In January, I quit my membership to the gym after 7 years. It was a tough decision, because just having that membership made me feel fit, even if I only went once a week. Over the past 7 years I've gone through Yoga phases, Pilates phases, a Zumba phase, Pure Barre, Spinning, or whatever the latest craze might be. Some of those stuck with me, others have been fleeting. But they almost all have one thing in common, which is amazing differentiated instruction.
I'll take Yoga as an example of an exercise that does a great job differentiating instruction for all levels. In one class, there could be students from 18 to 80. Some may have injuries that prevent them from certain moves. Some students are more flexible than others, and some are stronger than others. Some students may have been practicing for one year and others may have been practicing for ten. An instructor has to make sure that every single one of these people is both challenging themselves, but not pushing themselves so far that they could hurt themselves. In education we call this scaffolding. All students, all the time, deserve to be appropriately challenged.
So how do they do it? First, they have tools that help people to reach their goals. In yoga, it is sometimes a block or a strap. Someone that can't touch the floor with their fingertips may have the support they need with a block and be able to practice the same pose as the rest of the class. I am not very flexible, so I often use a strap to help me stretch by wrapping it around my foot, if my hands can't reach. It's just the little bit of help I need to be successful. In addition to providing supports, the teachers are often frequently providing extensions. These extensions might mean releasing your hands from the floor or the block and using your core for support. Another extension used often in yoga are balance poses such as the crow pose that are very challenging. The instructor will say, if you are comfortable and it is part of your practice, please continue into (Balance Pose). Everyone else stays where they are and they are still challenged.
I mentioned that I quit the gym recently, and that was to try an online fitness service called The Daily Burn. Now the workouts are completely on my own time and at my own pace. In each workout program, there is a modifier, who is modeling a beginner version of the workout. There is also someone who is extending the workout and making it more challenging. Through the whole workout you can choose which one works for you, right that moment.
So how does all this translate to education? In the classroom it might look like flexible small groups based on mastery. The groups are not homogenous or heterogenous, but rather group the students at their ability on different skills and give students the supports or extensions that they need to be challenged and experience success. Students are all different, all the time. While I might need a block for one pose, I can do the extension on another. During a workout video, I might follow the modifier sometimes and then challenge myself during the times when I feel like it's too easy. Wouldn't it be amazing if students could learn like this? Unfortunately in education we have a tendency to sort students out into permanent groups with labels and programs, but we should approach education with the idea that every student has strengths, and every student has areas of growth. Our job is to make the most of the strengths and to support the weaknesses.
This carries up to the level of the teacher as well. Like the students, not all teachers need the same level of support. But we insist on sitting teachers down and feeding them information. Training and professional development are rarely differentiated for teachers, but we expect teachers to differentiate for their students without modeling it for them.
The next time you're in a workout class or watching a video of one, check out what the instructors are doing to make sure that all students are successful. Provide choices. See all students as needing both advancement and support at different times. Use tools that help students reach their goals. Make sure all students are challenged enough to love learning no matter where they are.
Building a fire is one of the best metaphors for an education career. Each stage of building a fire, and the life of a fire has parallels in the education career. I haven't written for the past months because I've been exhausted. There was one week where every day I got home from work I put on my pajamas immediately. Has that ever happened to you?
I think it's because my fire was down to glowing embers, without enough fuel to keep going. I'm just now emerging from this time and I have a feeling I may not be alone so I thought it would be important to share, and think through how I can keep the fire burning steadily, without dying out or creating an explosion. If you have stories you can share, please share in the comments or blog about it and share with me. As we consider the fire of a teaching career, the following fire-building tips may help us, courtesy of Smokey Bear.
How to Build a Fire:
1) Gather three types of wood (Tinder, Kindling, and Fuel)
I consider these our tools. This is the knowledge and experience needed to be a good teacher. Maybe it's the pre-service teaching, or the higher ed institution that prepared you for teaching. Not only do we need these before we start teaching, we need them desperately in the first couple years of teaching. Mentorship is one of the most important components of a teachers' development and support systems. Unfortunately many schools do not have strong mentoring programs due to budgetary constraints. One of the most often cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession is lack of support. The structures underneath the fire are critical for it to start.
2) Add Kindling in One of these Methods: Tipi, Cross, Lean-To, Log Cabin
Related to the gathering of wood, our materials and resources can't be haphazard. They have to be strategic and planned. Too often schools throw materials at teachers. A new form to fill out, a new lesson plan template, a new education technology, the latest education buzzword. As an early adopter who is overly enthusiastic about new and shiny things--I may be guilty of this. As education administrators we have a responsibility to think carefully and plan the structures under which we are going to build programs and new instructional models. It is our job to create clarity among the noise.
3) Ignite the tinder with a match or lighter.
Over the course of your career there are many times where the fire slowly starts to die out. Or, maybe you haven't gotten started yet. Someone or something has got to ignite the fire to get it going. It's got to start somewhere. Over my career, my ignition has not always come from inside my school system. Thinking back, the ignition often came from other educators, an inspirational book or speaker, or professional programs that connected me to other teachers like me. It might have been a letter from a parent or a student telling me that I meant something. There are so many little points along the way that can ignite the spark. Seek these opportunities out and don't take for granted the ones that find you. They will help you keep your fire going strong.
4) Add more tinder as the fire grows.
You can't walk away from the fire. Even though we need supports in the first couple of years does not mean that support should ever go away. Every professional at every level of education deserves quality professional development. Teachers and leaders need the resources to do the job to the best of their ability. This is not always material resources (trust me, we have gotten used to working off of limited resources). But it can be emotional resources, or social resources that keep our fire from slowly dying. It could be as simple as saying "Thank You".
5) Keep the fire small and under control.
Of course, Smokey doesn't want to see the fire spread across the whole forest. A large fire can get out of our control. Sometimes it feels like we might be in the middle of a fire that is out of our control. As lawmakers that have not been in classrooms pass laws that affect them, administrators often have no choice but to respond. When these laws are not thought out well, it creates chaos in the system where educators are constantly reacting, rather than being proactive. I am so proud of fellow Alabama educators who are inviting lawmakers to classrooms. The only way this is going to get under control is through communication and understanding. Check out the NPR piece: In Alabama, Teachers School Lawmakers. Sometimes even when we've built a manageable fire and have things under our control, there are external fires that may consume the little one we have going.
I admit that my fire burned out for a little while there. There were some little glowing embers that could be used to get the fire picking up again. I found some sources of inspiration and ignition, and sought out the sources of support that I needed to keep going. Because I need to keep going. And you do too. Think of the faces of the students who need you. It could be your class of 25, it could be the hundreds of students in your school, it could be the thousands in your school district. Whoever they are, they need you. They need you at your strongest, most on-fire self.
Education careers are tough. These entries are dedicated to making the lives of educators easier and empowering those who have chosen this path to reach their potential in work and life.