Saturday, November 30, 2013

Balance, Ed Tech, and Raw Failure

Ok, it is time for me to finish up my reflection of the original 6 points I pondered on after only 3 weeks of teaching.

Because I am tired, it is basically the last day of Thanksgiving break, and I just want to get this off my chest - I am condensing the last three points into one post. Yes.

4. Teaching is about finding the sweet and tender balance amidst insane chaos

Don't ask me how to obtain the balance, but feel free to ask me about the insane chaos.

As I walk the halls of my school, and engage with teachers with and without their classes, I notice something about them. A small flame of wildness tempered by wisdom and/or optimism, lighting from their eyes and faces. It is this tempered, or honed attention that I have not yet obtained. The teachers who have braved Education's valley of shadow and death (AKA the first three years) and emerged victorious appear to have this serene sense of calm -like a patient and wise mother waiting to listen to the sobbing child tell the story of a hurt knee or a distressed teenager moan about a rude boyfriend. In regards to reacting to the politically insane and economically humiliating circumstances around them they display a balance between brute animal instinct and sophisticated self-restraint (though I did witness some brute instinct earlier this year).

At this point I am not balanced, and I am trying to figure out how to get away from my basal instincts when faced with the extraordinary everyday challenges of teaching.

5. Educational technology is cool, but is it possible the field is turning a blind eye to the biggest issues?

Contrary to what I have thought in the past, I feel there are much larger and important issues in education than the next technology or learning theory. Poverty is the underlying issue for at least a quarter of American children. Is it possible that while we are learning how to teach students in virtual worlds, or use blogs and flipped classrooms to increase engagement and interactivity, we are just contributing to the opportunity gap that already stands between poor and rich kids?

At my school we do lots of computerized tests. Cool, it saves time! Not so cool, many of my kids don't know how to use a mouse properly.

I was delighted to find a host of amazing online resources when I started at my job, but then discovered that many of my students don't have access to the Internet at home.

It seemed like if we just had a growth mindset and went to work, then that well-researched concept would create some good results, and then I realized just my own mindset isn't enough to change 23+ in just a few months.

Do we have the responsibility to enable students in poverty to learn in the same ways and at the same rates as those who aren't?

6. Continued raw failure is the essential attribute of true learning

I have never failed so hard, so frequently, and so publicly in my life. I was not prepared for it, which made the descent down to mental, spiritual, and emotional turmoil much more difficult. Currently I am trying to allow my failures to teach me, rather than define me.

Perhaps the hardest and most bitter element of my daily inability to reach the level I yearn for is the impact of my short comings on my students.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Psychic Entropy and Educational Pornography

In his seminal book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the state of mind called psychic entropy by relating a story of a assembly line worker who ends up in a very frustrating and extreme position. This particular worker had a tire on his car that was low on air and he didn't have the money to replace it. He continued to fill it up in the morning before work and in the evening when he drove home as he anticipated his next income check. He finally lost control of things at work and snapped at the other employees. "All through the day he worried: 'Will I make it home tonight? How will I get to work tomorrow morning?' These questions kept intruding in his mind, disrupting concentration on his work and throwing a pall on his moods."

This man, Csikszentmihalyi continues, "is a good example of what happens when the internal order of the self is disrupted. The basic pattern is always the same: some information that conflicts with an individual's goals appears in consciousness. Depending on how central that goal is to the self and on how severe the threat to it is, some amount of attention will have to be mobilized to eliminate the danger, leaving less attention free to deal with other matters . . . prolonged experience of this kind can weaken the self to the point that it is no longer able to invest attention and pursue its goals"(p.37).

After reading this a few days ago, I experienced a short-lived moment of euphoria that someone had actually put into writing the exact feeling I have been experiencing for the last four months. I have always struggled to make decisions, especially when it comes to whether my choices directly could effect the feelings and opinions of others. As a new father (and fairly recently married man), a new professional, a recent graduate, and a new citizen of Oklahoma I am only now realizing the full impact of balancing all these roles and expectations. The result is near complete paralysis.

Perhaps one of the biggest contributors to my feelings of psychic entropy is my own unrealistic perception of what successful teaching looks like. Until recently I think that deep down I thought I could be that teacher who jumps on the desk and yells Carpe Diem! and captures the imagination of my young and eager students on a daily - no hourly - basis. In short, until this point it is likely I have been under the influence of educational pornography.

In a short and illuminating post by +Bryce Bunting the idea of educational pornography is explained more fully. Films like Stand and Deliver, or Freedom Writers often captivate and inspire audiences, but don't necessarily paint a realistic idea of what teachers can and should be doing in the classroom.
The reality is that very few teachers have the time, energy, or disposition to approach teaching in the super-human way that is subtly advocated for in these kinds of films. And, when teachers are made to feel that they should all be like Ron Clark (one of the new breed of "inspiring," "innovative," and superstar educators), frustration, hopelessness, and feelings of failure won't be far behind.
Don't get me wrong, the Ron Clarks of the world aren't imaginary. They are real and they are wonderful. However, it is clear that living a balanced and healthy life while maintaining this super teacher lifestyle is simply not sustainable for me or most people in general. 

So I will continue on my way, doing my best. What more can I do, then give my all within the boundaries my mental, physical, and spiritual health will allow? I hope to overcome my sense of psychic entropy and begin making some steps forward. 

"So much in life depends on our attitude. The way we choose to see things and respond to others makes all the difference. To do the best we can and then to choose to be happy about our circumstances, whatever they may be, can bring peace and contentment." 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

3. Self Control is the Gateway to Service

Looking back on my 6 "lessons" learned in the first 3 weeks of teaching, I am surprised to find that they still ring true to me. I wonder if this will be the case by the end of the year? I have now been in the classroom for over two months (it feels like much longer) and point number 3 feels more true than ever.

Found this on Reddit. 

Self control is an attribute our society at large struggles with. Instant gratification, 24/7 access to whatever whimsical or serious need we think up, and the false sense of value placed on "being busy" are just a few things I see as contributing to the degrading of this important characteristic.

Beyond our drive-thru and on-demand culture, self control manifests itself in education in a way I had not anticipated. When I started at my school, many teachers and the Principal told me, "Never let them see you sweat." In other words, don't let the students know that they are getting to you.

Well that did't work out so well.

Never in my life have I struggled more to control my words, the level of my voice, and the negative flood of emotions that inundate room 27 each day. Not to mention managing the frustration with things outside the classroom such as impossible insurance rates for teachers, apartment problems, and a seemingly never-ending workload that appears to have assassinated personal and family time.

Many days I keep my own tally of happy and sad points on the whiteboard, just to help me better manage my own person, and maybe help the students (who are 7-8 years old) begin to understand that everyone, young and old, must learn to manage their feelings.

:( = moments I lost control and went crazy
:) = moments I managed the chaos of my own feelings
The result of my two month wrestle with such feelings of anger and inadequacy have not rendered me as a new hero or refined instructor. At least not yet. 

But I do know that in order to actually help my students and my family, I first need to be able to control and help myself. Thus self control is the gateway to service. It is so easy to say, but very difficult to do. 

How can we help the hungry if we spend excess on food ourselves? How do we thoughtfully serve others if we are too busy being worried and depressed about our own shortcomings? 

The US Air Force mantra of "Service Before Self" is a companion of the concept I am addressing here. In order to serve others before ourselves, we must have mastery over our own passions, desires, and emotions. We must manage our own person, and then actively choose to lift others before putting our own ambitions forward.