What Are Your “Why’s?”

In Ontario, school starts on Tuesday. As educators go back to the classroom this week to get ready for the students, social media is full of posts about classroom set-up. There are beautiful photographs, amazing videos, and lots of talk about the environment. My terrific teaching partner, Paula, and I have spent most of the week setting up. Every day, we add a new update to our class blog, letting parents and students have a look into the “process” as well as the “final product.” 

I was doing some thinking on my car ride into school today. While I love seeing what rooms look like — and am often inspired by what I see — I also love hearing the thinking behind the decisions. Yesterday, a fellow Ontario Kindergarten teacher, Anamaria Ralph, published this blog post that highlights some of her thoughts around classroom environment and set-up. Her post inspired me to share our “why”: the thinking behind the classroom environment decisions that we made. I decided to try my hand at something new, and make a vlog discussing our decisions. When Paula and I set-up the room, it was our rich conversations that stayed with me, and so I wanted to add that conversing element to this post. As you’ll hear in the vlog — and I do apologize, as it’s long — some of our decisions vary from the ones that Anamaria made. That’s okay. If we were to take 20 Kindergarten educators, we’d probably have 20 different thoughts on how to design a room. It’s not about being right or wrong. What matters the most to me — and what I find the most inspirational — is the thinking behind the decisions.

So as you continue to work on your classroom design, I hope that you’ll consider sharing the “process,” and your “why’s.” Maybe that will be in a blog post. Maybe it will be in a vlog. Maybe it will be in something different altogether. But let’s engage in that risk-taking that we encourage our students to do, and put ourselves out there: not in an effort to be perfect, but in an effort to be visible and open for feedback. Then, as the weeks go on, the children come, and the environment begins to change, let’s share again and explain the reasons for the changes. Imagine how much we could learn from each other. Who’s with me? Let’s live up to the hashtag that Lisa Noble shared with me yesterday: #visiblelearning. I like the idea of starting a new school year in this “visible” way.


Rethinking The Principal’s Office

I’m not a principal, and I’ve never had any interest in being one, but this summer, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for administration. Being a coordinator at one of the Camp Power sites has made me the first person that instructors approach when there are problems. Now instead of me being the one calling for support, I’m the one that people call. Over the past 12 days, I’ve worked with various children, and each experience has made me view the office differently. Yesterday, I had an epiphany. I wonder what would happen if each principal’s office was equipped with a variety of sensory materials (i.e., play dough, clay, water beads, kinetic sand, etc.), some building materials (particularly blocks and Lego), beads, a small container of books, drawing materials, and a tent (or a blanket for draping over a table). Couple this with “time” and “building relationships,” and I wonder if the need for punishment would/could be drastically reduced. 

Over the summer, every time that somebody’s approached me with a problem, I’ve tried to think of Stuart Shanker‘s words: “Why this child? Why now?” I’ve attempted to see the problem through a Self-Reg lens, and respond accordingly. I’m not going to say that this is always easy, or that I haven’t made mistakes, but something interesting happens in the “library office.” As children come in, sit down, and play, they slowly start to calm down. As they start to feel calm, they talk. It’s through this discussion that I begin to see the problem from their perspective. We work out solutions together and find a way to make it back to the classroom.

  • Sometimes the child just needs a healthy snack.
  • Sometimes the child needs to bring back an activity from the library to continue in the classroom.
  • Sometimes the child needs a pair of headphones: a way to make any room quiet.
  • Sometimes the child just needs to know that you’ll check in again and make sure everything’s okay.
  • Sometimes the little break is all the child needed and can go back without anything else. 

Punishment was not my goal this summer, and I’m thankful to say that it wasn’t necessary. I realize the camp program is different from a school. We have fewer children. Groups are smaller. Our age range is a lot less. I also don’t have the same additional responsibilities that a principal would have at school. But being on the other side of solving these problems this summer gave me a whole new perspective on what’s possible when time, love, and self-regulation combine. 

While my summer experience made me rethink the principal’s office, it also made me rethink the classroom. What if sensory materials, building items, beads, books, drawing materials, and a safe “hiding space,” were present in all classrooms? Couple all of these with “time” and “relationships,” and I wonder if many problems could be solved in the room and without the need for punishment. In yesterday’s Ontario Edublogs post, Doug Peterson highlighted Sharon Drummond‘s classroom design post. As we get ready to go back to school, I wonder what impact self-regulation will have on classroom design, and how we can design learning spaces that reduce problematic office visits, increase success for all children, and help create a feeling of calm that children and adults both need and deserve. What might you do? 


A Message Worth Sharing

A few words. Really just a passing comment. But it was the response that has stayed with me for hours today and inspired me to blog tonight. Here’s my story.

As I was welcoming parents into the school at the end of camp today, I connected with one mom, who asked me about her child’s day. I briefly told her how the day went, but then I said, “I really enjoy working with ________. He always makes me think, and we have some great conversations.” That’s when the mom looked at me and said, “I wish everyone felt that way. This is the first time somebody’s said this about my son.” That’s when my heart broke!

I can’t help but think back to the Faculty of Education, and the reminder from professors that it’s important to distinguish between a child’s behaviour and the actual child. We may not like a child’s choices, but we still like the child. My understanding of behaviour has changed a lot since Teacher’s College — and I think that Shanker‘s Self-Reg has helped me view a lot of behaviour differently — but this “language lesson” has remained an important one for me. Even so, this mother’s comment made me wonder if I always remember the power of words when communicating with parents.

Yes, we want to be honest with parents. If there are problems/concerns, we want to be able to work through them together. But in the midst of pointing out the issues, we also need to highlight the positives … and maybe, as this mom reminded me in her comment today, not make the “issue” our view of the child. Every child wants to be loved, and every parent wants to know that their child is loved. 

I’m not a mom, so I can’t speak from a “parent perspective,” but as another mom pointed out to me recently, I’m like a “school mom.” As my teaching partner and I have discussed before, our students are our kids. 

  • We’ve seen them grow: academically, socially, and emotionally.
  • We know what they’re able to do.
  • We believe in them.

And at the end of each year, we create classes for the following year, and we make our little wish that the new teacher will see the “wonderful” that we see and make the connections that we’ve made. Likely, those same teachers are wishing the same thing for their groups of students that are also going off to new classes. That’s what love does. Just as we need to hear these positive affirmations from our colleagues, parents need to hear these words from us. 

I’m not going to pretend that I always remember to share this message, or that I do so as much as I should, but after today’s conversation, I know that I will be doing so more. When parents know we speak with love, the tone of the discussion changes. How do we let kids know “they matter,” and how do we share this same message with the home? This is a message worth sharing. 


Did I Just Require A Change In Perspective?

Back in December, I selected my “one word goal” for this year, and never did I realize that I would be thinking about this word so much during my new position this summer. As part of my position at Camp Power, I’m the person that the teachers contact if they need support with a student or a group of students. During my teaching position from September-June, I’m the one that may contact another teacher, an EA, or the principal for help, and now I’m the one being called. And with this change, comes a change in “perspective.”

I don’t think that I ever really thought much about all of the decisions that a person needs to make when supporting a child in need. When I’ve called for help before, it’s when that help arrived that I’ve often walked away from that problem and went to support other children. I’ve usually followed up later to find out what happened and what I should do the next time, but I never really wondered a lot about what happened at that time of initial contact. Now I was that point of contact, and the only thing that I could do was think about how to turn things around.

  • How might I approach the child?
  • What kind of tone should I use?
  • What caused the problem? (I forever had Stuart Shanker‘s questions of, “Why this child?” and “Why now?” floating through my head.)
  • What might help this child calm down?
  • How can I support this child outside of the classroom, and how can I get this child back into the classroom?
  • How can children support each other?
  • When might I need some more help (there is an administrator on site) and when might I ask for it?
  • What do we need to do to reduce the chance of this problem reoccurring today or on other days?

I worked hard at figuring out when to talk, when to listen, and when to just sit. I tried to make connections with students, while also helping students form important connections with their classroom teachers. Children need to be in their classes, and I want them to feel safe and supported by me, but also have these same feelings in their rooms. 

During our training session on Tuesday, I asked all staff members to share one of their strengths and an area that they wanted to learn more about. I did the same. I said that one of my strengths is my ability to connect with kids. Throughout the week, I got to test this strength of mine, as I connected with children and helped them through more challenging times. And as I did so, I began to view problems differently. I thought about the times that I’ve called for help in the past, and I considered what I might do from now on.

  • When might a child need to leave the classroom?
  • When is a child ready to return?
  • How does my tone impact on the tone and the actions of children?
  • What kind of space can I create in the classroom to support children with various needs, and what needs to be a part of this space?

Over this past week, I’ve seen the benefit of …

  • sensory play (particularly clay and play dough) for children of all ages.
  • independent work spaces.
  • quiet spaces, even in the middle of busy classrooms.
  • technology for some and a break from it for others.
  • predictable, consistent routines.
  • knowing when a lesson (or activity) does not work for one child, and providing something else that might.

I’ve also seen how some children that have struggled — maybe even for years — can meet with success, and just how incredible this success can be. “Success” can be seen in many forms.

  • Maybe it’s a change in attitude towards reading, writing, or math.
  • Maybe it’s a willingness to attempt something that he/she has not attempted before.
  • And maybe it’s a child that starts and ends the day happy … and a parent that hears something different — something positive — about his/her child that he/she has not heard in the past. 

This week, I’ve witnessed all three of these successes, and I’m eager to witness many more in the coming weeks. I can’t help but think about this important message that Stuart Shanker shares so frequently.

I think this new camp experience has helped me see many children differently, and I’m eager to see how this new summer perspective impacts on my perspective in the upcoming school year. What might this mean for me and for kids?


Doing Something That Scares You …

About 5 1/2 years ago now, I applied for a consultant position with our Board. I didn’t get the job, and at the time, I was heartbroken. This was a position that I really wanted connected to a topic that I was passionate about. I still remember when I got the phone call from the principal telling me that I was not the successful candidate. I tried hard to hold it together, and then, I cried. But I also listened to her advice. It was thanks to this principal that I expanded my teaching experience into the junior grades, and I think gained an even better understanding of both students and curriculum. And then, I made a decision to stay in the classroom.

I applied to other teaching jobs after that. I changed schools twice, and I changed grades four times … but I did not apply to a system position again. I’ve seen positions come up multiple times since my unsuccessful experience, and I’ll admit that I considered different ones. I’ve prepared some resumes, and even experimented with different cover letters, but in the end, I decided that I was happiest in the classroom.

Then May of this year came around, and late one evening, I happened to check the job postings on our Board website. It was then that I saw a posting for the Camp Power Summer Curriculum And Site Support Teacher. Camp Power is a Ministry-funded summer program run by our Board, and it’s intrigued me for years. For the past 21 years though, I’ve taught at the same summer program every July, and with some overlapping dates, working at Camp Power was never a possibility. But this year, the other summer program isn’t running, and now I could apply to Camp Power. I was conflicted though.

  • This posting was not for a teaching position.
  • This would be the first leadership role I applied to since the last one that I didn’t get. I was scared of facing disappointment again.
  • The applications were also due in just a few days, and I was battling a terrible cold. Did I have it in me to apply?

I decided to take a chance. I worried that if I didn’t, I would always wonder about what might have been. And so, with some trepidation, I stayed up late, finalized my resume and cover letter, and emailed in my application. After that, I waited … it was not easy to do!

This story though has a happy ending for me. I did get an interview, and I got one of the two positions. I was thrilled!

I’ve learned a lot of new things this summer around …

  • scheduling,
  • time-tabling,
  • budget,
  • ordering,
  • collaboration,
  • staffing,
  • coaching,
  • assessment,

… and staff training just began today. This will be a very different summer for me. For 21 summers and 16 years with the Board, I have always been a classroom educator, and now I’m supporting others as they prepare to run their classroom programs. 

  • I’m delivering professional development.
  • I’m coaching.
  • I’m trouble-shooting and problem solving.

And I’m seeing education through a different lens. This is an exciting change … and a scary one. I think that I’ll be learning a lot over these 17 days. Sometimes we all need to do something that scares us. What are you doing?