The Snare of Comparison

Anne Schwartz has started a  , and while I’m not promising to blog every day, I will attempt to be more consistent in my blogging agin.

Reflection is a two edged sword. It is important to do, pause, reflect, evaluate, make changes, repeat. This is the process of life and learning. The problems come when we insert “look at what someone else is doing” into the process. On one hand, it is important to observe others at work and think about what makes their practice theirs, the trouble comes when what we are doing is measured against what they are doing, and graded accordingly.

Every time I present at a conference, I do this. I started submitting proposals and presenting in 2014, my first being CMC North in Asilomar, CA. That presentation went very well, it was a high school level presentation, and I had been teaching HS for 10 years before doing that. I felt confident about what I was presenting, it was something I had worked on in my own classroom for quite a while, and was excited to share it.

I have since become a district level elementary math specialist, and have been presenting the last two years at the elementary level. I’m struggling with this a little bit, because I haven’t tested some of these ideas in my own classroom. I do work with teachers, and do model in their classrooms periodically, but it’s not the same as being able to try something, evaluate it’s effectiveness, and try again. I feel like I’m flying somewhat blind here.

I had a conversation on twitter last night about submitting a proposal to NCTM Annual in San Antonio, TX for next year. I did finally submit one, but I’m a little trepidatious about it. Tina reminded me that trying again is how we get better.  I know this, I’m fearful of wasting teachers’ time while I work on figuring this out. With the students, if I made a mistake I could correct it the next day or the next week. In presenting at conferences, I don’t get that chance, they see something that doesn’t help or they don’t like and make up their minds to “never see that speaker again”.

This is where I begin the comparison. I look at some of the “tried and true” speakers, the ones who’s sessions everyone loves to attend, who always have something valuable to say, do it with flair and can make you laugh at the same time, and think, “I’m just not like that”. And, I’m not.

I was very successful in my HS classroom. My students succeeded regularly, I saw test scores increase consistently, I heard students speaking the language of mathematics and feeling confident about what they knew, and taking risks with things they hadn’t seen before. Colleagues would tell me, “I can tell which students came from you, they are able to think critically”.

I have seen some wonderful changes in the elementary classrooms in the last two years, and have had discussions with teachers and principals that help me to believe that I am making a difference at this level,  I just don’t have the classroom and the direct connection to students that allows me to gauge the growth like I did in the past. This causes me to question my effect at this level, and hence, my right to present at conferences at this level, and yet, it is something in which I hope to become proficient. Is that enough reason to continue, and hope that I am not wasting anyone’s time? I hope so.

Owning the Difficult Decisions

It’s been quite a while since I reflected here. I had been trying to write once a week, and when winter break came, I found myself exhausted, frustrated, and ready for rest. After break, upon returning to work, I started with a positive attitude, and a new direction in mind. This was quickly depleted after a week of grading Interim Comprehensive Assessments that our students took before break, and having my calendar changed several times by others who were “dictating” to me what my priorities are and how I should attend to them.

I found myself trying once again to follow the dictates given to me, get everything done, and tell myself I was supporting teachers in doing so. Instead, I found myself angry; angry that I couldn’t do what I know to be important in creating strong learning communities in our elementary classrooms, and angry that I couldn’t do what I was originally told my job description was, to support mathematics learning in our elementary schools.

I had a discussion with my immediate supervisor and our director, was told I couldn’t possibly support all our sites and teachers, and we can’t always hear what we want to hear. I then attended a training session for principals on a math support software program our district purchased and heard the principals being told that I was going to be the support for implementation and learning. I found myself feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place, and starting to have conversations about whether or not I was really effective where I was, or if I should be doing something else. I have tried to balance my work and life, and found myself having to skip the things that mean so much to me and have a large part in my becoming the teacher I am, my twitter chats, because I can’t possibly do everything that I have been told are my priorities during the day. Because of meetings, workshops, and other things I am required to attend, I have limited time to actually support sites, plan for math lead meetings (another post), and currently, observe classrooms at sites to complete a criteria for success rubric required because of our new math adoption.

I had reached a point where I was leaning toward moving back into a classroom next year, for no other reason than I knew I would feel successful there. I know that I affect learning for students in a positive way when I am in direct contact with students. I am not at all sure that I affect student learning in a positive way when I am not in direct contact with them at this time, and this is something that I am going to be required to show in some manner with artifacts and student outcomes. This is obviously something that is important to me, and something I have been striving to do, but is currently causing me a lot of stress.

I reached a point where I knew I had no control over any of this. I had to let it go, and just focus on what was right in front of me. This past week I found myself on three different sites, for different reasons. In my interaction with the administrator at the first site, after our discussion when I stood up to go, she came around her desk and said, “I need to give you a hug. Thank you so much for being the wealth of information you are.” I almost cried right there. I did walk out with a little spring in my step that hadn’t been there for quite a while. At the next site, after classroom observations and a discussion with several principals and other personnel, the principal stopped me as we were all leaving. We had a short conversation and her parting words to me were, “Thank you for doing the work you are doing. You are fighting the right fight, and you need to continue to do this.” Again, I was nearly in tears, and walked away with many thoughts and reflections from that. The last interaction was simple. I was at a site to meet with a group of teachers, and before we started the principal leaned into the room and said, “Thank you for being here, and for being the great source of information you are.” Deep breath, we’re about to have a meeting.

I’m not a fighter. I am someone who cares for others deeply, does all they can to build them up, and encourage them to be all they can be. When I have to confront others, my heart races, my palms get sweaty, and I have to constantly remind myself why I am confronting them and standing for the things I do. I like to encourage, support, and build. I don’t like to have to speak to others using strong words. A co-worker said to me Friday, “maybe that’s why you’re here.” Hmmmmm. OK, I’ll bite.

My focus is students. Their learning, their success, their emotional well being. Pure and simple. If I have to fight for that, I guess that’s what I need to do, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me, no matter how often I tear up and how much my heart races. Even if I say stupid things in my anxiety, make mistakes about how I speak to others, and forget things I wanted to say because I get hurt or angry in the interactions. I am still learning, and in the end, it’s about the kids. They are worth anything I might have to experience.

CMC North 2015

Well, here we are once again, in one of the most beautiful places to have a math conference. Last year was my first time to present at this conference, and I overdid it by doing an Ignite also. This year was lower key for me, and yet, not so much. Last year my presentation was at the high school level, definitely a comfort zone for me. I had started a new position as K-5 Math Academic Specialist, however, and this year felt that I should begin to step out of my comfort zone and to present at the elementary level.

This is the first time, aside from things I do in my job for my teachers, that I have presented something at this level. I have to admit, I was nervous, it’s difficult to feel accomplished enough to share when I’m feeling that I’m still in the learning process myself. Thankfully, the MTBoS has taught me that learning is a continual process, and if I don’t continue to learn, I stop being effective, so I stepped out, and became bold.

I was pleasantly surprised at the response today. I had planned to present based on the interactions and engagement I have come to expect from a lot of the teachers I work with. Often they will wait for me to tell them exactly what they should be doing and how to do it. The teachers today were engaged, and interacting with me and each other and really thinking through problems and the problem solving. When I first saw the room and set up I was very disappointed. The room was crowded, desks in rows, barely room to get around and definitely not conducive to interactive discussions and teachers coming to the document camera to share, so I thought. I made some changes to how I was going to have teachers share, based on the room set up, and that may not have been the smartest move on my part, but it is what it is. I really wanted teachers to come to the document camera themselves, and have group discussions about their solutions, but I made an executive decision. There was also some difficulty with the wi-fi, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to use my presentation at all, and was going to have to be creative in sharing problems. Fortunately, one of the attendees offered his hot spot and saved me that pain. I think too, as a future consideration, a topic like this may need 1 1/2 hours rather than one hour. It’s big, and we all need time to cognate on it.

As I read through the comments from attendees, my first reaction was “darn”. I took a chance, and it didn’t work out. I wasted people’s time, and that is never a good thing. I sat through another session, had dinner, conversed with friends and other presenters, and began to see it a little differently.

I was transparent at the start of my presentation, letting attendees know that elementary education is a new area for me, and I am learning as well as the teachers with whom I work. I commented on how I hoped to learn from them, and that I had something of value to offer to the discussion. I also modeled a growth mindset. I was willing to step out of my comfort zone, share things that I am learning, and allow myself to learn from others who were willing to do the same. I saw several “ah ha” moments in that hour today, heard teachers reflecting and thinking about problems, student thinking, and conversations they could be having in their classrooms. I heard teachers sharing with each other things that have worked, and misconceptions they themselves have had about this topic.

I want to thank those who gave feedback for taking the time to do so. It helps me to see where I need to grow, and reflect on my own learning. Some feedback I would like to comment upon: “How much you get out of this session depends on you”. Yes, that is true of any learning situation. It is what we experience in classrooms every day. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I begin to depend on someone else for my learning, I am passing up the opportunity to have a say in how far I can go. Another: “Abstract discussion is fine, but I prefer methods to take back and use in the classroom tomorrow”. There is more to take back to the classroom that a pre-made activity or someone else’s lesson. Often, the things we need to learn are the ways to facilitate a lesson, and to allow students to be heard. A large part of what I was doing today was modeling facilitation of classroom discourse, allowing voices to be heard and encouraging students to make meaning of a difficult topic.

Finally, I realize that in changing how I was handling this presentation, I lost something very important. Two attendees made mention of the fact that the discussions were not recorded. This is a salient point. In changing the way the presentation went, we did lose some of the important points and a visual record of the conversations that happened. That was not good. I needed a back up plan for that, and believe me, next time I will have one. I will also prepare better and have a plan for the possibility that things go better than I had hoped, and make sure that I am able to provide a solid learning experience for everyone.

Thank you so much for allowing me to continue to learn and grow, and I also hope that you all will continue to do the same on your journey.

Thank you all once again for a wonderful CMC North Conference!

Never Stop Learning

I’ve just completed the hardest 3 months ever in my career. I am learning to support elementary teachers in teaching and learning mathematics, and working hard to help decrease anxiety and stress. Elementary teachers work so hard. They teach all subjects, often with limited time for planning and collaborating. Throw in a new math curriculum which has increased the conceptual depth of the mathematics they are teaching, and you have chaos.

Many of these teachers have embraced the new curriculum, and are working together to create a cohesive learning experience for their students, recognizing that they can’t do it all, and accepting that this year they will be learning along with the students, slowly but surely. I’m not concerned about these teachers. They ask for help and guidance, they accept what they can do, and work in new things as they are able. They discuss their experiences in the classroom, both the successes and the things they hope to improve.

Others are struggling and anxious. They are upset and angry, complaining about the time it takes to plan and learn the new material, often refusing to try some of the new lessons or reverting back to direct teaching to “get it all in”. They fight the idea of leaving some things out for now to learn how to facilitate conversations and become familiar with the program and new teaching methods because “kids won’t be ready for CAASPP.” I’m more concerned about these teachers. I want to support them and decrease their anxiety because I know that is the foundation of their anger and struggling. I check in with them, remind them to be gentle with themselves, encourage them to pick a couple of things to work on and get good at them, then add in new things as they feel comfortable. I model lessons in their classrooms, and discuss lessons with them and how to improve what they are doing. At times, they hear me and feel better, and their anxiety lessons a bit.

A handful of teachers are refusing to incorporate the new program at all. They refuse to put in any time outside of their classroom to familiarize themselves with the material, think about how to facilitate lessons differently or learn how to visualize math in a different way. I’m extremely concerned about these teachers. They often refuse to allow me to enter their classrooms, will not attend any collaborative or supportive learning situations we put in place, and often respond to surveys with sarcastic and volatile messages. These are the teachers I want to support and work with. These are the teachers that I find myself thinking about, worrying about, and the ones that are the incentive for planning my professional learning opportunities, even though they refuse to attend or to even enter into conversations about learning or growing. I guess my hope is that they will get it by osmosis.

My colleagues remind me to go with the goers, and honestly, it really is the only thing I can do at this point. There are just too many teachers and one of me. I do continually hope that the things we are doing and the learning that is occurring will seep into them little by little and that their mindsets will change and grow.

Mostly, I worry about the students. There are so many good things happening in the classrooms across the district, even the ones who are anxious and feeling overwhelmed. I know they see it too, they often talk to me about the things they hear their students saying or what they see them doing and love the learning they are seeing. The students in the rooms of the last group of teachers continue to struggle with ideas, topics, and learning.

I’m grateful for the changes we are making and the fact the the majority of our students are growing and changing because of it, but I want EVERY student to have the opportunity to grow and learn. I want it all.

I have a lot more to do.

Intentional and Practical Professional Learning – Part 2


Our district Teaching and Learning team is taking part in Cognitive Coaching training. This is a series of eight professional days, two at a time spread over a series of months. Today was our 3rd day of this training. I’m finding these very informative and practical for my practice and my personal learning. Today we were discussing questioning. After writing a previous post here, I realized I left quite a bit unsaid and unaddressed. While I definitely need to be monitoring my mindset both in planning and facilitating professional learning, there is so much more that needs to be considered.

Questions are hugely important on so many levels. Our facilitator left us today with this thought:

 “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers.

You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

Naguib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize Winner)

Now I would definitely like to be counted among the wise, in which case, I need to be asking the right questions. Not only of others, but of myself. So, while I work on planning professional learning for teachers, it is important that I ask the “What” and “How” questions. These are questions that allow me to assume positive presuppositions, and “are designed to stimulate thinking, not action”. (Cognitive Coaching Seminars) Stimulating thinking is what provokes us to action, and allows us to reflect on what we do or do not know, and to push our thinking to the point we can begin to find solutions and ideas which become actions. Often these are the types of questions we would be using in working with colleagues and other practitioners, however, I find that I sometimes need to be inviting when delving into my own thinking. I need to be intentional and honest with my personal and professional reflections in order to push myself to deeper levels of learning.

This is where I become a better developer and facilitator of professional learning. By asking the right questions, reflecting on the “how” and “why” of what I am attempting to share, and pushing my thinking beyond the normal stages of planning, I can develop habits of mind and practices which will allow me to plan, execute and model a more cognitive level of professional practice. This is what I meant to be saying in the previous post when I commented that I needed to continue learning. I have to push myself beyond my comfort level, especially if I am going to ask colleagues to push past their comfort levels.

I am blessed to have many colleagues, both in my district cohort and on twitter, with whom I can think through projects on which I am working, question my thinking, and verbalize my frustration when things don’t seem to be going the way I had planned. They are willing to push me by asking hard questions and encouraging me to ask them of myself. They also work with me to interpret responses to survey questions that are asked of teachers with whom we work to provide a deeper and more valuable learning experience. This in turn, is a precursor for me to ask questions of the teachers in the meetings and professional development situations I facilitate to push them to the next level of learning.

Hearing is important and necessary, but it is the questions that lead us to learning.

Intentional and Practical Professional Learning


Today on twitter I had a short conversation with a colleague about professional learning. It went like this:Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 5.00.18 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 5.03.40 PM

Recently I have found myself frustrated about what I view as a fixed mindset on the part of many of our teachers. I am working hard, both by myself and with another PD provider at our district to create meaningful and timely professional learning for our elementary teachers. They are wanting time to work together with other teachers from the district to walk through our new curriculum and discuss the problems and successes that others are having. I have taken this to heart, and have been working with K-2 and 3-5 math leads from each site monthly. I have changed the topics and plans for these meetings based on the needs I am hearing from teachers, as well as the discussions that come up during these meetings.

I have also created a google survey for all teachers asking what their immediate needs are, and based on those responses have been working with our Lead In professional development center to create time once a month for teachers from all sites to come together and participate in training on things they are requesting, work together on lesson planning and problem solving, and discuss their concerns and needs with teachers from two of our sites who have been using our new curriculum for the past 1-2 years and get ideas from them on organization, prioritizing, and how to facilitate classroom conversations. We ask for feedback from each of these meetings, and no matter how much we use this and try to meet needs, there are many unhappy teachers.

I have found myself creating a mindset in the midst of planning some of these sessions, asking myself questions like, “Why work so hard at this? Many of them are not going to find this valuable.” “Why do they show up if they feel there is nothing of value happening at these sessions?” You get the idea. I’m glad to have had this conversation today because it reminds me that I am in charge of my mindset, and I definitely want to be one with a growth mindset. I have learned so much in the past two years on twitter, blogging, and sharing my ideas with colleagues in meetings, professional development settings, and at conferences. The feedback is something I take very seriously, and stretch my thinking by using it to plan my next steps. It is often difficult to separate all this when we are so close to the heart of the work happening, and it helps to have someone on the outside push us and ask the hard questions.

I need to continue to work hard to meet the needs of our teachers and not take their responses personally. I need to continue collaborating and talking with my colleagues on twitter, in my professional development capacities, and reflecting on the work I am doing and striving to make it the most meaningful I can. I need to support the work to prioritize needs for our teachers also, as some of them are feeling so overwhelmed they are struggling to make those decisions for themselves, and help them to problem solve these things and find solutions that will help them feel more successful in the classroom.

I have to continue to grow and learn myself, so that I can be a strong support and encouragement to the teachers with whom I work.

A Moment in Time

Although it has been many years, you are as close to me as you were the last day I saw you. I remember the sparkle in your eyes when you would smile at me, the intensity in them when you were searching me for more than the words I was saying, and the peace I would find in them when I just needed a friend.

I discuss my thoughts, and share my deepest emotions with you even now. You are the heart and soul of me, my closest friend and the one I will always look to for confidence, encouragement, and someone to believe in me.

I pray you have found peace, happiness and love. There is an emptiness in my life that cannot be filled.

Sometimes you have to move on. . .