Have you ever thought what the students of your school would say about their experience there 20 years after? No? Maybe you should….
In an ironic twist of events, I found myself back in my hometown of London, Ontario this week. I hadn’t been back in close to 15 years and with some free time today, I decided to go visit my elementary school where I journeyed through grades 4-8.
As I pulled up the driveway, memories came flooding in of busy cars, parents dropping off kids, the harsh winter bolt from the car to the building; but more importantly I felt a deep sense of pride and a peace that I haven’t felt in years. Just seeing the building itself grounded me in a feeling of comfort and home and I wondered how many other former students felt this way and how many of my own will fill the same about their current experiences.
I walked up to the front doors and as fate would have it, there stood a man hoping to gain access to register his kids for the school year. He had just moved to Canada and was looking for a school for his children. As I explained to him that schools aren’t open for another few weeks, he soon realized that not only was I now a teacher but that I was a graduate coming back to just to see my old school. It was just the opportune moment for him to ask ” What was it like here? Is it a good school?”
Now this is where my mind started racing and the memories of my incredible teachers – Patricia Leschied, Jennifer Day, James Hull and John Arnett- came flooding in. Teachers who taught me perseverance, excellence, quality and showed me that I could be anything that I put my mind to. I spoke to how much fun I had learning here, to the close friendships and bonds I made (some to this very day), to being pushed to my limits due to high expectations, to care and understanding of my new culture and the turmoils of growing up, to new experiences scaffolded not for safety but for growth and mostly for the feeling of community and belonging. This school and these educators grew us into the people we are today – educators, police officers, engineers, doctors, politicians, environmentalists and librarians (from those I am still in contact with). There is no more powerful a sentiment than the legacy an educator leaves behind and that didn’t go unnoticed by this man nor myself.
As he thanked me and walked back to his vehicle, I stood there in awe wondering if my teachers knew this impact? If I as an educator truly understood the impact I leave on these children everyday. Will they be coming back to our school like I did today and praise the growth we fostered in them, the love we poured into their hearts and the strength we gave them to be who they are? I no longer say, I sure hope so…..I now say that is my goal and the legacy I want to leave for all of the students that I have the privilege of guiding along their life journey.
This reflection will be framed in a different format than my usual posts. This is just how I feel I can accurately reflect on the year that has passed as it contained such force and fundamental change that I have compartmentalized most of it by time frames.
January – February 2014
I felt it…that feeling in the pit of your stomach that digs away at you. It whispers quietly at first, but it quickly becomes so loud that you have to listen: “Dana, you need a change.” I loved my school, my co-workers, my district and most of all my incredible group of students who had been my little family for three consecutive years. I remember first meeting them in January of 2012 as they were told they would have a new teacher and a brand new classroom. They had been in a combined grade one-two and extra funding had come up enough to hire a full time teacher for them. There I stood in their old room and watched as each one came up to me, introduced themselves by name and told me their favourite colour. I still remember their anxious faces and their half-smiles as I walked with them down the hall to what would become our new room. “THIS IS OURS??” they exclaimed with joy and squeals as the doors to their new home opened. I nodded yes and in that exhilarating moment, I knew in my heart that I also had found my home.
So when that whispering feeling of change started coming around, I panicked. Ignorance is bliss as they say and so I ignored it.
March – April 2014
I knew that no matter what was to come in the future, my students and I were to be separated at the end of this school year as they moved on up to grade five. I went into full “make the most of every moment” mode and these months brought us so much innovation, creativity, inquiry and excitement in learning. I did my absolute best to ignore that feeling to the point where I wasn’t doing much beyond working. I planned, I connected, I shared, I communicated, I read, I tweeted, I moderated, I presented, I travelled to conferences, I blogged and I taught and learned with my all of my heart for and with my students. These were the most exhilarating moments of teaching I have experienced (all of which have been documented in my blog and our Twitter account Miss Ariss’ Class). I poured my entire being into teaching and making every minute count. However, that feeling of change didn’t go away and it was wearing me down as the days went on. I learned that no matter how hard you want to run from the feelings that scare you, it is often those that need to be felt and addressed. I finally stopped and really evaluated what I wanted and needed: Leadership mentors, group collaborations, constructive feedback loops for growth, opportunities for larger impacts on educational change, learning PD for my own growth and a more permanent home-base both professionally and personally
Change was happening and that feeling became so loud within that I finally started listening. Sometimes in life, things happen for reasons beyond our control but when we look back upon them, we often see the real meaning and the learning that can occur from them if we have the right attitude. As much as I loved everything about my career, I knew in my heart that my time in my little community, where I felt the safest and happiest I have ever felt, was ending. I could continue to ignore my personal and professional needs for growth and stay in my comfort zone or embrace that feeling and move forward into uncharted change. Those who know me well….know how this story will end.
May – July 2014
I can only describe these months as an absolute blur. Somewhere between full-time teaching, numerous educational conferences, presentations and travelling….I found the courage to listen to my heart. I took a huge leap of faith and accepted a new position at an incredible middle school a few hours away. Many would call me crazy for leaving a permanent teaching position, but they would not know who I am and what teaching truly means to me. Its not about positions, status, rank or authority; for me, teaching is about continuous growth and learning. To truly be an effective educator, I needed to continually embrace the difficult situations and decisions in my life and learn from them in order to grow and develop into who I am as a person which has a direct affect on my teaching, because I teach from my heart. I cannot remain in my zones of comfort and expect my levels of teaching to grow. I needed to widen my experiences in order to become the educator I need to be for every student that I have the privilege of working with.
I make this sound as if it was easy when in reality, this truly was the single most difficult decision of my life. I had built a safety net and it was never harder to accept the truth that nothing in life ever stays the same. I became almost paralyzed with fear; I was so afraid of losing the only family I had come to known, so afraid of moving away from everything that I had built and created, so afraid of what was to come, that I completely became focused on the impact failure could have on me by making this decision. I forgot how much I would champion making mistakes and learning from them to my students, but the difference was that we had built a safe environment for failing. I didn’t feel so safe as my entire life depended on succeeding with this decision I had made. I turned to the safety of my closest friends and family, who rallied alongside me and supported me in every way imaginable. By July 1st, I was living in a new home, in a new city and preparing for a new school, new colleagues and my first group of “new” students in three years. That is a lot of NEW and it happened within a span of barely two months. This was that feeling in the pit of my stomach realized: Change.
Questions, questions, questions swirling in my mind all the time!
Where is our room?
Who do I contact for this?
Where can I find?
Will I connect with a new group of students?
Will I make an impact on their lives?
Will my colleagues accept and welcome me?
Can I really do this? Oh wait… I AM DOING THIS!
September 2014 – December 2014
When I first started this reflection I didn’t fully grasp or realize the amount of learning accomplished during the final half of 2014 until I started looking at the photos I had taken. I have grown immensely both personally and professionally in these past few months by being active in my new community and surroundings, by embracing the uncomfortable, by being honest and open about my strengths, strong passions and areas of growth but most of all in my own self-confidence as an educator.
I found myself surrounded by communities of support, expertise and varied experiences in an environment prime for growth. This is what I had hoped for and I knew it wouldn’t be an easy journey, but I have never been one for easy. I have come from close to 5 years of independent teaching in small rural schools. I have always planned, coordinated and constructed all of my own materials, units, and assessments based on my own student needs and most recently, students with whom I had looped with for three years and knew like family. I now was in a team of six grade five educators collaborating together on the learning for our students, in a school almost seven times the size of my previous.
Reflecting on the start of the school year, I see now that underestimated the transition into this. It has been years since I needed to share who I was, my true self, with other educators, as when working within a small district everyone knows everyone. My other collaborations have been with educators who follow me on Twitter or read my blog and have a strong sense of who I am. The individuals within my comfort zone, who are my rocks, all know my deep passion for learning, know how excited I get at the thought of planning a unit with my students and finding those connections for them, know that I am honest, genuine and will ask a lot of questions because I have a need to know the why behind everything I bring into my classroom, but that mostly I care…about everything and everyone all the time.
I learned that when working within a large group, fostering a relationship beyond work is essential for the dynamics because once everyone truly knows one another a foundation of trust and an environment where vulnerability is welcomed can be built, however that this also takes time. Effective collaboration doesn’t happen overnight, it needs to be built step by step by each individual party. My sheer optimism and strong will to ensuring meaningful things happen despite obstacles, is who I am however this is something that is shown over time through sincerity and action. I am learning how to communicate my passions, thoughts and ideas outside of my comfort zone and am pushing myself to hear (not just listen) and understand more and more.
These few months also taught me about the power of student connection and relationships. I had worried whether I would be able to connect with a brand new group, but as the weeks went on I started receiving hugs, drawings, jokes, stories from home, open discussions about their lives and genuine interest in mine, shared laughter and that feeling of knowing these are the amazing kids I am so lucky to know and work with every day. I love the community we have built and will continue to grow.
Just a few weeks ago, I decided to surprise my previous students by attending their Christmas Concert at my old school. I snuck into the dark auditorium hoping to grab a seat when one of them noticed me from behind the stage. Within a few seconds, they all popped out from behind the stage and began furiously waving to me. I can’t begin to describe that moment, but a lot of tears were involved. The kids I am honoured to meet and work with throughout my career are what make being an educator the most meaningful to me.
This term also brought forth a lot of Professional Development and new projects which I am so honoured to have been a part of. Collaborating with other PSD70 educators on the first ever #EdCampPSD70 and co-keynoting the opening with Kelli Holden in the presence of so many incredible colleagues was truly humbling. Kelli and I reconnected again in November to present at ATLE on the use of SKYPE in the classroom.
I was also honoured to be asked to present an IGNITE session by Dean Shareski, who ever so kindly arranged the presentations to start alphabetically which in turn had me presenting first. This required me to dig deep into who I truly am as an educator and helped build my confidence in sharing that with the larger community of educators. Despite the nerves, it was an absolutely thrilling experience where in five minutes I shared my passion for education and spent the evening learning about the passions of others.
I was introduced this term to many new forms of PD focused on #MakerSpaces and #MakerEd, which I had implemented in my previous teachings but never had the opportunity to dig deeper into. From a Saturday road trip to Calgary with my AP and three other teaching colleagues to attend a one day MakerFaire to an ERLC hosted MakerSpace session where I connected with local librarians on the new creation of Innovation Labs in our city. I am so excited to share these experiences with the kids as they completed their first Innovation Week projects in December and will be visiting the labs in January. Not to mention continued collaborations and discussions surrounding Alberta’s Curriculum Redesign which I am currently a part of the committee for my new district in working on the competencies in learning.
In remaining true to myself and constantly having a need to learn and absorb, I along with my #Cdnedchat team continued our weekly collaborations continued and our chat is livelier than ever on Monday evenings! I also jumped in to three separate book clubs with Google Hangout reflections with various educators within my school and across the world to expand my learning and push my mind further. One of the book clubs focused on Leadership through being a part of my district’s Exploring Leadership committee.
Present – 2015 and beyond
My biggest take aways from 2014 have been to always listen to your heart, no matter how scared you are, and that how change is viewed depends solely on how you approach it. Is it an adventure filled with learning opportunities or will you view it as something horrible and choose comfort?
I learned how to truly be vulnerable and to rely on others when I need to. To not be afraid to say I need help or I don’t understand this can you show me. Reach out to others and in doing so, you open the lines of communication and make your connections just that much stronger.
I was reminded by my own inner fear and worries that we all face insecurities, hardships and stress. Our job isn’t to add to that, but to lift it off of one another. Be kind to all, especially the ones who may seem to have a hard exterior because somewhere down their path of life their experiences helped to shape that. Our students may come to school with brave faces, but they are looking to us to create the safety of an environment conducive to learning, just as we need in our own professional lives.
So what does 2015 have in store for me? I won’t even venture a guess, but I certainly hope my years continue to provide me with continued learning opportunities, strong supportive networks and a deeper understanding of my purpose as an educator.
Everyone who knows me, knows my love for technology and for the ways in which I can use it to grow my teaching and the learning of my students. I’m consistently seeking out new ways and ideas to integrate tech into not only my classroom lessons but my own life.
As our world becomes more and more connected through the use of technology, communication has never been easier. However at the start of this year I was still grappling with how to best reach the families of my students with updates on the learning in our room. Not everyone has access to the internet at home, not all are savvy with latest technologies and most are extremely busy and on the go. Written newsletters was one way, but have been very time consuming and I couldn’t be sure many received them as I would find them crumpled at the bottom of student backpacks from time to time. What I was doing was just not effective and I was determined to find something that would work for everyone.
My class has a very active Twitter account @gr34bears but the reality is that only a very small amount of parents are currently using Twitter and while a lot more joined since our class account grew, I knew I still wasn’t reaching the majority. I decided that maybe a website with daily updates would be a good place to start and so I created one. However, I quickly realized that no one was checking it and that it just wasn’t the most effective way to reach my group of parents. The website came to slow halt and I was back to lengthy newsletters.
Then one day, while I was using Storify to archive the tweets of cdnedchat that I moderate on Monday nights, an idea came to me. Why am I not archiving our classroom tweets with Storify and sending them to parents? I can easily create a Storify of our daily events and then even those parents who aren’t on Twitter could read about our daily happenings. My thoughts and excitement quickly grew when I realized not only could I do this, but I could also distribute the Storify link to parents using Remind101.
I had introduced Remind101 to the families of my students at the beginning of the year and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The parents of my students loved receiving immediate reminders to their cellphones and I even have a few of my grade four students registered on their phones and e-mail addresses to receive.
The trial began and I started to Storify our daily tweets and send parents the link via Remind101. Students were now coming to me in the morning and telling me about the conversations they were having with their parents the night before about some of our tweets. I was elated! Conversations were happening about their learning at home and then were being brought back to me the next day.
My goal was to generate these conversations and to open our doors wider to parents and families in a fast and easy way for all. I now Storify daily and send to parents. Students are even more keen to participate and share their learning as they know their parents are receiving it and are an engaged part of our classroom. I haven’t fully given up the newsletter as it still plays its own unique role, but being able to communicate and share daily with parents our learning has made that newsletter much less cumbersome and all encompassing. Parents now know what their children are learning about everyday and they are receiving this information right in the palm of their hands.
My passion for effective use and integration of technology drives me to continually try new things; some of which work and some of which don’t. I use the lessons learned from the things that didn’t work to try and find something that does. A class website and lengthy newsletters were just not working for us but this lead me to one of the most important things I’ve learned so far this year which is: to always meet others where they are at in their technology journey, not to speed ahead and not to lag behind, but to meet in the middle together.