Friday, January 22, 2010

Make a Difference, Not Excuses

I don't believe that at college one learns "how to teach". When attending the school of education one learns educational philosophies, best practices, and content knowledge, but the "real" learning takes place in the classroom. It is interesting watching fresh, new teachers enter the field thinking they know everything, and then realizing after just a few weeks in the trenches they know nothing. To become an accomplished musician, one has to make music, and to become a master teacher one has to teach. Just like music has changed and evolved over the decades so must teaching.

This is my thirty-first year of working in the field of education. I have gone through an evolution process throughout my teaching career. When I look back at some of my personal teaching philosophies I roll my eyes, make that tsking noise, and wonder, "What was I thinking?' I am not proud of some of the teaching strategies I have used, but I am proud that throughout my teaching career I have looked to myself to make a change. As the neighborhood I teach in has evolved over the years and has sent my school different kinds of students from military "brats" to English language learners, I have had to change my thinking to accommodate the different socioeconomic students.

In Arizona our "test" is called the AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards). Unfortunately, everything revolves around the AIMS. Whether or not a school goes into school improvement depends on how well a school does on the AIMS. The federal government has passed No Child left Behind, and this bill insists that by 2012 one hundred percent of students attending public schools must meet or exceed the standards as measured by the AIMS. 100%!
The grades that are scrutinized are third, fifth and eighth. There is so much pressure on third, fifth and eighth grade teachers to make sure that their students excel on the AIMS. Even though administration touts that everyone is responsible for a school's success on the AIMS, the heavy pressure is placed on third, fifth, and eighth grade teachers. One has to be extremely brave to choose to teach third, fifth, and eigth grade in Arizona.

I was a fifth grade teacher for many years and faced that tremendous pressure to get my students to do well on the AIMS. Eight years ago fifth grade at my school was not doing well on the AIMS, and I fell into a trap. A trap so deep I thought I wasn't going to make it out. I was snared. I fell into the trap of excuses: The test is too hard. The test doesn't measure what we are teaching. The test is too long. The students don't understand. It is . . . . It doesn't . . . . . . . . They can't . . . . . . They don't . . . . . . They won't . . . . . . . STOP! HELP!

Thank God, I was rescued! A colleague reached in and pulled me out of that trap. I started team teaching with Colleen Meyer. At the time we weren't friends, we knew we had the same philosophies and ideas, but what we didn't know was what we would be able to do together. I learned more from Colleen than I did from any college professor or mentor. The most important thing I learned was to stop making excuses and start making a difference. When we looked at data no longer did I say, "Oh great, they didn't get it!", we perused the data, found OUR problem places, and decided where we were going to make a change in our teaching. Over the years our teaching evolved and so did our friendship. I thanked God for Colleen daily because I was driving down the rutted teaching path, and she drove up and pulled me out of those ruts.

For every teaching excuse we made a change:

Our parents can't help our students with their homework. We expected them to do there homework. We gave our students our phone number and told them, "Call us if you need help on your homework or if there is an emergency." I have never had students misuse this privilege.

Our students need more help than we can give them. We expected them to be responsible for their learning. Our classroom was open all day. We arrived early (Colleen arrived really early), and our students started coming in early for help. We ate lunch in our room to help our students during their lunch recess. On days that we didn't have meeting our doors were open for any student to enter and ask for help.

Our students don't care about their progress. We expected them to care. We showed them where they were and where they needed to be, and we conferenced with them individually to discuss how that individual student was going to reach their goal.

Our students aren't motivated to learn. We expected them to be motivated. We created silly incentives, but most important we showered our students with praise. We honored our students. We celebrated their successes no matter how small.

When I stopped making excuses and started making changes with my teaching, my students soared. I believe teaching is the hardest job in the world. It is easy to fall into the excuses trap. If there is a teacher reading this that has fallen into a trap, don't despair, reach out for help. It is okay to ask for help. If the words, "They can't . . . " begins to appear, STOP, and say, "I will . . . ., They will . . . . ., I can . . . . ., They can. . . . " It is difficult clawing a way out of a trap, but it is possible!

Paco's Perspective

"Paco, Flip is just a puppy. He doesn't know about sharing toys." You also shouldn't make excuses for that dog!

The Flip Side

The reason I poop on Breann's floor is . . . . wait, don't make excuses, . . . . . the reason I don't always come when you call is . . . . .oops, don't make excuses . . . . . I'm thinking . . . . .I'm thinking . . . . . I'm thinking I don't get this game.


  1. Colleen IS one in a million, isn't she? Together, you were quite a team! :)

  2. This post reminds me of a quote that I read whenever I am frustrated with work or life:

    "While working to bring out the good pay no attention the faults of others, or what they have haven’t done; instead, pay attention to your own faults and your own inactions."

    Some people feel the advice is cruel or a bit too blunt, but it seems I always benefit when I stop focusing on what others "aren't doing"...and in turn, focus on what I CAN DO to solve my frustrations.