I love this video about the impact reintroducing a pack of wolves into Yellowstone National Park had on the entire ecosystem of the park.
Every time I watch this video I seem to come across a new connection to our work as educators (I know, I’m the coolest, right?). Here are a few of the parallels I’ve seen. What else would you add?
1. A single wolf could not have made the same impact, but a pack (well, three packs according to this info) had an unmistakable impact on the park. You cannot do your work alone, but it doesn’t have to be a huge pack to make an impact that will last far longer than we can imagine.
2. These wolves had no idea about the scale of their impact. They simply did what they knew to do to thrive in their new environment and the rest happened naturally. The work before us as educators doesn’t come effortlessly; for many it is quite natural, but that doesn’t lessen any of the impact. Like the wolves, we cannot see the impact of our work while we are in it.
3. The wolves can’t not have an impact on the park. Don’t be fooled into thinking that some of your work makes an impact and other aspects don’t. Every action you take has a ripple. Every choice you make has consequences. Your work makes a difference. Make sure it’s the impact you want to make.
So you may wonder to yourself, Why is he sharing these connections between education and wolves in Yellowstone?
Because I think we all need this reminder: Great change happens when a group of influencers enter an existing system.
My hunch is that we know that, but that at times, we can forget it.
Maybe we forget this truth when we get too focused in on the day to day and don’t see the big picture. Maybe forgetfulness sets in while we are right in the middle of trying to deliberately create change on a large scale. In any case, this is true: The school you work in and the students you serve will bear the evidence of your positive influence for years to come. Your work with kids will be remembered for a lifetime. Your actions have a lasting impact. Don’t forget that.
If you like what you’re reading here, you might like my book, Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth: 6 Truths That Will Help You THRIVE as an Educator. The book highlights six truths that will help you THRIVE as an educator, including one–reject isolation–that will challenge you to find a tribe of educators to support you in your work. Get the book on Amazon or read more about the book here.
It’s May. It’s the end of the school year. And for many, it’s a time that pushes educators into survival mode.
A while back, I got to thinking about how much deliberate effort is spent on getting the first days of school just right. The tone we set during that first week does more for campus culture and climate than maybe any other week. It’s absolutely right for us to be deliberate and particular about how we begin the year, but for all the fuss about how we start things off, I rarely hear much about ending the year well. We cannot afford to do anything other than continue to pursue our students. Our students and colleagues are worth more than our survival mode efforts. We can make just as great an impact in our last days with students as we did in our first hours together.
Never stop getting to know your students (even at the end of the year). Invest in them. Let them know that they are loved.
Much like a successful start to the year, a successful end to the year is an active pursuit. I reached out to educators on Twitter and asked them what they do to make the end of the year great. Here’s what they had to say (in their exact words, rough draft form of course). Take some time to dig through their ideas. There’s something amazing for you in there. And share your ideas afterward. We’ll all benefit from you sharing your ideas for finishing the school year well!
I try to give them the most control they’ve had all year. Currently, some are doing TED talks, other classes will be designing lessons to teach for the full class period (groups). It is time for students to share back their learning, and teach each other. By teaching lessons, students gain insight into instruction, put content into their own terms, and as a bonus: they learn how tough it is to be a teacher!
We make memory necklaces. Each student creates a signature bead from sculpy clay. They make sure to create a bead in this style for each member of our classroom community. We then have a sharing circle where each first grader receives a bead from each class member( teachers and IAs too) . Everyone has a keepsake to wear which reminds them of their special year together.
We do a economics unit and create a popcorn business. We go out to a local business called The Popcorner to see how they run the popcorn business. We also go to the bank and learn about taking out a loan. We pretend sign our start up loan. We vote on where the profits should go. We have donated to Jump Rope for Heart, tornado victims, local library. Each year it is something different.
Since my subject is not tested until May, we really don’t have a lot of time to complete all the fun things on my list. In saying that, the last couple of years my teammates had a great idea – to complete STEM activities after our STAAR test. This year we are putting a spin on it… we will have a competition! For instance: Teacher A will hold a competition with STEM activity 1 in her classroom, Teacher B will hold a competition with STEM activity 2 in her classroom, Teacher C will hold a STEM activity 3 in her classroom, and Teacher D will hold a STEM activity 4 in her classroom. Learners will be able to choose which activity they want to complete with a team. They loved it when it was just in our classroom, so I anticipate this being even more fun for them!
During the last few days, I will also have my students complete a survey so I can gather feedback on my teaching, lessons, and content. I will send a similar survey to my student’s parents as well for their feedback on my communication, use of social media, their likes, and dislikes about our class, etc. to help me be improve.
Also, I recently found an awesome article (http://www.teachhub.com/top-12-effective-end-year-activities). It has some fantastic ideas for the end of the year! My favorite is “let the kids teach class” and “ask students to write letters to your future students.” Both of these are very meaningful. I NEED to fit at least one of these in!
When I taught 7th grade science (non-tested), I put together an after-school group and they created a video for my incoming 7th graders. It was amazing and they loved the experience. Also with this grade level and at the end of the year, I had my students attend “medical school” while we covered every human body system, which just so happens to be my favorite content area.
I typically have my students complete a power point presentation reflecting back over the year (favorite lessons learned, highlights, pieces of advice, etc.). I enjoy completing a book study with my students as well. In the past we have looked at Sean Covey’s book 7 habits of highly effective teens. Since my students aren’t quite teens we read together and discuss the 7 habits. Then they take their copy of the book with them.
We research a Famous American throughout the last two weeks of school. As the year gets crazy with end of the year assessments and scheduled chaos, the kids have a focus. We have a wax museum one of the last 3 days of school to showcase our learning.
We look at their overall growth, goals, tests scores, reading level, math level… we start talking about goals for ieps next year as well….. this builds confidence… we then review this at the beginning of the year to remind them of the possibilities.
I used to do camp for a week. It was like a day camp in the classroom. We’d still learn, but in short lessons along a theme. I did Camp Ohana, with Elvis music and Hawaiian activities, I did Camp lickity split with tons of popsicle stick activities. Camp names! Lots of good memories all around!
Collette Lenarz, School Social Worker (@collenarz)
Checking in, a count down of things we “get to do” before summer arrives (eat lunch with friends, spend time with our fav staff, make memories, etc…), we also have an end of the year fishing/picnic day for all of our students that receive sped services; we let them know that learning is hard sometimes and they came to school daily and challenged themselves, overcame obstacles and worked hard. Students, sped teachers, and paras all come along, we play bags, fish, BBQ and have a kick ball tourney…playing together to celebrate the year!
1. In mid-Feb., we partnered w/ another elem school in another state and embarked on a “Work Hard/Play Hard” Challenge. The challenge was for students to accomplish 10,500 pieces of proficient/distinguished work. For every 300 pieces they collected, they earned a puzzle piece that revealed part of the “play hard” activity. The puzzle pieces are displayed on a large bulletin board at the entrance. Once the puzzle is complete the entire school will enjoy the activity! 2. We just had a community kickball game called “The Green Patch” game b/c it’s played on the corner of Green/Dickinson St. Families love it! 3. We purposely focus on relationship building and out of the box thinking just like we did at the beginning of the year. 4. We stick to the fundamentals – relationship building, expectations, and working hard and playing hard.
We do a house challenge to motivate and keep our 8th grade invested the last 6 weeks. They have a blast as we split them into 4 “houses,” do a weekly challenge, keep points for academic and behavioral success, and do house team prizes!
Continue the high fives, fist bumping and name recognition. Also, push to find the sleeper, quiet kiddo that may need some help coming out of his shell. Can’t forget the teacher support and recognition!
Continue building on existing relationships by having intentional conversations. I focus a lot on what they’re going to do with family, how they’re going to re-energize for the next school year, and let them know that I can’t wait to see them next school year (or wish them well for their future if they’re moving on). I want them to know that I value them and their education but also (and just as important) that I value the time that they will have away from the formal educational setting. Family time, and time to re-energize away from school is so important.
Relationships! Our 5th graders have a school dance the last week to build last memories as well as a celebration that mirrors a graduation of sorts.
Also, on the final day we do “bump up day” where each grade gets to go see the teachers and grade level they will be in next year. During this time the students currently in the grade have left cards or messages of some sort for the next group of students coming in.
KN students do a end of year song celebration inviting parents to come and celebrate the end of the year.
As a school we have celebrations that recognize the hard work and achievements of students. This ranges from awards ceremonies where students are recognized by grade level and content areas to our field day activities. We have field day activities for each grade level where we all go off campus and spend a day having fun and being with school friends.
In my district, middle school is a quick two years because we only have grades 7 and 8. This makes our school more of transition time for students than anything and because of this we have to help orient students quickly. We do this though school videos and school tours for the incoming 7th grade students. In the middle of May all 6th grade students from our feeder intermediate campus will tour our school during the school day. These incoming students will also watch videos made to show the school in more detail as well as with tips and tricks from current middle school students. The current 6th grade students like this because they are able to see what is going to occur in middle school before summer begins and the current middle school students like this because they are able to be he experts and share their knowledge about their school.
As the principal I encourage my teachers to end the year on a high note by trying new and different teaching styles and approaches. State assessments have ended and the month of May is a great way to try a flipped unit, a PBL unit, incorporate genius hour activities, or even practice using learning stations. I find the teachers are more willing to try new things in May because they are not worried about a state assessment. What I have observed is the teachers see their students having fun with the different approaches to teaching and learning because it is not the same routine they have come to know. As a result of this willingness to “experiment” with their teaching, the teacher is more likely to make adjustment to their teaching the following year. This helps end the year on a high note for the students and the teachers.
Our seniors end the year with a service day. They volunteer at various places around the community. This has proven valuable for the students and local organizations. We have received multiple letters from community organizations thanking the seniors and asking that more seniors return the next year. This experience leaves the students with a good feeling as they graduate and move on to the next phase of their lives.
There are SO many great ideas here. Reach out to the authors of these ideas. Collaborate with them. Follow them over the last month of the year on Twitter and see what all they are doing to make the last days of the school year GREAT for students!
It wasn’t bad in the “I’m supposed to say I was bad because I can tell I’ve grown since then and I don’t want to boast” sense either. It was bad.
I had first period off (which is great any other day of the year for most people, but especially for this non morning person). On this first day, though, it just left time for the knots in my stomach to tighten themselves into even more knots.
As I was walking back into the main building to get some water, the power went out. I was going to get a day reprieve! We couldn’t have school with the power out, right?
My department head comes walking around the corner, and instead of telling me she would see me the next day, she said in a really positive, supportive manner that they were working on getting everything fixed up as quickly as possible and that I would do a great job and that she was excited to hear about how my first day went.
So I go back to my portable and begin to put on this ridiculous costume that I decided to use during my first minutes of teaching ever. On top of my uncomfortable shirt and tie teacher clothes I put on a rain jacket. On top of that, I’m wearing my graduation robe. The plan was for me to start with the end (graduation) in mind, then point to how I was going to be their guide on the path toward that goal, and then end with the realization that I was the teacher who could get them there. At this point, they would realize how much they were going to love me and this class, but things didn’t exactly go according to plan.
What actually happened was more like this.
I put everything on and began to sweat. Blame it on the first day of school or on it being MY first day of school or on not having any power on August 25th in central Texas or whatever else you want. Regardless of where fault lies, I’m really sweating by the time students arrive. Like beads of sweat I can feel. Not fun and not exactly how I wanted to start the day or my career.
I’ll spare you the details about the rest of the day and offer this summary: I pushed through the entire morning of classes packed with 30 high school juniors in a portable with no power for the video clips and slideshow I prepared or for the music I had carefully chosen to let them know I was someone they could relate to. Also there was no power for the air conditioning.
I remember sitting in the lunchroom thinking about what else I could do with my life. The morning left me embarrassed, frustrated, and pretty intimidated about actually coming back for day 2.
But I came back, and things got better.
My Worst Decision
I made a lot of bad decisions that first day, but the worst decision from my first day didn’t have anything to do with what all was happening or not happening in the classroom.
My worst decision was to sit silently by my peers at lunch while I felt so stressed.
Right there sitting next to me were the people who could help me most, the people who became my friends, the people who taught me how to teach.
And I just sat there and beat myself up. The story ends well, but on that day I felt like I needed to pull this all together myself, like that was what the best of the best did. I had convinced myself that this was how to make it.
The single best thing that happened that day was that a nearby teacher came by, brought me a Coke, and said, “How’s it going?” and talked to with me about how things were, in fact, going. Don’t get me wrong, ditching the outer two layers was clearly an important choice, but engaging instead of retreating was the best thing that happened that day.
Thankful & Restless
I’m incredibly thankful for that teacher and her willingness to sit with me on her first day back which we all know to be exhausting. Even if it’s the best, most welcome sort of exhausting, it is absolutely draining.
That solved my day one problem, but it didn’t address the motivation that drove me so far out of my comfort zone.
You see, I think I believed that I could make the magic happen all in those first 50 minutes. I had thought and over thought what I wanted for my students that I had convinced myself I needed to be someone else to make that happen.
I had convinced myself that somehow I wasn’t the guy for that job.
What a lie.
I felt woefully unprepared for all sorts of things that first day, but I was the one they picked to do the job. Not the best teacher I could remember, not me with more experience, not me with more answers or more confidence or more whatever. Me.
Before the day began, my biggest mistake was to believe not only that I could develop a lasting legacy with my students on the first day, but also that I needed to. That to miss that mark was to fail.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that our legacy as educators is built in community over time. That’s easy to say, but tough to do. Still, that’s our job. If you want to be the teacher who leaves an impact, develop a space where students can learn with you and their peers together. So how do we do that as teachers? How do we take 30 people and an adult and create a place where both students and teachers thrive? How do we get past the barriers that we put up, the things that make us feel safe? How to we press into vulnerability and let others see us for who we really are, not who we want to be seen as?
We do that together.
We have to be real together.
We have to be willing to learn together.
We have to be ready to act now (& probably fail some) together (both of them).
Think about who you can engage when school starts up–maybe even who you need to engage before it starts. Those little interactions–just bringing someone a Coke and filling the space with some peer to peer conversation–they can make all the difference.
And what’s on the line? If we get this right, all of those with whom we interact–our old friends, our new colleagues, and our students who will walk our halls and learn in our classrooms–they can all walk toward success knowing that we are walking through each trial that comes our way together.
One of the things I miss the most about the classroom is discussing novels with students and the way that set students up to thoughtfully approach tough conversations. We’d open up The Great Gatsby or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Invisible Man and dive headlong into some of life’s biggest questions.
We’d talk about what it means to be valued as a person and walk through how easy it is to devalue someone and how hard it is to rebuild someone who has felt less than.
We’d spend time talking about the American Dream–what it meant to them, what it meant to characters in the text–and talk about whether it is alive today (and if it’s alive in the same way for everyone in our diverse classroom).
We’d invest time in serious conversation about those who are invisible among us. Those who might identify with the narrator of Invisible Man who declares that he is “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see” him.
There’s a lot there, and that only scratches the surface of everything we would get into. It was great conversation, but it was even better knowing that I was sending students out confident that they knew how to engage with their peers and their community for the better.
Though the conversations focused either on the literature or on its implications, students acquired a number of soft skills through the process that were as valuable as the content of the exchanges. Removed from those conversations, I think our students’ education is incomplete without these skills.
Don’t hear me saying that these can only be developed over in discussion of literature. That’s not reality for many teachers, and it’s no longer my reality. Still, students with these four abilities have the skills to create peace, stability, and hope where it is lacking. If that’s not worth pursuing, I don’t know what is.
4 SKILLS EVERY STUDENT NEEDS
Disagree with an idea instead of a person. Too often, we treat this as an all or nothing. We mistake an opinion for an individual, and if we’re not careful, we miss out on a chance to learn something different. I think we’re pretty bad about this as adults. We have work to do to be the models we need to be, but I think it can be done. This, like many of these traits, is remarkable when it shows up. People notice. Look for opportunities to shed light on this concept for your students and peers.
Repay wrongdoing with kindness. This doesn’t fit with much of our mythology. Ours is a story of getting the most, getting the best, getting even, getting what you deserve. But at home, I ask my boys to do this. They’re 2 and 4, and although I believe that consequences are part of our actions, they’re learning from that I don’t care who started it. When wrong has been done, they repay it with kindness (and so does the one who bit his brother, for what it’s worth). I think there’s incredible potential for modeling this as adults. What power we could bring to students. What an alternative to lashing out. I’m not asking anyone to get walked on here. I’m just trying to imagine a better way.
See a situation from another person’s perspective. I loved asking questions that teased out this conversation (especially when students thought they had things figured out). I’m not big on ranking or creating a hierarchy of soft skills, but the ability to step into another person’s point of view, see things from his or her perspective, and respond differently to a situation as a result has to be up near the top. It’s not something that can be forced, and it’s rarely developed as quickly as we would like (or as would be beneficial for those who interact with the learner). But it is an absolute necessity to have this skill. Graduation requirements should be incomplete without it.
Find hope, even when it’s tough to see it. I’m not asking you to be Pollyanna, nor am I asking you to look past a situation that calls for grief or sorrow. What I do think is valuable is to train ourselves to find hope in situations where it is apparent and to quickly move toward it after we have walked through a valley. We know that our brains like patterns, and everything I’ve seen and experienced indicates that the positive patterns take more time to develop than their negative counterparts. So take time to find hope daily. Talk about it with your students. It matters so deeply.
These skills aren’t magic. They don’t eliminate hurt or sorrow or loss, and I would never claim they would. What they do is give us the power to navigate tough conversations with human responses. Responses that need to press into vulnerable spaces in conversations where we have to pursue understanding long before we seek to respond. But these are just four ideas. What else do you believe we need to instill in our students? When they leave your campus, what do they need to be successful, productive members of society?
I don’t think anyone gets started in education without the hope of making a difference, but some sure seem to make more of an impact than others.
Why is that?
Even among the well meaning, I see a range of successes.
Like most people, when I think back on the teachers I had, I had good teachers and bad teachers, memorable teachers and forgettable teachers. I spent some time today thinking through what pushed teachers to the positive two extremes for me. Happily, the good, memorable teacher was not terribly elusive to me; still, I think it’s worth the effort to dig into what sets apart those teachers who end up being more memorable than the rest.
This motivated me to do all I could to be the teacher who made a difference.
If I could go back to first year teacher me, I would have a lot to say. These five suggestions would be part of that conversation.
Invest Time In Relationships
This should go without saying, but there are more possibilities for this to go awry than I’d like to leave it up to chance. I think it’s important for students to see teachers as professionals; I really do. Many teachers (especially those early in their experience as educators) err on the side of being the “friend” teacher. Don’t get me wrong–the relationships are key, but I think they are key in a different way. One part of the real power of the relationships comes from having a clear role as the teacher in the class and being someone who will care for the prerequisite needs of students in addition to those explicitly academic needs. These teachers make students feel welcome in class and create an environment that helps students know there will are consequences for failure (but one of those consequences is that we’re going to pick ourselves up and keep learning).
Listen Without Judgment
As a high school English teacher, there were a lot of opportunities for me to explain ideas in an official capacity. As the teacher, the onus was on me to answer questions like “What did the author mean when he did X?” or “What’s the author saying about the state of society today when her characters respond like that?” Rather than answering those questions myself, I tried to model the struggle the authors were often encouraging readers to grapple with and pushed the responsibility for answering the question out to the students. Then, my role shifted from question answerer to conversation facilitator (which I greatly preferred). Like it or not, students found themselves free to sort through their beliefs lived out in the context of the narratives we encountered. I usually saw some who seemed so sure of themselves quickly left stuck really considering the implications of their positions, but more I often was floored by the quiet student who, given the chance, took the opportunity to share his or her brilliance with the class. This doesn’t happen if we’re giving them the answers.
I’m a firm believer that students benefit from high expectations. But more than sending out individuals capable of meeting and exceeding the highest expectations from life’s next challenges, I hope that we send out young people who are ready to make the human decision when the time calls for it. Learning doesn’t happen in a linear fashion for most students. I certainly can’t draw a linear timeline to tie many of my own learning experiences together. And yet too often, I get the feeling that teachers feel they don’t have permission to yield to their better judgment and extend grace to a student. I don’t mean to say that we have armies of teachers out there waiting to enforce rules simply because they are the rules, but I don’t think we can do any harm by taking the pressure off (because as school progresses, we all know it is most certainly on) some of our students with the opportunity to experience a bit of grace under extenuating circumstances. It makes a huge impact.
Notice When It’s An Off Day
Students rarely enter the room and announce that their day isn’t going well. At least not in as many words, right? It comes in all sorts of other forms. Listing those off isn’t necessary here, but it is important to consider how we respond when we notice it. One day I came back from being out, and a student in my first period told me this: “Mr. Hogan, I was having a bad day, but you weren’t here. You always seem to notice it and make those days better.” As a fairly introverted teacher, I was always just looking for things I could make conversation about. I had no idea the impact I was having. I’ll never forget that.
Admit Your Failures
Somehow part of being a leader has morphed into being (or at least presenting yourself as) flawless. I can’t stand that. Reality is that we all are making plenty of mistakes. Not careless ones–just regular, everyday, accidental mistakes. If we don’t show our students a model for taking ownership of our mistakes, what are we saying to them about how they should handle this in the future. It’s important in all contexts, but it’s a special priority of mine to make sure young men see grown men take ownership of their actions–no matter how big or small they may be–and respond appropriately. So many teachers do a great job of this, but the impact is only increased as more educators step into that place of vulnerability talking about our missteps. It’s not always fun, but it’s always worth it.
These five suggestions aren’t magic. In fact, they’re far from it. If you try these out, it will make your job more complicated, more involved, but it will also make it more rewarding. Your impact as an educator doesn’t happen by accident. What are you doing this summer to make sure you make the impact you want next year? What else should we add to this list?