My Students Say Thank You

I don’t remember when I first noticed it. A student here or there would pause on the way out my classroom door, turn to me, and say, “Thank you, Mrs. Leung.”

It’s new to me.

When I was in middle school, it never occurred to me to thank my teachers for opening doors and windows in my mind or for believing in me. I never said thank you for the corrective feedback and coaching on writing assignments. It never crossed my mind that my teachers were anything more than gatekeepers of right and wrong.

So that’s why it struck me. Those thank yous stopped me in my place with the power of gratitude: Thank you for teaching me. Thank you for today’s lesson. Thank you for listening. Thank you for challenging me. Thank you for the feedback.

Thanks so much Ms. Leung for the feedback. I will use your feedback.

Student comment on feedback. The response came one minute after I posted.

I’ve been teaching fourteen years and I’ve never had so many students say thank you so often. In a way, I think it’s a function of the ease of electronic communication. If I leave a comment in a Google Doc or in Classroom, many students see the note pop up on their personal screens. It’s a way to say, “Hi. I saw your work. I notice your skills.” How can that not lead to stronger teacher-student relationships? But that can’t be the only reason. This generation of children I am fortunate to know has a keen understanding of valuing relationships.

When I feel frustrated at the lack of civility that seems to permeate public discourse, I think of my students and am so grateful. If a student understands the power of thanks at the age of twelve, that is a person who will grow into a grateful adult who can accept constructive criticism and use it to better herself.

These remarkable people are growing up fast. Keep your eyes open. When they start appearing on the horizon, you’re going to be dazzled by how much they’re going to change the world.

The Bubble and the Pin: A Teacher Contemplates Bacon’s “Of Youth and Age”

Forest Bubble by ecstaticist on Flickr

Several, two students approached me after school to talk about their ideas for our school’s theater program. They hoped to create a student-run equivalent of the existing program and were eager to get started with script writing as soon as summer vacation began.

They laid their plans on my desk–a notebook with scribbled pages and bullet points. I loved the idea, but there were too many problems that had to be addressed. Who would ultimately be in charge? What would be my primary role? How would we ensure that each person does what she commits to do? How would my students manage to find time to write, direct, rehearse, and perform when the school’s auditorium schedule was already filled?

They spoke with enthusiasm and certainty. This was their dream and they knew they could make it happen. As I listened to their ideas, I remembered feeling that way. I remembered thinking that I saw all the answers and simply needed someone who was willing to listen and give me a chance. Half way through their pitch, one student apologized for his unchecked idealism.

Then I remembered reading Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Youth and Age.”

Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and that which doubleth all errors will not acknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.

These students had passion, creativity, and a thirst for more ways to learn about the craft of theater. What they didn’t have was an understanding of what it was they hoped to accomplish. Bacon reminded me: it is the nature of Youth to create and make messes, and my responsibility to help them find the balance between their boldest ambitions and the constraints of time, space, and human frailty. I couldn’t be an advisor for this project because I had too many responsibilities of my own already, but I didn’t want to crush their enthusiasm. I went back to Bacon and read this:

Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.

Erin Popping a Water Balloon by davidjlee on Flickr

Ouch. I knew what Bacon meant, and I wanted to avoid becoming one of those teachers–content with mediocrity, spinning my wheels in a world of “maybe someday.” The more we talked, the more I think they saw how impossible it would be to create the type of student-run theater they wanted.  They could think of no one else who could act as a club sponsor other than me. I would have to teach a year-long theater class and use class time if we were to make all of their ideas work, and even at that, there were no guarantees that their schedules would allow enough room to take such a class.

Then I offered an alternative, an idea I’d toyed with for a “Ten-Minute Film” Festival of student-produced films. A lot of the responsibility and creative elements would be in their hands, and that’s what they wanted (and needed) most. I’m glad my sharp pin of reality didn’t completely dissuade them and that I found a way to combine their ideas with my perspective.

Certainly it is good to compound employments of both; for that will be good for the present, because the virtues of either age may correct the defects of both; and good for succession, that young men may be learners, while men in age are actors; and, lastly, good for extern accidents, because authority followeth old men, and favor and popularity youth.

Working in partnership with my students–giving them voice–makes the best of both our efforts.

Learning Cliffs

Everyone’s learning curve looks a little different. We expect this for our students and make adjustments based on readiness, development, prior knowledge, and even preference. Why is it so hard to remember that adults need this, too?

I’m part of a school district who has a lot of learning to do when it comes to using 21st century tools. For many years the resources simply weren’t available and gaps formed in our knowledge that weren’t addressed. Learning curves steepened and what was once a gentle rise of change became shear cliffs with their tops obscured in fog the longer those gaps went unaddressed.

We teachers expect much from our students, but we expect so much more of ourselves. Failure, weakness, and being a novice are not comfortable for us when we are expected to be our professional best. In many ways, we feel as though someone has dropped us at the foot of that cliff with a pile of climbing equipment and said: Go for it. Maybe some of us have been climbing before and know the difference between belay and rappel; maybe the closest some of us have been to climbing a cliff has been standing on a chair to reach a high shelf.

Today my grade level team met to try something new with shared files and folders. For some of us, we had already started exploring. Others were opening files for the first time. The tension and frustration in the room was palpable, but what made me the most proud to be part of my team is that not one person said, “I give up.” A few scouts had already been part of the way up the mountain–testing the footholds, warning those who followed along about our mistakes, where we’d slipped and fallen. We trusted one another to help one another as we learned together. No one falls and gets left behind.

It might sound like a silly thing to those educators with experience who have been using Google Apps or Dropbox or any number of so-called 21st century tools for years–those who have summited Everest and barely remember the fearful, halting first attempts they made; but for us, the newbies, this was a victory. We’re a little scraped and sore, but we’re climbing. Together.

Cross-posted on Sanderling.

Comments Round the Web, September 2013

Aside

September 7

I’m not sure I would be comfortable knowing my administrator saw me as a “chip” to cash in. I want to be a partner with a stake in the community, not a pawn on a chess board in someone else’s game. Sometimes personal questions can be intrusive and I purposefully keep my personal life separate from my work life. That being said, I agree that it is important to be human with one another and acknowledge that sometimes people face significant personal struggles.

What brings me on board is an administrator who is passionate about things that matter and engages me in conversation grounded in seeking solutions to pressing questions. Engage me as a professional, support my desire to learn, and give me opportunities to lead. Thats all I ask!

via Leading Successful and Dynamic Schools: Building Relationships With Teachers.

Air Traffic Control or The Lighthouse

Image courtesy of moogs on Flickr

There’s a murky continuum between micromanagement and being “hands off.” In the classroom and as part of a school community, I have experienced both extremes and felt alternately stifled and abandoned. I wanted to ensure my staff wouldn’t feel that way about my leadership, but it took time and reflection to find the empowerment sweet spot.

One conversation with a seventeen year-old junior counselor gave me the insight I needed to define my leadership styles. The counselor had a child in his group whose behavior was causing nearly constant disruptions. It seemed natural for me to take action to address the problem head-on, but when I offered to talk to the camper, my staffer flinched. His reaction surprised and worried me. When I asked him what was wrong, he explained, “The kids know you’re in charge–and they’ll listen to you, but why should they listen to me if they don’t think I’m in charge, too.” He helped me see what I already knew about good leaders. I had to learn to pick my moments and support my staff without swooping in and “fixing” things for them. Just because I knew how to approach the problem didn’t mean it was best for me to take control away from someone who needed to learn.

I left that conversation with a perspective I’d been lacking. In the high-pressure, now moments of camp, I would focus on the problem before me. Like an emergency room doctor, I often handled conflicting needs in triage: scraped knees, lost shoes, borrowed towels, “fairness” arguments, bee stings, and homesickness. These were the frenetic moments where I felt hard pressed to be in three or more places at once, and it’s exhausting to be “the decider.”

I knew I had to empower my staff to make decisions and handle problems without always having to consult me first. It’s inefficient for them and for me if they rely too much on me to tell them what I think they should do next. I knew I wouldn’t be an effective leader if every choice had to go through me first. I knew I had to model the type of leader I needed my staff to be and to give them the right amount of support at the right times.

Image courtesy of archer10 (Dennis) on Flickr

In essence, I understood that sometimes I’m Air Traffic Control, fielding questions and making decisions because there’s no time to waste. It’s good for me to make certain choices or to establish expectations because no matter what: some problems won’t solve themselves. At other times as I walk through the camp grounds, I’m more like a lighthouse. My staff knows I’m there if they need me and it’s my responsibility to model strong leadership and show them I have confidence in them, too.

In reflecting on these two roles, I’ve thought about the leaders who have guided me and leaders who have frustrated me. The ones who have helped me grow were the ones who didn’t try to solve problems for me, but allowed me to develop my capacity. As I shifted my role from leading from the front to leading on the side, I watched as my young staff stepped in and stepped up to the challenge, going beyond even their own expectations.

The Other Side of the Office Door

The Student Becomes a Teacher

"The Other Side of the Desk" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2010

The first time I set foot in a classroom as a pre-service teacher, my eyes were opened to what I now call “The Other Side of the Desk.” As a student, I had found it so easy to find fault with teachers who seemed scattered and unprepared for class. I wondered why it took so long for them to grade and return my assignments–and why tests didn’t always match what we had been learning in class. I wondered why  I could see the bullying, the slackers, and the cheaters, but they couldn’t. I wondered why some teachers could handle the “bad kids” while others seemed to egg them on and make things worse. Now I was the one with my Objective and Procedure-filled lesson plans and I watched as my idealized version of the classroom dissolved. Like every good teacher eventually discovers, I had to become flexible, to think on my feet, to listen to my students, and to design opportunities for learning and discovery rather than leaning on worksheets and questions at the end of the textbook selection. I learned that even a multiple choice test can take hours to grade when there are six classes worth of tests. I learned how to share responsibility for managing the classroom rather than ruling with threats and detention slips.

The Teacher Leader Becomes an Administrator

Now that camp has started, I’m also learning about life on the other side of the office door. I catch my reflection in the windows of the Administration Building as I move from place to place on campus, tending to campers’ needs and solving problems. I have that harried look I’ve seen on my administrators faces at times. I feel such an obligation to demonstrate every ounce of leadership and educational philosophy I possess, from modeling professionalism with my self-imposed dress code to the finer points of redirection, positive discipline, and inquiry learning.

I used to wonder why my administrators couldn’t stop by my classroom very often–until I spent half a day in the camp office making phone calls to parents who had forgotten to call in their absent camper. Those phone calls took place in between the times I was doling out band-aids (using Universal Precautions, of course), attending to “he-started-it” discipline issues, and answering the myriad questions from my staff that I hadn’t anticipated and, therefore, we hadn’t covered, in training. It used to frustrate me when an administrator would snap at me for what I perceived as a misunderstanding or an unjust characterization of my actions, until I was in the middle of a serious discipline issue and my curt response to a staffer left him feeling undervalued. (I found him later and apologized, adding yet another hard-knock lesson learned to my list.)

Expectations

Campers expect that I know their names and will be fair, just, and let them have fun. Parents expect that I know each child and will care for them as if they were my own children–personally ensuring Jeffrey (not an actual camper) brings his towel home, Maribel (not an actual camper) uses her inhaler before swimming, and knowing from memory which days Adam, Harold, Julie, Tina, and Beth (not actual campers) will ride the bus and which days a parent will pick them up. Junior Counselors expect that I will empower them to make decisions and enforce the code of conduct and not undermine their authority. Senior Staffers expect that I will provide the materials they need to do their work and that I will be available to help them solve problems or address concerns as they arise. The board of directors expect me to uphold the camp’s mission and to maintain the founders’ vision while guarding against liabilities and keeping an eye on the budget.

Is it any wonder my walkie-talkie handle is “Momma Bear”?

Life on the Other Side of the Office Door

"First Steps on the Path" Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011

It has been sobering and at times overwhelming to be the last stop on the way to making a decision or addressing a problem. I feel the weight of that responsibility and my overwhelming desire to ensure the safety and well-being of every person at camp–from the youngest camper to the most veteran volunteer. It’s a different feeling than the one I had for my students and my classroom, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the responsibility for all those young lives can sometimes fill me with terror that something I do (or fail to do) will cause inadvertent harm. Constant vigilance is both physically and mentally exhausting.

As the days go by, I’m learning to balance my expectations for myself with the reality that this is a lot of on-the-job training and that I can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I’m learning that the other side of the office door, like the other side of the desk, is its own universe and that there’s nothing like “living the adventure” to understand what it’s like. Camp hasn’t been filled with stressful challenges either. There have been great moments where I know I’ve made a positive difference for a camper or staff member–and it feels so good to know my leadership can make that difference. After this summer, I’ll have to consider my options carefully and decide how an administrative role may play a part of my future.

The Camp Director Files: Lessons in Administration

"The calm before the campers." Photo by Jennifer Leung © 2011.

The majority of my experience and background in education has been in English or Language Arts classrooms, teaching middle and high school students. As I’ve developed more confidence, I’ve taken advantage of opportunities to grow in other directions and take on leadership roles on school committees or as a coach or teacher leader. As a theater director, I learned how to manage a budget and balance schedules in order to bring my shared vision to life on the stage with my students. I created new structures and developed a team to build some institutional memory for the program that wouldn’t be forgotten when I had to move away. All these experiences allowed me to work side by side with students or colleagues and act as a sounding board to help them reach their goals. In all my experiences, I’ve been a team member or my leadership centered on an area of my expertise. This summer, I am facing a new challenge in uncharted territory: administration. Not only am I taking on a new role, I’m also helping to reshape and reimagine an existing program to help leave it stronger and more organized with a fresh vision for the future.

I’m learning how to handle the pressure of too much to do and too few hands to do the work; how to delegate and how to show my staff I trust them to do what’s best for kids; how to follow policy set for me from an ideal standpoint that doesn’t match the messy and unpredictable nature of reality on site; how to train my staff and work with my Assistant Director to mentor the junior counselors and CITs as they struggle to become leaders; how to manage tears, illness, homesickness, conflicts, misbehavior, and concerns for our campers’ safety and welfare at home; how to manage misunderstandings and personality conflicts among my leadership team; how to adhere to all the state regulations and requirements–even when that means letting kids go hungry at lunch because the food didn’t arrive at a safe-to-serve temperature–and explaining that to the kids so that they understand. In short, I’m getting a crash course in administration and a six-week internship as a mini-principal.

It has been daunting, uplifting, challenging, and fulfilling–and that was just for the first week of training before the campers showed up.

I plan to reflect on my experiences and list the links to those reflections from this starting point in order to document my journey. Comments and your wisdom are most welcome.

Let the journey begin:

1. The Other Side of the Office Door

2. Air Traffic Control or the Lighthouse