My first year as an instructional coach was a learning year.
I was experienced as a department chair, but the role of an instructional coach was a bit different. For starters, I was in a different district. The District of Columbia Public Schools have a robust approach to coaching called LEAP — Learning together to Advance our Practice. This method of coaching almost mirrors how assistant principals observe, except for the evaluation component. It was an adjustment at first, but LEAP has helped me to hone my craft as an intentional observer.
The school where I coach and teach, the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was America’s first Black public high school. In the first half of the twentieth century, this school was an elite institution, which attracted an extraordinary faculty. (Watch as I give a tour of the school’s museum.) Today, we remain a committed and extraordinary faculty; however, like many urban public schools, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School is a high-poverty school that has historically experienced high staff turnover. Nearly half of my ELA department is either new to the building or new to teaching.
Finally, understanding the human dynamic present within the feedback cycle is something that has to be experienced to be appreciated. Teachers are humans, just like every other professional, and their humanity must be maintained throughout the observation and feedback process. At the same time, however, instructional coaches and other school-based leaders must see the potential in each teacher and design learning opportunities that help them to see potential in themselves as well.
It’s Sunday, February 12, 2017 and the top headline of The Huffington Post reads, “MILLER CHILLER: SUNDAY CIRCUIT WHIFF!” Now, I’m an educated person who reads the news daily, and in addition to feeling alarmed (which I imagine is the author’s intent), I’m also confused. So I click into the article to find a revised title: “Trump Adviser Stephen Miller Disastrously Tries to Defend Trump.” Miller Chiller… Circuit Whiff!… Disastrously tries… hmmm. I think I know where this article is going.
I wonder what the “other side” of the aisle has front and center for us today? With a quick search, I find the following in large print featured on Fox News: “‘ENORMOUS EVIDENCE’: Trump advisor says there is proof of voter fraud in U.S., while critics call for data.” I wonder which part of this headline will resonate most with readers: the enlarged, emphasized opening crying, “ENORMOUS EVIDENCE,” or the little opposing part at the end about a potential lack of sufficient data to support Trump’s claim?
As an educator in the Oakland Unified School District, I immediately wonder what meaning the high school students I serve would make of the headlines above. What background knowledge do they have, both on the subject matter and on the two publications? What predictions might they make about each article just by reading the titles? What similarities might they notice? What differences would they identify? Perhaps most importantly, what do I understand about the significance of these competing headlines that our students might not immediately grasp?
As a first generation college graduate, a decision I made early in life was to have a growth mindset. If you’re new to the term growth mindset, or maybe just on the hunt for resources, check out Teaching Channel’s Growth Mindset Deep Dive. While many people assume things in my life have come easily, I’ve spent my entire existence struggling to succeed. Blessed or cursed (depending on your perspective) with an insane amount of drive as well as a natural curiosity toward all things, my life has been a constant cycle of discovery, failure, retooling, and — mostly — eventual success.
This lifestyle has carried over into my classroom, as I believe that regardless of the content I’m teaching, it’s my duty as an educator to prepare all of the young people that walk through my door to face the challenges that lie ahead of them. That’s why I’m such a staunch advocate for the incorporation of the engineering design process into all classrooms. The EDP is the epitome of growth mindset and transcends the classroom into every facet of day-to-day life.
In that spirit, I continue to refine my practice. Every year, I identify one area of my instruction as a point of emphasis. In the past, these areas have ranged from classroom management, to individualized learning plans, to the integration of technology. One area I’ve been putting off is refining the writing process that occurs within my STEM course. Why have I been putting it off? Quite honestly, I struggle with writing. I believe in the value of writing, but freely acknowledge that it’s not a strength I possess. Opening up this area of my practice could be humbling, but it’s my hope that we (myself as well as fellow educators) will all benefit from this experience.
I grew up with the belief that I could do anything — that being born a woman wouldn’t impede my path to achieving my goals or obtaining a leadership role. One of two girls, I was raised learning how to fish in the ocean, play sports, and dance. Moreover, both of my parents held two jobs so traditional gender-based roles were not my norm. I often felt empowered because I was surrounded by strong female coaches and role models who inspired me to reach beyond what even I thought possible.
It wasn’t until high school that I understood being a strong, intelligent woman may not always be a popular choice. While running for student body president, I campaigned against a young man who wore a gold colored t-shirt to school every day and took on the nickname “golden boy.” Void of a dense platform, I assumed my marketing, clever ideas, and rich resume would convince the student body that I was the best candidate. Unfortunately, this was an incorrect assumption and I lost in what might be considered a landslide. That moment gave me pause and made me doubt whether I really could do anything. Surely I had the talent to be a leader, but would others be able to see it too?
Phenomena can be the special ingredient that brings both intrigue and relevance to an otherwise ordinary lesson. It’s no surprise anchoring phenomena have become a part of the conversation whenever educators discuss NGSS science instruction. This is exciting because anchoring phenomena and driving questions can be the key to student engagement.
When I was first introduced to the importance of anchoring phenomena in NGSS instruction, I remember Googling “NGSS anchoring phenomena” and getting two, maybe three results — and even they weren’t really what I needed. Today, the same search returns more than 2000 results. In a very short time, knowledge and resources have increased at a breakneck pace. Today, I know I can find the resources I need to help me anchor phenomena to the standards with relative ease. I’d like to share some of my favorite results from my search with you.
We were weeks into our new journey of bringing the science fair into the 21st century: Science In The Sky.
Everything is digital so why haven’t science fairs caught up? Well, my students were doing it! A feverish pitch exploded early amongst my scientific teams once scientists from around the world started responding to different blog postings. Elshaddai and his team were working hard collecting data on their hypothesis about whether the moon does or doesn’t affect mood. “I don’t even know where Luxemburg, Munich, Hong Kong… I don’t know where any of these places are!” I overheard him saying to his team. Using social media, I was able to distribute their survey around the world and excitement ensued when data started to pour in because they had no idea that I’d done this.
I count myself among the richest in the world.
No, I don’t have a lot of money or an extravagant home, but I am a teacher. I know most people think teachers are good people because they’re willing to sacrifice and work so hard for a salary that is meager when compared to other professions with similar levels of education. I have to say that I love what I do — I #LoveTeaching. I would certainly appreciate making more money; perhaps enough so I wouldn’t need to supplement my income, but I didn’t go into teaching thinking I would one day be a wealthy woman — at least in the traditional sense of the word.
Yesterday was one of the tough days for me — we’ve all had them — when students seemed to push back on every choice I made, I felt boxed into a lesson I didn’t love, frustration mounted for all of us, my patience ebbed, and pride flowed. The whole endeavor of teaching and learning seemed to hang by a slender thread.
But that thread must be woven of something other-worldly — of unicorn hair and phoenix feathers — because it finds a way to hold every time. That thread tugs, eventually, at the best of who I am and how I want to be. It makes me find a better way.
And that’s how I’ve come to look at, and love, teaching. It’s not easy, ever. Not when the world at large and powers-that-be seem distant and tone deaf to what children and schools need from society. Not when there isn’t close to enough time to plan and prepare to teach as I’d want to ideally. But if I accept that those tensions are there to stay, I can find a way to work through them. And that’s what I’ve decided to do.
The National Board Certification process was one of the most effective exercises I’ve been involved in. The initial process, as well as my subsequent renewal, have proven to be invaluable to my development as an educator. The challenges presented to me have encouraged continued growth within this profession.
I found one of the most difficult aspects of the certification process to be the videotaped reflective piece. This component forced me to critically analyze virtually every aspect of my practice. Lessons learned through critical analysis of the recording have compelled me to find solutions to a wide variety of minor issues that were possibly hindering the success of my students. The videotaping has had such an impact on my classroom that I continue the practice to this day.
See Matt’s Video on Teaching Channel: Encouraging Students to Take Action
In order for students to take powerful and meaningful steps toward addressing problems in our society, I believe they need to consider the root causes of those problems and the role individuals and social systems play in creating and perpetuating them. Considering the dynamic nature of individual and systemic responsibility for problems in our society is challenging intellectual work, but ultimately I think it’s necessary to help students break down a problem and begin to plan approaches to solving it. I approach this work in my classroom using a mix of discussion, analysis of a memoir and documentary film clips, and a critical thinking framework called “structured academic controversy.”