Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I'm Going to Be the Most Mediocre Teacher I Can Be!

I had a less than stellar moment while teaching yesterday. (Oh, what a good reminder that I am still learning even though I am the teacher!)

It happened in Intro to Education. I was explaining an assignment. My students--freshmen, mostly--are about to undertake their first research project, and I was elaborating the expectations for how to conduct good research, as in, "googling for websites is search, not research." We were talking about the library collection, and Encyclopedias of Education, and reference librarians, and excellent academic resources available online. I closed my explanation with an encouragement to be excellent: "Think about it this way: are you in college to learn? Or to just 'get by?'"

I noticed several students turn to a friend seated next to them and mutter: "I'm trying to just get by..." with a grin.

I did not grin.

I dropped the hammer on them.

"Hey! If you're going to just 'get by' as a teacher, you might as well get out now!"

<blinks from the students sitting in stunned silence>

"I mean, seriously...who wants to be a 'just getting by' teacher?"

<more blinks from students>

"Think about it from the parents' perspective. How many parents do you think say, 'You know, I hope my kid gets a slightly-below-average teacher this year.' None. That's how many. No kid deserves a 'just getting by' teacher."

<wow, it sure is quiet in here...>

"No one sets out to be a mediocre teacher, right? 'I'm going to be the most mediocre teacher I can be!' No way. Be excellent! And start right now!"

Yikes, Mulder. Maybe want to rein it in a bit? (Good thing it was close to the end of class...)


I keep replaying this scene in my head, trying to see it from my students' perspective. Was I wrong to chide them this way? I wonder if I would have opted out of education if a professor had been that blunt with me so early in my studies? (Full disclosure: I got a "B" in student teaching, and I fully deserved it. I was not an excellent teacher. I'd like to think I got better, and that I'm still getting better...) I hope they took it in the way I truly meant it: to inspire excellence over apathy.

Is it unrealistic to expect an 18-year-old kid who had to ask permission to use the restroom just a few months ago to start to behave like a professional? Maybe...

Here's the point: I don't think any teacher sets out to be mediocre, but I am not sure why we don't have more great teachers out there. And I want my students--future teachers that they are--to already start thinking of themselves as great teachers.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Value of Struggle

We are ready for the maze!
(We ambitiously took this picture before getting started.)
My daughter and I recently visited the corn maze at a nearby farm. (Yes, I live in Iowa. This is a thing here...) I had gone with her older brother in past years; this was her first time trying out the maze.

A corn maze is very much what it sounds like: a farmer carves a path through a cornfield, creating a maze among the 8-foot tall cornstalks that are beginning to dry out as we head into fall. This particular place always cuts the maze into an interesting shape that must look very impressive when viewed from the air--this year, the image was a train on a track, engine puffing smoke, with trees and hills in the background.

From our vantage point, of course, it looked more like this:

Our view, traveling through the maze. (Remember too
that I am well over 6 feet tall, and this corn is far taller!)

Before entering the maze, we received a map to help us discern our way, which showed the entrance and exit, and every line on the map indicated the dirt path through the tall corn.

And the fun: hidden throughout the twisting path were six waypoints. At each waypoint, a different shaped hole-punch to record our visit. If we could make our way through the maze and find each of the six punches, we would win a prize! Of course we were up for this challenge!

And so, we plunged in.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Understanding the Common Core

It is amazing and fascinating (and a little troubling) for me to see how people continue to react to the Common Core State Standards. The development of these standards began in 2009--that's seven years ago, people!

The troubling part for me is how politicized the whole conversation about the Common Core is. Many people seem to just be parroting things they have heard--for good or ill--about the standards, about how they are implemented, about the government's role, etc. Many times when I hear people singing the praise of the Common Core, I wonder if they have actually read the standards. Even more common, when I hear people demonizing the Common Core, I really wonder if they have actually read the standards. It seems to me that many people are concerned about the Common Core, or--perhaps more accurately--they are concerned with changes that they see in education today, and they lump any and all changes in with "the Evil Common Core." (Sorry, that was a little snarky, wasn't it?)

Friends, particularly if you are concerned about the Common Core, I encourage you to watch this short video to better understand what the Common Core State Standards actually are. This is a very fair explanation from Education Week (a well-regarded and respectable news source for issues related to American education) and lays out a concise explanation of what these standards are about. I believe this is a helpful way to be able to discern untruths or half-truths you might hear about the Common Core.

If you've ever felt opposed to the Common Core, and you've never actually read the standards, I encourage you to look at them for yourself. You can explore the whole body of the Common Core State Standards at

Are they perfect? Certainly not. But are they a good way of articulating what students should learn at different grade levels in math and English language arts? I think they are helpful in this regard.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"Get To" or "Have To?"

Today I had one of those class periods I think all teachers dream of. Every single thing I planned just worked. Students were engaged, interactive, asking questions, collaborating, and--I don't think this is wishful thinking on my part--even enjoying the work.

At the end of class I walked back to my office doing an internal happy-dance-of-joy thinking, "I get to do this!" As in, "this is my job, but I feel like I am completely fulfilling my calling in this work!"

It's interesting for me to think about this. I'm generally a positive person, and I generally love my work as a teacher. This has been true at almost every point in my career. And, honestly, the times in my professional life where I felt like "I have to..." instead of "I get to!" were usually more about the paperwork, or external mandates, or friction with colleagues, or times I had messed up and had to make things right with a person I had hurt. Those things can definitely suck the joy out, for me at least. But working with students? Seeing them master a new concept, or even struggle their way through to developing that understanding is always a joy for me, and it never gets old.

I view my work as a teacher as a calling. I believe that I am called to serve, and the place I happen to be serving right now is the college classroom, teaching future teachers. I believe I have been equipped for this work, and I am fully using the gifts and talents I have been given. And maybe it's because I'm in this place, professionally, where I feel well-equipped because of my background, experiences, and education to serve faithfully--and even successfully. It's easy to feel "I get to!" in this kind of a setting!

Teachers, how are you feeling? Are you feeling like you "get to" work with your students, to help them grow and develop, to support their learning? Or are you feeling like you "have to?"

What will it take for you to move to "get to?"

Friday, August 26, 2016

What Kind of Work?


It's time to have a difficult conversation, teacher friends.

Here goes...

We have to think about what students are doing in your class, and why they are doing it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

"I See My Name": To Know and to Be Known

It's the beginning of the semester, and I'm already struggling. Oh, I'm doing all right; I know my content, and I'm reasonably confident in my pedagogy, and I am as prepared as I can be. The struggle? Getting to know all my new students.

I teach Intro to Ed, which is a required survey course for all Education majors. If you come to Dordt College and major in Education, you'll take this course. I want to be clear: I love to teach this course; it is one of my favorites! But, because Education is one of our largest majors, I have a lot of students--about 80-100 each year, between the three sections that we offer. In the fall semester, I teach two sections of 32-35 students each. And here is the struggle: it's hard for me to get to know that many students when I only see them a couple hours a week.

When I was a middle school teacher, I had 40-60 new students every year, but it wasn't so hard to learn all those names. I think it was because I saw them every. single. day. and I was able to connect with them more quickly. With my college students, I only see them a couple times a week (actually, only once a week in Intro to Ed!) and so it takes me much, much longer to get all those names down cold. Last fall, I had most of them by the middle of the semester, but there were a handful of names that were elusive for me--five or six students whose names just wouldn't jump to mind for me.

And I hate that.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Educational Goals: Learning or Accountability?

In my Timehop today was a retweet of something shared this time last year by my Twitterfriend David Hochheiser (who is a wise, funny, generous educator--I've you're a teacher on Twitter, you should be following him.)

Here was the (re)tweet that caught my eye today:

I think he's right.