The Evolving Role of the Educator

As summer begins, I have started my summer reading.  The first books I selected are written by individuals who are presenting keynotes at ISTE2018.  As this will probably be the only ISTE I ever attend, I am spending lots of time preparing.

My first book was The Martian by Andy Weir.  Wow, science fiction is not a genre I usually enjoy, but I got into this book.  Maybe someday, I’ll be brave enough to use it with a science class.

I’ve moved on to another keynote presenter Katie Martin.  I finished the first chapter in Learner Centered Innovation and she was kind enough to provide a few questions for reflection.

First Question as presented on page 42 of her book:  Do you have an evolutionary response to change?  Examine your practices and consider the following questions: How can I learn from my surroundings and adapt to improve?  What do I need to stop doing?  What might I start doing?

I am an individual that recognizes change is a part of life.  Learning Results coverI started teaching at the same time learning standards were being introduced across the state of Maine.  Many older Maine teachers probably still have the purple book of standards also known as the 1997 MLRs (Maine Learning Results).  The standards existed but no one seemed to know what to do with them.  Two revisions and 20 years and we are just now beginning to understand what to do with the standards.  I believe in standards-based education.  Honestly, I am not sure how I would look at the standards if I started teaching just five years sooner – before the standards were released.

So what can I learn from my surroundings?  What are my surroundings?  Of course surroundings must include the students and the classroom.  The school, school personnel, and the school culture are part of my surroundings too.  What about the community and my PLN?  I suppose those are part of my surroundings.  Well, that got overwhelming fast.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the students and my classroom.  Conversing with students and listening what is important to them is imperative.

Learn their goals and interests.  Understand what motivates them.

I didn’t get on board with this kind of shift until late in the school year.  I assumed I knew my students and moved forward based on my assumptions.  I asked the questions late in the year and learned I had assumed wrong for many students.  Next year will be different and I will start learning from day one.  So I need to stop assuming I know my students and start asking the questions.



Shift Slower

The school year started with a grand plan to challenge students and give them the opportunity to be responsible for their own learning.  I found awesome resources developed by other educators and adapted them to my teaching philosophy.  The excitement was building for me.

When my grand plan went live, it was not well received.  Students were uncomfortable.  They complained.  A lot.  I was called into the principal’s office because they were complaining in her office.  For a few weeks, I tried to stay the course.

I still believe that my lessons were appropriately challenging, but I eventually had to back up and change my strategies.  The difficulty was that we had not built the culture of trust needed for success.  I promised I would not let them fail, but they were not sure that I was trustworthy.

Students were used to a more traditional approach to teaching.  Read the book, answer the questions, listen to the teacher, maybe do a project, take a test.  To develop a great comfort level for the students, I created a list of assignments for each unit that incorporated many of the traditional activities.  Students could pick how they wanted to learn.

The final task was not a test.  Students begged for an old-fashioned multiple choice test.  I just couldn’t give up my shift in assessment.  I asked students to complete a performance task at the end of each unit.  The performance task was closely tied to the Maine Learning Results (the standards our school board has approved).  I believed in my performance tasks and the shift was important for the success of proficiency-based assessment.

As the year progressed, students got more comfortable with the performance tasks and more trusting of me.  As the school year came to a close, students were thankful for the performance tasks.  Several students commented that they did much better than they would have on a multiple choice test.

Shift is tough.  Our educational environments are shifting.  Initiatives in education come and go.  Many a veteran teacher will comment, “This too shall pass.”  I am not sure yet which initiatives will stick, but shift is happening.

We are climbing the mountain to change education.  We will take years, maybe decades, to climb this mountain.  We need to work together to pull each other over this mountain.   When we reach the top and see what is on the other side, education will be beautiful.

Respect Yourself

As an educator, I strive to respect each of my students regardless of the behaviors exhibited.   What I forgot as I returned to the high school is that I must expect students to respect me.

The first few weeks of school, I held up my side of the respect equation but many students did not.  I grew frustrated because after teaching for nearly 20 years I had never felt so disrespected.

My ah-ha moment came when a parent mentioned to me that her daughter said the other kids were being mean to me.  I thought about her comment and realized I was not playing my part.

“Everyone in society should be a role model, not only for their own self-respect but for respect from others.”  -Barry Bonds

I realized the problem in this scenario was not the students.  The problem was me.  Instead of addressing the disrespectful comments, I was ignoring them.

Some students are not going to show respect unless I expect it from them.  I started calling students on their disrespectful comments and behaviors.  I began to demand students show respect for each other and for me.  I mixed in a little humor.  If I heard disrespect, I responded.

Within a week of this shift in my response, I had noticed a change.  A dramatic change.




Well, this year didn’t go how I had planned.   We didn’t have a bad year and I certainly learned a lot.   Everything was familiar and strange all at the same time.   See I taught in this high school science classroom for 11 years.  I left because I had the opportunity to become a teaching principal at a small elementary school.  Seven years later, the elementary school closed and I was hired to return to what was my first classroom.  The staff is the same, the room is the same, the curriculum is similar, but the students are completely different.  I spent the year reestablishing who I am as a high school teacher.

Today marks the final day of the 2017-2018 school year so now feels like a good time to reflect on the year.   As John Dewey said,

“We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”

I have never been a reflector.   Reflecting is not active and seems like a waste of time to my less experienced self.    I am going to begin my summer by reflecting on my reentry into high school.

I’ve struggled to complete this post.  I have too many ideas and feel that I am overwhelming a single post.  I will cut myself off at this point and start a new post with a reflection about respecting myself.

Post Script

I am traveling to Chicago with my husband at the end of June.  While trying to find something to occupy myself while he is at his conference, I discovered ISTE18 is happening at the same time.  ISTE 18!!!!!!  I am going to be able to attend an ISTE conference.


What should I do?

My intention as the school year begins is to continue shifting my teaching style to reach more students.  As I have been reading this summer, classrooms need to be more student-driven with greater collaboration.  In my first year of teaching, 18 years ago, I met with the human resources director at the local paper mill.  He told me the most important thing to teach students is collaboration skills.  The mill could teach everything else through on the job training.  They could not teach collaboration well.  The conversation has been a factor in my planning for every class I have taught since.

An article with an intriguing title appeared in my Facebook feed this morning.

Smith’s project will connect college, high school instructors to improve success of STEM students

As a high school STEM instructor who attended this particular college, I am interested in the connections to be made.  Great!  Of course, I want my students to be interested in STEM majors leading to STEM careers.

And then I read this:

“Students often say teaching methods used in introductory STEM college courses — which differ significantly from those in high school science classes — are a major reason why they leave those majors.

“In preparation for the grant, we observed both college and high school classrooms and found that college students listen to lecture more and have fewer opportunities to work with their peers compared to high school students,” says Smith.”

Okay, so the college needs to change, right?   Even better, high school teachers are getting it!  We are providing for collaboration.

So here is my quandary.  I want to prepare my students for everything, life experiences, college, an unknown future, etc.  I can’t ignore that students who attend college may be in lecture based college courses.   Do I somehow add long lectures to my class?  Truly, long lectures are not my style.  I honestly believe that adding lectures is not the way to go.  I will hope the college instructors adjust to meet the needs of students like high school teachers are.





How do you learn?

In the coming school year, I will be teaching a content that is new to me.  I have a background in biology, but I am not strong when it comes to genetics.  I needed to find a way to gain more experience in genetics this summer.

We live in a world full of information.  I could read a book, watch videos, take a class, and other more creative methods.  I am considering a display in our classroom next year with suggestions of ways we learn new information.  My hope would be for students to add to the display throughout the year.  What are some effective ways you learn?

As I live in a remote area, finding a traditional course is not easy and realistically, a college course is more expensive than I need right now.  By chance, a MOOC (massive online open course) originating at Duke began in June.  Dr. Mohamad Noor has flipped his college class and made his content available to the world via a MOOC in Coursea.  Dr. Noor’s course is an excellent example of a flipped classroom.  

I believe my experience in the challenge of learning new material will benefit my students.  I am remembering the panic of not passing the quiz, but appreciate the chance to retake the quiz.  Week 3, in particular, was difficult for me, but my persistence paid off.  Fortunately for my students, week 3 is not material that they will be expected to learn in 9th grade.

As I reach the halfway point of the MOOC, I am feeling confident that my students and I are going to have a great experience in genetics next school year.  

Conflict resolution for students

My summer professional development reading has been exciting.   First I read Shift This! by Joy Kirr and now I have moved on to Learn Like A Pirate by Paul Solarz.   Both teachers/authors have energized me for the coming school year.

One problem that I have had in my previous classroom was conflict resolution.  See, I taught in a unique situation.  My class was an amazing group of students in grades 6 through 8.  Among the class, I had four different sibling groups.  For the most part, the classes had been together since they started PreK in our small rural school.  The students who were not related might as well have been.  The class was ripe for conflict!

Paul Solarz presents a rather simple three-part plan for conflict resolution:

  1. Rock-Paper-Scissors
  2. Compromise
  3. Choose Kindness

I had always focused on compromise as a solution to conflict but compromise didn’t always work. Rock-Paper-Scissors could be a great solution in certain situations.  The most important suggestion is Choose Kindness.  I wanted my students to be kind to each other, but I didn’t have a name for the process.  The idea that a student would choose to be kind to someone else should be praised.   Using the phrase Choose Kindness gives meaning and encourages students to make that choice.

Next year, I will deliberately use these three strategies for conflict resolution in the high school classes I will be teaching.

Don’t Count Me Out Yet!


My high school graduation with my grandmother.

I started this morning as usual – scrolling through my FaceBook newsfeed.  Today, many of my FaceBook friends are displaying pictures of their July 4th festivities.  A nice way to connect and enjoy my cup of coffee.

And then…BAM…an organization I follow shared this article Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows.   Wait…a…minute!  I was my class valedictorian.  Is this article implying that I have not accomplished much?

So I did what a responsible citizen of the internet should do.  I read the article critically.   The article starts with the background of the study followed by this statement, “But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.”

Now I am getting a bit angry.  So I don’t have any interest in running the world, but I hope to be remembered for changing the world for the better at least in my small section of the world.  I may not be Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  I have made a difference for my students, and I am not done yet!

Okay, so what can I learn from this article.  Well, the overall message is that schools historically have not emphasized skills that support innovation.  Ha! I will show you! This valedictorian is doing everything she can to change the world of education to support innovation.  Keep watching and reading my blog!

Ultimately, the article has challenged me to continue shifting my teaching style in my effort to change the world.   The answer is not a clear zero!

A Teacher is a Master Learner

Introducing himself in my 10th-grade biology class, Mr Vellieux described why he became a teacher.  I heard, “I enjoy taking classes and going to college.  I would have liked to be in college forever, but I needed to pay the bills.  As a teacher, I still get to take classes and I can pay my bills. I enjoy learning”  A few decades later, I may not remember exactly the exact wording.  I am certain that this was the gist of what he said.

I remember what he said because it sounded amazing.  I loved learning in elementary school.  I loved learning in high school.  I loved learning in college.  I didn’t want to leave college.  Like Mr Vellieux, I have bills to pay.  I found a job teaching high school science and I didn’t take a semester off from my own learning until I was well into my 30s.

More recently, I heard (or read) the phrase, “The teacher is a master learner.”  (Please forgive me that I don’t remember where I first saw the phrase).  AHA!!!!  Yes, I am a master learner and that is the reason I became a teacher!  

Over the years my learning has shifted.  In college, I was more interested in the environment and the world around me.  Now, my learning is focused around how to improve my classroom environment.  The opportunities to be a master learner are more varied with online courses, MOOCs, YouTube and my favorite, Twitter.

I cannot imagine the day when I stop pursuing my own learning.

Responsibility Partners

Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz is my next reading passion.  I am toying with the idea of responsibility partners as presented in the chapter about peer collaboration.   Students are partnered up randomly to provide a sounding board for the project and to keep each other on task. (I’ve summarized the role in the simplest way if you would like to learn more…read the book.) .

Responsibility partners would have worked well in my middle school classroom and would have improved collaboration.  Who doesn’t benefit from someone to bounce ideas off?  We had developed a classroom culture that students cared about each other.

So now I am moving into a high school classroom.  Will the idea work in high school? Responsibility partners are the right thing to do for students because it is a skill needed for a successful life.  Relationships of all types are like this concept of responsibility partners.

My husband and I are responsibility partners.  My daughter and I are growing into responsibility partners (as she is growing older, I am giving her more responsibility.)  My co-workers are my responsibility partners.  My co-leader in girl scouts is a responsibility partner.  Responsibility partners are everywhere!

School and classrooms are about practicing skills for a successful life.  Does it sound like I have convinced myself to incorporate responsibility partners in our classroom?