Locked DOWN but not locked OUT

A teacher’s reflection on lessons learnt while under lockdown

It all happened seemingly overnight didn’t it? One day we were all happy and together and then the next, we were forced to be apart. One Friday afternoon I wished my learners goodbye and a blessed weekend, as I always do – I even said “See you on Monday”. But Monday came and I had half my class present, Tuesday came and I had even less…by Wednesday I stood in solitude in my classroom and gazed out at 14 empty seats. By Wednesday, there was no more joyous bustling about and echoes of laughter and chatter as school was officially closed to students. In a somewhat cataclysmic turn of events, our worlds as we knew them were turned upside down and inside out. And whether we wanted to face up to it or not, we all found ourselves driven headfirst into an ocean of unchartered waters and uncertainties. Teachers, parents, schools, business owners, employees, essential workers, and children – let’s not forget our children. Our hearts and minds were overwhelmed with so many questions, doubts and fears….and now, a few weeks in; we are still swimming – only the more we paddle and kick for survival, the more enduring we have become (although it may not always seem that way).

Yes, COVID-19 has indeed been a real game changer!

As a teacher, suddenly forced to be apart from my learners under uncertain circumstances, I very quickly had to wrap my head around my own insecurities and fears. I had to identify them, deal with them, and then very quickly GET OVER THEM! Like so many other teaching professionals, I was expected to continue to teach and to step up for the children and parents of my Grade 4 class of 2020. And being the person that I am, I would do all that I could to rise to the challenge because at my core, I am a teacher! I meet needs as they arise and I invent ways to access knowledge and impart skills. I also live to inspire and encourage and the more I reflected on it, the more I realised that just as challenging as this change was going to be for the teachers, it was equally if not more so for the parents and children. Suddenly, encouragement and support became the order of the day.

Over night, remote and distance learning became our new normal and I, like so many others, had to learn to swim very quickly in a sea of online teaching territory. Thank goodness for team based approaches and collaboration with equally passionate, dedicated and creative teachers! #Teamteachers There is just no way that I would have had the courage to tackle the challenge if I didn’t have the support of knowing that my entire school and teaching community were rallying together, routing each other on and constantly checking in.

However, it also became clear very quickly that there is a lot out there, and as much as I tried to upskill and amerce myself in new and exciting methods of enhancing my teaching from home, there is always the risk of information overload and what I have come to call; ‘digital drowning’. It is so easy to get caught up in the ‘know how’ that you can just as easily loose sight of the ‘know who’. In the initial midst of all the technological chaos and tech-savvy talk, I had to remind myself of who was always on the other side of the digital divide – I teach humans not robots and because of that, I have always strived to teach through relationship above all else. And in the absence of my physical presence, there still has to exist a connection.

Teaching through relationship is about so much more than just the premise that the more teachers know about their students the better they will teach them. It describes a complex social environment in which teachers, parents and students openly communicate, share experiences and participate in activities that together, make for engaged and impactful learning. It is about establishing grounds for community and support. When done well, teaching through relationships recognises the human stories behind each child and their families, as well as that of the teacher. And at a time where forced distance is imposed on us, the humanistic element of connection cannot afford to be lost.

The power of connection is that it promotes the idea that we are all in this together, that people are seen and their stories are heard. There is an undeniable comfort and sense of security in staying connected to those familiarities of our previously ‘normal’ lives to help us adapt somewhat more comfortably to the ‘new normal’ we find ourselves in.

For the children in our classes, it means not just receiving online instructions and pre-programmed activities to keep them ‘doing’ for what good is it to just ‘do’ without truly being engaged. And in order for full engagement to happen, children need to feel motivated, encouraged, secure enough to take risks and as supported as possible. The same can be said for their parents who needed to know that they were not expected to be anything more than the supportive and loving parents they have always been because their teacher would still be there for them every step of the way. I was still the teacher and would continue to teach. Content would come from myself and my team of teachers, it would be delivered in our voices and in our familiar styles. We established our presence and affirmed that we had not gone anywhere.

Additionally, the more I reached out and established platforms for support, the more relaxed my parents became and the more productive my students became. Daily class check-in’s on our class group, frequent reassurances to parents and keeping instructions clear and expectations low really helped to stabilize the initial rocky foundation. It took reflection on my part and a willingness to go the distance – I had to allow myself the chance to be somewhat vulnerable in exposing my teaching style and overcoming insecurities by being overly visual, verbal and 100% present. Video calls and online zoom sessions with parents and children only served to further humanize all of us and strengthen our connection as we bonded over messy houses, discussions about pets and met halfway in terms of agreeing to expectations – every family situation was different and not all needs could be met in the same way, so flexibility is key. Our communication had to remain open, honest and heartfelt. I also realised the importance of feedback – parents want to know that they are doing OK and children are still children, they thrive off the praise and acknowledgement we offer them. The awarding of merits for the achievement of individual goals proved a valuable tool in motivating my students, but also helped to ground them in a familiar practice that connected them to our classroom culture, our way of doing things.

Life under lockdown has taught me many lessons – it has afforded me opportunities to clean out many ‘closets’… to reflect, re-align and refocus many of my own priorities both personally and professionally. I also think that it is safe to say that life after lockdown will never be the same…we cannot allow it to. And as digital learning advances and drives education forward into the next phase of our lives, may we never loose sight of the importance of staying connected – truly connected. There is no denying that technology and digital platforms are necessary tools for enhancing learning and equipping students to succeed in a digitally driven world, but the role of the teacher speaks directly to the HEART of education. For what good is a tool in the hands of an uninspired and discouraged mind?

20/20 Vision

Pinterest perfection vs realistic imperfection

We have all seen them, those Pinterest posts of brightly coloured, themed and seemingly perfect classrooms. Those classrooms that are colour-coordinated, meticulously labelled and functionally systematic. Those classrooms that, let’s be honest, put the ordinary to shame! As a teacher who frequents Pinterest territory for ideas and inspiration, I can admit that I have on many an occasion, experienced “Pinterest Pressure”. That commonly diagnosed condition amongst teachers of which the symptoms are; increased expectations, self-doubt, unnecessary comparisons and a sense of longing”. 

I am by no means disputing the fact that Pinterest, in all its glory, serves as a melting pot for creativity and inspiring classroom ideas but I am cautioning against using it as a measuring stick for one’s own reality. The fact of the matter is, that while we all aspire to reach perfection within our professional capacity, we can just as easily drop the ball and shift our focus from what truly matters. 

It is only natural for us to start the year off bright eyed and bushy tailed, our inspiration tanks filled and ready to go but as soon as we hit our first pothole we stumble…we waver, we tire, and we doubt.  At some point, the everyday challenges that we as teachers face catches up with us and we realize that no matter how much we try to hide behind our beautifully coloured classrooms and wall charts, on the inside…we are not perfect. What happens when no one is watching is not perfect. Our children are not perfect and sometimes things get messy. Yet in the midst the messiness and the imperfection, arise the most amazing and meaningful learning opportunities. In allowing yourself to loosen the reigns of perfection a little, and allow your spaces of learning to become safe environments that welcomes imperfection, we unlock the magic found in the ordinary. In essence, we enhance the ordinary and allow it to evolve into the extraordinary. 

Along the way on personal my teaching journey; I have made peace with the fact that I am an imperfect teacher with an imperfect classroom and imperfect planning skills! Yet despite my imperfections, my classroom has become an imperfect place of wonderful learning opportunities, joy and magic moments. Together with my learners, we experience success, we experience failure and we experience success through our failure. We learn to embrace the quirkiness, our differences and similarities. We learn to support one another through the challenges and understand that everyone’s measure of success is different. We build character and learn to value our little community. My classroom may not be Pinterest perfect but that does not mean that good things don’t happen. In fact, my classroom is perfect because we are all wonderfully imperfect! I can admit that it has taken me a while to acknowledge and embrace this fact.

That is not to say that every year I don’t strive to enhance my skill set, better my practice and improve on my areas of weakness. As teachers, we are called to be reflective practitioners in our own right. We reflect at the end of every lesson, at the end of every day, at the end of every term, and at the end of every year. Reflection leads to correction and improvement. However, I encourage you to not get so wrapped up on the reflecting and correcting part that we lose sight of the magic moments that inadvertently take place in between. Everything exists in a delicate balance – allow your search for perfection to exist in a balance with your acceptance of imperfection. 

What we do matters and it matters every day, which is why it is not always easy. Be kind to yourself and others. Just as we encourage our children to make and learn from mistakes, allow yourself to make mistakes so that too can learn and grow. Whether your classroom is Pinterest worthy or not, know that YOU as a teacher are worthy! Success and excellence is subjective, so set your own bar from which you choose to measure your greatness – align your vision for your classroom in the New Year with values and principles that you hold dear. Seek to be the best version of yourself that you can be – we may not all be Pinterest perfect but we are WONDERFULLY IMPERFECT and that counts too! 

Make the DIFFERENCE through DIFFERENTIATION

Differentiation is how ONE becomes many while remaining ONE. Differentiation is not separation. – Deepak Chopra

As many a dedicated and hardworking teacher will know, at the core of our practice is the desire to reach each and every learner in a way that unlocks potential and enhances their individual learning experience. We also know that not every child is able to learn in exactly the same way given that they each possess their own ‘toolbox’ of strengths and challenges, interests and skill sets. All this coupled with the reality of growing class sizes, limited resources and the pressure to reach curriculum demands; means that it is becoming increasingly more challenging to make the necessary connections and reach each child on an individual level. For some, the very idea of differentiating triggers nightmares of having to plan a different lesson and activity for each learner, as well as having to spend long nights preparing and grading. Having been there, I can honestly empathize with the plight of so many who feel like it is near impossible but having experienced life in a remedial classroom, I have made a drastic shift in my own mindset and would like to offer some hope and inspiration to a seemingly dire situation.

What does it mean to differentiate?

Differentiation, by simple definition; is the tailoring/adapting of teaching instruction to better meet the individual learning needs of children. Effective differentiation seeks to:

  • Improve learning outcomes
  • Increase self-awareness within individual learners
  • Support learners in their ability to learn more efficiently through ease of access to information with a deeper understanding
  • Increase learner engagement and participation
  • Inspire a greater enthusiasm for learning

Yes, to teach effectively takes hard work and a fair share of preparation, but it also is driven by a passionate and inspired heart that embraces the concept of what it means to truly differentiate. I am a firm believer that the practice of differentiation is more of a mindset and way of thinking and not so much about a pre-planned list of strategies and ‘must do’s’. Very often, it involves smart decision making in the moment – decisions based on our relational understanding and professional judgement of what the needs of our learners are and how best to respond to them. Take the time to really try to get to know your learners first as this is crucial to knowing how best to respond to them.

Carol Tomlinson famously talks about being able to differentiate in four ways:

  1. Content
  2. Process
  3. Product
  4. Environment

CONTENT

Teaching to content could be as simple as allowing learners to select their own topics and prompts. In doing this, it is important that us as teachers remain focused on what the learning objective is and the various roads that can be used to get them there. For example, if the outcome is to expect learners to write a newspaper article using all the relevant features, let them select their own topic to report on rather than restricting them to one of your choice but that hinders both their interest and enthusiasm – and ultimately, their output..

PROCESS

Teaching to process could mean changing up how students are grouped while completing tasks – not every task needs to be done individually and utilizing the support of one another is a smart way to lessen the teaching load. Try group learners into both mixed ability and same ability groups depending on what the nature of lesson calls for. Also, try leveling texts for individual tasks such as prepared reading and book reviews.

PRODUCT

Teaching to product involves an understanding that the major demonstration of learning doesn’t always have to be a standardized test, essay or worksheet. As mentioned before, always keep your eye on the prize and focus on the learning objective. In instances where the objective is to gauge understanding and interpretation of content, allow for variances in presentation of work. Some may find they are able to show their demonstration in written form, others may want to orally demonstrate and discuss, and some may even find project based learning suits them better. Remember what your focus is and allow yourself to be flexible in your expectation of the product.

ENVIRONMENT

Teaching to environment means ensuring that the learning environment is one that comfortably accommodates for all. Sensory interventions such as pencil grips, glasses, wobble cushions, Thera-bands, exercise balls, headphones, slant boards etc. are just some of the physical accommodations that can be made. However, part of teaching to environment also means creating a strong classroom culture that is supportive and transparent. It is important for the learners in your class to know that should they be making use of different accommodations or resources, they understand why and are empowered by this.

None of the strategies and ideas provided creates any additional work but they DO require a relationship with and understanding of each learner’s own unique profile of strengths, interests and challenges. For learning to be fair it does not need to be equal – not every text needs to be presented exactly the same way, not every task should have the exact same expectation. Differentiated teaching is fundamentally fair because it assists in meeting each learner exactly where they are and helping them to access the next level when ready.

Finally, consider keeping a ‘toolkit’ of strategies on hand that are both supportive and easy to implement when necessary (a certain level of preparation is required for these):

  • Extension work: more complex tasks such printable word searches, puzzles, reading texts, vocab builders, timed challenges etc.
  • Sentence starters – helping some get started will most likely will lead to them feel confident enough to see a task through to completion
  •  Fewer questions – be flexible and modify the expectations of output depending on the learning objective
  • Graphic organizers – number charts, planning maps, word and procedure lists are all great tools for everybody to use but this does not mean that everybody needs them. Have them on hand and available to those who need them.
  • Engineer the text– eg. create white space between paragraphs, add headings, add word boxes/dictionary features for key vocabulary at the bottom of the text. All for these features are helpful to everyone and doesn’t necessarily mean that a text has been simplified but rather enhanced to allow for greater access of information.

Sources: The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners. (2nd Ed.) Carol Tomlinson, 2014.

Ripple Effect

Taking to this post, I realize that I haven’t put pen to paper in quite a while. Reflecting on the reason why; I suppose I have been preparing my heart to pour out what it has been longing to say for quite some time now. It is my humble and honest hope that I can use the platform of this blog to not only share teaching ideas and knowledge of matters relating to remedial and inclusive education, but also to inspire and uplift a community of those educators who feel the every day pressures, doubts and fears that go hand in hand with the weight of our responsibility. For I too am on a journey, one that sees me riding wave after wave of emotion daily, and it is in sharing my real life experiences and thoughts that I hope to relate to and enlighten others. So after a a brief hiatus from writing…here it goes….

As a South African, a teacher, a Christian; a war has been raging on in my heart for a while now. It is with a deep sadness that I acknowledge the plight of so many women, children and foreign nationals in my beloved homeland at the moment. I have constantly found myself in a position of defending my country and my choice to stay and not teach elsewhere because myself and my husband feel called to do a greater work in this country that we choose to still believe in. However, recent events have really challenged me to my core. As shocking headline after shocking headline seemingly steamrolled South Africans and the world over this week, negativity, fear, anxiety and frustration washed over and I, like many others, felt drained by the sheer emotion of it all. Having shared previously about my nature as an empath, I often find myself struggling under the weight of the fears, anxieties and frustrations of others as well as that of my own. Part of my journey has been reaching a point of embracing this side of me for it means that I as a person and a teacher truly DO care. I care with a deep passion but acknowledge that at times, (many a time in fact), I do lack the courage and boldness needed to actively pursue what needs to be done in the fight for social justice within our greater society. Do I think I make a difference in the lives of those I teach and I have taught? Yes. Do I think I could be making more of an impact towards a greater society as a whole? Definitely!

For every pebble thrown into the water, there is a ripple effect. I choose to see the children that cross my path as pebbles, pebbles that when dropped into the ocean can create far more than just a ripple but a tsunami of change and positivity. I have to believe this if I am to have any faith in the future generation of leaders, parents, caretakers and change makers. It is with this image in mind that I feel how we nurture and care for those pebbles before we release them into the ocean is heavily dependent on what we as the adults in their lives choose to model and focus on.

Teachers, rather than focusing on producing A+ students and a praiseworthy reputation, let’s shift our focus onto producing a generation of critical thinkers and morally driven doers. Instead of focusing all our energy on teaching children to count, let us teach them what counts the most…living a life of:

Honesty

Integrity

Accountability and responsibility

Respect for ALL life

Kindness

Generosity

Politeness

Diligence

Yes, I am aware that it is NOT the sole responsibility of us as teachers to instill these values and principles in our children alone, but as those who are in a position of direct influence – let us never underestimate the value of our purpose. Strive to create meaningful relationships with each and every one you teach in an environment where they feel they belong and are understood. In helping them to feel loved, valued and understood, we are planting seeds of sincerity, respect and kindness from which all others values can flourish and bloom from the same tree. Get to know your children by name and heart, encourage character building and acknowledge acts of good deeds and kindness rather than praising high marks alone. Let us discipline with love along with consistency and fairness and not with frustration and misunderstanding.

Parents, may you seek to work side by side with your child’s teachers in support of them and not against them because believe it or not, we do all have your child’s best interests at heart for we wouldn’t be in the poor paying profession that we are if we didn’t feel that our purpose far exceeds the fee. We are in fact humans too, and we don’t always get it right but we try and we should not stop trying. As adults, we all bear the responsibility of modelling to the future generation what is needed in this world.

“The world is changed by your example not your opinion”

Paul Coelho

I am not a perfect person and teacher – I do not claim to be. In fact, in writing this I felt compelled to search within my own heart and character and challenge myself to do better. There is no more time to contemplate making a change, it is time to be the change – it is time to shift our perceptions of what we value most and invest in the lives of those who are to be immeasurably valued.

“Great Minds Don’t Think Alike”

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its life believing that it is stupid” – Albert Einstein

In a world where so much of our school system is focused on getting our children to fit inside the box and collectively swim upstream, we as teachers and parents tend to forget sometimes about those who no matter how hard they try, will always swim against the current. Those young minds that hold all sorts of greatness but because of how they are forced to think and act and learn, that greatness remains unlocked…untapped…. and unrecognised.

Enter the best selling children’s novel “Fish in a tree” by Lynda Mullaly Hunt which tells the story of Ally, a young girl who sees the world through mind movies and colourful pictures but whose struggles with reading has become a self-defining feature in her life. Until she meets Mr Daniels…THAT inspired, enthusiastic, caring and supportive teacher whose input helps to unlock a world of possibilities against a backdrop of impossibilities and labels. Along the way, Ally discovers that her dyslexia is not something to be ashamed of and that in fact, it makes her smarter. Having to work that much harder to achieve what comes relatively easier to most, Ally gains a profound confidence and develops an inspiring resilience that earns her the respect and admiration of so many around her. In Mr Daniel’s words, she learns to have “GRIT”. It is a heart warming story of a young girl’s journey from self-doubt to self-acceptance, from struggle to triumph and from invisible to INVINCIBLE!

Ironically, I was given this book by a young girl in my class last year, a girl who in so many ways reminds me of Ally. She had given it to me with a card that read  “Dear Mrs Kirk, this book is about an amazing teacher, and I think that you are an amazing teacher”. Touched by her heartfelt words, I thanked her for the book and promised to give it a read. Little did I know that what I would get out of it as a teacher would leave a lasting imprint on my heart and a window into the world of what is like for so many of the kids the teach. Feeling like an outsider looking in, a wave of responsibility washed over me as I found myself drawn to the relationship between Ally and Mr Daniels. A relationship built on a genuine desire to make a difference and a genuine response to want be helped. The power of words became a resounding theme throughout as I was reminded of just how much of an impact our words as teachers can have on the impressionable young hearts who fill the seats of our classrooms.

The book is just filled with nuggets of wisdom on every page, one of which really got me thinking;

“And I think of words. The power they have. How they can be moved around like a wand – sometimes for good, like how Mr Daniels uses them. How he makes kids like me and Oliver feel better about ourselves. And how words can also be used for bad. To hurt. My Grandpa used to say to be careful with eggs and words, because they can never be fixed. The older I get, the more I realize how smart my grandpa was.” – Ally

Everyday, we have the power to inspire or to deter, to build up or to break down, to show interest or turn a blind eye, to define an identity or to encourage self-definition. Ally’s journey to self-acceptance was not once defined by the pressure to fit in but rather the encouragement to stand out. As teachers and parents, this will in all likelihood mean that we need to learn to loosen the reigns and allow our children to colour outside of the lines and to seek alternative means of unlocking potential. Not every great mind thinks alike, so why force it to?

Take the lead

It’s election time in South Africa and the country is abuzz with political conversation and debate. Everyone wants to feel as though they have had their say, even if having their say means not making an appearance at the polls. Either way, the current state of leadership in our country has been heavily compromised over the last few years and we as a nation can only but hope in the promise of a new day, and become agents of change within our own capacities -be the change we want to see, in our own way and in our own community.

As a teacher, I have been deeply impacted by the poor showing of our youth at the polls. And whilst I respect the democratic right to choose to not vote, and I certainly recognize and empathize with the plight of our youth in this country – I cannot help but believe in our future generation and am saddened by their lack of belief in themselves and the power that their voice holds. I know that some may argue that by choosing to stay away, their silence in itself speaks a powerful message, I still worry about those who feel that there is “just no point to it all.” Empowering our youth to recognize the power of their voice and to value that takes work – work that begins in our schools. Work that involves a collaborative and supportive effort between teachers and parents to encourage student-parent-teacher conversation and dialogue.

For years, parent-teacher conferences have been the the norm in terms of school to home communication about the progress of individual learners. Very often, the conversation is centered on how both the teacher and parent/s view a child’s current performance and ability, with very little feedback ever being presented back to the child. How the child reflectively views themselves, their individual strengths and weaknesses and their desired goals for themselves is left out of the equation and their own voice is silenced. However, Student Led Conferences is a global trend in education that aims to drastically and positively change this.

A year ago, my school decided to boldly give our learners a chance to lead the conversation. Having recently sat through my third round of these conferences, I can honestly say that I am blown away by just how well each child manages to rise to the occasion and take accountability and control over their own learning outcomes. Held at the end of the first term and again at the end of the year, the children are given time to reflect on their performance and abilities, set personal goals for themselves that are individually driven, and come up with practical plans of action to help them get there. The power does not lie in the conversation itself, but in the personal ownership and self-advocacy that this platform generates.

Witnessing a child express to their parents what they feel they have excelled in and what they feel that they can improve on is inspiring. In some cases, this is actually the very first time that children and parents are actively engaging in positive conversation that centers completely on the child’s learning experience. Children are given the opportunity to express to their parents who they are as a learner- how they learn best, what they benefit from and what they would like assistance with. Feedback from so many of my parents indicates that they are given an opportunity to see their child in a way that they have never seen before – that they are self-assured, honest and empowered. From a classroom perspective, these conferences have also enhanced the level of individual focus that is placed on each child and their goals – when a goal is set not only by the teacher but from the heart of the child, the value of that goal drastically increases. Suddenly, there is a personal investment and a sense of teamwork grows.

Lets us not underestimate our children. By creating platforms within our schools for children to develop confidence in speaking about themselves, valuing themselves and encouraging accountability – we as teachers are able to positively giveback to the future generation. There is work to be done so let’s go out and make the difference!