Sunday, August 27, 2017

Being a Powerful Educator

Mawi Asgedom, a Harvard graduate who came to the United States as an Ethiopian refugee has his own powerful story to tell. Through his life, his experiences, and his observations, he reminds us that we are and can be powerful educators.

What does it mean to be a powerful educator? Asgedom notes that a powerful educator is "anyone who loves youth, believes in youth, and takes action to help youth grow" (p. 5). He reminds us that we "create the mindsets and expectations" (p. 4). And even when we are overwhelmed and tired and certain our students' challenges and ours are too difficult to overcome, we have the power. No, we don't always feel powerful. No, we don't always know what to do. But we dig deep because we care, because the kids matter.

I'll be honest: some of his five "powers" grate on me a little, but I think I understand what he's trying to do. Asgedom is a fan of Stephen Covey's work. We have all been influenced by this phrase: "begin with the end in mind." Well, let's think about the end we should have in mind as powerful educators, even when we feel a bit wimpy.

The end is the students and their success.

Okay, so a quick look at these five powers because I know you're curious.

1. Press your turbo button. The turbo button is what happens whenever we take action to improve our lives. An example he gives is of the "dad who reads to his kids for 10 minutes a day" and who, through that action, accepts "his power to be a difference maker and change agent in his child's life." But here's the bottom line: pressing your turbo button is taking action rather than wondering if "someone" is going to do something; pressing your turbo button is recognizing that sometimes you are planting seeds and may not see any actual harvest but you plant those seeds anyway. Because it matters.

2. Relate with heart. Empathy. Letting your students know that you care about them as individuals. I remember noticing that a student was changing, and not in a good way. After a couple of weeks of seeing this kid working hard to be accepted by a bunch of kids who really didn't have his best interests in mind, I said, almost in passing, "Hey! I see you're hanging around. . . ." He looked surprised when I named the kids. I shrugged and said, "Just think about what's best for you." He plopped down in the visitor chair in my office a few days later to tell me he was struggling because he didn't feel like he fit anywhere. I listened while he talked and talked and talked. And then I asked some questions. And then I asked him what he thought his options might be. And then he came to a decision. He thanked me and occasionally I still hear from him. 20+ years later.

We have to remember that some kids will find it hard to ask for help. We have to remember that some kids don't even know they need help. Mostly we have to remember that kids crave someone noticing them, crave having someone let them know they matter. Really matter.

3. Speak success mindsets. You've heard of Dr. Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset. You've probably seen her TED Talk. You may even have seen her TED Talk on The Power of Yet. You can watch just the few minutes and get the idea: her point, after all, is that we need to attach the word "yet" to many statements. "I can't figure out how to solve this problem. . .yet." "I don't know how to study for this test. . .yet." Students with a fixed mindset would rather do what they can and not risk failure, not risk rejection. They are more willing to settle for less because of how they've been taught to see and think about themselves, but also because they are too scared of the negative consequences of failure because they have not been taught to learn from failure.

When I was a kid, my mom would frequently make comments about my dad and his inability to finish a project or whatever it was that was making her unhappy or angry at the moment. My worst moments were when she said to me--and in that particular tone of voice--"You're just like your father." That was never a compliment. It would paralyze me because too often I didn't know why I was just like my father--what I had said or done or not said or done--so I didn't know how to fix it. Now I could have become more withdrawn and just stopped doing stuff, but I opted to do stuff where and how she couldn't see it. I'm fortunate that I had people who affirmed me in various ways, some even good. Even so, I managed to survive though not without scars. It was years before I could acknowledge my capabilities and abilities, and this was long before growth mindset was a thing.

4. Push for skill. "Skill comes from hard work and a feedback loop that builds mastery. And there are simply no shortcuts" (p. 73). This is hard and will be hard for many students to accept. Too often I hear teachers say that students just want to know the right answer or exactly what teachers want them to do. Fine.

I remember seeing looks of despair on students' faces after I gave an assignment. I talked through what they were doing and why they were doing. I answered questions, even when some of those questions were looking for shortcuts. After I paused and saw those looks, I would often say, "You can do this! I KNOW you can do this." And most of my students would be able to do the work, sometimes surprising themselves, and not just because I encouraged them but because they knew I would help them develop or refine the skills they needed.

5. Champion voice. There have been a lot of articles recently about student voice. I've heard teachers pooh-pooh the idea of student voice claiming their students are too young to know their own minds. Well, balderdash! Let me pooh-pooh that. If students aren't given opportunity to explore their thinking and their own minds, then how will they know why they believe what they believe? How will they know what matters to them? How will they learn their passions? Asgedom states, "Voice is that special sauce that makes you you and not anyone else on the planet. It's your passions, your dreams, your personality, and the things that motivate you as an individual" (p. 90).

Before differentiation, project-based learning, and student choice was cool and part of our eduspeak lexicon, I invited my students to create final projects in our literature classes. I'll be honest: I did it because I didn't want to read dozens of papers written by disinterested students who were writing papers because they had to. Painful for them; painful for me. Students always had the option to write a paper because some students were more comfortable writing a paper; that was their voice and choice. I told my students they could write a play, create a movie, create a game, paint a picture, etc. They had to write a sort of abstract to give me an idea of what they were planning to do and how they believed it related to the course. When we agreed on their planned project, they were good to go. I got some pretty half-hearted, last-minute attempts because, well, kids are kids. But I also got some AMAZING work. Some of the projects astonished me because I didn't know those talents and abilities were part of some of those kids. What a very cool thing to learn about my students? What a very cool thing to be able to encourage those talents and skills in my students? And I thought it was genius just because my grading load would be easier, but it was actually genius because I enabled and allowed my students to express their learning in ways that made sense to them.

So what is a powerful educator? In my opinion, it's an educator who genuinely cares about the welfare of each student; who inspires and leads through empathy as well as talent and skill as educator; who makes his or her own passion about their content evident by the way they embrace their work as educators. A powerful educator is one who give students opportunity to find their own voices and then listens to those voices for what they are rather than trying to craft them into what those voices "ought" to be. A powerful educator is one who comes alongside a dejected student or one who fears failure and says, "Okay. Maybe you can't do this yet, but let's think through this and figure out how you can be successful" and then doesn't give up on the student who insists he or she is too stupid or too incapable to do whatever it is.

I've been privileged to work with some powerful educators. They are the ones who are as exhausted as any other teacher at the end of the day. They are the ones who know for which students they need to ask for help. They are the ones who don't whine and don't blame the students but step back and try to figure out what they can do differently the next day to encourage, to reinforce, to support. In those classrooms I see incremental change. Not huge mind-blowing change, but tiny steps forward often followed by a few giant steps back. But because they believe in their students and they believe in themselves, they keep on keepin on'. . .being powerful educators.

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