Embracing Students’ Own Goals, or what a VW Bus Taught Me About Decision-Making

What happens when students have dreams for themselves that don’t involve being “college and career ready?”

Personalized learning plans are picking up steam in Vermont and throughout the country. Although they look a little different in different settings, the general idea is to help students identify a goal and ensure that school is helping them work toward that goal. The Vermont Agency of Education website put it like this:

A personalized learning plan is a formal document created by students, parents, and teachers and available in digital and other formats both in and out of school, that, at a minimum: establishes individual student goals based on academic and career objectives and personal interests; sequences content and skill development to achieve those goals and ensure that a student can graduate college and career-ready; and is updated based on information about student performance in a variety of learning experiences – including assessments – that indicate progress towards goals.” 

My school has been using the personalized learning plan concept for a long time. One core piece of the philosophy that the school embraces is to “differentiate between the young person’s own goals and others’ hopes and expectations” (Mitch Barron in Centerpoint’s Core Strategies). When I think about this in relationship to personalized learning in mainstream schools, I wonder about how schools are embracing students’ actual goals, and not only offering a narrow view of what it means to be “college and career ready.”

While many of my students have had goals centered around going to college and getting a good job, some students have other goals that challenge us to walk our talk.

Honoring students’ own goals

I once had a student whose goal was to live in a VW bus in a field and make art.

What would you do if, in the PLP development process, your student stated that as a goal? Respond, “OK, that’s great, but what about college?” Say, “well, that’s not realistic, what are you going to do for money?” Would you shut down this student because her goal doesn’t fit neatly into college or career?

What would happen if you simply said, “Cool! Tell me more about that, and let’s figure out how to get you there?”

We often rush to make statements or offer solutions before we fully understand young people, out of our own need to “do something” or to be heard or to make sure we’re saying the “right” thing. Remember that what is needed in these moments is about the young person, not about the adult. Whether or not I think that making art in a VW bus is a realistic goal, if through our conversation I come to understand that it really matters to this young person, it’s my job as a supportive adult to help her get there. It doesn’t mean I need to throw all of my hopes and goals for her out the window, but I also can’t strip her of her autonomy by imposing my own will over hers. 

Ask more questions

Challenge yourself to ask three more questions before you offer any kind of statement. Listen a little more before you have anything to say, even if every part of you wants to just Say The Thing You Should Say. Do this especially when what the student is saying shakes your sense of what’s expected or “good” for the them – because we don’t know what we don’t know, and the only way to find out is to ask. 

So when my student told me about wanting to live in a VW bus to make art, I asked her about what kind of art, what she loved about being artistic, what color the bus would be, what type of field. What would be wonderful about her dream? What would be hard? Instead of shutting her down, we had the conversation, and we became partners in the process instead of adversaries.

Considering the pros and cons – all the pros and cons

Decisional balancing is a frame that can be very helpful to help you through what may feel like counter-intuitive questions. It’s simply considering the pros and cons of two choices, but often with teens we skip consideration of the pros of the choice we (the adults) would rather the kid not choose.

Example: a student says, “I want to drop out of school.” As the adult, we might say, “But think about the pros of staying in school, and the cons of being a high school drop-out.” What if instead we asked: “What would be good about staying in school – and what would suck about staying in school?” What if we asked: “What wouldn’t be so great about dropping out – but what would really work for you about dropping out?”

decisional balancing
A basic decisional balancing chart

The scary part about this approach is that, given full consideration and thought, the student might actually determine that dropping out is better for them. As adults, we actually have to be okay with that in order to fully be there for teens. Teens know immediately when adults don’t trust them. Giving full consideration to all choices, even the ones we don’t want them to choose, is a way to lean into trusting relationship with our teens.

The big picture

Encouraging young people to ask for help only works if we are truly open to listening when they do. When we slow down on our impulse to fix and instead keep ourselves open to listening, we create an opening for teens to really tell us what’s going on. We model how to think through all available options, not just the ones we think others want us to choose. We put aside our own agenda and become partners in collaboration, strengthening our role and our opportunity to make change.

If the process leads to students who are “college and career ready,” that’s great. But if the process leads to a happy young woman, living in a VW bus in a field full of flowers and making art? Well, that’s perfection.

 

VW photo by Marcus Spiering, CC license

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers

 

To sustain our work as teachers, we need to take care of ourselves. Wellness as a whole is important, but it’s also essential to look at specific elements of wellness that are all equally necessary to sustaining when the going gets tough.

Coping strategies

These are the tools and skills we need to make it, on a basic level, through a tough day. Coping strategies can be big or small, but we need to have a variety in our toolbox so we can access them as needed. These might be things you do in the middle of a stressful class, during a small break in your day, or right when you get home and need to transition from one part of your day to the next. Many of us have fall-back coping strategies and might benefit from expanding on them – sometimes it takes a little practice.

Examples:

  • Focusing on breathing
  • Drinking a cup of tea
  • Stretching, yoga, other physical movement
  • Texting a supportive friend
  • Looking at a funny comic or silly cat picture online

These are just a few tiny examples, but coping strategies are essentially anything that can help you manage a strong emotion and get yourself regulated. It’s important to remember that not all coping strategies are healthy ones, and it depends on the person and situation (example: eating a snack might be a good coping strategy for someone, but might be problematic for another person). The essential thing is to develop your own list of strategies that are right for you.

Coping strategies are also great to model for students who are having a hard time. If I normalize stopping class for a minute to take a few deep breaths, my students can begin to internalize some healthy coping strategies of their own.

Self-care

Rather than disparate strategies, self-care to me is a more general frame that I am doing things that help me stay well and sustain me as a person. Self-care helps me fill my cup and stay connected to who I am as a person, not just as a helper. Self-care looks different for everyone, but here are some common areas of self-care: 

  • A physical activity practice (running, yoga, cycling, team sports)
  • Spending time with animals or living things (gardening, taking care of fish, snuggling your dog)
  • Spending meaningful time with friends and family
  • Reading, watching TV or movies you enjoy, doing puzzles
  • Making and creating – music, crafts, projects

Self-care requires ongoing attention to balance, and committing to spending time that fills up the well rather than draws from it. Self-care isn’t selfish; instead, it’s what allows us to be of use to others. You can’t give others energy you don’t have, and self-care is what allows us to generate that energy.

Making meaning

This is one area of wellness that often gets missed in our narrative about taking care of ourselves. In addition to coping in the moment and self-care in an ongoing way, making meaning is required when we’re faced with challenging work. When something intense happens, whether it be a challenging class period, a student blow-up, a conflict with a coworker, or at tragedy in the school community, we need to not only cope with our emotions, but to make sense of what happened. Making meaning is the act of grappling with how challenging experiences fit into our sense of self and our worldview, and how they change us and change our work.

As an example, if a student explodes at me in class and ends up hitting me – I will need to cope in the moment, for sure. Beyond that immediate moment, though, I’m likely to be shaken up as a person, and coping alone doesn’t address that core disruption. I will need to use self-care to help me stay grounded in my sense of myself as a whole person. And I will need to make meaning of the big questions that come up from intense experiences: why did that happen? What does it mean about my student? What does it mean about me? What does it mean about my sense of safety at school – and my student’s sense of safety with me? How should I proceed? It takes time, introspection, and support to think through these questions.

Some supports that may be helpful in making meaning:

  • Meeting with a therapist, counselor, or clergy person
  • Supportive coworkers or supervisors
  • Journaling or reflective art practice

Wellness is ongoing

Wellness isn’t something we work on once and then say it’s done. We can’t attend one training and get certified in wellness; we can’t develop a wellness routine and expect that it will hold through all of life’s changes. However, when we put in the work – when we attend to coping, self-care and making meaning, we give ourselves the gift of wellness – a gift that requires maintenance and reinvention, but that gives us the vitality to sustain ourselves in the service of those we help.

Rethinking holidays in schools

Schools are social institutions, agents not just of academic education but of socialization and transmission of cultural norms. We must be intentional, critical and reflective when we make choices about how we carry this responsibility. Holidays are just piece of a broader puzzle about inclusion, cultural responsiveness, and equity, but I’ll use this time of year as a good opening for conversation.

Every school should approach holidays and celebrations differently based on the particular community it serves. Here I’ve generated some questions that might serve as a starting place for conversations within your setting about looking at holidays with a critical eye and making some intentional decisions about how to move forward. Honest, vulnerable conversations are the first step to increasing equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for all.

Questions to ask ourselves, in no particular order:

  • Which religions’ holidays are acknowledged at my school? What are the ways they are acknowledged?
    • Are these acknowledgements intentional, or are they just “what we have always done?”
  • Which holidays are celebrated by the school as an institution? Are we spending money and/or time as a school on some holidays? Which ones? Who chooses? Why?
    • When thinking about money and time, consider: decorations, special foods, parties/dances/celebrations, special class materials, etc
  • Are students, staff and faculty supported to observe holidays in ways that are meaningful to them?
    • Example: what do we do as a school to accommodate people who are fasting for a religious observance?
  • Which religious and/or national holidays merit a school closing? Why? Who makes those decisions?
  • Who makes decisions about which religious and/or national holidays are acknowledged/celebrated? Do we have a “default” set of holidays that we all assume we will celebrate?
  • How often are we disrupting our school’s routine in order to celebrate or acknowledge holidays? Why? Is the disruption in routine worth the benefit? Is there a benefit?
    • Example: do we have holiday parties, assemblies, or special schedules? Are classes doing activities unconnected to their learning goals around holidays?
  • Which holidays, celebrations and other times are important to our students, our families, our staff and our community? Have we asked this recently?
  • How do we balance honoring and celebrating students/families/teachers and their cultural and religious values with a commitment to inclusion for all and not preferencing one culture over another?
  • How are teachers incorporating holidays into classes? Are teachers incorporating this in an educational and culturally responsive way, or do they perpetuate a preference for the dominant culture’s holidays?
    • Example: math word problems themed around how many Christmas presents Timmy can buy with X amount of money, vs. an educational piece around how Christmas is celebrated in different cultures and what that means in reference to our learning goals
  • Is our school participating in tokenism and/or perpetuating surface-level or incorrect understanding of holidays?
    • Example: if our school acknowledges Hanukah but not Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, we likely do not have a good understanding of the significance or meaning of different Jewish holy days.
    • Example: are we asking students from non-dominant cultures to take on the responsibility of educating their classmates, while assuming that students from dominant cultures don’t need to educate or explain things to others? Why?
  • Do we acknowledge the increase mental  health and wellness challenges that occur around Christmas/winter holiday time? What are we doing to support students, families, teachers and community members who may experience increased challenges during the winter?
  • Have we examined seemingly non-religious holidays such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day from different lenses? Have we examined whether those days actually do carry religious and cultural meaning? Have we questioned whether there is value in acknowledging/celebrating them, or do acknowledge/celebrate them unquestioningly?
  • How are we talking about holidays, especially Christmas? Are we using language that includes or excludes – and I’m not talking about saying “Happy holidays” instead of Merry Christmas.” Are we using conversation prompts like “What was the best thing you ate for Thanksgiving?” or “What was your favorite Christmas/Hanukah present?” or even “Did you have a great break?” that make assumptions, or are we using neutral questions that allow students space to share any experience?
  • Do we have our own rituals, routines and celebrations as a school? How do we support students to build community with one another in ways that are not connected to religious or national routines, rituals and celebrations?

 

I would love to see some additional questions to add to this list – add them in the comments! I would also love to hear if anyone thinks through any of these questions, on your own or at your school – let me know in the comments or link to your own post!

Teaching Doesn’t Get Easier

Wasn’t teaching supposed to get easier?

Didn’t someone tell me that teaching would get easier? That working with tough kids would get easier? That balance, boundaries, pedagogy, content, all of it would feel easier someday?

I’ve learned so many skills. Doesn’t skill acquisition make it easier? I know now how to assess without a survey, teach without a whiteboard/pen/computer/book, build foundation without condescending, encourage voice and choice without judgement or expectation. I’ve learned so many things through observing teachers who are smarter than I am, through asking students what they needed, through collaborating with parents and families and caregivers. And I learned a lot of things the hard way, by messing up, by disappointing students, by missing opportunities, by reflecting, reflecting, reflecting.

Soooo…isn’t it supposed to be easy by now?

I’ve immersed myself in lenses and frames and tried to incorporate the best lessons to my students’ benefit. I’ve long since dropped the pretense that I know even a fraction of all there is to know, I’ve abandoned the belief that there are silver bullets in education, I’ve embraced the mess and complexity and journey of trying to be more inclusive, anti-racist, feminist, culturally sustaining, trauma-informed. I own that I will never be perfect at any of it. I wear my vulnerability and fallibility.

So I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m okay not being okay. I’m at peace with the process. But like, can it get a little less challenging yet? Don’t I get something for all this work?

Okay. I know. It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get easier because teaching is about being in relationship with humans, and more specifically, developing humans. In my case, even more specifically, developing humans who are facing immense challenges every single day. And humans are endlessly complex, and endlessly challenging, and endlessly amazing and resilient and wonderful. Humans are messy and get into conflict and misunderstand and hurt and hate and love and apologize and sometimes say the most astonishing things, like “thank you” and “I care about you” and “I’m proud of myself.”

Teaching will never be easy, because human relationships will never be easy, and that’s amazing. No amount of training or professional development or introspection will ever protect me from the ups and downs of being really emotionally invested in my students, and I don’t want to be numb to the process. I never want to lose the openness that allows for true relationships, those true relationships through which everything is possible.

So my new school year’s resolution is to let go of the idea of “easy.” Bye, easy. I won’t miss the idea of you. Let me embrace the mess and joy of the challenge, instead.

 

 

 

Parents are Students Are Parents Are Students…

It’s been really disheartening to me lately, especially in my role doing online engagement work with Edutopia, to see educators type things along the lines of “I really care about each and every one of my students. Those parents, though…” Another common one is “I can only do so much but those parents need to…those parents should…those parents shouldn’t.” It’s disheartening because I strongly believe that when we make a commitment to support our students as “whole children,” we commit to supporting students in their family and home context. This means pulling family members closer to us instead of writing them off, engaging caregivers even when they frustrate us, and doing everything we can to see past old excuses and blame-based commentary. Saying we support “the whole child” but giving up on parents we perceive as “not involved” is giving up on the child themself.

Our students’ parents are the same humans as our students. Sometimes this is literal: our students grow up and have children and we educate those children, or our students have children while they are with us and we educate those children. Sometimes, this is figurative: our students are human members of our community, and their parents and family members are human members of our community. If our goals in education center democracy and citizenship, we must model a respect and inclusion of all community members. This means seeking understanding and building connections. It means talking about the parents of our students as if they were in the room with us. It means checking our assumptions, examining our biases, and seeking to educate ourselves on cultural differences so we can build stronger relationships. Being in community with humans- our students and their caregivers and families – means actively advocating for change and dismantling the systems that oppress the humans in our communities.

This isn’t easy work. But to quote the Talmud: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

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When I’m interacting with a student’s family and I feel defensive, annoyed, frustrated, angry, or scared, that’s a clue to me that I need to take some time to check my own emotions and get some perspective, often through checking in with trusted colleagues. I need to re-center the student and re-commit to unconditional positive regard for the entire family. I must evaluate whether I’m playing into a negative script or whether I’m writing new one, collaboratively with the people with whom I’m trying to connect.

I wrote some practical tips and conversation-starters for a community post on Edutopia: click here to read more. Bottom line? Empathy is everything, and it’s essential especially when it’s not easy.  Our students are the community is our students are their parents are our community and on and on. Let’s do our best to empathetically engage with them all.

Always Talk About Students As If They Were In The Room

Unconditional positive regard doesn’t stop when my students walk out the door at 2:15.

True unconditional positive regard infuses all conversations about my students, because the way I talk about my students informs my practice when I’m with them.

Recently a comment of mine on an Edutopia post sparked someone else to write a post asking whether venting about students should be banned. This in turn is generating lots of conversation, a lot of which defends teachers’ rights to free speech and holds that venting helps teachers prevent burnout. But I think “should venting be banned” is probably the wrong question.

Here are some questions I’d rather answer:

  • How does my staff culture respect students whether or not they are in the room?
  • Where are my teachers getting emotional support for the challenging aspects of their jobs?
  • How are teachers understanding challenging student behavior? Are they left to make sense of this on their own, or are we using a trauma-informed approach, consulting and collaborating with social workers and mental health professionals, and contextualizing student behavior in our unique community?
  • Are teachers comfortable going to one another for problem-solving and support? Are my teachers willing and able to be vulnerable with one another? Are they in strong enough relationship with one another to offer feedback?
  • Do teachers feel ownership and influence over their classrooms? Their job as a whole? Are they blaming students and families because they feel powerless to make change?
  • What example is being set by school leaders?
  • Does my staff share the same values? Are we understanding one another’s positive intent, or do we question one another’s actual stance toward the students?
  • Am I talking about my students in the same way I would if they were sitting in the room with me?

 

These are tough questions, and in a tough job, sometimes it’s easier to vent and stay stuck than doing the hard work of problem-solving. There is no silver bullet for human relationships, so we are in a constant state of trial and error and more error and iteration and questioning and trying again tomorrow. When we engage one another in true conversation about these challenges, we help move one another forward; we build resiliency.

I can and do have these types of conversations about my students with my students in the room, and with them directly. I’ve said to a student, “I feel really stuck working with you lately, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way, and what we can do about it.” I’ve said to my students, “What you just said really pushed a button for me and I want to take a minute to take care of myself before we move forward in class.”  When I model vulnerability and taking ownership over my own emotions, I make it a little more okay for my students to do the same.

So, should venting be banned? Let’s ask some different questions. Let’s ask them in service of our students. Let’s ask them as if – and when – our students are in the room.

The teacher paradox: it is – and isn’t- about me

The core paradox of teaching is that the work requires us to be both confident and humble, self-assured and self-critical at the same time.

It isn’t about me – it’s about my students. What I need out of a learning experiences comes second to what my students need. Their needs as learners drive my pedagogy.

Yet, it is about me – I need to be a well and healthy person in order to serve my students. So I need to put myself first, find ways to fulfill my intellectual curiosity, and find joy in my day to day experience.

My student’s behavior isn’t about me – it’s about their patterns, their developing brains, their trauma, their mental health, their challenges. When my students disrupt or yell or kick over a chair, it isn’t personal.

And – it is personal. My student who says “I don’t f-ing trust you” – Did I give her enough reason to actually believe that she can trust me? My student who blows out of class again and again – did I create a classroom that was conducive to his self-regulation, or one that increased his anxiety? If I say “it’s not about me” and leave it at that, I’m letting go of my responsibility to meet each student’s needs.

My students’ growth isn’t about me: it’s about their amazing resilience, their families’ years of support, their community and culture and traditions and everything else that goes beyond the six hours a day I see them, and the years of their life they spend in my school. When they are my age, my students might not remember me, nor should I expect or need them to – what matters is that my students grow into the amazing adults I see them becoming.

But? It is about me. And I can take a few quiet moments here at the end of the year to pause and appreciate before I jump back into the work. Sometimes I do make a difference that I can see in the student: he can read more fluently than before, she can more confidently describe the emotions she’s feeling, they can say “I felt cared about this year.” I know I contributed to that and I can feel proud of our work together. And sometimes I make a difference I won’t see, and I can give myself some hope that the student who didn’t succeed while we worked together might carry away some small piece of me to use later when she needs it.

The work continues. We’re never done. It can be easy for the scales to tip into one side or the other, claiming ownership where we should center our students or playing martyr when we should center ourselves. But it’s a beautiful dance to stay balanced in the middle, where the growth happens.