Observations and the Unknown

I kicked off my first round of teacher observations ever this week with just one, and it seriously blew me away.

Grammar Class by durian on Flickr
Grammar Class by durian on Flickr

I hadn’t done it before for multiple reasons, many of which now sound like excuses. To be fair, I found it genuinely difficult to make the major time investment required based only on the promise of future, possibly intangible returns. There are a good many concrete, measurable, predictable things I need to accomplish at the learning center, and the amorphous notion that I “should” conduct teacher observations just couldn’t compete.

What finally made it happen? My volunteers asked to be observed.

Well, ok, it’s not just that I’m a pushover. I’ve gotten better and better at my job, and more importantly, I’ve gotten better at receiving help. I managed to free up some time I used to spend on the day-to-day admin grunt work so I can now do non-survival things like laminate our previously pathetic classroom signs, clear junk out of our office, and observe my teachers.

The volunteer I watched this week is quite new to teaching.  He used to assistant teach with an experienced teacher; this evening was his first solo class.  It was a resounding success. Watching the learning happen, seeing how his preparation was paying off, and taking note of his natural talent for leading a classroom was simply a joy. I jotted specific notes for him throughout, and it was fun to give him the feedback and debrief. We discussed his challenge for next week: at least 20 minutes of small group work for the students. He seems really excited about it, and I am too!

I really didn’t know what to expect when I walked into his classroom.  What I found there was a beautiful success filled with potential for even more.  Being right there to watch and encourage it was just fantastic.

Observations are officially my favorite.

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Training Feedback

Paperwork by luxomedia on Flickr
Paperwork by luxomedia on Flickr

I’m happy to say that I had a chance to read through the feedback from last week’s Volunteer Training party, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The evaluation was very open-ended, and I was pleased to receive specific comments and suggestions.

There was general approval of the presence of food, and universal enthusiasm for meeting each other. Many commented that they gained new activity ideas, and several mentioned “inspiration.” I was a little surprised by that last one – I wasn’t focused on it at all. Woo positive by-products!

The highest and most convenient praise was the near-unanimous request for more trainings, perhaps quarterly, like the one we just did! In other words, I don’t have to ask yet more of my volunteers by implementing quarterly trainings; I get to deliver something there’s a demand for.

The Pizza Guy by keltickelton on Flickr
The Pizza Guy by keltickelton on Flickr

There was some constructive criticism as well, asking for more depth and suggesting starting out with more general questions such as “What’s working?” and leading into more specific ones during the level-discussions. Well-taken. They’ll definitely be present in next quarter’s (requested and delivered!) training.

From Godin’s Tribe Building: Surprise Them

Item #21: Go Somewhere Different – e.g. Surprise the heck out of them!

This leaped off the page at me for learning centers.  I love my learning center, and one of the things I love about it is its unpredictability.  What with our student population facing transportation and childcare barriers, our entirely unpaid teaching staff, and our geographic propensity for extreme weather conditions (last Thursday it was -10 outside), there’s a whole lot of unpredictability.  Unfortunately, many of the surprises end up being challenges: absences of people or materials; having planning take longer than you thought (doesn’t it always?);  feeling more tired than you thought you would.

It’s kind of a forehead-smacker that a coordinator can (partially) take control by making a few surprises, and making them positive ones.  A card, a balloon, a tasty treat, a “congratulations” for x number of hours spent at the learning center.  Duh – but I’m not sure it would’ve occurred to me in those terms.  Thanks, Seth!

I guess the catch is that lack of time tends to be one of the challenging surprises that comes up repeatedly for me, and contriving positive surprises takes time.  Yet another matter of achieving a delicate balance.

How do you balance the need to control/fix unpleasant surprises and to create pleasant ones?

First Day Back!

My first day back was Awesome.  I like doing my job even more than I like the idea of it.

It felt good to take stock, set a few basic priorities, and dive in!  I was a teacher short, had backlogs of notes to read from my subs; there was paperwork to be organized and catching up to do with my VISTA coworker; I’m short four regular teachers and need to fix that ASAP… and on top of it all, it was new student intake day!  I basically didn’t pause all day, or even hardly sit down between 5 and 9, and I loved it. It was very satisfying to just suddenly, officially, and most definitely be BACK.

I’m not sure that I would’ve thought yesterday to wish for today to be so busy, but luckily that kind of wish never gets granted anyway.

Tomorrow I need to get all the way through my email, plan several lessons, peruse the new curriculum more closely, and do more to nail down a regular teacher schedule.  Looking forward to it!

On Victories

I am a strong believer in the idea that if you never fail, you’re not branching out enough.  I am therefore theoretically ok with the idea that sometimes I will fail.  When the failure actually happens though, it looks a lot less like a step and a lot more like a black hole.

NGC 4649 by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr
"NGC 4649" by Smithsonian Institution on Flickr

The short version of the story was that I wrote a day of curriculum for the Intermediate ESL class because through a complicated and uninteresting chain of events, we were short a day of curriculum.  Well, I thought that my experienced teacher would be the one teaching, and I thought it was clear what to skim over and what to go farther in-depth on, but neither of those items were the case.  The volunteer just ran into a wall with it and about a week later she actually quit.  Ouch.

So yes, there are a lot of things about the situation that I will most definitely be doing differently.  It’s a small comfort, though, to assure myself that I will squeak some lessons learned out of the wreckage.

I found that what actually made me feel better was a couple of recent victories.  Not just planning to do better, but actually doing better.

Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorodo by LOC on Flickr
"Winner at the Delta County Fair, Colorodo" by LOC on Flickr

Victory #1

Through another complicated and uninteresting chain of events, we were short a week of curriculum in the advanced class.  And the curriculum that I with the help of a couple of my more experienced volunteers came up with was focused, well-paced, highly teachable, and overall successful.  Apparently I am capable of doing a good job on it.  Good to know.

Victory #2

I did not have a sub for the teacher gap in the Intermediate class, so I got to teach it.  Even without a lot of prep time, my lesson was focused, useful to the students, and engaged them for the whole class.  There were actually two writing activities, conversation, reading, student-generated vocab lists, review of the lesson during the lesson, getting up and moving around the room, and real-life objects pertinent to the lesson.  Earth-shattering?  Of course not.  I just now have confirmation that I do in fact know how to teach a good session.

So, while I am not yet the ultimate teacher or an expert curriculum writer, because of these victories I know for sure I have what it takes to continue to eke every scrap of learning there is out of my little volunteer support catastrophe and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Confidence restored.

Volunteer Management Conference

I attended the MLC’s Volunteer Management Conference on Friday, 11/21.

Can I just say that as someone who doesn’t get home from work till at least 9:15 PM, it’s excruciating to be at a conference across town at 8:00 AM.

Luckily, it was worth it.  It wasn’t one of those overwhelming conferences with so many people that you don’t get a chance to meet anyone.  I made some great connections with community partners and potential volunteers.  I also enjoyed the concurrent sessions immensely.

The first session I attended was Preparing and Supporting Volunteers Who Work with Victims of Torture. The presenter, Jane, a volunteer with CVT, was fantastic.  Key takeaway:

  • it’s best for teachers and volunteers to not ask about it; students will talk about it when/if they want to.
  • remember that Teacher is a powerful position – students may feel obligated to answer the Teacher even if it’s not something they want to talk about.
  • if it comes up in class, it’s ok to say something like “I’m so sorry to hear that.  It must have been very difficult,” pause, and then gently move the class back to topic.
  • it can be powerful for the students just to have someone believe them when they say that terrible things that happened to them.  They don’t necessarily need or want follow-up questions.
  • need-to-know: if volunteers ask what happened to so-and-so, you can give them general, pertinent information focused on the student’s abilities without going into details.  They don’t need to know what guerrilla army used what implements to beat the student for how long.  They need to know that the student has an old head injury from the war that makes his hands shake, so he needs someone to write for him.
  • volunteers can do great presentations for your organization

The second session was Cross-Cultural Training Activities for Volunteers. The presenter, Claudia, was knowledgable and funny.  I didn’t get as much take-away from this session as I’d hoped.  It was more of an overview than a bunch of concrete activities as I’d hoped, but it was still valuable.

  • what kind of cultural awareness training do you provide your volunteers?  Is nothing enough?
  • the DIE model: basically description, then subjective inference, and then judgment.  Especially when there’s conflict, anger, frustration, etc., try to take it back to the “description” stage of what actually happened. It helps diffuse and untangle.

The third session was Positioning Your Volunteer Program for Success. Heather is one of those extremely motivated, high-energy, “I can do anything and have probably done it already” people who also somehow manages to make it seem possible for you to do anything also.  I highly recommend going to any presentation she gives.  Ever.  On anything.

  • give presentations about your program’s stories to stakeholders in and out of the organization any time you can.  Even just a 10-minute presentation can be really powerful.
  • don’t forget about the board.  Do they know you?
  • give more information than was asked for, creatively.  For example, she submitted pictures along with her end of year stats, and they loved it!
  • she had fantastic, thorough presentation materials that will probably take me another hour or two to go through.  They’re conversation starters, self-audits, top ten tips, further training resources, etc.  She handed me the tools to make my program better over time.  Fantastic.