This post was originally published on June 8, 2015.
I just returned from my daughter's Kindergarten graduation at a nearby state park. The children and their families arrived with picnic lunches and sunscreen (which were promptly ditched in favor of the football field-sized playground equipment made from wood and tires that begged to be climbed and skipped across).
After a time, we made our way to the stone shelter where the children sang us songs they had learned and we all ate our lunches together.
I am quite sure that my daughter's teacher is among the best that I have ever had the opportunity to know and watch and learn from. I also know this by the way my daughter thinks out loud when she's trying to solve a problem (what do I really want to know? what clues can I find to help me know more?), or read a word that isn't familiar to her (what does the picture tell me? what sounds can I make out?). I can hear her asking the questions that she has heard Ms. Weatherholtz ask herself out loud again and again and again.
It's appropriate that we are at a playground to celebrate this important day. All year long the children have played and stretched and climbed their way to first grade's door. They have been supported and encouraged and taught to look for learning in everything--a conversation with a friend, a rest in the shade, a game of hide and seek, dress up and make believe.
As a parent, you think about what you want for your children. As an educator, you think about what you want for all children. You want each of them to have a Mrs. W in their lives, someone who loves them, accepts them, challenges them, and disciplines them. Who teaches them to think, to go a little bit deeper, to self-discipline, to take a risk, to get back up and try and try again.
Feeling a little nostalgic (as these soon-to-be-first graders hummed a tune on their blue kazoos), I began to recount the year that had just passed and the years that lay ahead. As all parents do, I thought about what I wanted for my daughter, what I wanted for her classmates. And when my eye caught Mrs. W, kneeling on the floor in front of them puffing away on her own blue kazoo, I started to think about what I wanted for her, and all the teachers doing the same thing for so many in their classrooms. I thought about this as a parent and as an educator. What I came up with are takes on some of my favorite indicators of effective practice. Each of them requires a culture of trust, honesty, and shared commitment to grow and improve together.
I want her to know how much I value her and how much my children value her. I want the school community to make sure she knows how much they value her, too.
This might be a card in her box once in a while, a little gift card to her favorite coffee shop. It might be a surprise release from her class so that she can get down to the Oriole's game a little early, maybe take in the warm ups with a cold drink and a hot dog. It might just be genuine eye-contact at pick up one afternoon that says thank you for all that you do without saying anything at all. Or it's the pull aside before school one morning to tell her, we know that you do so much and we appreciate every single detail it takes to do it. It's feeling as welcome and appreciated outside of her classroom as she feels inside of it.
I want her to have engaging, stimulating, let's get better together conversations with her colleagues. A lot. I want them built into their day so that it is easy for them, so they can talk about our children and their strengths, their needs, and share with one another ideas they have for doing what they do EVEN BETTER.
The adrenaline rush from a great, problem-solving, brain-stretching session is what keeps us all coming back. It's when we are at our best, when we know we have more to give and to learn and to improve. Teachers need and deserve the time to engage in professional, student and instructionally-focused conversations with their colleagues. Sure it's tough to find the time to fit it into the day, to shuffle schedules around and ensure coverage for classes, but like all things--if it is a priority, it can happen. If we stop feeding a great teacher's desire to be even greater, they will starve. They might even look for that nourishment elsewhere, which would be devastating to our children, especially when it could have been provided all along.
I want all children to benefit from the kind of instruction that Mrs. W delivers. I'm not talking about just the content. I'm talking about all of it: how she greets them when they come into the classroom, how they know EXACTLY what the rules and procedures are for every phase of the day, how they are expected to treat one another, how there are many ways to solve a problem, like asking different questions or explaining the problem to a friend.
It isn't just the primary grades that would benefit from Mrs. W's strategies, it's every single grade, K-12 and probably beyond. But unless the principal is getting in to observe her, unless there is time for peers to sit in and watch too, unless there is time built into the schedule for collaborative and collegial sharing and professional development, unless there is time set aside for teachers to articulate about children and curriculum, instructional and classroom management strategies, it is possible that what worked so well for 27 children in a Kindergarten class will end at their Kindergarten graduation.
I want her to know how incredible it is that she teaches each student to mastery, that she differentiates her instruction based on where each child is in achieving mastery. I know this is isn't easy and I know it takes extra time, but while each child might be at a different spot, she is stretching every one of them further than they were the day before. Until finally, they are masters.
Whether she realizes it or not, Mrs. W uses constant assessment to determine what additional skills or knowledge children need before they are ready to move on. You can tell in the way she asks questions (always challenging, always engaging), you can tell in what she is focusing on in centers (or small group instruction-- heterogeneously grouped, differentiated activities and opportunities to learn). She provides a monthly calendar for parents full of daily homework activities that build on the day's lesson. There is always an enrichment companion, too, so that parents can expect more of their children at home if they have already met the objective.
I want her to be awesome at using instructional technology to deliver instruction, to gauge student learning, to communicate ideas. I want her to be awesome in modeling it for our children and providing them opportunities to use it to communicate their learning, too. I want her to not have to worry that she is behind the curve on it; I want her to know that she will be provided all the support that she needs, even when she doesn't know she needs it.
Technology is changing what is possible in education and it is hard to keep up. Mrs. W was a master at using technology to deliver assignments to children over a winter that saw A TON of snow days. But still, I have heard her and many other teachers express a desire to know more--not just what's available, but to know exactly how they can use technology (and when/or if it's a better way) to provide differentiated learning opportunities to students, to assess their learning, to communicate ideas and knowledge between students and colleagues. I want them to know that they will receive training AND detailed demonstrations of how technology applies to their instruction and their student's learning. (I do not have the answer or a plan for that, by the way. So if you do, PLEASE SHARE).
I want her to have a restful, relaxing summer. But I want her to know where she can go to read up on research that never grows old and research that is just coming on the scene.
Summer is a great time to recalibrate. And in doing so, we make room in our brains and our behaviors to know more, to evolve, to get better. I'd love to provide her with a place she can go when she has a minute to be inspired, to be informed, to be challenged. A place she can reflect and share her reflections, and learn from other's reflections, too.
As I think about it, IndistarConnect would be a GREAT place for that to happen. So to all the Mrs. W's out there, or those who just love them and want the best for them, too: Please use this space to share what you know, ask what you don't, find what you need, and tell us what it is YOU want--for yourself, for your teachers, for your children, and your students.
Last week's post, highlighting the journey toward improvement in the Augusta, Arkansas School District. As we release these stories, the teachers and principals, and leadership team members are willing to answer questions you have after reading their story. This is a great opportunity for us to dig deeper into the ACTUAL practices that real life people in real life schools are implementing to achieve big (unthought of, really) changes and improvements in teaching and learning.
Read it HERE and then tell me what you'd love the team to tell you more about.
Call To Action:
Teachers, what do you want?
Administrators, parents, students, board members, community members: what do you want for your teachers?