more about my marking strategies.
  • I did find it very hard to mark consistently, and would have to go back and forth between different tests/assignments. I would be torn between adding marks to one student’s assessment or taking marks of another.

I think teachers face a lot of pressure to “make sure” students get high marks, and a lot of the responsibility is taken away from the student. There is the expected pressure from the students and parents, of course, but there is also indirect pressure because of previous guiding assessment documents (we now have Growing Success, which came out in 2010).

I’ve heard from more experienced teachers that in the years before Growing Success, there were guidelines that did NOT allow zeros, deductions for late assignments, etc.. I think this caused (and still causes) a lot of the fear around failing students. The students who are in high school now went through elementary when these guidelines were in place and continue to have the same expectations.

In fact, this was often addressed in teachers college, and it began to feel  like they were saying “you’ll need to provide mountains of evidence and proof dating back years and years to the student/parents/department head/principal/superintendent/ministry of education/etc. for giving a zero or failing mark, so don’t do it unless you’re prepared for the fight of your life”.

So add together all the sources of pressure, my being a new teacher, and (if I’m being honest) a fear of being seen as harsh or unfair, the results were probably higher grades than if the courses were taught by  a more experienced teacher.

The more I teacher, the more I realize this profession has a huge learning curve and I have a loooooooong climb ahead of me. But, I’m always trying to learn, re-assess, and then make changes as I go. It might feel like a two-step forward, one-step back process, but I’m still moving forward.

What are your thoughts on failure in the classroom? Is it acceptable to give zeros or failing marks? In what scenarios? What is your practice?

Posted in assessment, Learning | Leave a comment

Experiencing Learning

The other day, Zach (at Reflections on Holes in Graphs and Reasoning) wrote about how he was reminded of how it feels to be a learner while auditing a Hapkido class.

It made me realize how quickly us professional learners forget what it’s like to be in the learner role.

I’m having a similar experience to Zach this week. I am taking a knitting class to learn how to make socks. This is something I’ve wanted to learn for many years, but have shied away because it seemed “too difficult” and too “above my level”.  REMINDER 1: it’s often our immediate reaction to shy away from challenge.

The first class was fine because it involved doing things  I already knew. Awesome! I love it! I’m great at this! I’ll knit socks all the time! REMINDER 2: class is always awesome when you already know how to do it.

In the second class, we started by learning the heal flap. I was a bit confused, but I was doing okay because the stitches weren’t too different than what we were doing before. REMINDER 3: class is still pretty good if it’s not too far of a stretch.

But then we started running out of time and the instructor went very quickly through the heel turn, picking up stitches for the gusset, knitting the gusset, then how to do custom decrease for the foot if needed. WOAH. WOAH. WOAH THERE!! That was too fast! Too much information! I wanted to try it, not just watch it! I wanted to do this in class so the instructor could help me if I had problems! REMINDER 4: too much information that comes too quickly is way too confusing and can be paralyzing; REMINDER 5: trying it yourself really helps with learning.

During this burst of information, the instructor made a couple passing comments that made me start questioning my ability as a knitter. REMINDER 6: even small negative comments can have a lasting effect on students.

I went home to try out what the instructor showed us, and it was a complete disaster. I had made a mistake, tried to fix it, and it just got worse and worse. I got SO frustrated and angry. I was annoyed at myself for not being able to do it, and at the instructor for not covering the most difficult part of socks during class time.  REMINDER 6: Learning can be frustrating, and it can come out in different ways.

This morning, I had a friend help me fix my sock. I’m back on track, but I’m a bit gun-shy about moving forward. REMINDER 8: Failure can be a big stumbling block for some.

Here are some things I’ll need to remind myself of:

  • It’s important to encourage a growth mindset, but understand that it takes a lot of time to embrace it and most will stumble along the way
  • Challenge is good, but not too much and not too fast all at once. Slowing down and ensuring everyone is on the same page is crucial
  • Make sure that students have ample time to try it themselves and offer support (though my flipped experience flopped, I think it really has merit on this point)
  • Be careful with wording and don’t be too negative
  • Frustration can manifest itself in many ways; it’s important to empathize, but help students find ways to cope with and overcome it.

Like Zach concluded in his post, I think it’s important that we put ourselves in the role of a learner so we stay in touch with what our students are dealing with every day.

Posted in Reflection | 7 Comments

Low Work Ethic Vs. True Barriers to Learning?

I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for over a year now, where I was struggling to help a student (and their parents) figure out what was the underlying cause of a drop in performance.

Something I’ve struggled with on my road to becoming a high school teacher is accommodations for students.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and my background is largely academic, so needing help of any kind was seen as weak. You get the mark you deserve (whatever you got on the test), and that was that. If you didn’t do well, the fault was entirely placed on your shoulders. It was your responsibility to learn the material, NOT the responsibility of the teacher/instructor/professor.

Now things are very different. We know more about how different learners can be, and how some have much different needs than others. We have a better understanding of what we can do to help learners reach their potential and have the same opportunities to learn. I think this image sums it up wonderfully:

And it makes sense for all students to have an equitable opportunity to learn and to demonstrate their learning. But I struggle with what is “fair”. Sometimes it is more laid out for teachers – when students have an IEP, for example. We know what accommodations and/or modifications should be made for those students.

But what about for students who don’t have an IEP? And not only does this rely on  a teacher’s professional judgement, but many other factors come into play: the student, the parents, the administrators, etc.. Sometimes, these players can combine to help hone in on what is most useful for a student. But, other times, opinions are at odds with each other, creating tension and pressure between all parties.

How can we decide on the line between 1) the student is not taking responsibility by not studying or doing work, 2) there is an actual barrier to learning such as undiagnosed LD, anxiety, or other underlying issue and, don’t forget 3) both of the above.

In an ideal world, to answer this question we would work with professionals in education psychology, neuroscience, and sociology – or be all these things ourselves. But, obviously reality means this is not possible for every student who is struggling.

So, here’s where I get stuck: what things can we do as teachers in these situations? How can we best “guess” what is the underlying cause of poor performance, and what’s the best starting point to help? 

Posted in Learning, Philosophy, psychology, Reflection | 3 Comments

Flipped Flop(?)

I wrote before about using an electronic flipped classroom method for a grade 11/12 split physics class (3U/4C) that I adapted from Heather’s resources. I really loved and believed in the method. It was well thought-out, gave the students learning and assessment options, and utilized the iPads the students had access too.

Other teachers, admin, and a learning coordinator seemed impressed with it, and gave me very positive feedback and encouragement.

But, the students just hated it. I had complaints from students (and parents) about how

  •  I wasn’t teaching
  • it was too hard to learn physics “on their own”
  • they didn’t feel like (or know if) they were learning anything

Their resulting performance on the assessments (mastery checks, labs, projects, quizzes, tests) told me they were doing great. In fact, the average for the class was about an 80%.

Even with this evidence, I decided to back off rather than push forward because of the negative feedback. I first did a hybrid unit: some flipped-style, some lecture-style.  The next unit the 4Cs did self-guided investigations of simple machines, and I did straight-up lectures with the 3Us for advanced kinematics. Once they got a taste of the lecture-style, that’s all they wanted when given the option (even the 4Cs), so I felt I had to continue with that method.

This decision  was disheartening and disappointing for me. I really thought 21st-century high school students would appreciate more innovative teaching methods, but it seems lecture-style is seen as the epitome of what teaching is supposed to look like.

Looking back, I wish that I hadn’t given up on the flipped method so easily or so early. I think many of the students appreciated what I was trying to do, but the negative voices were the loudest, and I let that dictate the direction of the classroom.

I do think I will try this method in the future if I get the chance again. Three things I will improve are:

  1. Sticking with it longer. Two units wasn’t long enough for the students to really get comfortable with it and realize how consistently well they were doing.
  2. The support given needs to be in place longer than I thought. In the first two units, I was doing homework checks, keeping track of when the students handed in their assessments (using a Google spreadsheet they could check), provided check points so they knew they were on track, would allow them to resubmit their work, and gave bonus tickets for completing additional tasks. I then started pulling back on these, giving the students more responsibility, but perhaps I did this to0 quickly.
  3. The lecture choice needs to be there for every lesson, but they should be pre-prepared and shorter (some were turning into full-period lessons). Also, I’d like to ensure other students don’t feel they have to listen to a lecture if it’s going on. One of my colleagues suggested that I allow other students do their readings/watch videos while giving the lecture as long as they’re quietly working.

If I do use this method again, I’ll be sure to write about it!

Posted in flipped classroom, physics, Reflection, teaching | 1 Comment

Newbie Reflection

It being the beginning of a new year, it’s a good time to do some reflecting on my first months of teaching in a public high school. Here are some things that have been running through my head lately:

  • I let the complaints (and wanting to make everybody happy) guide me too much
  • In the beginning, I focused too much on staying on the schedule rather than ensuring a deeper understanding
  • I think I tried to implement too many methods/strategies for starting out (this is the problem with having such an awesome PLN: there are so many amazing teachers doing amazing things. But, they’re also tweeting what things NOT to do. So, it’s inspiring and overwhelming at the the same time.)
  • I had trouble staying consistent (teaching methods, classroom management, even marking) – perhaps the idea of keeping it simple might help?
  • Direct communication is key (found this out the hard way: trying to gloss over things or avoid situations to “be nice” does not work)
  • There will always be difficult situations/people to deal with
  • Teaching can fill up every second I allow it to

Many of those sound negative, but I certainly have a lot to learn from it all. On the more positive side:

  • I had several compliments about my teaching from other teachers and admin.
  • Students like and appreciate choice
  • I found that creating personal connections make a huge positive difference

In fact, some of my favourite moments involved making surprising connections with students: like having  a student who told me many times they didn’t want me around come to my door when they were bored and having a 30 minute conversation about their art.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: this job has a steep learning curve, but I’m not giving up just yet!

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I really had no idea

Here I am, about three months into to my first public high school teaching gig, and the one thing that I cannot stop thinking to myself is “I had NO idea how hard this job is.”

This is a second career or sorts for me, because I spent the first 15 years of my adult life learning, doing research, and coming up with fun/cool activities that would help teachers. I remember getting stressed out once in a while then.

That was nothing.

Being a high school teacher is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and that includes my 8-hour PhD comprehensive exam (and preparing for it for months), my MSc OR PhD defence, giving birth twice, and even recovering from a stroke.

I’ve tried writing this post several times over from this point on, and keep deleting my thoughts because I just don’t feel brave enough to share my true experiences at this early stage in my teaching career.

So, instead, I was to send out a public service announcement of sorts, as someone who can still see this world from an outside perspective: please, please respect your teachers, and your kids’ teachers.

Every teacher I have met is trying to do the best they can with the resources they have, with the background knowledge they have, and with the students they have. They are all trying their best to make your child(ren)’s life at school as educational, interesting, happy, and safe as possible.

They deserve your kindness, your respect, and your gratitude. Thank a teacher today!

For those other new teachers out there – do the best your can, hang in there, and I’m right there with you.

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