Saturday started with bagels and lox in the morning as a treat for completing the week. I got about 3/4 of the way through the bagel before being overwhelmed by the loxiness of the lox. I eventually finished it, but I think lox and I are going to see other people for a while.
After visiting over breakfast, we got down to business reflecting on our week of, well, reflecting. We went through a series of five conversations with different partners to reflect on each day of the week we spent together. Looking back it really hit me just how much we had done in a short amount of time. Things I thought were on about day 3 actually happened in the afternoon of Day 1. It was quite astounding to really look back on it all. Here were the questions and my reflections for each day.
Day 1: Recall the moments when you felt most and least engaged with what was happening. I felt most engaged when we were talking one on one in conversations on a topic we chose together. The possible topics ran the gamut, and I really enjoyed speaking with so many people on the first day, since I came in having briefly met less than a quarter of the people in the room. It was pretty intimidating to show up, but it was nice to dive in and start talking about a shared passion immediately. I was least engaged when we were sitting around a table being talked to. I know that sometimes that is necessary to set expectations or convey information, but I am easily distracted, and that made it hard to focus.
Day 2: What was the most interesting lesson you discovered during this session? The lesson I learned and continue to learn and need to learn even further is to stop offering suggestions and advice, but rather to ask questions and make observations. Probe into the situation rather than trying to fix it. Not only is the “Well, have you tried…?” response super annoying to the listener, it’s dismissive of their struggles and basically calling them an idiot for not having “just done this”. It requires me to reframe my position in the problem solving as the person brainstorming solutions to step back a few steps and build empathy to help define the problem. My job is to interview them about the issue and help them discover needs and insights themselves. Immediately jumping into brainstorming solutions does not lead to quality problem solving, and it can be incredibly frustrating to the person trying to get help. Throughout this whole week I still felt that urge to start offering suggestions, but the frameworks we used in conversations helped me suppress that urge and contribute in more constructive ways.
Day 3: Share one observation about the morning’s exercise. Describe a way that your own practice may shift as a result of this conversation. The morning’s exercise had been participating in the Art History lesson, watching it on video, and then participating in a debrief aimed at practice afterwards. I wrote down “other eyes see so much more”. I was taken aback (in the good way) at how many different questions people had and observations they noticed that would never have occurred to me. I just went through the National Board process, so I had a little experience with analyzing videos and being critically reflective, but I did not realize that adding more eyes never led to diminishing returns as adding more people so often does in any kind of committee. It led to greater insight and more interesting conversation, a wider range of questions, many different angles of approach and focus of attention, and in general a better ability to reflect on the event as both a student and a participant. I somehow doubt I’ll be able to find 16 colleagues who have spare time at the same time while I’m teaching, but even seeking out two instead of one would be beneficial, especially if I could get one from science and one from outside science. I almost wish I could do this process with every lesson every day, although I suspect that would quickly exhaust everyone, plus there needs to be time between observations to adjust approaches and try new techniques. So, maybe I don’t wish that, but I do think I should set a goal for so many peer reflections per term, and I would also happily return the favor and help my colleagues, as well.
Day 4: What was the central challenge of this morning session? How did this afternoon’s discussion affect your understanding of that challenge? I felt that the greatest challenge was figuring out how to take all the pieces we had discussed the day previous and get them into one page that was all of useful to me, user friendly for a colleague, and would lead to good conversations about practice. What to do with learning objectives? I have different ones of those every single day, and with three different levels, I’ll have different LOs in different classes every single day. I ended up ignoring that part entirely and instead focused on teaching practices. Then I struggled with how to describe them in terms of concrete things for an observer to look for and be able to see in the behavior of the students, since they are my intended audience, and if I’m not getting the behavior I’m aiming for, I need to change my aim rather than blame the target for not being in the right place. The afternoon conversation helped me realize that absolutely everyone struggled with that and everyone ended up approaching it in some different way. Some were relatively close, others looked at it almost opposite to the way I did, and there were some that honestly made absolutely no sense to me at all, but if they would work for that teacher to get feedback on that class, it doesn’t need to work for me (unless I’m the observer, but that’s a different bridge to cross). We’re all working toward more reflective practice and how to get effective and actionable feedback. I’m not alone in this.
Day 5: What lessons about observations do you take from today’s lesson? What was most surprising to you about what you observed in yourself during these sessions? I wrote down, “I’m not very good at it,” in response to the first question. I need a lot more practice at critically observing colleagues and pulling out thoughtful, important questions. I felt like the things I asked were like first grade questions when everyone else was in a college seminar. This may be a symptom of imposter syndrome, I realize, but it was a struggle. What surprised me in observing myself was how quickly my ADHD flared up during the logistics part of the video lesson. Sitting through it as a student wasn’t so bad, because it was new information. Sitting through it a second time felt like torture. I was so very uncomfortable and felt trapped because I couldn’t come up with a coping skill that was also respectful of the process. I hadn’t needed to do any major coping so far this week because everything was interesting and new and exciting, which is when my brain freaking loves to pay attention. It’s when things start to get old that my brain just says, “Aaaaaaand I’m out!” and desperately begins seeking either novel input or a place to let out its frustrations. I’m so glad that only happened for maybe 20 minutes out of the entire six day long event, but I now know I need to develop a coping skill for a situation like this when I am expecting to be interested and my brain just checks out completely.
Next Steps: Insofar as the coming year is concerned, what action inspired by this week will you take in the time before we resume classes? My first day of class will be anything but logistics. If we need to go over them, we’ll do it either a bit at a time or through a homework assignment or a syllabus quiz or something like that. But I am going to work with Charlie to figure out something awesome to do the first day of class, either a lab or a discussion or a set of stations or something to get the kids up and moving around and doing stuff and talking to each other rather than having the syllabus read to them. They are literate, and I can hold them accountable for that information in many ways. I’ll tell them if anyone needs it read to them, I’ll be in my office during office hours, but in class we’ll DO STUFF. The focus on being student-centered is what I really took away overall. Focus on the kids and what they do and how they behave, not how I think they should behave or want them to do. This is not a new thing to me, but putting particular focus and energy into it is a new goal. I’ve always been reflective and made adjustments and had a running “Changes for next year” document going, but this symposium helped to re-focus my attention away from teaching practices that sound really neat and fun for me if I were a student, but will it be neat and fun AND VALUABLE for the students who are sitting in my classroom.
After those reflective conversations, we were asked to re-visit the first-day exercise of “Where are you from?” as a teacher. Where did our practice come from? I realized that mine came from the climbing gym. I worked in a climbing gym in college and then after college, because my industry job didn’t let me really interact and work with people, which I needed in order to be happy. One manager accused me of “moonlighting” as if my weekend job was on their clock, and another told me to have fewer hobbies so I was more available for work. I did not stop working at the gym until I moved out of San Francisco, because it was a necessary part of my life. I didn’t realize it was the teaching part I loved so much. I’d get a group of people, usually kids at a party but sometimes adults, who often knew nothing about the sport, and two hours later they’d leave with an entirely new skill-set in place and ready to go. It was so much fun going through different ways of approaching the different skills and finding which one worked for each group of people and which ones worked for pretty much everyone. It’s still fun for me to do that, but now with physics instead of rock climbing. Recognizing that as the foundation of my teaching practice was interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I’ve always started my teaching story at the first school where I worked, because it was my first job teaching physics to students, but the story actually begins years earlier when my friend Dave asked me, “Hey, are you free this afternoon?” and hooked me up to work my first climbing party.
I now blame Dave for everything that has happened in my life since. It makes it easier that way.
One of our last group discussions was whipping around the table and everyone sharing out their major souvenir that they would be taking home from this week. I went first and told them how grateful I was for the welcome I received. I had been super nervous showing up as a teacher new to the school and new to the residential program. I was worried I’d be viewed as some upstart, how dare I think I could ever replace the venerable previous physics teacher? I can’t even tell you how ridiculous that worry was looking back. Everyone went out of their way to make connections and show me that I belonged and that I was part of the community. They brought me in on inside jokes and explained references and actively worked to include me. It was amazing. Charlie shared how much this week helped him recognize that re-evaluating his practice was a good thing and that he’d felt like he’d plateaued as a teacher and now recognizes that that’s not a great thing. He and I want to spend time really going over the physics curriculum critically and seeing how we can build and change it over the next couple years. This year, absolutely not. I have my hands full with a new position and teaching three new classes in a new context plus all the residential duties. I’ll do all the critical reflecting that I can using the resources I was given by the last teacher and begin making big changes NEXT year. I am so happy that we’re both on board for changes and trying new things. It’s very exciting.
And that was my first full week working with my new colleagues. I’m so happy about it I could cry. Just like every other major life change, this whole process of finding a new job and moving came with a fantastic amount of stress and bad days and frustrations and hard word, but so far all evidence points to this having been an excellent decision and well worth the trouble.