Sunday, January 29, 2017

Passionate Leadership

My biggest take away from this book and my current experiences is that the best leadership requires passion, "an affair of the heart" (135).  I always knew this, but only in having lived the role (albeit briefly), I am reminded how truly crucial it is.

In our first post, we talked about why we became teachers.  Being called to teach is only half my story.  I had so many teachers who lacked passion.  I felt it as a student, and I felt cheated.  I knew they could have been giving me more, more knowledge, more challenge, more of themselves.  When I chose teaching, I made myself a promise that when I stopped loving my work, I would quit.  This job is too important, and we impact too many students, to not want to be here.

What I am going to say next may seem harsh and fixed-minded, yet it is a very strong part of my core.  I know it, I guard against it, and give people many opportunities to prove me wrong.  Yet, in  all honesty, we know there are teachers who no longer love the job. My personal experiences have also made me fairly intolerant of educators I perceive as not being passionate and engaged as professionals.  I avoid negative lunch room scenes, and I avoid these teachers.  I take the idea of our professionalism very seriously, and I want to prove people wrong who believe anyone can do this job.  Educators who are not passionate, who do the minimum, give all teachers a bad name.

What does any of this have to do with leadership?  In trying to find my path in this new leadership role, I have realized two things.  One-this is not my passion project.  I am an early adopter, I will work with the early majority, but I am not the one who will bridge to the more resistant staff.  I found myself much more compelled by the peer tutoring simulation because I am far more passionate about that than I am our current initiative.  Second-I am not sure I will ever be the carry-the-torch, out-front-leader.  I am not sure I am willing to divert the emotion, time, and energy away from my students in order to lead the charge.  I don't have the patience or tolerance for teachers I believe are not changing because it is inconvenient for them.  Change is not convenient or easy, but if it is right for kids, it is the right thing to do.  We owe it to our students and our profession to always be growing and reflecting and bettering our craft.  I hold myself to this standard, and I hold others to it also.

I think my second take-away is that I am OK with broadening my definition of leadership.  I will work within my supportive circles to innovate and change, and I will always strive to do what is best for my kids.  I will support leaders who present positive changes with their hearts on their sleeves. I will be an open door for those who are willing and ready to learn and share.  And, at the end of the day, I will always put my students first.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Part of the process or failure?

Since I have taken the path of working out my leadership angst in this blog, I will continue on this path because I have still not made peace with the role and responsibility I suddenly have as my building works to discuss and reflect on grading practices and philosophies.

I feel I might be living a big potential fail right now as my building looks to examine grading practices, so these readings are really resonating with me as I struggle.  I do say “feel” because as Kouzes and Posner point out, leadership and change are filled with “uncertainty, hardship, disruption, transformation, transition, recovery, new beginnings, an other significant challenges” (93).  I know that change is not easy, and I did not expect it to be, but that doesn’t change the frustration and doubt I am feeling right now.  I also know that this contentious time may just be a necessary part of the change process.  My crystal ball is dark though on whether we will work through this successfully or if we will fail to implement large-scale change.

Chapter 5 is so on point-as I read that chapter, I see one flaw in our change efforts at the high school.  I don’t think we have listened enough, talked enough, shared enough.  I am not sure our leadership team has made the connections necessary to get the buy in, and I definitely do not feel we have a shared vision right now.  As is so often the case in education, there is so much on our plates that teachers simply go into survival mode--we have to get to the end of the day, to the end of the week, the end of the quarter, the end of the year.  We are so bogged down in the nuts and bolts that we do not have any energy left to do more, especially when it feels like someone is asking “more” of you because they did not create a shared vision, listen, and get buy in.  So in being part of the leadership team, I feel we failed from day 1.  Now the question is how to regroup and restart the process…change of tactics, change of message, change of leadership...

I also feel personal failure in my role in all this.  I am not sure I am in the right role in all this; I have tended to do what is right, then share with people who are interested.  I have never tried to move the mountain.  I do feel I have failed to lead effectively. I have not been able to communicate the importance of reflecting on grading (not that people must change, but just look at our own practice). I have not been able to calm fears and dispel erroneous thinking.  I think the staff is pretty divided on this issue.  It is causing tension in relationships, and people have lashed out personally.  I am not sure I am up for the emotional toll leading takes, and  I don’t know if this philosophy is my passion project.  I believe in it; I think it is good for kids; I think it is the right change.  But, I am not sure I am ready to go to the line, take the heat, and invest in it.  That may seem contradictory, but I am no different than my colleagues--my plate is also full, and I know I have to make choices of where and when to expend.  There is a cost to everything.  I stopped short when I read this quote:  "Challenges cause you to come face to face with yourself.  They are rather harsh ways of remind you of what's important, what you value, and where you want to go" (94).  I think I need to come to terms with myself first, then see if I move on as an out-front person or move back to a practitioner/supporter on this issue.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Leadership Challenge

I became a teacher because it is my calling. I know-cliche, but it is true.  I didn't initially want to hear the call, but after a major upheaval in my life, I had to listen (that whole story is a series of blog posts that I will spare you).  I have tried to make decisions and develop practices based on what is good for kids, not fads, not what is easiest for me, not what has been past practice.  I truly believe if we all could just keep that focus central, so much of education would become easier.  It isn't about the adults in the system, the politics, or even the parents-it is and always should be what is best for kids.

Last week my peers challenged me on my admittedly narrow definition of "leadership," and I felt compelled to look more closely at that, especially after reading Truths 2-4.  Kouzes and Posner ask "What does it take to be the kind of person, the kind of leader, others want to follow, do so enthusiastically and voluntarily?" (16).  This is the kind of responsibility and power which I think I meant to discuss in last week's post.  I think there is a difference between role model and leader, between mentor and leader.  I can see myself, and take pride in, the opportunities I have had to be a role model of this amazing profession and have been able to mentor new teachers.  I owe a debt of gratitude to the amazing people who mentored me; education is truly a pay-it-forward profession.  I find these moments of modeling and mentoring easy and rewarding; I am comfortable and know I can impact students by impacting other teachers.

However, the kind of leadership Kouzes and Posner are detailing is of a completely different caliber.  This is the role I have always assigned to administrators.  I always viewed it as their job to lead the staff, yet I find myself being put in a position this year to have to step (maybe leap is more apt) outside of my comfort zone and lead the staff as we explore grading practices.  I am not even sure I want this role (and the frustration and responsibility and stress) nor am I sure I possess the patience, the persuasion skills, or the endurance to take this on.  Self-preservation looks mighty fine--pull in, take care of my own classroom and kids, do what I know is right.  Yet, I believe this conversation and change is good for kids, so I am torn and (somewhat unwillingly) am putting myself out there.  As much as I try not to take resistance and opposition personally, the elements this book espouse do make it personal.  Tough contradiction to navigate.

Yet, if I am going to true to my guiding principle, I must choose this path, no matter how uncomfortable it makes students are depending on me to do what is right for them.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

"You Make a Difference"

Growth is never linear when we are thinking about learning.  It is intense and rapid in the beginning stages, then slows, but often has little "blips" of intense growth.  I went into teaching with a personal expectation that as soon as I didn't want to go to work, I would quit teaching.  While I framed it as love for the job initially, I now know that part of that love is continuing to learn and grow professionally, no matter the rate.

My earliest professional mentors were many of my high school teachers; however, many of these were the "what not to be" examples, as I perceived many of them as stagnant and out of touch.  My most earliest positive leader-mentor was in my first job.  I loved and admired the woman who took me under her wing.  From my young vantage point, she appeared to have it all figured out.  She was so knowledgeable, so calm, so together--I knew I wanted to be her when I was older.  She taught me both professionally and personally, and I know she had such an impact because she took all of me in, not just the professional part.

Flash-forward 21 years, and here I am--feeling no where near where I still believe my mentor was at my age.  In fact, even coming to terms with the fact that I have been teaching 21 years and am a veteran member of the staff is a challenge--how could I possibly know enough yet to be a leader and why would anyone listen to me?

While the opening chapter of The Truth about Leadership goes straight at my inner voice, I'm not convinced yet.  I believe I matter, and I want to continue to learn and grow, but I really struggle to see myself as the same caliber of teacher-leaders that have so influenced me over the years.  I know I have a strong vision and passion, but I am not willing to force that passion or those choices on others.   The choices I have made and will make for my profession are my own; I cannot begin to presume or suggest that others must follow the same suit.

My current learning curve is focused on mastery learning and truly examining my grading & assessing practice and reporting.  Much of this is difficult learning as it stems from years of past practice and status quo, but I am searching for my own path in it.  I am not sure I can lead effectively yet as I still have so many unanswered questions myself.

And, if I am totally honest, leading is scary and hard.  To put yourself out there, to conscientiously work toward change is a soul-baring journey, and while it shouldn't feel personal, it does.  It is also tiring and frustrating to believe deeply in something but be blocked and rebuked by people you respect and hoped would be swayed.

But even that is part of the learning...responding to the failure and struggle, choosing to continue or not, regrouping and trying again...still learning and growing.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Attempting "Real World Learning"

So, forced into facing my fears and reservations by a class assignment, I dipped my toes into the “real world” learning ideas.  I know many would criticize my baby steps, but for me, just getting started was a big challenge. (See my question-laden blog post for proof!)  I grabbed several
“mini” projects as my entry points.  I would say I have mediocre feelings about my results, but a lot more ideas of how to make it better next time.

Dabbling - Short applications/extensions, Geometry
My very first forays were quite short, but I wanted to get started before I lost my drive.  I had two different tasks asking students to go apply geometric knowledge to real situations.  In one activity, I asked students to find a picture in nature and use a drawing app to label parallel lines and angles.  In a second activity, I asked students to find an ad and apply conditional logic to it.

While I really like these assignments, and I think I will use them again.  I definitely didn’t provide the feedback I could have and I did not have students reflect or connect this knowledge to the more traditional work we do.  However, it was a start.  I think these two activities actually connect stronger to the unit ELOs, so I will be working to strengthen them into more meaningful learning opportunities.

Project 1-Similarity in the real world, Geometry unit additions

I opened my geometry unit on similarity with an activity exploring the scale factor relationship of phi in our facial features.  I also connected the concept of phi to the golden rectangle and Fibonacci sequence.  While these are not directly related to ELOs, I felt that if I got students more interested in the relationships, they could connect to the course work more.  The Fibonacci sequence is discussed in later math courses, so an early introduction and different application now might make their next encounter more meaningful.  I closed the unit with a nature application video about the golden ratio and a discussion of non-typical math careers, like web designers and fish hatchery technicians.

Based on my student survey, the students liked the facial features activity, but didn’t entirely connect it to the learning we were doing.  I did have them jot some notes after the activity, but I did not collect these.

I know I rushed the career piece.  I was worried about time, and I spent too much time “telling” instead of letting students discover and explore.  I think a course-long exploration of math careers could be a nice addition and not take too much time from coursework.  Perhaps exploring 1-2 careers each unit or pursuing research into career areas of interest would be the direction I would take this in the future.

Project 2-Content area reading in Math class

As part of our Content Literacy standards and our building goal, I have tried to implement content reading (nonfiction) into my credit recovery math class.  As an English teacher, you would think this would be easy, but several unique problems present themselves.  First, students compartmentalize their learning and have been very resistant to “reading in math, I have an English class for that.”  I am working on the buy-in of nonfiction and critical literacy.  Second, time is a factor.  In a self-paced, credit recovery course, the students resent anything that takes away from their work time (even though they often waste time).  Again, getting the buy-in is crucial.  Lastly, the actual implementation and skill work is challenging.  Many of these students struggle not only with math but also with reading.  I am using Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies as a resource, but it is slow-going.  It is also challenging to find engaging articles at an appropriate reading level.  
I was very excited about my first article, but in hindsight, I did not anticipate the resistance I would get and should have set the activity up differently.  For the second article I provided candy motivation, so I will have a hard time topping that and I am not sure how effectively students “read” the article either.   It will be a work in progress.

All in all, I would say I have taken very small baby steps, and I will continue to look for places where application is appropriate.  I still have deep concerns about the balance of additions and keeping activities as “real” as possible.  Yet, if we don’t continually examine what we are teaching, how we are teaching it, and why we are teaching it, we aren’t doing our jobs.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Struggling with Real World Learning

“Real World Learning”...not a phrase that I get excited about.  The concept of bringing a “real” element into mathematics classrooms is an idea I have always struggled with.  My struggles lay in a couple areas:  1-I am not an applied mathematician, so creating a quality project is very hard for me, 2-I struggle with finding “real” applications for the limited math skills kids have, and 3-time is always a premium.

But, before I even get to my reasons, I often don’t even know what “real world” it PBL? Is it a large, encompassing project? Is it dumping traditional assessments for a project?  Does it go so far as to question traditional course divisions, like Algebra & Geometry, for a more holistic approach?  Can something this potentially fluid be used as a common assessment?  Can you guarantee the integrity of the learning?  I always worry about preparing kids for the next thing--whether that is the next course, ACT, or a career.  Does a “real world” experience create deep enough learning (just as conversely does “traditional” learning) to be worthwhile?  Why does education always seem to be an all-or-nothing endeavor?  Is there some sort of balance that can be reached?

If I set aside the questions, the first challenge is personal.  I love mathematics because of its beauty and theory.  I have never cared or needed to know why it mattered or where it could be used.  I find the theories and manipulations of numbers, figures, and variables to be intriguing and beautiful.  Yet, I know very few of my students view factoring or proving trig identities in that same light.  I have always tried to “sell” math based on critical thinking, problem solving, perseverance, and college requirements.  I know the big applications and I can talk to them in general, but as far as real application, I do not have those skills or understandings.  This makes me feel very uncomfortable when “real world learning” comes up; I do not feel I know enough to do it well.

Even when I have tried to put aside my own feelings of inadequacy and implement “real” work--I come up short.  Application problems are forced and contrived; students do not see these as real work.  They are just another set of problems to be completed.  I have tried applications where we got into it, and I realized the kids didn’t have enough mathematics to understand and complete the task; this is a frustrating moment for everyone.  Or, once I have adjusted the concepts enough to be accessible, the application is so watered down that it no longer feels real.  Often these projects feel like add-ons instead of integrated elements which then undermines the project.

The last issue is often the biggest one - time.  Every instructional decision a teacher makes has to be based on a cost-benefit analysis.  Adding something means something else must go--teachers always have to weigh the benefits of the learning to be gained with the time it is going to take and what might have to be cut.  I struggle with adding these “projects” because I have never felt the learning in projects is deep or real; it rarely feels transferable.  My department currently has strong common curriculum and assessments, so working in something new or different is challenging because I have to cover my ELOs and give the common assessments.

I am not opposed to changing or adding elements to my classroom, but I have to be sure that it is for the right reasons and the right additions to be good for kids.  Teachers always have to take calculated risks to grow both as teachers and provide the best learning opportunities for kids.  With our world changing so rapidly, it makes it so much harder to try to decide what kids will need to learn.  

Education is often all about the fad and the buzz words of the moments.  Some of these trends have staying power, some do not.  However, my path has always been to incorporate elements that work for me and my students and evolving out practices that no longer work.  I have never been a baby-out-with-the-bathwater teacher.  My entry point is to show kids the applications of scale factor in art and professions.  I hope to pique their curiosity about how math works in the real world and expose them to non-typical math careers.  This is a balance to the very structured curriculum my department shares.  I feel I can take time to do some extra work here and not compromise students’ time to complete the mastery work which has been proven to improve understanding.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Getting Real

“Real world application” -- the three words I seriously dread as an educator.  I am a learner who did what I was told because I was told, and I honestly enjoyed the academia.  I did not need (nor care) when or why I had to learn something.  As a result, I feel woefully inadequate, especially as a math teacher, to create “real world” scenarios and lessons.  However, I understand some students truly need these frames in order to engage in learning.  

As an English teacher, I always felt comfortable creating (and justifying) lessons as pertinent and important for all students.  However, math has always been harder.  I struggle because it isn’t my strength, and I struggle with how to find meaningful activities within students’ skill sets.  In recent years, more material has become available, but it is still a struggle to find the right activities.  

Math is a pervasive subject, despite what many people think, yet the kinds of math all people do every day isn’t directly what we teach (per the standards) in high school.  In looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics “Occupational Outlook Handbook,” only 4 careers appear under “math.”  Carpentry, sales, engineering, and farming are not listed, and I know these careers are math-heavy which makes the data a bit misleading.  The website predicts 28% growth in mathematics careers, especially data handling.  The one thing all these careers do have in common, and the direction I believe math is heading, is more focused on inquiry and problem-solving.  We will still be teaching geometry and algebra, but within those concepts, I hope to see more focus on the broader skills needed for many careers.  When I look through the lists of most desired skills as published by National Association of Colleges and Employers and the American Management Association, I see math as a critical practice field for developing all the top skills:  critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication.  If we work to change even our practice of teaching to focus on these skills and math as a means to gain them,  we will still be preparing our students well for the future.

One concern with “real world” problems is that we could actually make things worse by creating contrived and/or overly-simplified problems.  Just using a real set of data doesn’t necessarily make the learning authentic, which is what I think we really mean when we say “real world.”  For example, in his article posted on NCTE in 2014, Matt Felton notes the classic candy in a bag problem as being real but not authentic.  As he suggests, this could provide a stepping stone or concrete example of a concept, but being able to generalize knowledge and learning is a well-documented problem for students.  While being “real” this example still asks students to generalize the learning to future situations which they may or may not be able to do, so by including this example have we really done a better job teaching?  Felton goes on to suggest a more “authentic” approach, such as asking students how unequal is wealth distribution in the US?  I would go one step further and ask why that matters or how it could be fixed or what implications this has on society? (But that might be the English teacher in me talking in math class!)

Another facet of this real-world application dilemma is what will constitute “real world” (and meaningful) for our students?  It is well-documented that 50-70% of the jobs our students will hold do not even exist, so to what context do we even address problems?  Maybe this isn’t the issue, but knowing how hard it is for students to generalize and then wondering if my “great” real world problem will even be relevant in 2 years is a bit daunting.

In looking into “real world math,” many of the tasks lean toward a project-based learning frame.  This is a great frame, but not currently one that is compatible with our system, or even standards.  Our courses are tightly aligned to the state standards, and we try to prepare students for college entrance exams and state assessments.  PBL takes a significant amount of time, and I wonder how teachers are able to guarantee that standards are covered if students are truly following their passions.  While we shouldn’t look for or accept roadblocks, we do have to live within the rules (even while we try to change them).  If I am responsible to teach a certain set of standards, I must balance that with “add-ons.”  When there is only so much time, additions must be carefully considered-adding more to an already full course can undermine any good that could come from the addition because students are overwhelmed.

All the concerns aside, two good resourcesI found that I plan to try to use this year are Illuminations ( and NRICH (  While maybe not the perfect answer to including more authentic math, I think it is a good step to engage students in the process and understanding of math--to move away from drill and kill and completely abstracted math work.  I hope to expand on these tasks as I determine which ones resonate best with students and connect the learning.  In looking at the NRICH site, I already created a list of not only potential ideas for different math courses, I also found many that would lend themselves to paired readings.  This creates both that authenticity and relevance and reinforces content area reading skills.

American Management Association.  (2012).  Critical skills survey.  Retrieved from
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015, 17 December). Math occupations. Retrieved from
Felton, M. (2014, 7 July). Mathematics and the real world.  National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  Retrieved from:
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2015, November 8). Job Outlook 2016: Attributes Employers Want to See on New College Graduates' Resumes.  Retrieved from