Back to School: Teaching Is Not What I Expected, Now What?

Out of The Box August / August 17, 2018

Social-Emotional Support (SES)

Teachers need social-emotional support too. FLGI surveys suggest that one of the biggest barriers to teachers migrating from traditional passive instruction to active learning strategies may tie to the need for social-emotional support. Many teachers are simply not getting their deepest social and emotional needs met and are often teaching on an empty emotional tank.

This section focuses on providing the social-emotional support we all need before we even can consider Flipped Learning. This project was developed to be the missing link in the unsuccessful efforts to move more teachers from passive to active learning.

In this section of the magazine, you can either read the transcripts or listen to the episodes of a podcast called Teachers’ Aid, with Jon Harper and Mandy Froehlich. Every topic takes on one of the biggest social-emotional challenges teachers face in search of real answers. We affectionately call this project the FLGI pyramid scheme: Maslow’s pyramid first, Bloom’s pyramid second. Enjoy the transcript below or listen to the entire show at the bottom of the transcript.

Teachers’ Aid

Jon Harper: You didn’t go to school for four plus years and spend your summers honing your craft and your money buying cool stuff just so you could be told how to teach, what to teach, and when to teach it. This isn’t what you signed up for. You see the smiles and enthusiasm draining from your students’ faces, and you know why. They won’t cut you loose, let you do what you know how to do, what you’re good at doing. So try as you may, school just isn’t fun anymore. You put on the happiest face you can, and you muster up a fake smile, but the kids see right through it. Like your students, you can’t wait for the final bell to ring. What can we do about this?

I’m speaking with Trevor Muir, who I’m hoping can help us out. Trevor, thanks so much for joining me. What about the teaching profession has changed that is causing fewer and fewer people to consider teaching as a career?

Trevor Muir: I can’t really speak to what’s changed.  I can tell you that this last year I went to the Netherlands, and I met with a lot of different teachers.  During my visit, there was something that just jumped out at me that doesn’t really strike me when I  meet with a lot of teachers here in the United States.  In the Netherlands, all teacher see themselves as this creative, as a designer, as this professional that does something more than just fulfills a role.

When they plan lessons, when they plan their curriculum, they dive into it as if they’re designing experiences for students, and this is just how the people carry themselves there. I remember asking people what does it mean to be a teacher? And all of them, spoke as if they just got out of medical school. I think they are viewed by the public as really valuable dynamic professionals. This is how I see teachers here where we live. They are doing something incredibly important, and they have to do years and years of preparation for it.  I’ve seen some incredible work by teachers, and I know you’ve seen it too.  Yet, what’s the dominant public perception of teachers?

Jon Harper: Not good.

Trevor Muir: You have a Secretary of Education who just can’t seem to say anything good about public school teachers. You’ve got politicians and media who think that they need to get paid less, and we have to go and march in the street just to get paid a decent wage. You’ve got media who portrays teachers as these deliverers of content, and all kids hate them inherently. Then you’ve got the realities. You’ve got high stakes testing and all these things that try to put teachers in a specific type of box, and I just think that the profession of a teacher is inherently something that just can’t be put into a box. There’s just so much to it.

Jon Harper: You definitely feel strongly about that. So the public perception is bad, but why are so many teachers unhappy? It is all because the public perception of them is just so abysmal?

Trevor Muir: The public perception is part of it. Then there’s the reality of it. I have people tell me all the time, “Oh, my daughter wants to become a teacher, and I always tell her, “No, don’t do it.” I say, “Well why is that?”, and they say, “Well, just the stresses of the job nowadays and all of the restrictions.” There’s truth to that.

I taught my first four years in a really high tech innovative project-based learning school, and for most of my time there, we were just given this unbelievable amount of freedom to do whatever we wanted in the name of good teaching.  We could do huge dynamic projects, we could take kids on hikes if we felt like it benefited the classroom. I know it sounds silly, I’d sometimes hang from the ceiling to demonstrate certain things that I was teaching my students in history class and science class, and my principal would walk in and give me a crazy look, turn around and walk out and it was just this amazing environment to do awesome stuff.

I think we have to get away from this idea that fun and good learning are two separate things.

Then I started working in another school that was much more traditional by nature, and I was allowed at times to do some really awesome stuff, but then other times the system kicks in, and it’s, “Oh, no. We can’t have you doing that because we don’t want to be perceived as an organization that isn’t all about getting kids ready for college,” or, “We don’t want people thinking that we’re not preparing kids for the SAT or that we’re not adhering to the Common Core.”

So a lot of good teaching was shut down, not intentionally, not because leadership doesn’t believe in it, but because we have a system that really puts a lot of emphasis on high stakes testing, on making sure kids get certain types of grades. So the way a lot of teachers want to teach doesn’t really fit into that system.

Jon Harper: I definitely hear what you’re saying.  So what can teachers get away with, still have fun, keep kids engaged, and not lose their jobs? This sounds crazy coming from an administrator, but this show is for teachers, so what can they do to make it more fun?

Trevor Muir: I think we have to get away from this idea that fun and good learning are two separate things, that they can’t coincide and exist together. I think a lot of administrators could stand to hear that and let that kind of sink in.  You can have fun and can learn in a deep and meaningful way. As a matter of fact, you can learn in a better and more meaningful way if you’re having fun.

Jon Harper:  Can you tell me a lesson that you taught this year that was fun, your kids absolutely adored it, and they learned a whole hell of a lot?

Trevor Muir:  There’s this Jack London story called “To Build A Fire,” and it’s all about this guy who goes out into the wilderness and gets stranded in the snow, and he has to build a fire to survive, and he only has limited supplies, and he ends up dying in the end, sorry, spoiler alert.

There is a requirement in the Common Core to teach this type of literature, and so I taught the students the literature, we got really into reading it. We had a lot of discussions about survival and then on a Friday morning when it was snowing outside, I took all of my students outside into the woods behind our school, and we used the exact same supplies that Jack London’s character used, and my students built a fire. We had a big competition, who could build a fire the fastest? Then I busted out marshmallows that I secretly brought with me, and they cooked them. When the administrator came out and said, “Why are you guys doing a fire on school property?” I said, “Because we’re reading a Jack London novel about building a fire and we’re making the literature come alive.”

Jon Harper: Were they cool with it?

Trevor Muir: Well, there was an eyebrow raise, and I said, “Hey, we’re gonna take the same common assessment that the other English teachers are giving, and if it’s any lower than any of theirs, then you know what? I’ll never do a fire again.” Guess what, Jon? My students scored the same on the exam. You know what I mean?

Jon Harper: And they remember it. You created an experience, and I heard those words that oftentimes people can’t stand to hear, but they’re not really bad words. Common Core. What’s your mindset going into creating a lesson like that? You’re in high school.

Trevor Muir: First-grade teachers might hear this, middle school teachers might hear this. I mean, when you go into the Common Core, how do you think about that? My mindset for all this stuff, Common Core, high stakes testing, SAT, I’m not somebody that thinks that we just need to blow up the whole system and not do any of these things and that we have to pretend that the apocalypse occurred, and we’re rebuilding school from the ground up. I don’t think that’s realistic. The first thing I do is I recognize that there are some realities that we have to face as teachers. I know that I have to prepare my students for high stakes testing, and so my attitude is how can I make the work that they’re doing, the environment they’re in, engaging and fun and, therefore, engages them to want to go and learn that material?

Trevor Muir: Every day if you walk by my classroom six hours a day, there’s always music playing in between classes. It’s not just because I love listening to music because sometimes I don’t feel like listening to music. It’s because my kids, when I do that, they’re already in this mindset that, “Oh, I can unwind a little bit,” or, “I really love that song. That puts me in a better mood.” Then if I have to do grammar practice or I’m having them learn MLA format and some of the stuff I don’t enjoy teaching, and they don’t love learning, they’re already at least in this mindset of this comfortability that they feel welcome and in an environment that’s fun for them.

Jon Harper: What are three things teachers could start tomorrow or for those that are on summer break, next year, that would make teaching more enjoyable for them and more enjoyable for their students and could make it more fun?

Trevor Muir: I’d say that I would ask yourself the question, “Is my classroom a place that I would want to be an hour a day every day of the week?” Aesthetically, what’s the lighting in my room? Is it ugly, fluorescent overhead lights or did I buy some cheap lights at Target that just at least lower the mood a little bit? Do I have color on my walls?

Jon Harper: What if you can’t control that?

Trevor Muir: You know something I did in my classroom? I didn’t have money to go buy a bunch of art, and so I told my students, I said, “Hey, if you draw me a piece of art, something colorful,” and actually what I told them, I said, “I want you to paint me something that defines the word epic. Whatever that means.” My students did it, and I didn’t pay for anything, and my principal’s not gonna tell me, “You can’t put student artwork on the wall.” Just doing that all of a sudden changed the shape of my class.

Trevor Muir: Another thing I’d say is play music. It’s easy. It’s free if you can go on Pandora. I’d say play music more, whether that’s during student work time or before class, it helps set a mood. It’s something I haven’t thought much about, but how do you create work that your students are doing? How do you tie some authenticity into the work? Whatever they’re doing, how do you make it meaningful to them? Can you bring in an authentic audience for whatever they’re creating? If they’re gonna create children’s books, can you have them read them to little kids at another school or read them to big kids at another school? Some way to make the work more meaningful than just the grade book or just making their parents or a teacher happy.

Jon Harper: Especially in this day and age we’re always competing with what kids are thinking about what they’re gonna do after school. If what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t more engaging than that, then the kids are gonna be thinking about, “Okay, what am I gonna be playing after school? What am I gonna be doing?” Or, if we can make it more engaging then we’ve got them. I think that’s great advice.

Trevor Muir: Can I give you one more?

Jon Harper: Give me one more. Give me a good one.

Trevor Muir: It’s all about building relationships with kids. I think sometimes teachers feel this pressure to be funny. Like, “Oh, if I’m not funny, kids will never like me,” or, “Oh, I don’t have these crazy ideas,” or, “Maybe I’m not a loud person like me, and I don’t like jumping on tables or doing …” You know what I mean? You get this pressure like, “Oh, I can’t be that.” That’s not what kids want fundamentally. How can you be one of the most important relationships for a kid to where when they’re in your room, they’re thinking about how much you care for them, and,  therefore, will do anything for you, including writing boring papers or learning MLA format? I think at the heart of an engaging classroom has always been and always will be strong relationships.

Jon Harper: Trevor, you gave us a lot to think about, and I hope people listening to this can at least take one or two things away that are gonna make their year, if they’re still teaching right now, more exciting and more fun or maybe in the fall more exciting and more fun. Thanks so much for coming on, Trevor.



Editorial Leam
Editorial Team
This article was written by a collaboration of editors and columnists on the FLR editorial team or guest contributors.

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