Don't Fear the Teacher; Creating the Optimal Learning Environment

As I have talked about effective practices for teachers and administrators, I really wanted to shift the focus on what the best environment is for student learning.  If we are to have students become leaders and grow within our classrooms, they have to be in an environment that creates that.

There have been points in my own childhood where I feared the teacher and didn’t feel safe or cared for.  The belief at that time may have been that if I “feared” the teacher, I would listen and respect their wishes.  The fact was, when I felt unsafe was the time that I caused the most issues in a classroom.  A mutual respect between teacher and student must be created to ensure that there is an opportunity for optimal learning.

Here are some key conditions that I believe must be created for students to give them the best opportunity for learning (in no particular order):

1. Kids need to feel safe – This is the most important factor for students to not only succeed, but to also excel.  Safety is not only that they do not worry about being emotionally or physically hurt by those that they share their space with, but also that their ideas will also be valued.  The environment is safe to make mistakes, share thoughts, and know that their ideas will not be attacked or ridiculed.  I have seen students cower under these conditions and it could not only affect them in their current classroom, but could very well stay with them long past the time in that environment.  Trust must be apparent for students to succeed.

2.  Students are cared for as people first. – A child will not succeed in the classroom if they are starving.  They will also not do well if they are dealing with tragedy in their lives.  Take care of them and show them that you care about their personal well being.  Ask them about their day, talk to them what is important about their lives, and find out what is important to them. We always need to teach kids FIRST then curriculum.  Remember that.  Always.

3.  Opportunities for fun. – This is a no-brainer.  If you enjoy what you do, have a sense of humour, and can laugh in your environment, you will do better and enjoy what you do.  This has been proven over and over again, and it is essential that we can learn to laugh at ourselves, and with our students.   I do  not want to work in an environment where I do not enjoy what I do and kids are not the same.  Staff are encouraged to allow students to use Ipods in the classroom to not just connect with the outside world, but to also just let kids listen to music while they work.  For many people (including me), music engages the spirit and helps people to perform better as they are less distracted.  Allowing students to use them responsibly in the classroom while respecting the learning of their peers is just one way we can create a better environment for students to learn.

4. Ideas and opinions are valued. – I have heard some crazy ideas from students and I have talked to them about these ideas.  I have listened to them and talked to them about their thoughts.  Those same students have also come up with some pretty amazing ideas after that.  If I would have simply scoffed and ignored them because of what they shared with me the first time, they would have never come back.  Even the most famous inventors have failed before but we have to show students that even when they fall short, it is all a part of the learning process.

5. Opportunities for individualized learning. – Kids need to have the opportunity to show their understanding in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them.  Having one way to get to the same destination is not fair and is not differentiating learning for each child.  Students also take different lengths of time for their learning, but if they get to the same level of understanding eventually, you have gave them the opportunity to be successful.

6. Understand their knowledge and guide them to further their learning. – What do students know about what they are learning?  What is the knowledge they need to build a solid base to move forward?  I do not believe that “marks” are the best basis for this because they do not give any feedback for growth.  As teachers, it is our responsibility to give strategies to improve learning and help them further their own learning.

7. Student as a leader in the classroom. – To be a leader does not mean that students are the most popular.  It simply can mean that they have the opportunity to show leadership in areas they excel and are passionate in.  We have to help students find out where they are leaders and give them opportunities to exhibit this.  As an educator who has worked extensively with technology integration, I have seen students lead ME in this area several times over the years.  I appreciate learning at all times, even if it is from a child.  Not only will students appreciate that they have taught their teacher something, they will go out of their way to further their own learning to ensure that it happens again.  Do your best to find opportunities for ALL students to exhibit leadership in different areas of the classroom.

8. Opportunities for all to reflect. – Even as I write this blog post, I know that I am improving my learning and putting my ideas together.  Time has to be given to students where they can self-assess their learning and put their ideas together.  This could easily be done in a journal, blog, through music or art, or through just having conversations with others.  It is not the avenue that is important, but the opportunity.  Find time in the busy school day to let students reflect on what they are learning.  The time spent now will be well worth the dividends in the future.

Through writing this post, I realized that this is not JUST an environment that we should try to create for our students, but for all those that we work with.  People are more engaged in their work if they have all of the opportunities listed above (and probably more) and will ultimately move their practice forward.  It is essential as administrators that we not only work to provide these opportunities for our students, but also for our staff.  The optimal learning environment can be implemented in classrooms, workplaces, and even at home.  Do your best to create this for everyone and you will be amazed at how people flourish.

Sharing My Digital Footprint

Yesterday I added a page to my blogfolio to discuss my digital footprint.  I really believe that it t is important that we prepare our students to be strong Digital Citizens, so I wanted to highlight my own tracks on the Internet and how I try to contribute to the strong educator community that I am privileged to work with.  I was inspired to create this page after connecting with Doug Pete so please visit his blog, and I encourage educators to share where they can be found on the Internet as we do not want any “surprises”.  Here is the information that I have listed on my “Digital Footprint” page.

Twitter – This has been an extremely useful social media tool as I have connected with many educators around the world.  Twitter has been the best professional development tool that I have ever been associated with and my Professional Learning Network is full of educators who are passionate about bettering the learning of their students.

Diigo – A social bookmarking tool that helps me share web resources not only with my staff, but anyone who is interested in education.  The power of Diigo is that I can connect to my bookmarks on any computer in the world, along with other educators.

Facebook – Although this is more for my own personal connections, I believe that knowing and understanding Facebook is an important practice for educators who want to ensure that they understand the world that our students are growing up in.  It is important that we understand the tools our students are using to connect to each other and friends to help them to be strong digital citizens.

Forest Green School Blog – A Web 2.0 way of connecting with parents and stakeholders in our school community.  This is an effective way to get feedback from parents on emerging trends within our school, as well as helping them learn along with new initiatives that are being implemented in our school.  I have outlined our journey from website to blog in this post.

Forest Green School Website – This website was my way of connecting with parents in our school and communicating events at our school, while also giving the opportunity to learn about our school and staff.  This is considered a Web 1.0 technology as it can only communicate in one direction.

Flickr – A social media site where I have the opportunity to show images of not only things that happen at school, but also within my own personal life.  If a picture is worth a 1000 words, than Flickr is definitely priceless.

YouTube – If a picture is worth a 1000 words, than what would video be worth?  YouTube is the second largest search engine next to Google and gives a regular person the opportunity to share, remix, and create video.

Prezi – A relatively new and simple way to create engaging presentations that can be housed on the Internet.  You can easily embed videos, links, pictures, and other media into these presentations that can be shared anywhere in the world, as long as there is a connection to the Internet.

21st Century Leaders Ning –  Ning is similar to Facebook, where we can create our own communities.  I am a part of a few Ning groups but just wanted to highlight this powerful social network

Two Minutes to Make a Whole Day

One of the things that bothers me as a principal is the immediate reaction you receive when you reveal yourself to parent when you call.  There is this immediate disappointed “sigh” when I say who is calling from a parent.  Unfortunately, sometimes the call leads to longer sighs.  As someone who believes in open communication and parent involvement, it is important to me that I communicate with parents when things are good and bad.  I know that I need to try and make that “phone call” to communicate the good a lot more.

My own personal belief in a K-6 school is that every time a student is in my office, I make a phone call home to communicate with the parents.  It is important that parents know what is going on in school and you can invite them in on learning about the process at school.  It is also important that parents have an opportunity to share ways that we can help their children to be successful.  I never want a parent knowing that their child was in ‘trouble” in the office without that information coming directly from myself.  I talk to my staff about communication between home and school and I want to lead by example.

Although I have done it before, I decided to take two minutes to call a parent about the success of her child.  Although I have made phone calls to this parent that have included the “sigh”, her child has seen tremendous success.  It is important that I make those calls to celebrate that child.  It is also important that I call the parents of children who have done wonderful things as well and have NOT made a visit to the office.

Is this something that I have been doing consistently? No.  Today though, I know that I made a mom’s entire day.  I asked her right away, “Why do you always sound so disappointed to talk to me?”  Today I was going to prove her sigh wrong!

My secretary said to me when I was just starting in administration that, “…when you call home, that child is EVERYTHING to that parent, and you are about to rock their world.  Always be conscience of that.”  I always have.  It is important that you show parents dignity and respect, and show that you have given their child the same courtesy.

The “bad” phone calls are not the only ones that should be made.  If you are a teacher or administrator, I challenge you to make at least ONE call this week home about a student who is doing an amazing job.  We know there are lots.  It will not only make someone’s day, but it will also help create relationships within your school community.  Selfishly, it also made me feel great!  I loved the feeling of sharing success.

I did it today and I pledge that I am going to do it more.  How about you?

Preparing Our Students to be Digital Citizens

I am obviously a fan of Web 2.0 applications.  I believe that the best way to learn about the world is by connecting with it.  Things such as Twitter, Skype, and other applications open up an endless amount of possibilities. If you want to learn about China, talk to a student who lives there.  Want to learn about space, find an astronaut that will connect with your class.  These things that were impossible years ago, are now relatively easy.

Before we work with our students on using these technologies, it is important that we work with them to be strong digital citizens.  I also love the following video that shows kids just not putting up with bullying.  If we have a child ride a bike, we teach them how to be safe first, we do not just throw them on.  The Internet is no different.  Work with your kids (as a teacher or parent) and teach them how to be responsible.  Teach them that it is okay to communicate when things are not great.  They are going on the Internet either way; will you work to help them prepare for it?

Here are some links that may help you talk about Cyberbullying and learn about Web 2.0 via my Diigo bookmarks.

How I will start my week

As I am currently reading “Linchpin” by Seth Godin, I was moved by the following excerpt from his book on schools and leadership:

“Leading is a skill, not a gift. You’re not born with it, you learn how. And schools can teach leadership as easily as they figured out how to teach compliance. Schools can teach us to be socially smart, to be open to connection, to understand the elements that build a tribe. While schools provide outlets for natural-born leaders, they don’t teach it. And leadership is now worth far more than compliance is.”

Our “why” in our school is to empower every student, staff member, and parent so that they can be a leader.

This week, I am going to do a little more to help everyone reach their leadership potential.  What will you do to empower others?

Believe in the Kids

An old video that hits the point on how we really need to believe in people. A line that stuck with me from this video is when Frankl says,  “If we seem to be idealist and are overrating man, and looking at him to be high, we promote him to what he really can be.”

When we look at the kids that may cause “issues”, do not give up and do not underestimate them.  If you do not believe in them, who will? If we believe that our students can reach great expectations, they are more likely to do so.