Educate to Liberate

Educators’ Year-end Reflections

Teaching is such an all-consuming and thankless career, that what I sincerely wish for all educators (in addition to a universal wage increase, which virtually doubles everyone’s salary), is a much needed break – if only temporarily. I wish for all educators, the space to nurture their woefully neglected spirit-soul selves. My wish for us all is to sleep in, reconnect with family and friends and to enjoy a reprieve from the daily demands of literally giving it all away – insomuch as an entire system is built upon the intellectual property, wholehearted investment and life blood of its least valued component – its teachers. My wish for us all is a fiercely protected ritual of self-care and relaxation. I wish, hopefully not in vain, for a summer of reading for enjoyment, domestic and international travels and for indulgence in adventures galore. Surprisingly, I have one final and oft-neglected wish . . . I wish for every educator to engage in mindful, year-end reflections as a means to celebrate ourselves and acknowledge the small wins and words of appreciation from those who were the greatest beneficiaries of our hard labor: our students.

As a long-standing educator, I am conscious that this time of year was always noteworthy for the traditional school closing, year end rituals and beginning of summer excitement that all teachers (and students), so readily welcome. Once the arduous task of our formal, high stakes testing season had concluded, I and my colleagues would simultaneously breathe a collective sigh of relief for the coveted opportunity to rid ourselves from the stress inducing rigor – and uniquely low morale – which typically accompanies the year end assessment period.

As it regards my own, unscientific descriptor of the school closing climate? As a general rule teachers are uncharacteristically worn out, existing on fumes and engaged in either an obvious or an unintentional, subconscious countdown of the final days of school. Tailored dresses and suits are all but replaced by graphic tees and yoga pants, and an eerily similar casual shift is also apparent in submission of lesson plans and attitudes towards any/all mundane paperwork obligations. Administrators seem irritatingly perky and virtually oblivious to the reality that we had all barely survived the school year, as they become thoroughly immersed in their obligatory, year end evaluation and summer school recruitment modes. While the most notable shift is apparent in the form of students; who became more antsy and seemingly acutely aware that the school year will soon come to its glorious end. As such in true, childhood rebellious form, they merely throw all remaining caution to the wind and simultaneously activate their year end “act a fool, I ain’t got nothing to lose” behavioral mode. It bears mentioning that despite adding insult to injury, parents who are clearly otherwise oblivious to the school’s overarching malaise, foolishly and desperately appeal for an increase to their children’s as yet unearned (but firmly set in stone and non-negotiable), final grades. Overall, these school closing conditions emerge like clockwork and are as predictable as the day is long, but are no less comical in their various forms.

Personally, from a partial enjoyment and another part survival perspective, my own year end instruction mirrored a more creative, free-spirited and intentional product in terms of devising of meaningful ways to still teach standards while maintaining high student engagement (because school affiliated idle time is the devil). My challenge was always to incorporate minimal grading and effortless instructional effort during the final weeks/days of school as a means to maintain mutual levels of sanity for both myself and the students. Although I am not a fan of classroom “free time”; three hours of playground recess or launching full-out, child-friendly film festivals (mind you this is a thing for some teachers/classrooms); I would indulge fun, creative cross-curricular lessons and an occasional culturally appropriate film (with an accompanying discussion/lesson). On other occasions, I would opt to intentionally increase my students’ use of academically sound technologies to hold their attention and still ensure learning. Ultimately, these end of the school year periods were treasured for an opportunity to solidify a lifelong bond with students I would, in some cases, never encounter again. So, in the midst of: closing data reports, conferring grades and certificates to denote progress, classroom/locker cleanup routines, and final record keeping obligations (tied to student portfolios, attendance and closing parties to bid adieu) – for many years I was guilty of neglecting my own valuable, practitioner feedback. In retrospect, one vital yet missed opportunity in all of the aforementioned rituals was an opportunity to invest in a deep reflection upon practice.

It wasn’t until my last 5-6 years in the classroom prior to advancing to the realm of administrative leadership, that I finally realized (and proactively employed), the mindful use of classroom reflections in order to gauge my students’ honest, and preferably anonymous, opinions on my teaching style and overall instructional impact. Admittedly, there is absolutely no viable substitute for gleaning our students’ valuable feedback on both the significant drawbacks and perceived limitations OR (even better), the overwhelmingly positive benefits of our instructional influence from the past academic year. While I don’t have any specific proposals for the best tools to substantively survey one’s students . . . For the sake of preserving anonymity, I have always been creative about the various ways in which to cull the data my students have provided re: my instruction. I can proudly attest that without a doubt – I have found their feedback to be honest, humbling and thoughtful, to say the least. The value of reflective feedback has been so profound that I knew I should have incorporated the practice earlier into my teaching career. But even in its limited use as a teacher (and indelible, extensive use as an administrator and college professor), I can readily admit that research, data and the value of anonymous, reflective feedback has had a powerful impact on my current professional practice.

For example years ago, through my brutally honest middle school students in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn I learned that my tendency to speak so loudly often deterred students from asking questions (for fear of public embarrassment). This revelation forced me to be much more intentional in using my natural, teacher booming voice only when engaged in whole group instruction and to otherwise protect students’ privacy by reverting to an inside voice when responding to in-class queries. This also translated to my increased, standards based use of one-on-one conferencing time with all students as a more personalized, frequent form of informal evaluation. On the positive end, I have learned that my accessibility as a nurturer (constantly giving of my personal resources, feeding children, building personal relationships and otherwise naturally operating as a stern maternal figure away from home); served to increase my students’ inherent trust of my investment in their success and made them strive to live up to my always high expectations, for fear of “letting me down”. This knowledge of course, gave me all the feels and made me multiply universal access to my nurturing/authority figure role, to even my more introverted, hard-hearted and resistant to forming teacher-student relationships type of teenagers. For me, it was affirming to know that even those who often instinctively bristled at my uniquely Queen of the universe-BW cultural approach, eventually grew to appreciate, then welcome and ultimately return love and respect as a matter of universal principle. Prior to the copious use of reflective surveys, I would tailor my instructional approach to individual student’s behavioral profile and shower nurturing upon the bulk, while consciously withholding my charms from those few who rejected my style and projected an unlovable persona (despite this causing me to revert to a more impersonal, yet wholly inauthentic version of myself as a secondary ELA teacher). Post-reflection, I was my authentic self with all students and despite not connecting on every level with each person, I am proud that we cultivated an environment of mutual respect.

As an administrator, staff reflections and brief evaluations are already part and parcel of the year end protocols. But, rarely do principal’s depart from their capacity as instructional leaders/evaluators of record, in order to inquire as to how to improve our practice from a professional management and informed leadership perspective. However, I found that in-depth curriculum/leadership year end surveys, have too been an invaluable resource capable of intuitively gauging poor staff morale (based upon external factors like far too many obligations upon personal time and/or negative feedback to seemingly mindless trainings), upon which we as leaders, would have otherwise been oblivious. Whilst practicing the art of reflecting upon professional practice as an administrator, c/o the seamless data-compatible vehicle of Google doc forms, administrators stand to learn a great deal about teachers unfiltered insight into which programs and policies need to be modified or wholly abolished (in real time), as a means to ensure greater teacher buy-in and support. In this vein, I have learned to place less professional development attention and financing to virtually ineffective or obsolete curriculum resources and that teachers preferred a year-end or holiday bonus as opposed to occasional, teacher appreciation inspired meals, gift cards and trinkets. In depth staff reflections also empowers increased individual autonomy over the district’s master calendar, future curriculum investments and the crucial timing of formal evaluations, among other things. Though many pedagogical decisions are set in stone and seemingly fixed, the year end staff evaluation still provides an invaluable opportunity to tweak systems where feasible, to improve upon one’s leadership practice while ensuring a higher rate of staff satisfaction, long-term retention of a high quality educator force and an increase in the cultivation of an exemplary school culture. It stands to reason that parent, community and vendor surveys also provides equally important insight into a school district’s strengths and weaknesses.

In closing, to the extent that reflection surveys are brief yet revelatory, frequent, universally accessible and non-punitive measures of authentic professional practice and feedback for growth – they will undoubtedly be well received and valued by both stakeholder respondents and the professional who is subject to the honest, informal evaluation. To the flawed extent that reflection surveys are disseminated as a documented means to mete out consequences for discontent (sadly, this does happen-I once worked with a pedagogical supervisor who literally mandated vocal, administrative feedback of non-essential information (gossip) about staff and attempted to discern the tone/source of unfavorable reviews…sigh), then all efforts be damned for adherence to the realm of the ultra P-E-T-T-Y. However, provided that these evaluations are intended to contribute to specific, universally applicable and visible actions to improve the classroom or school’s climate and recommendations designed to improve practice are duly implemented – then the unvarnished truth has the capacity to set us all free from the mediocrity associated with mis-education.

Advertisements