Blog post by PTAC Member Joe Welch
It’s the usual morning sequence for so many teachers. Wake up, check your school email on your phone, then respond before driving into school for the day. Perhaps there is a student e-mail with a question about an assignment. Perhaps a note of an early dismissal or maybe even a subtle change to the building schedule for the day.
But, this past Friday, I was greeted with e-mail from a parent of a current student:
"Seize every moment. That’s something I keep instilling in my kids. And amazing teachers like you hone in on that."
Talk about a message that initiates some reflection and pause. Seizing every moment? Sure, that’s a phrase you may hear given to a new parent about time with their children, the vacation of a lifetime that’s coming up soon, or even an athlete before an important game. But, how can a teacher “seize every moment” and, moreover, what does that even look like?
It’s easy to get lost in the daily to do list – writing lessons, grading assignments, covering the occasional class duty for a colleague, meeting with students about their progress.
Is that what this parent meant? In my reflections, I began to think about the journey of my career as a teacher to make sense of it in my mind.
In the business world, the adage goes something along the lines of “never turn down a meeting.” In the world of a teacher, it is more along the lines of “never turn down an opportunity” to improve your craft, form connections, or to bring new experiences to your students. So, like a true history teacher, I look to Hamilton to help me make sense of what it means to seize every moment.
Be Young, Scrappy, and Hungry
I still believe that I have a lot of career left. But, there was a time when the “new teacher” was subtly expected to mind his or her place, and wait for their turn. My advice to every new teacher is to go get it and not to wait for opportunities to fall to you. Get involved, seek leadership roles, and let your voice be heard. We count on you to bring new ideas, fresh perspective, and sometimes need to be reminded that your experiences as a student in the not-so-distant past are valuable.
It was so empowering to me as a second year teacher to offer my skill set with educational technology, lead trainings and workshops for my colleagues and get involved in leadership discussions. Seizing early opportunities in my career led me to become a 2009 Keystone Technology Innovator as a new teacher, only fostering more relationships, skills, and experiences that I could bring back to my school and students.
Never Be Satisfied: Be Non-Stop in Seeking Opportunities and Connections
Sounds simple, right? No matter your content area, there’s a plethora of opportunities to grow as a teacher. From workshops to local, regional, and national conferences, a teacher can be overwhelmed by the opportunities that exist to improve. Consequently, by continuing to push the limits of your own craft, you’re doing more than improving yourself.
As fellow PTAC Member Georgette Hackman pointed out, you are forming your community of learners. Still, there’s even more.
You’re creating partnerships for your students that you didn't even know existed. Quite frankly, the best teachers do not turn the switch off, always ready to bring experiences to the classroom to prepare students for their futures.
Sure, this may mean using the flexibility of your summer to attend a seminar, waking up for a Saturday EdCamp, or combing the web for grants to support travel to conferences. This is when collaboration happens. This is when partnerships form. This is when you create powerful learning opportunities that extend beyond your school walls.
For example, a simple summer meeting at my local PBS affiliate turned into one of the greatest nights of my teaching career, as the community, PBS, and local Vietnam Veterans came together for a Vietnam War roundtable discussion for my students.
An afternoon at your local museum can generate an idea that ignites funding for your students’ community history project. Likewise, attending a conference can quickly spawn a partnership to benefit your students, like Gilder Lehrman collaborating with my Middle School on a visit by George Washington University’s Dr. Denver Brunsman.
Don’t Throw Away Your Shot to Inspire Belief
So you just taught a great lesson. It went exactly as planned and students were engaged. But, there’s so much more to the school day. Smile at students in the hallway, give that high five or fist bump, hold a door open for that extra ten seconds.
Seize every moment to make your students believe in themselves, to inspire confidence, and to know that they can and will be successful. Moments come and go so fast. Each school year is a chapter that goes by faster and faster. The school day and each period: a blink. But, the moments that you can connect with your students, those are the most important ones to seize.
So, as we approach Spring and the school year again speeds up:
Seize every moment…amazing teachers hone in on that.
Blog Post by PTAC Member Lori Soskil
About eight years ago an administrator started a faculty meeting by asking the question, “Why are so many of our students unable to pass the state Keystone exams if their report card grades show them doing well in their classes?”
As the chair of the science department, I made this question the driving force behind the discussions at our next few department meetings. What we discovered was that our grading practices included many instances of giving credit for completion of work, participation, and effort.
In many cases, this was artificially inflating our grades and ensuring the feedback that we were giving to students and parents was not reflective of what children actually knew about the science content they were supposed to be learning.
In other cases, we were using grades to try and coerce children into behaviors that we wanted so our classrooms were more manageable. This was both artificially lowering some students’ grades and negatively impacting the relationships between students and teachers in our classrooms.
Instead of having meaningful conversations with students about their actions, we were using grades as a way to modify their behavior.
When I reflected on my own personal practices, I saw that I was giving students credit for things that didn’t really help them learn in order to keep their grades high. I thought that I was being compassionate.
What I was really doing was taking points from a child who didn’t have a pencil, but had overcome his parents’ addiction that morning to get himself and his siblings to school on time.
I was docking a child points for not completing her homework when the previous evening she had spent all night cooking dinner for her family and helping her younger brother with his homework because her parents were still not home from working their jobs in New York City.
When children fell asleep in my class, I was taking away participation points instead of recognizing the opportunity to ask my students about the cause of their exhaustion, and whether there was something in their lives with which they needed help.
As a department, we made a commitment to revise our grading practice so that report card grades better reflected the knowledge and abilities of our students.
In my own classroom that meant abolishing participation points and grades for homework completion, and instituting a remediation policy. Now, in most cases, students can retest in order to demonstrate that they have learned the required material.
Currently I have a daughter who is in high school in a different school district. Last year she came home in tears because her grade in a class had dropped significantly. Despite keeping meticulous notes, all required materials, and an organization system that allowed her to have a near perfect average on her tests and quizzes, she had received a low grade on a notebook check that was worth 25% of her overall grade.
She asked me, “How is it fair that I know all of the material, can demonstrate that on my tests, but have a lower grade because my notebook wasn’t organized in the way my teacher wanted it to be?”
As a teacher and a parent, I had no good answer. Both of us also realized that any grades reported on her upcoming report card would be meaningless in telling us how much of the content in the course she had learned. It also left her with a worse attitude toward the subject of the course, the teacher, and school in general.
The grade a student receives should reflect what a student knows or can do in each subject.
As teachers, we must realize that the actions we take and the policies we implement impact our students’ emotional well-being, their attitudes toward school, and their motivation to learn.
In my classroom I am committed to continually reflecting on how my practices impact my students. Sometimes I’ll get it wrong, as I did in the beginning of my career. But, by putting the needs of my students first, being willing to self-reflect, and learning from other teachers around me, I will continue to grow as a professional.
The relationship between teachers and students is the most important thing we can nurture in our classrooms. If we all commit to being reflective and growing as professionals, we can strengthen those relationships and ensure our students succeed in school and in life.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee