Deep Question of the Day

In lieu of journaling this week, I will be posting a Deep Question of the Day.

Why do teachers find it so easy to turn on one another?

Journal: On Planning Ahead

Yay Planning

I’ve done a great job this semester of planning the week’s lessons the weekend before.  It’s a necessity with my busy schedule this fall.  I also did a great job of planning ahead for this week two weekends ago because of last weekend’s vacation.  Go me!

The Lessons Could Be Better

The problem is that I’ve been feeling kind of disconnected from what I planned even though I’m the one who planned it and I review it the morning before class. Today, for example, it was an OK lesson with a nice balance of interaction, accuracy practice, and fluency practice.  We even had a discussion about our neighborhood that involved us making a huge map of the school’s neighborhood together.  But it was all somehow uninspired, and I think uninspiring as well.

I’m not trying to be hyper-critical of myself here, just honest.  I’m doing it (or at least most of it) right, but something feels a little off.  This is kind of concerning to me and I think it’s important that I look into it before I go numb to it.

Potential Answers

I saw a really interesting article in the New Yorker that I think sheds an interesting light on this.  The topic is really about procrastination, but it discusses research that suggests that individuals actually have differing identities within them all negotiating for and against different decisions we make.  Here’s a quote from the New Yorker’s article (emphasis mine):

But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.”

So I feel a little less silly now about confessing that I feel less like I’m teaching when I follow Last-Weekend-Emily’s lesson plan instead of Last-Night-Emily’s lesson plan.  It generally feels much more like I’m using a lesson plan out of a textbook, like I’m following a script, even though I wrote the “script.”  Why does that feel so separate from actively observing, supporting, guiding, and teaching?

Maybe it is this idea of the “divided self,” that “someone else” really did write the lesson.  Maybe it’s tied to my style of interacting and my deep enjoyment of well-informed improvisation.  Maybe I’ve been planning mediocre lessons.  Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself.

Moving Ahead

Regardless of the philosophical or psychological causes of my conundrum, I’d like to move toward being happier with my lessons.

It’s tempting to try going back to planning the night before.  I just think it would be a horrible idea given my other scheduling commitments and the other obvious issues with relying on last-minute planning.

One workable next step is to ask my students for feedback even though 1) it’s difficult to ask abstract questions to beginners and 2) it’s going to be hard to get honest criticism from such kind, respectful people.

Another way to shake things up could be to review my lessons the night before (instead of the morning of) to try to get back into my original mindset more thoroughly.

Rest assured that as I tweak my process, I’ll try to not be too hard on myself.

“Tech or Die:” A Response

Dangerously Irrelevant, a technology and education blog, posted a strong opinion that we should not just accept that some teachers eschew digital technology because they are either oblivious to it  or choose not to embrace it.

To the post itself, I reply that I agree with the sentiment that digital technology is important to teach.  I have to admit that I did not appreciate the slightly over-the-top tone.   The conversation in the comments is frank and nuanced though – I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading (and joining) it.

For me, a huge problem with using digital technology in the classroom is Plan B.  Specifically, Plan B is extraordinarily difficult.  If my pencil breaks, I can sharpen it or use a different pencil.  If I suddenly can’t get onto the internet, there aren’t usually options; I don’t generally have a spare router in my purse.  I either wing it or use the analog activity that took an additional, unrelated two hours of prep to create “just in case.”  (Note: prep time is often uncompensated.*) When you look at it like that, it’s a major drawback to even starting to use digital technology in the classroom, let alone relying on it.

Support for lessons like the one I taught Monday tends to be quite weak, and that’s problematic.  Teachers don’t have to go find and haul their own textbooks.  They don’t have to change the fluorescent lightbulbs in their classrooms.  But they’re apparently supposed to keep their class moving forward while fixing the networking problem** that’s causing hotmail to think that one person is trying to sign up for six email addresses at the same time.  It seems out of sync with other expectations.

No, teachers should not be allowed to pretend digital technology doesn’t exist.  But education systems and reformers should not pretend that unpredictable SNAFUs don’t happen all the time with digital technology.  Steve Jobs of Apple had major technical difficulties while unveiling iPhone 4 a few months ago (scroll down to 1:44 and 2:05).   Even in a high-powered professional setting, technical difficulties and the efforts to fix them were noted as being “awkward.”  Imagine if Jobs were less savvy, and if he didn’t have a team of experts working with him to fix the problems.  “Awkward” would have become “total and prolonged waste of time” – which, incidentally, is the teacher’s nightmare.

Sadly, teachers don’t usually have a team of experts dedicated to just their classroom.  They and/or their tech support are generally not able to rapidly fix problems.  Rapidly switching to a similar digital alternative is also generally impossible.  In my experience the other choice has been to move to a non-digital activity while the tech problem is resolved or given up on.

Add to that situation the typically outdated equipment and rampant understaffing schools of all kinds face, and we are just not setting up teachers for smooth or successful tech-based lessons.  No wonder so many want to avoid it.  There’s a great potential for a huge mess, we will almost always face the mess without adequate (or sometimes any) help, and we will be held accountable by our students and our managers for the learning that is not happening while the computers unfreeze.

Is this enough reason to just not “do” digital technology in the classroom?  No.  It has a lot to offer, and as I said Wednesday, I think it’s worth the headache.  But we need real, constant, broad support, not just “should.”

* I know that students come first, but one reason we have trouble recruiting exceptionally talented folks to be teachers is that we don’t respect teachers’ time and skill with an adequate paycheck.

**Really, the teacher would probably not have the permissions to fix the networking problem.  The way I see it, (s)he would have two choices:
1) wait for the overworked tech staffer to get to it and go analog in the meantime, or
2) hack into the system to fix it her-/himself, risking termination and imprisonment but keeping the class on task.
OK maybe that’s a little overly-dramatic, but the point is that there is a LOT outside a teacher’s control even when the teacher is a serious computer expert
.

I’m Back, With a New Focus

"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr
"nikon em bokeh" by dsevilla on Flickr

I think I’m ready to pick up the blog again!

My focus has changed since I last posted.  I thought about starting a new blog, but I think that the underlying theme of what I’ve been thinking and doing has remained the same.

What Has Changed:

  • I moved across the country and am now a proud resident of Maryland.
  • I will be teaching ESL part-time through a community college at a nonprofit starting Monday, 7/12.

What I Plan to Write About:

  • My experiences teaching.
  • Whether or not to stay in nonprofits.
  • What professional development I should pursue.
  • What’s next?

Looking forward to blogging again!

Goals, Patience, and Distraction

When I first started working at the learning center, I felt really new.  The teachers and students all had way more experience there than I did and I often responded to questions with, “I’m not sure, but I’ll find out.”

I was really, really looking forward to the day when I stopped being “the NEW coordinator” and became “the coordinator.”

That’s not the kind of goal I can keep in the forefront of my mind.  It’s all about just doing your best across a long string of days, and I wasn’t about to start repeatedly asking myself, “Are we there yet?”  So I moved my focus to other things: volunteer management,  schedules, conferences, teacher observations, new classes, and a hundred other things.

(By the way, research actually shows that one important strategy for maintaining patience is to distract yourself.)

Maybe a month ago I had an opportunity to chat with one of our students.  As we talked and she asked me for advice, I realized that I had automatic credibility because of that long string of good days I had worked.  I wasn’t new anymore.  It was a Pinocchio moment in which I became real.

It felt great to achieve that goal from over a year ago.  While I think I was right to not think about it all the time, I’m not sure I had to completely forget about it.

For those goals where you need to take your eyes off the prize, how do you not completely lose sight of them?  Do you just rely on chance circumstances to remind you?

On Infrastructure

A great quote from a NY Times Health article a few weeks ago:

“…fragile bones don’t matter, from a clinical standpoint, if you don’t fall down.”   – http://bit.ly/21SoFI

In context it makes sense, makes a point, and is not totally banal.

Out of context, however, it’s in a way the ultimate example of short-sightedness.  And I think it applies to more than just bone density.

I immediately saw an analogy with systems in an organization.  I hear it saying that it doesn’t matter if you have weak infrastructure as long as you never make a mistake and never have to quickly respond to an unanticipated need.

Though it’s tempting to work even harder at being perfect, since thinking about this quote I’ve been focusing more on strengthening the systems at the learning center.

On Getting Upset

Oh, Cookie! by esti- on Flickr
Oh, Cookie! by esti- on Flickr

When I do something badly, I get upset.

When people around me make decisions I disagree with that impact me, I get upset.

When I set a goal and then am moved in a different direction, I get upset.

Someone asked me why I let these things upset me.

The answer is change.  Because when I’m upset, I think harder, faster, and more creatively to make the situation change.  When I’m upset is when I say, “That’s it, I’m not letting [mistake] happen again and here’s how,” or “I know [this] is the right answer and I just have to make sure I’m heard,” or “Ok, [goal] just got harder but so help me I’ll get there anyway.”

Because if I don’t get a little pissed off sometimes, a one-time goof becomes a habit, what was once a mishap becomes normal, and the standards bar slides down unchecked.

A life of anger is not the answer, but neither is one of complacency.

Has this been a difficult Fall?

I’ve been getting the sense that a lot of people are running ragged these days.

Based on my extremely informal interviews (i.e. normal conversations), it’s not just me, and it’s definitely not just people in my organization. Maybe it’s a St. Paul, Minnesota thing. Or maybe it has to do with the job market, changes in unemployment benefits, or the health care debate.

same balloons, different day by massdistraction on Flickr
same balloons, different day by massdistraction on Flickr

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve about had it.  I want to fill my office with balloons this week, or have a joke share, or collect favorite moments of the day and post them in the office.  Why has it been so hard to see the million alternatives to just trudging along?

How are you doing this autumn?

What do you do to battle the doldrums when they settle over your little section of the world?

Creating Change (By Our Powers Combined)

Thanks to Ben at Island94.org for getting me to read Dan Pallotta at Harvard Business.

Memory Fragments by lovefibre on Flickr
Memory Fragments by lovefibre on Flickr

Pallotta argues here that since our problems (i.e. hunger) are massive and systemic, the only way for nonprofits to stand a chance of winning against them is to consolidate efforts into one unified effort to eradicate the problem within a stated time frame.  He advocates setting an audacious, specific goal and restructuring our sector around it so that it’s not about the little nonprofit’s mission, but about all of us reaching the goal.  Only this larger vision will shift us away from the “fragmentation and redundancy” we’re currently facing.

I see what he means.

However, I’m coming from a bias against his argument because I don’t like or trust large organizations.  I wrote about it here about a year ago.  To me, they turn humans into numbers and the momentum they build up for the sake of efficiency is actually slow to change with the times.  That being said, when a billion people are starving in a world with plenty of food, maybe it’s ok to focus on efficiency at the expense of personability and adaptability.

Ok, so let’s say Pallotta convinced me that bigger is better and that the process of consolidating wouldn’t completely derail our work for decades.  I still have a couple major questions about how this would play out, and I’m actually quite interested in the answers.

1) How would the consolidated nonprofit system relate to current systems?

Would we be creating a giant system for the sake of efficiency to clean up after the other system? That does not seem efficient to me.

Or will this second giant system fundamentally change the first one?  How will that not turn into a political mire?  And what if it does succeed?  How could something that big phase itself out or radically change itself to pursue a different goal?  Are there any precedents for that actually happening?

2) How is this different?

How would this plan produce an organization whose impact is different from the United Nations and the World Health Organization – benevolent organizations that provide some leadership to their fragmented membership?

What about the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – organizations that arguably crippled many countries’ development when they tried to make large-scale change for the better?

And from a national standpoint, how would it differ from the USA’s failed War on Drugs?

I’m not convinced from this one article that Pallotta has hit upon The Answer, but it was a great read that’s provided a ton of food for thought.