Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reflection on Life and Teaching

Most educators I know have to actively seek ways to find and maintain the equilibrium between teacher burnout and fulfilling their promises and potentials in the classroom.  While many do this through some type of workshop, seminar, class, or institute, the reality is professional development comes in various forms.   This summer, I followed my friend Chris Cowan's Facebook feed of pictures of him rafting the mountain waters in Idaho, and silently envied his summer activity from afar.  Little did I know - until I contacted him to write for this blog - that his version of professional development happened right there on the river.  His experience reminded me that engaging the mind and the heart  helps recognize and honor negative feelings, and is a necessary part of change and renewal.  I appreciate Chris' honesty as he shares his journey as a veteran teacher.  Wow . . .

I haven't done much professional development for years. I've been teaching for 14 years and seen trends come and go and my own enthusiasm ebb and flow as my personal life has had ups and downs that influenced how much energy I could put into work. I worked through many seminars and conferences to gain and re-new certifications, but found myself uninspired and let down by most of them. Many presenters utilized the worst of teaching strategies. These presenters seemed poorly prepared and I'm often insulted by the "techniques" they try to pass off as teaching. Don't get me wrong, I'm a good teacher, but I want more, expect more, and would love to see some truly phenomenal techniques. In recent years I've really done the bare minimum of professional development and with budget problems in Utah slowly stripping away our professional development days I haven't mourned their loss. Our pay has decreased and that is a price I'm more than willing to pay for another ski day in February.

I've often said it is the meetings that will drive me out of teaching. I'm not a good meeting person. My staff in Wisconsin once played "professional development" bingo where they distributed bingo cards with slogans, educational acronyms and things they knew were going to happen. Things like our principal making egregious grammatical errors (that one was guaranteed). I was not given a card, but I was on the card. There was a square for me "storming" out of the meeting in disgust. Someone called "bingo" as I was leaving the room. They filled me in on the bingo game at lunch after our meeting. Serving as department chair and our our planning committee for inservices at my current school has been so difficult for me. One, holding my tongue in this interesting Mormon culture I work in and two, trying to make something productive come out of my time in those meetings. I don't know if I've managed either.

It was with this background that I headed into this summer. I had just had what I'd consider the worst year of teaching in my career. I actually dreaded going to work, a first, and struggled to maintain energy for my students. A big part of this was the ending of a two year relationship with a co-worker, (bad idea, I know) with whom I shared a number of interests and had a great two year adventure with. We broke up a day before our first professional development of the school year and had to sit through the first week of school meetings in the same room. My heart was completely broken. Here was a girl that I'd thought I might marry, but due to some different life goals it wasn't going to happen. We had shared river trips, climbing trips, 100 days of backcountry skiing one winter, and innumerable other adventures and now we were done. I could barely get up in the morning, let alone face classes of 30 to 40 kids looking to learn science.

But, I taught, I phoned it in, I struggled and tried to manage. I pulled my life together and worked to enjoy teaching, but it was difficult. That said, by the end of the year my AP Biology class went from a 54% pass rate to an 80% pass rate and a huge increase in 5's. The kids also voted me the Rotary most influential teacher of that year. I know I helped some kids do better with their lives, even while I was struggling with mine. So good things happened even though I was not teaching to the best of my abilities.

I was actually counting down the days until the end of the year last June. Something I'd really never done before. I had liked my job and didn't stress about it ending, but last year I needed to be done. I needed that break. I had a summer job lined up rowing whitewater rafts on 5 day wilderness trips in Idaho, down the beautiful Salmon river. Something exciting, something different, and something physically demanding, but not mentally challenging. It was amazing. The water levels held in Idaho, the rapids stayed exciting, and taking groups down the river was so fun and fulfilling. Watching them bond during the 5 days, make new friends, and gaining comfort in this new, wild environment they were in. Heck, they even got used to pooing in a can (the groover).

Even with all that, I found myself pondering my classes as I was rowing. How could I increase student engagement, student understanding, student retention, and how could I make it more interesting for ME? I would sit on the beach after cooking dinner and think about what is really important in education, what techniques or labs would help students learn certain concepts, and how could I re-capture the joy of teaching. I made some drastic changes in how I planned to teach my three courses (AP Biology, College Anatomy, and College Biology). Each course taking a different approach, but all seeking to decrease content lecture and shift the responsibility for learning to the student. I re-worked my syllabi to introduce these changes and after teaching for only 2 weeks still can't tell how they're doing.

Am I re-invigorated and re-energized, ready to teach with excitement? I don't know. I am struggling. I feel like I've seen this "type" of kid before with many of my students. I'm still not happy with how the courses are going. They could be better. My attitude is still more negative than it should be. It has been hard to come inside after spending a summer outside with periodic doses of adrenalin and constant vistas of beauty. My classroom doesn't blow my mind like the Salmon River does, but I'm trying. The kids are still great, cute, and trying to learn. I can still see each day what I could do better next year. I just need to find that joy of teaching somehow. Even the email I got yesterday from a mom, who was kind enough to copy it to the superintendent, thanking me for the difference I made in her daughter's education and her ability to get into the college of her choice was only a minor positive bump for my attitude. I'm trying, step by step, to make my courses better and improve my attitude. We'll see where this goes.

Professional development means our ability to improve as professionals. It isn't always a course, seminar, conference or meeting. We can strive, we can research, we can re-work and analyze our courses to improve the quality of education we are delivering. While I didn't attend meaningful conferences this summer, I feel like I have made gains in my teaching abilities and I hope my students enjoy my courses more this year and have an easier time learning the concepts we're exploring. Wish me luck and more importantly wish my students luck putting up with me.

"The world is enough for man's need, but not man's greed."  --Mohandas Gandhi

Chris Cowan has been teaching Science for 14 years. 11 of these were in Wisconsin and the last 3 in Utah. There are some huge differences in education between these two states, money does help improve educational quality. He runs a casual, calm classroom with an emphasis on the student and learning. When he's not working he climbs, mountain bikes, skis, and runs rivers. He's got a phobia of meetings.

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