education, Humour, Teacher

Get scared, then be brave – Why teachers need to step outside their comfort zones.

Last weekend I went skiing.

ski_fall

I always have a romanticized view of what my ski day will look like. I see myself gliding down the hill, smiling as I whoosh by the other skiers. Then lounging in the lodge with a cold drink looking wind-swept, yet healthy and robust.

Instead, my ski day often looks like it did this past weekend: stand in line for rentals while people cut in line in front of me, making me irritated and annoyed before I’ve even put on my boots.

Then, wait in line for what seems like forever before getting on the chair lift to take me to the top of the mountain, which suddenly seems humongous.

I start to panic the closer to the top I get and I’m terrified to get off the chair lift for fear that my poles will get stuck or that I’ll fall on my face or god forbid, get dragged back down the hill by my belt-loops.

My fear only escalates when I realize I have to go down the hill wearing these stupid toboggans on my feet. The entire time I am skiing, I am talking to myself, “You can do it. You can do it. Not going to die today. Nope. Not today.”

I am terrified probably 90% of the day when I am skiing.

I can only liken it to giving birth – it’s a horrible,messy,  terrifying experience, only made bearable by the exhilaration you feel when you finish successfully.

But despite my fears, I keep pushing myself to do it.

Why?do-one-thing-every-day

As adults, we rarely do things of our own free will that terrify us. We work very hard to build lives that are comfortable, that allow us to do things that we are good at, and we generally avoid those things that have not proven to be our strong suits.

Kids don’t have that option in school.

They are forced to take all subjects…whether they have an aptitude for them or not.

Reading is hard for you? Oh well! You better buckle down and just do it.

Math makes you break out into a cold sweat? Too bad! Everybody has to do math. Get a move on!

I think sometimes we, as teachers, forget that it’s hard to do things that are…well…hard.

When we force ourselves to do something outside of our comfort zone, I think it gives us a little more empathy and understanding for the child who is terrified of presenting in front of the class or the teen who refuses to read aloud because it’s just too embarrassing.

One time, when I was teaching English as a Second Language to university students who were almost unilingually French, I decided to take a French course.

Now, my French is…autrocious. It really is. It’s awful. But I took the course once a week at night and then during the day, I taught my French students English.

Understandably they did not want to speak aloud because they were afraid that others would make fun of their poor English.

So, one day, I stepped outside of my English-immersion-only philosophy, and I asked the students if they would help me with the oral presentation I had to do in French that night.

They all watched as I struggled to make it through my presentation. Some of them laughed (not maliciously, they just couldn’t help it…I was that bad), most winced, and some smiled encouragingly. When I was all done, they jumped on the opportunity to help me with my grammar and pronunciation.

The mood of the class changed after that day. My students saw that it was OK to make mistakes. They saw that I wasn’t perfect and that I certainly didn’t expect them to be either.

If we want our students to take risks, then we need to be prepared to do so ourselves.

So, take a Spanish class, ski down a hill, jump of a cliff (into the water, of course…don’t be an idiot). Take a chance. Risk looking silly.

Remember what it feels like to be scared

and then

be

brave.

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education, Teacher

How to Solve our Country’s Math “Problem”

The Globe and Mail recently featured a top fold, bold-font headline that screamed: “THE FIGHT TO SOLVE OUR MATH PROBLEM”!

I was disappointed to see there was no picture attached to this headline. I was hoping for a shot of an army of stern-looking math teachers, holding pencils and books, brought in by the government to get our kids back to basicsChicken-Little_Sky-is-Falling

The PISA results were released on December 4 and the hand-wringing and head-shaking began almost immediately. In case you hadn’t heard the earth-shattering news, our Canadian students dropped from 10th place in 2003 to 15th spot in 2012. The PISA is a survey (standardized test) of more 510,000 15-year-olds from 65 participating economies that focuses on mathematics.

John Manley, President and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, ominously declared, ““This is on the scale of a national emergency.”

OMG! Call in the Math Army! This is worse than the ice storm of 1998!

So scary...just like our math scores. Hold me, John Manley.
So scary…just like our math scores. Hold me, John Manley.

Now, Mr. Manley, sir, I realize you are trying to help parents who want nothing more than to ensure that little Billy won’t be living in their basement (probably playing Call of Duty 16) when he’s 35. BUT, jeez Louise! It’s ONE test! Of 15-year-olds!

Don’t get me wrong. I love and respect 15-year-olds. My youngest child is 15-years-old. My other son was just recently 15.

I, myself (believe it or not), was once 15.

Priority#3 when I was 15. Cannot include picture of French boyfriend, who was priority #1, due to silly privacy laws.
Priority#3 when I was 15 – making sure I never ran out of Silver City Pink lipstick. Cannot include picture of French boyfriend, who was priority #1, due to silly privacy laws.

I remember being 15. Acing my math test was important, but it wasn’t my top priority.

I’m not saying the PISA results mean nothing. They do. They are a great snapshot of how our 15-year-olds are able to demonstrate some of their math understanding compared to kids the same age around the world.

But we teach so much more than math in our schools these days. We actually teach more than just academics. And this is the problem. We have too many things on our plate.

Let’s start with math, seeing as it’s a national emergency and all.

In my province, there are 7 strands of math that have to be covered over the course of the grade 4 year. These include everything from number sense to graphing to probability. Within each of these strands are a variety of specific outcomes. Each carries the same amount of weight on a report card. At last count there were 65 specific outcomes. If you are in grade 4, learning your multiplication facts up to 9 is 1 of those.

It’s not that teachers don’t know how to teach basic mathematical operations and number sense. (Trust me. We do. If I have to do one more in-service on how to teach multiplication, I will poke my eyes out with hot sticks.)

The problem is that there are sooooo many other things to teach that eventually you have to move on. If the kids don’t know their math facts, oh well, because now it’s time to teach them how to read a circle graph. With 65 outcomes to get through, there isn’t a lot of time for dilly-dallying.

And this overcrowded curriculum doesn’t apply just to math.

Schools today are expected to do the work that homes, churches and community groups did years ago.

SnapchatWe are now expected to teach children basic morality, like: thou shalt not post naked pictures of your classmate on the internet.

We are expected to feed kids who don’t get a proper breakfast at home.

We are somehow responsible for solving the childhood obesity problem, despite the fact that the government keeps cutting our phys.ed. programs.

There are even calls for schools to offer nature and gardening workshops (during school time) because children are not getting outdoor time when they get home. It appears their parents are incapable of prying their offspring’s little eyes of the screens and chubby fingers off the controllers and keyboards long enough for them to get outside and blow the stink off.

The tipping point for me occurred the other day when I heard a mother being interviewed on the radio. She was upset because her teenage daughter had gotten involved in prostitution. I was feeling sympathetic to her plight until she said, “The schools really need to be doing more to prevent this from happening.”

Seriously?!

SERIOUSLY?!!!

Let me see if I understand correctly…not only am I expected to teach reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, feed the hungry, and instil basic morality, but now you want me to put a stop to the world’s oldest profession?!

UNCLE!302_businessman_teacher_or_officeworker_surrendering_and_waving_the_white_flag

I’m waving the white flag.

#Just.can’t.do.it.all.anymore.

If the general public wants improved math scores, then we need to prioritize and delegate.

Families, community groups, and government organizations need to pick up the slack that our schools have slowly absorbed over the years.

The minute you start watering down a curriculum by adding in everything but the kitchen sink, you end up with a system that is mediocre at best.

The Asian schools that beat the pants off our kids in the PISA?

I guarantee you this: they are not spending their days talking about the dangers of SnapChat, while they pass out juice boxes and granola bars. They are doing kill and drill, all day long and then far into the night with tutors and special math schools.

Do I want their education system in my country? No. But don’t compare their math scores to mine, saying it’s apples to apples. If you want me to focus more on apples, just say the word. But you’ll need to get some of the other fruit out of my basket first.

are-you-smarter-300x225

education, Teacher

A Grown-Up Report Card – How many A’s would YOU get?

report_card picImagine, if you will, that it’s a week before Christmas but instead of your head being filled with visions of sugarplums and rum and eggnog, you were pacing the floors worrying about your upcoming report card.

Yes, you. A grown-up. With a real grown-up job. Imagine that three times a year someone marked you and put their thoughts and opinions about you on paper for all to see.

“Oh,” you may say, “That happens to me. I get evaluated at my job all the time.”

Ah, yes. Your job. Presumably that thing you are good it. The thing that you chose to do for a career because you have some aptitude for it.

But what if you were evaluated on everything in your life? Not just the things you are good at but everything.

How do you think you would fare?

Report cards went home at my school this week. There was excitement and tears, joy and frustration. Some children were thrilled and others were terribly disappointed.  Teachers put a lot of effort into writing detailed, well-thought out comments, but those were often skimmed over, as parents and students zeroed in on the ABC or D.

Everyone has strengths and challenges. As adults, we have learned to stick with what we are good at and avoid our weak areas like the plague. Children don’t have this option. They have to be good at EVERYTHING. Art, science, math and writing. Sports, music, geography and reading. And if they aren’t? If they don’t get an A or a B on their report card? Sound the alarm bells!!! It’s a national crisis.

As adults, we don’t expect ourselves to be good at everything across the board, so why do we expect this from our children? Why can’t our  kids have strengths and challenges just like we do? If you were to get a report card right now, how do you think you would do? Check yourself against this list.

report card2THE ADULT REPORT CARD

Reading – Are you reading the classics and discussing them regularly and in-depth with your friends? A+! Or do you limit your reading to text messages and Star magazine? Poor effort. C for you.

reading_delicious_logo

Writing – Do you regularly write long stories with proper grammar and perfect spelling? Bravo! A for you. Is your writing limited to misspelled Facebook posts with no punctuation? So sad. You get a C.

Math – How are your budgeting skills? Do you pay off your bills regularly and never overspend (even at Christmas)? A again. Are you generally good but occasionally overspend on really, really nice boots? B, but with caution. Are you living paycheck to paycheck? It’s a D for you.

music_notes-1z5rh82Music – Do you play multiple instruments perfectly and with great gusto? Perfect marks for you. Do you sing off key to top 40 songs on the radio? Maybe a C. Try expanding your repertoire.

Art – Are you a Pinterest person with a houseful of crafty crafts? A+ for you! If you are more like me and all of your drawings involve stick people, sorry, you get a C.

Physical Education – Can you sink a basket, run a mile, and hit a ball? Are you a team player? The gym’s your thing! A+ If the only time you run is to catch the bus or get the last maple donut, you might need some remedial classes.

And don’t even get me started your behaviour! Are you nice to people? Not just the people you like but everyone? Are you helpful? Do you always get your work done on time? Are you kind, courteous and reliable?

We can’t all excel at everything. It’s just not possible. (Unless you’re Martha Stewart and even then, look what happened to her!) If your child brought home a report card, good or bad, or you just finished writing report cards, good and bad, make sure you put things in perspective. We are all gifted and we all struggle. It’s called  being human. And kids are just little humans. Let’s cut them some slack.

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education, Rants, Teacher

Shame Discipline – We know better. It’s time to do better.

Bring back the strap!

You’ll often hear people of a certain age say that kids today would behave better if we brought back the strap as a disciplinary tool. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to use the strap on their children or grandchildren. Noooo, just the “bad” kids. That would learn ‘em.

Years ago, when a child misbehaved at school, a big leather strap was pulled out of the teacher’s desk. It was a state-mandated beating designed to stop any further misbehaviour and set an example for the others who might be considering such naughtiness. Jordan Historical Museum-School House

But if you ask anyone who was ever strapped back in the “olden days” they will tell you that the pain of the strap was nothing compared to the shame and humiliation. They learned a lesson alright. They learned that if you were bigger and stronger and held more power than someone else, it was OK to hurt them.

Fast-forward to 2013. Times have changed. Most (sane-minded) people agree that beating children in front of their classmates with a big slab of leather is just plain wrong.

Nowadays most teachers use positive disciplinary techniques designed to help a child change their behaviour while still retaining their dignity. I have worked with teachers who can manage their classrooms without raising their voice. My own children have been blessed with teachers who made learning both fun and safe.

Sadly, however, some teachers are still using discipline methods that rely on shame and humiliation as tools to correct real or perceived misbehaviour. And administrators are condoning this behaviour, either intentionally or by turning a blind eye.

I have written 64 blogs on this site over the past year and every single one resonates with how much I care for and support my fellow teachers. I have the utmost respect for the profession and the job we do every day. I will defend my co-workers to the death if I have to but NOT if what they are doing is hurting children.

If you were me  And I were you  For just a day  Or maybe two  Then maybe you  And maybe me  Would see the me  That you were too. Author: Sheree Fitch
If you were me
And I were you
For just a day
Or maybe two
Then maybe you
And maybe me
Would see the me
That you were too.
Author: Sheree Fitch

Most teachers have the best of intentions. They want their students to be the best they can be. They want them to do their work to the best of their ability and behave in a positive manner. But some teachers don’t know what to do when they are faced with a child who doesn’t fit the mold. So they try other methods. Here are just a few of the discipline techniques punishments that I know are being used in schools across North America today.

  • Having students stand on a designated “line of shame” in the hallway throughout recess and lunch hour, while hundreds of classmates and teachers walk by and stare, point, pity or mock.
  • Giving students who score well on weekly tests a pizza party on Friday. Students who do not score well have to eat their bag lunch in a different place in the classroom.
  • Having students stand and face the wall. (The modern of version of “go sit in the corner”.)
  • Taking away a child’s chair and making him crouch at his desk as punishment for turning around in his chair too many times.
  • Holding up a child’s work and telling the other children, “Your work should not look like this. Little Billy obviously did not do his best on this.”

I am not referring to children who willfully hurt other children or who disrupt the class in ways that make it impossible for other children to learn. (And even if I were, these children need positive discipline methods even more. My next blog post will deal with this issue.)

No, these children were punished for wiggling, talking, dawdling or forgetting. For these “terrible” offenses, they were subjected to public humiliation.

Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “Discipline in schools should respect children’s dignity. For children to benefit from education, schools must be run in an orderly way – without the use of violence. Any form of school discipline should take into account the child’s human dignity.”  Barbara Colorosso’s  Philosophical Tenets state: Kids are worth it. I won’t treat them in a way I would not want to be treated. If it works and leaves both of our dignity intact, do it. © Barbara Colorosso, Kids are Worth It

Research has proven time and time again that shame is not a good motivator. Oh, we’ll do anything we can to avoid it but it doesn’t instill good habits or an innate desire to do better. We merely change our behaviour in order to avoid the pain.

And some children, no matter what they do, cannot avoid the ‘misbehaviours’ that are causing them to receive these punishments.

If you have ADHD, you might not be able to control your fidgeting or your inattention. If you have dyslexia, no matter how hard you study, you might not pass that spelling test. No pizza party for you, Little Billy…ever. There are lots of things teachers can do to help these children – humiliating them in front of their peers is not one of them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not trashing the entire teaching profession. I have worked with hundreds of amazing teachers and I have made a million and one mistakes over the years, but as Maya Angelou says, “I did what I knew.. when I knew better, I did better.”

We may not strap kids with a leather belt anymore, but we are still hurting them. We know better. Let’s do better.

Lori Petro, Educator, Mother, Advocate: http://www.teach-through-love.com/about-us.html
Lori Petro, Educator, Mother, Advocate: http://www.teach-through-love.com/about-us.html
education, Princess, Raves, Suburban, Teacher

Cheers, fellow teachers! It’s World Teacher Day! Time to start celebrating, non?

writing134Oct 5 is World Teacher Day! What are you doing to celebrate?

I started celebrating today at precisely wine-o’clock. (Cheers, Me!) I’ve been in this profession (off and on) for more than 20 years, so I figure I’ve earned a few pops, as Don Cherry would say.

Teaching is a wonderful, fun-filled, amazing career BUT if you aren’t careful, it can drive you crazy.

Two years ago, I let it drive me completely and absolutely bonkers. My long trip back from Bonkersville took me more than a year to complete, but I came back with a brand new perspective.

Teaching is a job and you need to do it to the best to the best of your ability. You have kids who depend on you and parents who trust you with their most beloved little person. But in the end it’s a job and you can’t let it run or ruin your LIFE.

So, how can you be the best teacher you can be without going bonkers?

1. Do your job. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But sometimes it isn’t. We get bogged down in paperwork and standardized tests and we forget the real reason we are there…to teach kids. So, Priority #1 everyday: teach kids. Priority#2: everything else.

2. Accept the fact that you can’t do everything, for everyone, every day. It’s called being human.

3. Take comfort in the reality that you can be replaced. Yes…comfort. Once I realized that the world of school continued to spin perfectly fine without me, I felt like a load had been lifted off my shoulders. It was liberating to know that, yes, I made a difference but no, the world would not stop spinning if I stepped off for a day or a year.

This is my mantra. As teachers, we can't fix everything so we have decide what we can do and what we have to let go. It's the wisdom part that gets me all the time.
This is my mantra. As teachers, we can’t fix everything so we have decide what we can do and what we have to let go. It’s the wisdom part that gets me all the time.

4. Understand that you don’t have to teach everything or fix everything in one year. There are a lot of people in the system who will help your students over the years. It’s not your sole responsibility. I’ve taught or worked with almost every grade (including university students) and one thing every grade level teacher has in common is this belief that if “I don’t do it now, next year’s teacher won’t do it and little Johnny will be screwed.” Let me put your mind at ease. All (good) teachers, at every grade (including college and university) want what’s best for students. They will be OK.

5. During the school day, shut your door – physically and metaphorically – and focus on the students inside your room. They are your priority. (If you have trouble with this one, see #1.)

6. Teach students subjects. Don’t teach subjects to students. Know your students as well as your subject and I guarantee you will have a successful year. I love the fact that my son’s math teacher is a freaking math genius, but I also love the fact that she can relate to her students and make them feel like they can do anything. That’s a win-win.

7. Take care of your health. Eat right, exercise, get your sleep. You can’t do those things if you are working all the time.

8. If you do get sick, take a sick day. Seriously…no one admires the teacher who shows up with the flu and spreads flu bugs throughout the school. Hear me now: you aren’t that important! There are subs who can keep the world of school of spinning while you recover from the mumps. And don’t forget: your health includes your mental health, too. No one likes the crazy, cranky teacher. The occasional mental health day may be the thing that keeps your career on track.

9. If your classes are anything like the ones I see, you could literally work 24-hours a day and still not meet the needs of every child, every day. Do your best and then shut it down. Make sure you have a life outside of school. (see #7)

10. Enjoy it. Yes, class sizes are often too big and curriculums change and sometimes things just don’t make sense. But kids are worth it. Being able to watch children learn and grow every day is an amazing gift. Enjoy it.

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Note: This pithy advice applies to teachers like myself who experience first world problems. Teachers who work in third world countries, war zones, or in areas of extreme poverty are, in my humble opinion, teacher-saint hybrids who have my amazed admiration.

education, Teacher

There’s A New Kid in Town. Be nice.

It sucks being the new kid – even when you’re not a kid anymore.

writing128At my old school, I could walk into the staff room anytime of day and no matter who was in there, I knew them, I liked them, and I felt comfortable talking to them.

My classroom was set up just the way I liked it.

I knew where all of the office supplies were stored and were the good things were hidden.

The school secretary was my BFF.

I knew when to approach the principal for something and when to turn tail and try again another day.

After 5 years, I belonged.

Until I didn’t anymore. And I had to get a new job.

After spending almost 10 years in the elementary school system, I switched gears and took a new position as a resource teacher at a different school – a middle school – grades 6-9.

I knew that I would know most of the kids because my new school is the feeder school for my old school. They are literally within walking distance of each other. But it was new and it was different and it wasn’t my old school.

My first day, I was lost. I didn’t know where anything was and I didn’t know who to ask. I recognized my fellow newbies by their vacant zombie stares and the way they reached out and grabbed at people, begging desperately, “Help me! I can’t find the photocopier!”

By lunchtime, I was questioning my decision to return to the teaching world altogether.

I was just about to reserve a table for one for my full-fledged pity party, when I walked into the cafeteria.

It was the first lunch for the new group of grade 6 students and they were all trying to figure out where to sit in their new cafeteria.

Last year, in elementary school, they all had assigned seating. You may not have liked the kid who ate beside you, but at least you had a place to sit.

Now, it was a free-for-all.

Some rushed to find a spot next to their friends, while others just stood there, scanning the room.

I watched for a few minutes. I said hi to a few kids I had taught in previous years and then I made a beeline for a little girl I saw sitting alone. Since I didn’t recognize her from my old school, I was pretty sure she had just moved to our area.

“Hi there,” I said, sitting down across from her. “My name’s Mrs. Hollis. What’s your name?”

She barely raised her head. “Sarah.”

“Hi Sarah. Are you new here, Sarah?”

(whisper) “Yes.”

“Where did you move from?” I asked, trying to gently get her to open up.

Turns out “Sarah” had just moved to our area from California. She didn’t know anyone and when the lunch bell rang, she had no idea where she was going to go or who she was going to sit with. So she chose to sit as far away as possible from everyone. She looked like she wanted to crawl inside her own skin and disappear.

I talked to her for a little bit and then introduced her to a few students I knew at her table. I tried to start a conversation between them before moving on.

Next I found a foreign exchange student standing alone in the middle of the cafeteria. She was clutching her lunch bag to her chest in the same way my grandmother used to hold her purse at the mall – as if she was trying to protect it from potential muggers.

This little girl’s English was poor and her voice was barely a whisper but I managed to figure out that she had had trouble opening her locker which made her late for lunch. She didn’t know where she was supposed to go and no one was jumping up inviting her to join them. I quickly paired her up with a few kids I had taught a few years back that I knew would be nice to her and kept moving.

Now, I realize these kids are not in Kansas anymore. They are travelling the mean streets of middle school now. But this shouldn’t have happened.

New kids need support systems in place the first day of school. They need to know that when they go to lunch on that first day, they won’t have to stand there, scanning the crowded tables, desperately trying to figure out whether it’s better to approach an already formed group and risk rejection or eat alone.

It’s difficult as an adult to feel out-of-place in an unfamiliar situation or with an unfamiliar group but it is gut wrenching for a child.

The most important thing for all of us as human beings is to feel as if we belong.

If you don’t feel that you belong in the place where you spend the majority of your time, chances are you will be stressed, anxious and unhappy. And when you are stressed, anxious and unhappy bad things happen. Eating disorders, depression, anger, and a whole host of other things that children shouldn’t have to go through.

Schools need to do a better job of helping everyone feel as if they belong.

New kids transferring into a school should be assigned a buddy, someone who is confident and familiar with the school. Someone who will show them which bathroom is closest to the class and which water fountain only spits out warm water. They need someone to sit next to during lunch that they know won’t make fun of them.

Today was Pink Day. It’s the day when students and staff wear pink to show that they are against bullying. This is a great initiative. But do you know what protects kids most from becoming victims of bullying? Having  friends. Even one good friend lowers your risk. Bullies target kids who are alone because they are easy marks. If you have a friend, even one, you are safer, happier, and more successful.

So when you see a child who is always, repeatedly, unhappily, alone, say something, do something, help.

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It could make all the difference in the world.

education, Memoir, Parenting, Suburban

It’s a magical world out there, my son. Time to go exploring.

writing121

To my little boy, who is suddenly, miraculously, all-grown-up,

Tomorrow we leave with a truck filled to the brim with your sheets and pillows and computer and clothes and start the five-hour drive to your new home. A dormitory filled with boys and (heaven help me) girls just like you who are starting a new chapter in their lives.

It seems like we’ve been preparing for this move all summer. The list of things to get, to buy, to wash, to sign and to organize seemed like it would never end.

Until it did.

And now there isn’t anything left for me to do or buy or wash or pack.

I thought that during your last night at home, I would give you lots of deep, sage, soul-searching advice that would carry you through the good times and the bad while you are away at university but…

I got nothin’.

And you know what? I think that’s good.

I think it means we already did that.  Over the past 18 years, anything that needed to be said has already been said many times over.

Don’t worry about us. Your dad is ready. I’m ready. (And you know your brother was ready last month when he started measuring your room to see where he would put his furniture!)

You’re ready and I am so excited for you.

There’s a whole new world waiting out there for you.

Time to go exploring.

 writing124