Tis the Season of Assessment…

It’s about this time in the term when you start to feel a bit like the honeymoon is over; the kids start to tire of your puns, the first assessments are due and the workload piles up.

This week, I’ve been marking Year 12 Advanced speeches for Module A and it dawned on me that when students hand in assessment tasks, that’s when I do my most effective teaching. That’s when I truly take stock of what students have actually learnt and where the holes are that I haven’t filled. It’s when I get the chance to provide feedback that they are guaranteed to read and consider important. It’s when I get to congratulate students on what they’ve done well. It’s when I can plan where I will take the students next. Not that I don’t do all these things during the teaching of the unit, but the formal assessments provide a more explicit avenue for me to reflect upon these aspects of my practice.

With this new appreciation of the integral role of assessment in MY learning, I’ve approached assessment in a new way this week: with excitement! And I’ve even infected some of my students with the same attitude; one of my Year 9 students has been diligently working away on her assessment task, which is an original poem, visiting her elders in the community to research the impact of the Stolen Generation on Indigenous people in our town. Obviously, she is aware of the valuable opportunities assessments provide too!




Humans of…Part One.

This year, in an effort to ensure that the learning of my students has more meaningful links to life beyond the classroom, I have decided to go for an online audience.

Over the holidays I became obsessed with the ingenius blog, Humans of New York; the way that it deals with perspective and characterisation, from the viewpoint of an English teacher, is so original and engaging. It is also great to show the diversity amongst a community, which we lack here in my small, rural town.

I decided I was going to capitalise on the success and concept of the blog and apply it to our Year 7 unit, Real and Imagined Worlds. I also realised this was a great opportunity to incorporate PBL elements to the task, letting the students determine the audience, content of the site and organise the blog. They were extremely excited about having ownership of such a text.

This week, students voted as a class and decided on writing their own descriptions of places which were significant to them to share on the site. After much discussion and debate, they entitled the blog ‘People Down Under’, as a nod to the Humans of New York brand. These descriptions had to incorporate poetic devices which we have been studying, most notably imagery. Students also chose a template for the site, having to justify in terms of visual literacy why their choice was the most suitable.

During the next week, students will get to work uploading the content to the site and choosing colours, fonts, pictures, etc. They also plan to contact the famous blogger himself, Brandon Stanton, to ask for advice on creating the blog and keeping it updated. Hopefully they continue to stay just as excited about the project over the next couple of weeks as we hold its “launch”!


More than just a New Year’s resolution

This year will mark a four year anniversary that I’m not overly proud of. In 2012, I headed out to my first teaching position, optimistic and ready to spread the word about the power of technology and the importance of developing a wide PLN to support best practice. And a year in, I fell off the wagon completely. As I enter my fifth year in the classroom, I’ve realised that it isn’t just about my teaching, or the learning of the students in my class, or even in my school. It isn’t about my faculty, or even the staff at my school. I have cut myself off from so many valuable resources, so much valuable input and so much support, and it hasn’t been until I’ve come up for air, so to speak, that I’ve been able to realise that a great deal of the inspiration I took with me out to my first teaching post was the feeling of contributing meaningfully to a community.

This year, I’m not just making it my New Year’s resolution to reconnect with my PLN, be active on Twitter and blog regularly, I’m also including it as a goal in my PDP. I want to rekindle the fire I once felt when issues surrounding the education industry were discussed and reclaim my own thirst for knowledge. One of my passions, in particular, was the support of Pre-Service Teachers, and I think that with the additional experience I’ve now had, I can offer them far more practical guidance and help.

Memoirs of a First Year Teacher

I have finally completed my first year as a teacher!
And what a year it has been. The good thing is, I feel like I have been teaching all my life now and I feel completely comfortable. I have learnt to be more flexible as I’ve become more confident in my own ability and I’ve become more resilient, no longer taking all the bad days personally, but still able to cherish those special moments.
The biggest challenge for me came in first term when I had to readjust my expectations of both my students and myself. I quickly got a handle on this however, and with the help of my #staraday was able to see the progress I was making each day.
After that steep learning curve, I focused on my classroom management. Something I would recommend to first year teachers is the observation of the old “don’t smile til Easter” tip. Once my first class ran riot on my on my first day I came down hard on my other classes the next day. In fact, listening to myself I could have been mistaken for something from Jane Eyre.
In Term 3 I could relax slightly, having earned a certain amount of respect from the kids through consistency and having completed my first reports. But man, being consistent is tough! Outlining the rules at the beginning of every lesson with year 7 and 8 is the easiest part of it. Ensuring you see and respond to everything is exhausting. Dylan, stop swinging on your chair, Corie, turn around and do your work, Zac, get your book out. I made a rule early on that for every correction I made to a child’s behaviour, I had to praise someone who was doing the right thing so as to provide a model for the other student of the appropriate behaviour. Eventually, my corrections just became names, pointing or a long stare, short cuts which ensured my delivery of content or instructions was not interrupted.
I also enforced 5 minutes “thinking time” with year 7 each lesson, which was 5 minutes students had to work in complete silence to establish their concentration. Sometimes this was purely for my sanity as toward the end of third term they became extremely boisterous. It also gave me a chance to check student’s homework or progress on activities.
I will also, next year, use a roll for my junior classes to check who did not complete their homework. This year I wrote lists and kept students back to complete unfinished work, but it would have been handy to have an ongoing record so I could follow up with parents.
Playing weekend sport in my small town gave me an opportunity to meet some of the kids’ parents and get to know my students outside of the classroom. Amazingly, this lead to a complete turn around in my year 9 class. They became angelic overnight as though I had passed initiation.
Having just one class which lights up your day can make all the difference, and by the end of the year I was lucky enough to have 3 classes I will miss next year. I was almost in tears when I had to farewell my Year 9s! Seeing the growth in these kids from the beginning of the year until the end was something so rewarding; I was really pleased that the majority of the reports I wrote at the end of the year were very positive ones, even for those students who had caused me anguish at the beginning of the year.
Being the occasional speaker at my old high school presentation night was a great way to cap off the year; it allowed me to express the gratitude I felt for the teachers and system which made such an impression on me and it also allowed me to reflect upon why I have found teaching to be such a comfortable fit. One of my ex-teachers cried because he was so proud of me becoming a teacher, which was just a phenomenal compliment as he has been my idol for years.
I will progress up the ladder next year as we have another first year teacher coming into the staffroom next year, and so I am going to pass on all of this useful advice to her. I will make it known that the only way she will get through the year is by slogging through it as it is HARD work, talking about her hesitations and experiences and accepting that she doesn’t know it all, can’t POSSIBLY know it all, and that she needs help.
She is lucky though, she enters a faculty which shares knowledge, resources and a laugh, and are generally good at spotting when you are struggling.
And so, I can breathe a sigh of relief, having shed the label of “first year teacher” now.

What I am struggling with this week: Establishing “normal”.

What I have been struggling to come to terms with this week is my lack of a benchmark of “normality”. Whilst I realise this is a relative concept, I have been agonising over whether my classes are learning the “right amount” or whether kids are taking the “normal” amount of time to understand a concept.

This is especially so with my year 8 class, who continue to baffle me with their lack of knowledge about basic concepts, or skills in areas like spelling. What I have gleaned from discussions with this class’ other teachers (and through observing them in detention with many other teachers!) is that this cohort isn’t “normal”. Their skills aren’t up to scratch, and it isn’t just my lack of experience which has me baffled. In our faculty we have faced this dilemma with the new cohort of year 7 students as well, and our head teacher is putting in place plans to combat this skill deficiency head on whilst kids are still in primary school.

I was feeling the same way about my year 11 class up until today, feeling a bit lost as a previous year 11 standard class I taught was able to grasp the same concepts quickly, and were able to apply skills much more readily. I was concerned that my class were going to require scaffolding beyond what I could provide for an HSC class, and that I was going to have to call in reinforcements. Until today, when they independently synthesized 4 poems and our concept of identity using a table and focus questions I had provided. They had me stunned, to be honest. To see all the discussion I thought was fruitless and discarded churned out in a way which was succinct, relevant, and coherent made every heartbreaking lesson I have had with them so far (and there have been many!) worth it.

Whilst it may be a few years before I can judge what is “normal” for a particular ability level or age group, these #star moments keep me going in the struggle.

Improving Teaching through heightened self efficacy

Self efficacy, what is it? And why is it important for teachers?

Many teachers (and the population generally) turn their nose up at research, thinking that it is something conducted in a lab with limited real world applications. Having done an entire research-based degree (psychology), I can empathize with this view.

Recently however, I have come across some interesting and very relevant research on self efficacy which can really help us in the classroom and in the staffroom. Self efficacy relates to someone’s beliefs that they can accomplish something or succeed in a particular domain or at a particular skill. Whilst it is generally considered more specific than confidence, it might be helpful for present purposes to be discussed as confidence in a particular area.

Research on self efficacy in teachers has found that teachers with high self efficacy, that is, teachers who are confident that they can assist their students in achieving the outcomes and bring about change in their students, are more likely to:

-value student autonomy in the classroom
-allow more student directed learning
-praise than criticize students
-persevere with low-achieving or behaviorally challenging students
-raise student achievement levels
-try new strategies, resources and materials
-be more flexible in the classroom

I don’t know about you, but to me, these teachers seem to be overall more successful teachers, and the students seem to benefit immensely from having a teacher high in self efficacy.

Great! But how do we lift the self efficacy of teachers?
I’ve looked around for research on this topic, but the most I have found is on boosting student self efficacy. Although some of this information is helpful, there seems to be to be other solutions which are relevant to boosting the self efficacy of teachers in your workplace:

help each other out: teaching is renowned for being a collegiate profession, though many people think this is declining with the emphasis on standardized testing. The more you can assist each other in sharing resources and ideas, the more likely teachers are to feel in control and on top of their workload, leading to a feeling of mastery.

give someone in your workplace a compliment: we all know that teaching can be difficult because it is sometimes thankless. Just commenting on how effectively a teacher in your workplace handled a situation, or the rapport they have with a difficult student, or the way they are always so organized, could be a boost for a teacher who feels as though they are struggling.

reduce emphasis on standardized testing as a means for assessing teachers: I know I’m probably dreaming with this suggestion, but consider the impact of low standardized test results for a teacher who is already feeling as though they lack the ability to help their class reach appropriate achievement levels.

But we already have enough to worry about as teachers…

The consequences of low self efficacy include the unwillingness to try new materials or teaching strategies, low self esteem, and can be as dire as dropping out of the profession, or mental health issues. Instead of blaming these teachers for reverting to a ‘safety blanket’ of traditional teaching practices, we should be looking to give these teachers experiences of success, and slowly build their perception of themselves as great educators in order to maximize learning experiences for students in their classes.

In an environment like teaching, where there is constant talk of a need to “change” our mindset as teachers and move to more student centered modes of instruction and encourage C21st skills in our students, teachers can be made to feel as if they are to blame-they aren’t doing enough (to quote @EduSum “Don’t tell me my classroom is broken!”). It can be overwhelming, even for someone who considers themselves competent. If we want to wield change in our profession, this blame culture must go. We must boost self efficacy by empowering teachers, making them and their contributions feel valuable, and recognizing the diverse range of skills which exist within the profession. If teachers have this high self efficacy, they will be more willing to try new things in the classroom, including relinquishing the control which student centered learning requires and integrating more technological tools and applications in their teaching. What seems to be a forced change will come naturally.

Let’s look after one another-tell another teacher they are great today!

Badura et al. 1977
Kagan, 1992
Smylie, 1988
Woolfolk & Hoy, 1990

Thoughts from outside the box on promoting the development of preservice teachers

On my mammoth trek out the the DEC offices on Wednesday, I had time to reflect upon the teaching and learning process which is involved in gaining an education degree, and thereafter finding employment in the education sphere. As usual, being the cynic that I am, the first thing which stood out to me was the complete removal of our university course from the realities of teaching. First of all, none of us were given any information about our DEC interview (we weren’t even told about the DEC information day that was held at the uni) despite the fact that it is compulsory to gain employment in the education sector and our practical experience reports are completely geared towards their presentation to the DEC.

Secondly, upon reading the selection criteria which is used by the DEC to assess candidates, I realized that the majority of my answers to the possible questions I could be asked were not gained from university study, but were instead a result of information I’ve been given, resources which have been shared with me, or areas which I have been directed towards researching myself via my PLN on twitter. I felt so well prepared for the interview that I didn’t even need to rehearse, write myself notes or “study”, I felt confident in the wide knowledge base which was a result of so many wonderful and experienced teachers sharing their experience with me virtually.

I think Twitter (and social networking with other professionals in general) needs to become a compulsory part of any education course in order to get pre service teachers into the habit of sharing resources with others, seeking assistance, and constantly innovating and being inspired to try new things and take risks with their students. Right now it seems to be something which is covered in technology subjects at university, but needs to be integrated into mainstream methodology subjects.

I have been considering how this could be facilitated, and thought perhaps the NSWIT model could be used here; “mentoring” in this model could include online mentoring, for example an experienced teacher (and experienced tweep) could take a preservice teacher tweep under their wing, and introduce them to the ways in which they can use twitter effectively in their professional development. This way teachers who are currently stretched for time can still offer their expertise to others, and recognition can also be given to the potential of social media for professional development.

And then I was thinking, hey! Perhaps this is something we can facilitate ourselves!

If you are an experienced teacher, I would love to hear how you would you feel about being part of such an arrangement?

How can we teach them all they need to learn?

I am currently struggling as I plan my lessons for a Yr 9 Shakespeare unit. I feel as though there is no possible way to cram all that the students need to know (and would want to know) into 5 weeks. I could spend a year on this unit alone!

This has made me realise that one of the skills I personally need to work on in my teaching is selecting the most important material and most important skills and accept that they may not get the whole picture. Not ideal, but when you see a class only 4 times a week, there just isn’t enough time to analyse every sonnet, to profile every character and to understand every dramatic technique. Now that I’ve accepted that, all I have to do is agonise over WHICH sonnet, WHICH character, WHICH technique…. Sigh!

Preservice teachers: unprepared? Unrealistic expectations?…

For those who started following this blog, you may have shared the enthusiasm I first felt about writing it. Since then I have felt an immense amount of guilt about not updating it as regularly as I had hoped, and thus not using it as thre reflective journal as I had first hoped it would be.

In truth, I now spend every waking moment (and even some sleeping moments) in education world. I have decided that doing a uni load of 6 subjects plus a 2 day a week practical placement in one semester is not a wise move. Now being down to my final two university assessments, I now actually have time to reflect upon what I have been learning over the last five or so weeks, beginning with the realisation of just how unrealistic the expectations of pre service teachers about entering the profession actually are.

I gave up a legal career for a teaching career, with one of the considerations being that it was simply impossible for me to maintain the workload and work hours expected of a lawyer. 16 hour days just weren’t for me. The reaction I faced from many people when I told them about the career change I was making was one of shock. Many people were convinced that teaching was a much better “lifestyle”.

I would now like to dispel that myth. The exposure I have had to the teachers I’m working with over the last 5 weeks has taught me that teaching is all consuming. These people work damn hard for their students before school, during school, after school, late into the night and on weekends. So if you are looking for a work life balance, this probably isn’t the career for you.

Not that this is a problem for me, i really enjoy the satisfaction of putting together a lesson students enjoy or take something away from, and I’ve always been the person who pushes myself to go that extra mile. And I happen to be a geek, who thoroughly enjoys the pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake.

What I do have an issue with, however, is the way in which teaching is “sold” as a career choice to younger people. Universities and teaching bodies promote it as a viable option for those who need work life balance, and who are after a workload which will allow them to put their family first. Unfortunately, this picture of teaching is so far removed from how involved and consumed in their teaching the good teachers are, that it could be either setting us pre service teachers up to fail (hence the high drop out rate within the first 3 years) or promoting a standard of teaching which isn’t consummate with the way in which students deserve to be taught. If we were a little more realistic in the workload which a good teacher will take on, the hours they will dedicate to lesson planning, assessment planning and marking, and unit programming, perhaps we would ensure the teaching profession attracts only those who are willing to take on this workload.

Maybe then people would stop telling me that I chose the right profession “because I get to knock off at 3:00”. If only they knew….