Saturday, March 31, 2012

Choose to be Extraordinary

It's been a few weeks since my last post because it's been a few weeks since I've had time to decompress and think about all the busyness that's been going on at work.  As we head into the final week before Benchmark testing, you can tell that everyone is a little tense; everyone is just ready to slide into home plate after all the hard work that's been put in.  You can see it in the teachers and the students.  This time of year in general seems to breed a type of restless apathy.  We'd all rather be out in the sunshine or on vacation than in our classrooms and offices being productive.

I'm right there with everybody else.  I want to be out in the sunshine way more than I want to review main idea, author's purpose, and inferencing, but we all have to do things we don't necessarily want to do. This is something I've been having to tell my students a lot lately.

There's one particular quote that has stuck with me these past few weeks since I've posted.  It comes from a book that my principal lent me called Monday Morning Leadership. This book comes from the business world, but is filled with connections to education.  While there are many great lessons in this extremely short book (it's only about 100 pages), my favorite quote from the book is also one of the simplest.  It simply states:

If you want to be extraordinary, the first thing you have to do is quit being ordinary.

That sounds easy enough.  Choose to be extraordinary.  However, when you really make a mental effort to choose non-ordinary behavior everyday, it is pretty darn hard.  Ordinary behavior might mean handing out an assignment and letting kids work independently so you can save your voice.  It might be using  a PowerPoint and taking notes, when you could do a more hands-on activity.  The thing is, being extraordinary means taking a lot of risks, and taking a lot of risks mean running the chance of making more than one mistake.  When you quit being ordinary, you choose to forfeit the comfort that goes with following the crowd.

As we prepare for Benchmark week, I want to rise to the occasion, just like I'm asking my students to rise to the occasion on their testing.  If they have to work hard, then I should have to work hard, too.  So children, I hope you are all ready for some extraordinary lesson plans next week!  I am choosing not to be ordinary.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Caring is Key

On February 29th, I looked forward to the two weeks standing between myself and spring break, and I saw a series of legit hurdles standing in front of me--my first half marathon on March 4th, my Praxis 3 on March 6, a standardized module test for my kids on March 14th, and a mid-term and twenty minute presentation in my grad school class on March 17th. I have to admit that on February 29th, I found myself weighing my options, taking a lot of deep breaths, and deciding which one of these items would be the least unfortunate on which to drop the ball.

I was staring all of this in the face when I wrote my last post about balance.  I promised myself in that post that, above all else, I would make a constant effort to be positive as I worked my way through my first-half-of-March-to-do list.  I have made a sincere effort to keep this promise to myself, although I must admit that I have not had perfect success.  There were a few days on which I was doing super well just to put on a smile as I was walking down the hall.  An example of this was last Tuesday.  

Last Tuesday, I taught my first Benchmark Academy lesson after school.  This was the same day that I had my Praxis 3 in the morning, so I have to admit that I was pretty spent by the time I got ready to teach a group of twenty kids, who wanted to stay after school for "extra school" about as much as a group of felons wants to spend extra time in prison.  My exhaustion, plus their lack of interest in doing anything that required them to pick up a pencil, created a perfect storm of chaos.  Now, I don't blame those kids.  At 3:00 p.m., I don't want to pick up a pencil anymore either, and I was so spent from the rest of the day that I had not even kind of mentally prepared myself to make this hour of our lives fun.  When I say that a perfect storm of chaos ensued, what I mean is that from 3:00-4:05 last Tuesday, I had my first experience with complete and total lack of control in my classroom. We got through the lesson, but by the time 4:05 rolled around, I felt totally deflated and had all but decided that maybe my Praxis assessor shouldn't pass me after all.  In direct contradiction to my promise to stay positive, I let myself mope for a while.  After I felt sufficiently sorry for myself and what a long day it had been, I somehow came to the conclusion in my mind that Benchmark Camp was going to be my new challenge, and I was going to win because, as anyone who know me knows, I am a terribly competitive human being.

I began brainstorming ideas about how to conquer my Benchmark Academy chaos, and slowly but surely ideas started coming to me.  I asked my principal for some background on a couple of the kids in my group who I've never taught before and don't know well.  I thought some insight might help me prevent their disruptions.  I made a point to say hello and how's your day to my Academy kids anytime I saw them in the hall.  I decided that if they could figure out that I cared enough to ask about them outside of Tuesday afternoons, that they might be more willing to give me their respect for one hour out of their week.  I made a deal with one of my more disruptive kids that involved an exchange of one Jolly Rancher for every 10 minutes of quiet, respectful behavior.  Pretty sweet deal, if you ask me.  And finally, I found a way to help a kid, who may be the most kinesthetic learner I have ever met, pay attention in class by cutting his worksheets up into a puzzle, making him put them back together, and then having to answer all the questions.  To my surprise, all of these things seemed to actually work to some extent. Now, don't get me wrong, it wasn't perfect.  But it was SO much better than Week 1 that I couldn't help but want to jump up and down with happiness at 4:05 this Tuesday.

I learned an important lesson from Benchmark Academy.  Caring is key. I could have easily muddled through the four weeks of after-school lessons, and all of us could have been terribly miserable.  My other option was the CARE--care about the students' learning, care about how their school day was going, care about my own sanity, and find a way to make that after school hour as productive as possible for everyone.  It was a good lesson in problem solving that, in hindsight, I am thankful I got.  I've always loved a good challenge.

As for all the other first-half-of-March stuff, I finished my half marathon and look forward to improving my 13.1 mile time in future runs (which means I didn't completely feel like dying at the end), I felt good about my Praxis and my students were perfect little show-offs, just as expected, and all 132 of my students improved significantly from their last module test to the one they took today.  Some class averages went up of 20%!! I. Was. Jazzed. So in short, it's been a good, but busy, two weeks. Now, this teacher is ready for spring break in TWO DAYS! Happy Spring everyone!