Saturday, June 05, 2010

Where Do I Fit In?

Photo Credit:
It's hard to believe that an entire school year has run it's cycle. I wrote my final class blogpost and now as I reflect back now on my decision to return to the classroom, I think about the reasons why I did so and remember that the biggest reason of all was that I really missed teaching children. This year was very fulfilling in that respect because I had the greatest group of students that embraced most of what I brought to the classroom. For me, it was a great way to "test" a lot of the talk that we all (EdTech educators and members of my PLN) engage in as we train each other, do conference presentations and otherwise find ourselves in pedagogical discussions. In my previous position, I spent a lot of time offering suggestions on how to embed specific tools into the curriculum. In my current job, as a classroom teacher, I've now been able to see that some of what I've been offering has been missing some important pieces. There are pieces that include technical issues, time-management, parental custody, and cyber-safety. In my future presentations, I'll be including many of my lessons learned.

It's Not Working!
For example: I started the year asking all of my students to create a Wordle of the themselves, print it and bring it in. What occurred was that most were able to complete the task with no problems. Some however, didn't have JAVA installed, so Wordle wouldn't function on their machines. (Some parents were afraid to download JAVA for fear they were downloading a virus or something.) Some students didn't have printers. Some students attempted to try again, lost their work  and grew frustrated (although I showed them how to start in Word, then copy and paste into Wordle - not all the students had Word). In the end, some students ended up drawing their Wordles on paper. We hung them all up on the walls just the same.

"You're a loser if you teach from a textbook!"
I hear echos of some members of my PLN in my head. (Not that anyone has actually said that.) I confess that I used our textbooks! In addition I provided for lots of hands-on labs as well as many online digital resources. Well, I attempted one particular lesson where the entire lesson was from a terrific Scholastic website. We spent an entire two weeks on other interactive activities as well, but when it came time to create the assessment I made sure that all of the facts came from that site and  I told the students they would only have to go to my class webpage, click the link to the Scholastic site and study what we already did in class. I firmly believe they should be able to have something to study from and I shouldn't have to create a "study guide." (All my students had Internet access at home.) Well, in a perfect world the students all reviewed the vocab and facts from the site and prepared a few days in advance for the test. In reality, most kids did that just fine, but there were a few who had Internet issues or had to go to Dad's house and Dad doesn't let anyone use his computer or Flash didn't work on the computer and so on. Those students then arrive on the day of the test with a note from home explaining why they couldn't study for the test, how they need a few more days to study, and if they had a textbook things would be so much easier.

How did I handle these issues? During the test, I let the kids use the computer in the class to study and then take the test the next day. Who would benefit if I forced the kids to take the test anyway? Not a battle I was interested in.

They're not wrong!
Yes, they shouldn't have waited until the last minute (but who am I to tell them when to study with their children?) and if it were my child I would make sure everything worked, but how is a parent to know what is going to be assigned and if it will work in advance? Most parents are not very tech savvy. In fact, most are a bit fearful of the technology. Worried that as their kids are studying for my test, they are secretly chatting with an online predator. I think it's very important to respect these fears and opinions and I did not see it as my job to make everyone "see the light."

Sticking Points
So, as I brainstormed every creative idea this year and rolled through implementation, there were always those sticking points.  The sticking points of reality when you realize you're not just teaching kids you're also providing new and sometimes unusual experiences for them and their families. The sticking points that not everyone thinks using technology is so great and you're forced to defend what you're doing almost daily. The sticking points when even the teacher next door calls you the "fun teacher" with a snarky attitude. Or when you show your principal some incredibly cool videos your kids made on science lessons, and his comment says something about them doing well on the state test because of all they learned. Do they get it? Maybe. Do they get ME? No. We just live in different worlds; that's all.

Different Worlds
It's that "different worlds" thing that keeps bothering me. I still don't feel like I fit in and not sure where I do. I do enjoy the students but the highly critical (even litigious) nature of the parental population makes if very difficult to take instructional risks and teach out of the box. Yet, there are many so beautifully supportive parents too, but unfortunately, it's the ones who cause the most problems (complaining over nonsense, questioning every classroom decision, constantly calling the principal instead of the teacher, rude emails, etc.) that ruin the experience for everyone and make you want to just "follow the textbook."

I miss the global work I did at the district level and I miss working with my teammates who lived in that world with me. Now that I've taught for a year and had this experience and know in my heart I can still touch kids lives, I think I can comfortably live in many worlds.

Just not sure where exactly...


Lona said...

Lee, I remember when we, your Plurk family, were experiencing your excitement about getting back into the classroom along with you. It's good that you gave yourself the chance to clarify your focus. This year has been a learning experience that you can use to better work with other teachers and administrators. Bless you on the search for your niche.

sue said...

So do I hear an underlying message that you will be moving on in your quest for where you belong? Inquiring minds want to know.

Donelle said...

Thank you for this post, Lee. A lot of what you wrote reflected my experience this year. I decided to turn down a promotion of Curriculun and Technology Specislist in order to continue working with students. I work at a district charter that works with independent study and homeschooling students. Many of the tools I encouraged others to use were not met with open arms by the parents that work with their kids at home. All of my enthusiasm and best attempts at modeling did not make things run as smoothly as I'd hoped. I have been able to work on a technology curriculum project lately and find that I miss doing this type of work.
It was a difficult year personally and professionally and I've spent months asking myself the same questions of where I fit in and where I should go professionally. You leave a positive influence with so many. Whatever you decide, those you work with will be fortunate to learn from your creativity and knowledge. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

PLNaugle said...

Lee, it is a daily battle for innovative teachers to find a balance between the "textbook" and the "tech". I have made my classroom one where technology is an integral part of our daily work, but it hasn't been an easy journey.

I am glad that I have "stuck to my guns" and continued to integrate technology and it is definitely paying off. My principal is happy because my students' test scores keep rising. Other teachers in my building are happy because I'm doing training. My parents are happy because they have developed a trust in my professionalism. But most important, my students are happy because they are engaged, 21st century learners. The road can be long, lonely, and bumpy, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

Rich@rcantrell said...

Lee,I have followed you and your class on their/your learning journey this year. Your experiences shared through blogs, tweets, and conferences have been inspiring to me. I have shared much of your material/ideas/Palm Breeze Cafe offerings with our staff. I'm sure others in education around the world have been blessed as I have with your terrific year in the classroom. Where ever and what ever you choose to do this coming school year YOU MUST KEEP SHARING. One last comment "The fun teacher next door" I consider to be the ultimate compliment! What is eduacation all about? Making connections, building relationships then the real learning begins. Hats Off to the Geeky Momma!

Bob Cotter said...

Thanks for this frank follow up to you year. I have followed you a lot this year and as I said in a post before, you worked hard to demonstrate the kind of teacher you so clearly indicated you are in your past non-classroom assignment.

I wish I had the opportunity to return to the classroom ... but, alas not possible. I spent 4+ years as the technology manager for my school district, with the opportunity to not only set direction, but to work with teachers and students. With budget cuts, technology was exceptionally hard hit and my position ceased to exist. At my age, it was suggested I retire as 10 years as a principal and a technology manager did not allow a return to the classroom.

I enjoy following your comments on Twitter, and reading your public expressions on your blog. Please do keep them up and I look forward to more next school year. cheers... bob

Karl Fisch said...

I feel your pain. Let me preface the rest of this comment with the statement that what I’m about to write applies just as much to me as it does to you, so I’m sorta kinda writing to myself.

Why are you trying to fit in? Seriously. I mean I know you don’t want to be isolated and set yourself apart, but that doesn’t mean the alternative is to “fit in.” That teacher next door probably does some good things with their students that you couldn’t do because it’s not your strength, and that’s okay. Just like it’s okay that you do what you do.

And don’t run away from “fun.” We had some vigorous discussions in my staff development efforts at my school about whether “fun” was a bad thing, and I strongly argued that it wasn’t. Sure, if you do something just because it’s fun, that’s not so good (although also not so bad, but if that’s all you do . . .). But if you’re doing good work and it’s also fun, that makes it even better and more successful. We know this as adults, why we do we think it’s bad when it happens in our classrooms?

You’re a leader – deal with it. I don’t know how else to say it other than like that. And leaders, pretty much by definition, don’t fit in. It’s not always comfortable, and you’re not always right, but your students are in a better place because you’re pushing into unchartered territory. While it’s tiring, we should all be forced to defend what we do every day – it makes us better, and it’s better for our students. The problem isn’t so much that you’re being forced to defend what you do every day, it’s that the teachers around you are not.

As far as the tech problems, I think we have to help students and parents along. Some things you can anticipate – for example, you can perhaps send something home to parents ahead of time asking them to test out certain sites and reassure them about installing things like Java. Or you can try to do more prep/scaffolding with the students at school, so that they have fewer tech bugs to face at home. And get them all to install a free PDF utility (or buy Macs) and print to PDF, then email/upload/flash drive it – no printer needed. It’s never going to be perfect, but this was your first year back – give yourself some time.

Finally, I think you can respect the fears and opinions, and yet still try to change them. If you believe – and I think you do – that it’s critical that students master these new literacies (or however you want to define them), build a good digital footprint, and learn how to learn, work and live online in safe, effective and responsible ways, isn’t it our responsibility to at least engage in those conversations? And, while it doesn’t so much help you, the fact that you are starting that process will make it easier for the teachers that have your students in middle and high school to do good things and, ultimately, that will be best for your students.

So stop trying to fit in. Your students need you just the way you are.

Ann said...

Thanks for sharing. I have been having many of the same issues you have this year. I am finding that the ideal world and the real world have been causing me much more dissonance than ever before. I want to integrate technology more seamlessly, but the reality of what happens on a day to day basis with district demands often stands in the way. Good luck in finding your niche, and when you do please continue to share your experiences with us. I have learned a lot from you.

IMC Guy said...

I think I'm with Sue and wondering what your thoughts are heading into next year. Karl is right - you're a leader and you need to continue to lead. Lead not only the students, but their parents and your coworkers as well. That's what makes you great. You took a big leap heading back into the classroom. You were able to accomplish a lot with your students tech-wise. We could never do what you did (lack of tech in the homes) , but your students are going to benefit big time.

Wm Chamberlain said...

As a classroom teacher implementing the tools you have advocated you have seen the best and the worst that using tech offers. You have learned a lot this year. What about your students?

Can you honestly say that this year in your classroom allowed your students the opportunity to learn in a better way than had you not been there? If you choose to not teach in a classroom next year will those students have a lesser learning experience?

The most important job in education is the classroom teacher and I see so many passionate, intelligent and caring people that don't teach in the classroom for whatever reason and it saddens me.

"We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams.
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers,
Of the world forever, it seems."
Ode by Arthur O'Shaughnessy

The ed tech community needs you to stay in the classroom if you can, but more importantly the students need you there.

Lee Kolbert said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. You've given me some good things to think about and I appreciate that many of you have followed my experiences and have learned along with me.

You are right about this being a tremendous learning experience. It will help me regardless of my future direction. Thanks for your comment.

Thanks for commenting. I hope you find your niche too. Thank goodness for our online PLNs, right?

You are right about the rewards. As a matter of fact I have the MOST beautiful thank you letter from a parent that I'm going to share soon on a subsequent blogpost. Those rewards are ones that make the isolation and whining worth it. Thanks for visiting my blog.

The "fun teacher next door" comment had implications that not a whole lot of learning goes on. Truth is, a lot of learning went on, just not on worksheets. That's foreign to many teachers. Especially those who claim the kids "love worksheets." (Actual quote from teacher in 2009 - hard to believe.) Thanks for your nice words and encouragement.

When I say "fit in," I mean finding some comraderie with the other adults on my team. If there are moments when we can talk about non-school related things, I would like to feel like we have things in common. I often feel I'm speaking another language and there appears to be a lack of interest on their parts if I speak of special projects I'm doing. I want to be able to talk about what I'm doing with my class. Not because I'm bragging but because more heads are better than one and the experience can be even better for our students with more conversations in the planning or debriefing process. You are right, Karl, about being a leader is often isolating. I guess the problem is I don't think of myself as a leader especially not while being a teacher in a classroom in THIS school setting. Perhaps in a different school; but not where I am now. You are right on so many of your points (as usual). I will definitely need to be more proactive with how to troubleshoot. Remember though, these are 10 year old kids. When they get home and want to do what I showed them on their computers, their parents get nervous. Thanks for your honest comments. Keep 'em coming.

@Sue and @Chad
As of right now I am scheduled to teach gifted 4th grade again at the same school next year. I'm open to other possibilities though and feel like I've satisfied that urge to get back in the classroom. I appreciate your comments.

It's very tough with so many demands from the district. I have found that there are some things that don't matter as much if they don't get done. I've learned to prioritize. It goes against those of us who are Type A personalities to not do something we've been asked to do, but having been in administration, I realize there are many who don't do what they are asked. And for the most part, nothing happens. Most tasks requested, have no follow up! It occurred to me then, when I returned to the classroom and was faced with an overwhelming amount of new tasks to learn and keep track of, that I could pick and choose when I wanted to be one of those people who doesn't turn things in on time or just doesn't do something. I didn't do it often but if there was some bizarre request, I put it aside to see if it resurfaced in some way. Most of the time the task just died. Try it and you might find more time to do what's really important. Thanks for your comment.

Lee Kolbert said...

@wm chamberlain
I understand what you're saying but disagree that when you leave the classroom you stop impacting students. In many ways, depending on your role, you can impact many more students.

Will students who don't have me for a teacher have a lesser learning experience? I don't think so necessarily. I think they will just have a different learning experience. Like @karlfisch said when he mentioned the teacher next door and her strengths that I don't have. She is a terrific teacher. We are just different and so the students have a different learning experience in her room.

Lesser? Maybe in some cases, but not just because of the technology.

Thanks so much for stopping by my blog.

Karl Fisch said...

Yeah, I remembered that they're 10, because so is Abby (my daughter). While I haven't followed everything you've done with your class this year, there's nothing I've seen that I would be concerned with Abby doing (and, yes, I know I'm not the parent your concerned about, but I do try to put myself in the place of parents of other ten-year-olds.)

And them being 10 definitely affects what you can ask them to do at home compared to what I can ask my high school students to do. But asking parents to install Java is not asking too much, and asking them to visit Wordle with their student is also not too much. Sometimes I think a lot of our problems are because we don't expect enough from our community. If this thing we call school is going to work, it has to be all of us, including parents. Next year, can you invite them in one night in the first few weeks and show them a representative sample of what you'll be asking their students to do? That might go a long way toward alleviating their concerns.

Well, it is your first year. Coming in and being seen as a leader in the school in the first year is probably too much to expect, but that doesn't mean you can't lead. And I get wanting that camaraderie, that does make it tough if you can't make that connection. Perhaps another school would be better, but I would hate for you to leave the classroom. I'm getting more and more convinced that more of us need to get closer to the classroom to make the changes, not farther away.

Tony Parkin said...

Lee - your ability to 'reflect out loud' and be so frank about what is happening in your head as well as in your classroom continues to make you an extremely special ed tech blogger.

And Karl Fisch has already nailed what I was struggling to articulate - and far more eloquently! This is now part of who you are - embrace and enjoy. You are destined to be between worlds - a kind of limbo. The best answer - limbo dancing! There will be pain, anger and frustration but also huge amounts of pleasure and elation as others get it.... whether colleagues, students or even parents!

Just keep changing lives... no matter whose! And for now how about you concentrate on Club Med and change yours for a while ;)

Joe said...

I think it is important to remember that students and parents have been conditioned to define “learning” very narrowly and achievement even more narrowly by both our society and by our schools.

I’m completing my second year back in the classroom after many years in administration. It’s fun to be back on the front lines of learning and it has completely refreshed my outlook on educational technology.

Worrying less about the big picture and focus on doing your best each day by your own (rather than other people’s) metrics. I like that quote “wherever you are, there you are”, enjoy the moment, rather than overthink it. Sometimes having more questions than answers is a positive.

Unknown said...

Lee--this is a terrific post. You have put into words many of my own feelings that I just haven't been able to articulate. Thank you for sharing your year with us. You had so much going on in and out of the classroom---and the time you took to share with total strangers speaks volumes about who you are as a person.

I must admit I was a bit worried about you this year---thought it was very brave of you to go back to the classroom! While I really believed in you, that you could be all you wanted to be, there was a little piece of me that worried the system would win. Luckily, that whole mandated lesson plan debacle was rescinded, because it was scary there for awhile. Congratulations on a year well-done!

As for the future--your niche will find you, just keep being open. I see a real need for people like you to teach college students looking to enter the profession.

Lastly--great comments here as well. I love Karl's idea of giving parents some "homework" at the beginning of the year. I'll be using that one in the fall.

Unknown said...

Lee, thanks for your thoughtful post. There are many of us out here that find ourselves thinking similar thoughts at the end of a school year.

I must say that I agree with most of Karl's comments. I have had to come to terms with the fact that some of my team members will remain skeptical of doing thing differently. Like you, I've tried to reach out to them through training sessions and such. You know the old saying, "You can lead a horse to water but ..."

I look forward to hearing what you'll add to your presentations about your year. Hope to see you at FETC 2011.

David Truss said...

Hi Lee,
I took a huge leap with my family, heading to China to be a Principal after just 1.5 years of being a Vice Principal. I've got one more year here and then for family reasons we will head back to Canada when this contract is over... At that point, I'll be asking myself the same question. 'Where do I fit in?'
Next year promises to be exciting with the changes I've been able to create here, but I'm not sure I'd have that same opportunity back home. I'm thinking maybe I might go back to the classroom?
There is no road map, and more often than not it seems that my digital/PLN friends 'get it', but I can't find an environment where I'm living in same world with those around me. As exciting as it might be next year, it will still be a battle. And I'm doubtful there will be anything close to an ideal environment back home as a principal.
I wish you the best of luck finding that place where you can maximize your strengths because those around you are supporting you and also heading in the same direction. It's one thing to be comfortable in many worlds, and still another to be in a job where the challenges are self-created rather than obstacles created by obstinate people, or feeling like a square peg in a round hole.
I need to share this post with a second year teacher that has been ostracized, insulted, and belittled because she chooses a new, less traveled path. I think it is important for her to see that she is not alone in feeling like she's living in a 'different world'. Thanks for sharing so openly and honestly.

Mike Summers said...

I really enjoyed reading this. It was, by turns, sobering and thoughtful. It provides an important peek behind the veil. It's all fine and good to make arguments filled with passion and hyperbole about the need for reform and change...and yet, these voices (which include mine) must temper our well intentioned zeal against the reality of day to day life in the classroom. Thank you for this. I've bookmarked it and will come back to it often.

Derrall said...

From my perspective, I was interested in seeing how you fared in the classroom this year as one who has done PD within my district but not really tried to present at conferences or worked purely at an administrative level. I think you've helped bridge a gap that exists between us, the foot soldiers, and the dreamers/presenters who while inspiring us at conferences also excoriate our failings for not pushing the envelope enough. I love these folks dearly but I'm sometimes left with the feeling of "I'd like to see you try that in my classroom." We as teachers have to deal with the community of participants in our schools and sometimes we are required to compromise. I've long gotten used to the feeling of being isolated from the teaching practices of those around me. I applaud your choice this year to go back into the classroom because you have first hand experience for an entire year. When I see you present or share ideas I'll know that you have considered the feasibility of doing something with the real world experience at hand.

Lee Kolbert said...

Thanks for your encouragement to keep on reflecting out loud. Often when I blog, that's exactly what I'm doing; mostly for my own good. I'm glad others are learning and benefiting.

As you say, being on the "front lines" is definitely refreshing. Being in the moment with the kids and having a creative idea and then being able to implement it immediately simply doesn't happen at the administrative level. That's the part I've loved. Thanks for your comment!

@Mary Lou
Thanks for following my journey (and worrying about me)- I've worried about me too. I never thought the system would win though because I've been around long enough to see lots of pendulums swing. The system may beat me down for a short time but I always remind myself there's a bigger picture to be seen.

I will see you at FETC! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Thanks for sharing your story and quest to find your niche, too. I agree there is never that perfect place but once in a while you find some shoes that are much more comfortable than others. It's so important to recognize those shoes while we still own them and take good care of them knowing they'll not last forever. Best of luck to you and your family.

@Mike and @Derrall
One of my biggest take-aways from this year is making sure to include the practical aspects of integrating technology when sharing ideas. I think it's easy to forget the little details. Thanks for your comments.

Kimberly Wagner said...

Reading this blog entry got me thinking about doing some of my own reflecting on the year. I can relate to your comments about technology and testing. The testing sure doesn't fit with the 21st Century skills we are supposedly supposed to be focusing on!

Darren Kuropatwa said...

"You're the fun teacher next door" hit me hard. In the staffroom at my (high) school (which I rarely spent any time in) they said "He talks to them on the computer at night." Different subtext, same kind of innuendo. (I've got a wife and 4 kids fer crying out loud!)

I remember the intense feeling of loneliness. The feeling of being regarded as "less than" in some way (perhaps a misinterpretation on my part) by other colleagues in my Dept and building. But I blogged. Later I tweeted too. That virtual staffroom provided encouragement and solace often. The people in my PLN didn't see me as "less than", they engaged with me, pushed my thinking, made for better learning experiences for my students. You no less than anyone else.

I guess I just wanted to say: I know how you feel. I've been there. And I'm with you buddy, whatever your future holds.


monika hardy said...

this dialogue was good for me. thank your for sharing.
all of you.

twitter has certainly opened a door for me - that has helped me to not feel crazy.

people that don't even know of me... give me strength.

i desperately want that for my kids/students/fellow teachers.
how could you not...

Gina Pace said...


I am so glad you decided to return to the classroom. There is definitely a need for dedicated teachers who strive to achieve student success. I appreciate your honesty and transparency in this post, but please do not become one of those teachers who just "teach the textbook." Years from now you will see the fruit of your labor when your students are dedicated parents who value learning and have taught their children the same values. As an EDM310 student, I am learning to value technology and have recognized its endless possibilities. Continue to fan the flames of your students curiosity, eventually a fire will ignite in a large number of your students as well as their parents. Won't it be rewarding to know that you were the catalyst in developing this passion for knowledge and a love for technology!

Darren said...

Lee, I think you fit in at the college/university level.....move up the went the opposite route...and expected different attitudes.....I get the same thing.....I hear good things and have seen technology in the colleges.....they encourage and push for more....Doesn't that sound nice?
This was a good read by the way as always...your frustratyion is mine too,,,,,thanks Darren

Karen said...

This story sounds utterly familiar... where do I fit in? Or, do I? From what I see, you are a phenomenal writer and story teller and from the comments you must be a fantastic teacher!

Searching together; apart...