The Struggle of Being a Lifelong Learner
I love reflecting. Interviews, evaluations, feedback—cue The Sound of Music soundtrack, because these are a few of my favorite things. A huge part of reflection is doing. And reflection is especially effective when we try doing things differently. I implement new ideas in my classroom often. I’m surrounded by a few of the most amazing educators Kansas has ever known, so I have the opportunity to steal—I mean, appropriate their magical ideas. Right now, we’re learning about nonfiction texts through podcasts. This was an idea my colleague had after she was entranced with Sarah Koenig’s presentation of Serial. I, not being behind the times, had listened to Serial several years ago and was pumped. I’m overjoyed to report that the entire unit has been a booming success! The kids are loving listening to Koenig’s investigative journalism and are now preparing their own podcasts.
This is the best case scenario of a new idea. We think it, we do it, and then the students do it without a ton of complaints. When we try new things in the classroom, there is always a chance that it might not work out. And that chance is actually pretty high. We adapt, because we’re good educators, and we go forward to try again, because we’re good people, but it can be rough. Nonetheless, I have always jumped in head first, eyes closed, and had a grand time with the fall, no matter how rough the landing was.
Up until recently, this is what I thought it meant to be a lifelong learner. I’m already a risk-taker, I dive into challenges, and I set myself new goals constantly. My kids, principal, and colleagues generally like me (I think). I read pedagogy books for fun, tweet actively about the successes in my classroom, and try to keep a positive attitude. Aren’t I doing enough? What other teacher boxes do I need to check off? I thought I had it all figured out.
Hindsight being what hindsight is, that was probably a part of the problem.
When faced with changes that were asked (in that way that ‘asking’ means ‘telling’) me by an outside source, I flopped. I became scared and, then, stubborn. When I wasn’t directing the change in my classroom, I freaked out. And not in a cute Dead Poet Society Robin William’s way where I was righteous and empowered. In a Cameron Diaz Bad Teacher way where I was unpleasant and unsupportive.
In my defense, I felt powerless. I know my classroom intimately and suddenly someone I had hardly spoken to was telling me how my classroom should look, feel, and exist. It was incredibly hard to trust that everything would be okay or that ‘okay’ was even a possible end-game scenario. I felt like I innately knew that I was right, they were wrong, and there wasn’t anything that could change my mind. I wasn’t alone in my stalwart sureness of my opinions. Others around me felt similar in the face of this change and we fed off each other, like dogs howling at the moon.
Those are the moments where I was failing at being a lifelong learner. I failed to reflect. I failed to think critically about the multitude of perspectives that played into this decision. I failed to realize that there could be two sides to an argument and that, believe it or not, both could be various shades of correct.
I learned this lesson the hard way. I am not the only person who wants my classroom (and others) to be places of innovative learning. And part of that means accepting outside changes professionally and peacefully. As a result of my tumble into learning these lessons, I’ve developed several strategies that help me engage in discussions on change productively. Hopefully they’ll help you learn the lessons I did a tad more gracefully Take a look:
Be Mindful of Your Immediate Response to Change
When it comes to teaching, I am an outspoken person. I have well supported views and research-backed opinions. I went to school for this, do this everyday, and am darn passionate. But I’ve learned that to be a better teacher, I need to be more thoughtful in the responses I share with my colleagues and administration. It’s not critical that I give my immediate feedback on every idea ever introduced. What is critical is that I spend time thoroughly analyzing what response will be best for my classroom.
In some ways, this is easy! The theory of it is so simple. Okay, Andrea. You can do this. Just don’t say the first thought that pops in your head. Got it.
But in other ways? This is complicated. Or at least complicated enough that I still struggle. Specifically, I struggling with controlling my facial expression to allow for the best possible outcome.
Facial expressions are tricky. They happen in a split second. The rise of an eyebrow, the curl of a lip, even that quickly indrawn breath can have so much meaning. I remember taking a career-readiness class in middle school and we were indoctrinated in the ‘first impressions are a big deal’ club. But now, as adults, let’s join the ‘first reactions are a big deal’ club, as well.
I am an expressive person. As a professional storyteller, AKA English teacher, it’s important that I engage with others around me using my voice and body language. And in my classroom, bigger is usually better when it comes to those vocal and bodily cues. The extravagant gets me those levels of excitement from my students that I desperately need for their success in learning. In order to be good at my job, I have to leave ‘reserved Andrea’ at home.
However, in department meetings, this skill is perhaps not as necessary. I have learned that when I am not excited by a proposed idea, keeping a blank face is my wisest decision. There is absolutely nothing wrong with holding your cards close to your chest until you know how to best examine your reactions. There is no world where every decision made is going to appeal to every person in the room. Keeping a blank face, choosing to be quiet, and actively listen to others let’s you have the opportunity to choose your battles. Is this what we’re fighting for today? If so, great. If not, that’s also great. But give yourself a chance to make that decision.
Consider all Perspectives
Once I’ve held back my initial response (the good, the bad, and the ugly), my next step is to seriously put myself in the shoes of every person in the room. As a teacher, my view is always in the benefit of the students. I never want to compromise that. My kids are so, so, so important. But, there is still value in viewing every hard situation with a 360 degree view. And, after considering all sides, if I still disagree, there is no problem with that. Disagreement is not the anti-goal of education. It can be used wisely, but only as a powerful tool. When we pull it out as a bat that to berate our colleagues and administrators, it becomes a problem.
Have I mentioned how thankful I am for the patience of my colleagues and administrators?
Take for example the situation I alluded to above. No one in the room was excited about the decisions that were being made. In the moment, it felt like there was a blue team vs. red team, but there really wasn’t. We were all on the same side, but viewing it from different angles. Administrators have a ton on their plate. Budgets, parents, discipline issues. When I think about all of the amazing moments I get to have with my students in the classroom and how administrators don’t get to have any of that at all, my empathy grows. It has to be hard to be the bearer of bad news all the time.
Determine the Effects of Your Choices
Cause and effect is a concept we teach to third graders. Yet, here I am, as a twenty-three year old woman, having to relearn it. Mrs. Pantos, I swear, this isn’t your fault.
Teachers need to be given more leadership power. I’m in the middle of Teacherpreneurs and just finished reading This is Not a Test, and I am all aboard the ‘trust teachers and give them more power train.’ Making a huge curriculum decision? Yeah, we should probably ask the teachers what they think and actually listen to them. Redesigning the school? Yeah, probably need to talk to the adults that work there. Organizing the schedule a new way? Definitely should get the feedback from the professionals that affects most. Teachers are such amazing people. They have awesome ideas. Let them help the school. Stop shutting us out. Please.
However, in situations where teachers lack power, we need to be aware of the natural system of checks and balances. Some people call this choosing your battles. I call this managing our political capital. There are some situations where no persuasive argument will change a decision. There are too many other factors at play. And rather than squandering your political capital on that particular situation, hold on to it as soon as you see the futility. Change something that’s within your reach.
But while we’re at it, we should be putting more decisions in the reach of teachers.
I’ve grown from this experience. I’m not a person without regrets, but I am reflective. That’s something. I’ll continue to move forward, bearing these lessons in mind. Let me know what you have done to deal with decisions that were out of your control in the comments below. Any tips are appreciated.