I attended the Ceceilyn Miller Institute's School Climate and Anti-Bullying Conference at Stockton University (near Atlantic City, NJ) yesterday. The over-arching theme was to change the culture of our schools so that bullying does not happen. One presenter discussed the dangers of technology. One presenter said that technology is not going away and we, instead, need to focus on adjusting the thermostat on our school climate. The concept of empathy was the overarching theme.
What is empathy?
The notion of "empathy" is a fairly recent phenomenon, dating back to mid-19th century Germany, with their notion of “Einfühlung” (or “feeling into”). The idea developed as a reaction to the then-modern scientific attitude of literally knowing matters of study. Today's understanding of empathy is that it is having the ability to see life from another person's perspective. Studies show that empathy is innate in many animals, but history shows us that it is missing in many humans, and exists in varying degrees among people who do have it. Can we improve the ability to empathize in others?
Can empathy be taught?
Dr. Seuss knew in 1971, when he wrote The Lorax that most societal issues stem from a lack of empathy. If we are to change the world, we need people to see that they are only a mere particle in a world that does not revolve around them. How do we do this? Neuroscience shows that empathy can be learned. It's a misconception, though, that by providing "character education" and teaching empathy to our children that all of society's issues will be solved. It is the lack of empathy, though, that will keep society from solving its problems, wrote Robert Nielsen, a professor of family and consumer sciences at the University of Georgia.
Daniel Goleman, an emotional intelligence guru, writes that we can increase our own levels of empathy through practice. He offers these tips in his book, Social Intelligence:
1. Pay attention. In the age of personal devices, we are actually losing empathy. Put your device away and talk to people. Have meaningful conversations where you actually look at your friend's face. Practice your non-verbal skills - read eye movements, facial expression, and body language more carefully. The more aware we are of our surroundings and interactions, the more we can sense what other people are going through.
2. Communicate meaningfully. Be aware of your own facial expressions and tone of voice.
3. Participate in cognitive empathy. Know that even if you do not agree with someone, that you can listen and understand where they are coming from. Part of this skill is listening without judging. This point is essential for our students. We need to get them to a point where they do not feel the need to argue or fight over every point of contention.
My husband and I usually end up splitting our girls up and reading to them separately at night. We alternate between our five year-old (non-reading) twins and our 8 year old (who has a fourth grade reading level). Tonight my husband read "Dragons Love Tacos" to the little ones and I read "Sideways Stories from Wayside School" to the big girl. The best nights, though, are when we can all pile on the biggest bed (which oddly enough is not ours), and read the same books together.
The very first day I found I was pregnant, nine years ago, we ended up at a Barnes and Noble sitting in a corner of the children's section reading, not parenting books, but children's picture books. We ended up buying "Pig, Pigger, Piggest" and it remains one of our favorites. We LOVE picture books, probably even more so than the girls. When I think about my oldest and her appropriately-aged fondness for chapter books, it makes me more than sad that we are out-growing this tradition. Yesterday, I had to flag her on her newest book from the library ("Drive" by Raina Telgemeier) because of more mature content matter than I think she's ready for (middle school crushes and kissing). I wished that we could just go back to the Knuffle Bunny days. Coincidentally enough, I happened upon Pernille Ripp's post today on her middle school classes' favorite picture books. It turns out, the big kids still love to read engaging stories with interesting illustrations, no matter how old they are intended for. Heck, if my almost 40 year-old self loves them, why wouldn't an 11 year-old, or even a precocious 8 year-old? Pernille recommended a number of books on this site. Some we've already enjoyed and some that are definitely on our "get the library to order for us" list.
"The quality of a question is not judged by its complexity but by the complexity of thinking that it provokes."
- Joseph O'Connor
As a teacher, I get caught up in the rote questions, seeking evidence of comprehension (why were the Ancient Greeks such adept sailors?), or the quantity of students who have had similar experiences (who knows what "The Goonies" is?). Sometimes, I step out of my safety zone and ask students to hypothesize what might have happened, or to justify a previous response. I'm too comfortable. I need to ask better questions. I recently watched a video from the Teaching Channel that made me re-think my own comfort level with questioning. Teacher Thristene Francisco explained in "Higher Order Questions: A Path to Deeper Learning" that if you can get students to question the text you can get THEN get them to better comprehend what they read. This is the first I've seen Bloom's Taxonomy flipped on its head like this, and it is motivating me to see what my students can do.
As a parent, it is important to ask better questions so that you can know who your children are. What do they love? What are they scared of? What are they struggling with? What are they proud of? What do they wish we would do differently (besides make vegetable-free dinners)? We need to eat meals with our children screen-free. We need to turn the radio down and have conversations in the car. We need to use the wait time that we use so regularly in the classroom. We need to let them ask questions of us and answer them as honestly as we reasonably can. We need to let them see our flaws and our strengths, to see what challenges us, and to see what our long-term goals are. They need to see that we are human, just as we need to see that they are capable of being more than carbon copies of ourselves.
As as school leader, it is important to ask better questions to know what direction to go in. It is Springtime, and therefore schools will soon start listing any available administrative positions for next year. If offered a position as an administrator for next year, I would spend as much time as possible asking questions to get to know the school's culture and its individual teachers and staff. What do teachers feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the school? If there is an overwhelming response in any one area, wouldn't it make sense to devote some energy to making sure a certain program continues? Or to collaborating on a solution to something that is deemed a perpetual problem?
As a learner, I find it impossible to not ask questions of myself. As I become more and more of a connected educator, thanks to my growing PLN, I find myself reflecting on a daily basis. What can I do better in the classroom as a teacher? In the lunchroom to foster better relationships with adolescents I do not know? In my school community to support my principal as I complete practicum/internship hours? John Dewey wrote that we do not learn from our experiences, but from reflecting on our experiences. When we reflect with our students, our children, our teachers, and ourselves, the growth that can come out of these better and bigger questions is limitless.
The question itself implies that teaching is not a respected profession. On the contrary, research shows that teachers have a great deal of prestige, are trustworthy, and, surprisingly are not "beleaguered and unhappy." So why do I hear all the time that they hope their children not become teachers? I'm actually guilty of this myself. I hope my children will find a profession they are passionate about, something they can apply their particular skills to, and something where they make enough money that they can help support their own families and have a good life. My best friend, from middle school through college and into adulthood, makes at least four times as much as I do as a project manager for a large tech company in the northwest. She has a BA in Business. I have a BA, an MA, and I'm working on a post-MA program to be a principal. Not fair, I find myself frequently saying to myself. Why would a chemistry major choose to be a teacher when it would be easier to be a rocket scientist? Why would anyone with the aptitude to perform a job in the top of our social hierarchy "settle" to be a teacher? Only when teachers are paid a reasonable starting salary will we be able to see ourselves as respected. When our most brilliant, creative, and disciplined academics consider teaching as a viable option as a a career, THEN we can call ourselves respected.
Teaching has called to me ever since I was three years old. My favorite game was "School." My brother and I would build a school house made out of Legos and our Star Wars action figures would be the students. Barbie was the teacher, of course. I was always a bossy girl, stickling everyone on how things should best be said, or done. I cannot say this made me a popular girl. It is actually ironic that I behaved liked this as I was quite shy in most settings. I always knew I would be a teacher. I knew that I would be like my favorite teachers, Mr. Bressan and Mr. Davis, both outside-the-box pseudo-hippies who broke rules all of the time. They did not use worksheets. We read and drew and journaled and talked and sat under the cherry blossom trees outside; it was glorious. I thought I would be a teacher who could enlighten my students to think the right way, to help mold liberal-minded, young adults who would create an idyllic society where everyone had a say (just as long as it was the right say).
I graduated college when I was 19 years old, obviously not yet old enough to teach anyone anything useful. By the time I became a teacher seven years later I wanted to simply help students learn to read, write, and think critically. I thought this was the best way to help them be productive citizens. I soon learned that this was not going to be as easy as I thought it would be. Over the last decade my mindset on teaching has changed. Teaching is showing children how to use their voice: to express themselves, to stop injustices, to make connections.
Teaching is difficult. With the exception of physical labor, I believe teaching has to be the hardest profession there is. But, if we simplify our goal so that teaching is to help students be their best selves, and we show them that we care about what happens to them, then our objective we be more easily reached. Start small, dream big.
For my first #edblogaday post, I am going to make a list. My favorite number is 26, so I will shoot for 26 things that I am grateful for and would happily celebrate with a glass of champagne.
1. My husband. He is quite possibly the best spouse ever as he single handedly gets our three girls ready for school each morning, picks them up when I can't make it home on time, sings Rick Astley songs to make us laugh, all the while working about 60 hours each week to provide us with such a wonderful life.
2. My girls. Three girls ages 8, 5, and 5. The twins have red hair and are spitfires. My oldest is precocious, funny, and imperfectly perfect.
3. Our neighborhood. We live 1/2 mile from the girls' school on a lovely cul de sac where they can play and be safe.
4. My job. I work in a school with talented and caring teachers led by creative and approachable administrators.
5. My students. I have the privilege of teaching a diverse group of 11 and 12 year olds, who surprise me with some new insight each day.
6. My friends nearby. Since moving to this area, I have met some of the nicest, funniest, generous friends I could ask for. Who knew New Jersey could make such good people?
7. My friends afar. I have friends with whom I do not speak for months, some 100 miles away, and some 3000 miles away. To be able to pick up like we never parted is something to be very grateful for.
8. My parents. They show me what a marriage should look like: how to love and treat each other. How to fight, and how not to fight. How to be there for my grandchildren when the time comes.
9. My 20 minute commute each way each day. This gives me the time to just have some quiet, to listen to novels or non-fiction on Audible, current event podcasts (What's going to happen to Adnan?!), and old podcast episodes of PrincipalCast.
10. I have exactly one year left to go until I have completed the practicum for my Principal certification and have the certificate in hand. Can't wait!
11. My change mindset. I am never complacent and never stagnant. I require growth in every aspect of my life, including my professional experiences. This will translate well as an aspiring administrator.
12. My growing PLN. Everyday it is getting larger and stronger. With each chat I participate in, each contact I make, my world gets a little bigger. I have come to depend on it, perhaps even become a little obsessive with Twitter at times, though I am able to back off. My new colleagues will still be there tomorrow to learn and grow with.
13. Coffee. It's my fairly new love in life.
14. My dentist complimented me on my white (non-bleached) teeth. Apparently the coffee has not wreaked its havoc yet.
15. My birthday is this month and I'm hoping for a dog. Can someone drop a hint to my husband?
16. Running. I started running exactly one year ago. The first time I went out, I barely could muster up one mile. I ran three to four days a week last summer working my way up to 3.5 miles by the beginning of September. On the first 50 degree week of Spring I went out three times and then not again until three days ago. I ran 4.3 on Saturday and 4.1 on Sunday. I'm super proud of myself and have set a goal of 6 miles for myself by the end of this summer.
17. Ice cream. Friday nights. I dream of that.
18. That stupid guess your age app said I look 30. It definitely knows what it is talking about, right?
19. My daily breakfast. Predictable, healthy, and so so yum. My secret-recipe oatmeal squares and 2 poached eggs. I actually dream of this, too.
20. Vacation. We have not been on a vacation in three years. We just decided to take a little jaunt up to Montreal with our kids in August. I've never been, but I hope to be able to practice my French.
21. The 5k event I volunteered for with my daughter's school went off without a hitch.
22. I only have one week left to wait on my SLLA results. I studied and finished with plenty of time to spare, so I am hopeful that this very expensive and time-consuming test did not win.
23. I came in 26th in the 5k yesterday. The fact that it was my lucky number made me feel much better about the fact that there were only 35 people in the race.
24. Tonight was sushi night!
25. My resume is revamped and ready to go to apply for any and all Supervisor positions in a 45 minute radius. Unfortunately, there are not very many of these positions available.
26. This blog! This is something I've been gearing up for quite some time and here it is.
I intend this blog to be a reflection journal of sorts, on topics such as teaching, leadership, pedagogy, and tacos.