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Monday, January 19, 2015

When I go back

Ignatius of Loyola famously said, "Go forth and set the world on fire." Few professions have the power to make that happen like teachers.

It is hard to believe I've been a principal for 10 years now. I love my job, love making an impact on students' lives, learning, supporting teachers, and improving school culture. However, I think often of my time in the classroom, and what I would do if I went back tomorrow. Years of watching great teachers in action, reading and studying best practices in my profession, and reflecting on what works and what matters, have given me much perspective on my own practice and beliefs.

I'd start each class with a bang! Great teachers start the day with enthusiasm, excitement, and hook student interest on the topic at hand. Greeting students at the door with a handshake gives us a chance to provide positive encouragement, model professionalism, build relationships, and checking for signs of hurt or trauma. To get them hooked right away and maximize learning time, good teachers have an activity ready at the bell, a journal or video or puzzle or problem, to grab attention, get focused, set the stage and preview the learning to come.

Technology is where students live and breathe, and we must meet them there. They are "digital natives," born into the age of the internet, the information superhighway, with split-second answers and instant gratification. Students should write every day, across the curriculum, incorporating art, current events and culture. Moving student writing online takes the old paper and pencil journals and open them up to their classmates, peers, the world. Classes can live online, in a social-media type environment, with tools like Edmodo, accessible any time and any where. As technology rapidly changes and advances, we're challenged to meet students in their world, keep up with them, yet teach them to be safe and responsible digital citizens. This is a big job!

Words and languages, written and expressed, carry so much power and purpose. Well-spoken people command our attention and respect, and well written messages hold tremendous sway. Regardless of the subject, vocabulary should be a critical component of instruction, woven into the daily fabric, lessons, conversations and assessments. We can not do enough to immerse students in the rich and deep layers of our lexicon. My classroom would constantly play with words and explore syntax. We draw power from language, and so great teachers pursue and infuse linguistic proficiency.

Games engage young people in ways educators can only dream about. I'd gamify my classroom, using game theory to inspire and encourage student learning, collaboration and growth. Why can't students "fail forward," trying and retrying difficult tasks just like taking on the end of a tough level.  Good games challenge gamers, give opportunities to try and fail until they master and succeed. They provide benchmarkers and celebrations for progress, with badges and other bragging rights. Games instill fierce drive to complete tasks and immense satisfaction when this happens; so much so that games have a term for this, called an "epic win."  Progress and advancement in the curriculum is kept in grade books, so why not on a leader board?  Earning badges for various achievements and accomplishments motivate students and give them bragging rights.  Gaming online now inspires people work collaboratively for epic wins, and our students should be given opportunities to work together and strive for nothing less than making the world a better place. We can learn and borrow much from game theory in education.

In great classrooms, learning goals and grading are never a mystery. Curriculum and assessment should be fair and transparent, with clear learning objectives and "essential questions" to guide learning every single day. I would do much more formative assessment, using a wide range of methods to check understanding and gauge student learning in a way that is not punitive, but constructive and informative. On their way out the door each day, students would have the opportunity to share what they learned, and I'd have the chance to gauge the effectiveness of the lesson.

Perhaps most importantly, whether in the classroom or in my current position as a servant leader, relationships come first. What greater privilege is there than making a positive impact in kids' lives? Encourage the heart and the rest follows. In her landmark TED talk on teaching, Rita Pierson said "You know, kids don't learn from people they don't like," and she was RIGHT. Great teachers provide positive support and encouragement, celebrate often, and spend every day striving to make the world a better place. Every success is built on relationships, relationships make the world go round, and without positive, professional relationships real learning will never happen. I do this job because I love kids, love helping them learn and grow and overcome and succeed. When I watch great teachers in action I see great communicators who care about kids and instill love for learning.