Thursday, March 31, 2016

It doesn't have to be so complicated

We hear it all the time in motivational speaking, spiritual circles, self-help talks.  At home, I have a little sign that was supposed to help motivate me to declutter my house.  You can see how well it's working.
What does “simplify” mean in schools, though?  I thought about this when I heard Revathi Balakrishnan use the phrase "no frills teaching", and read the article in the ATPE magazine where she states how few decorations she has in her classroom.
It got me thinking about my own shift in my classroom, after reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  Teaching reading--teaching anything, really--seemed so complicated in my resource room setting.  In many practical ways, it was complicated--special education is differentiation to the extreme.
The scheduling may be complicated, the juggling of student needs may be complicated...but our focus does not have to be.  We can simplify our goals as teachers, and as a result, take away some of the stress that is commonly associated with our profession.
After reading Miller's book, I realized my primary goals for my students remained simple: to get these students closer to reading at the level of their peers, and to instill in them a love for literacy as we worked.  In math, I focused on life skills--what did these students need to be able to do to manage money, time, and job requirements?  
The pressure we feel from administrative directives, state and district curriculum requirements, parent expectations, and our own expectations of how our classroom should look and feel and run can make our heads spin. Throw in the unpredictability of student behavior and the not-so-smooth path that learning often takes, and our job can seem very complicated.
It helps to look through the lens of simplification.  What are the goals we have for our students--not the goals set for us by admin or the state, but our own personal vision, the "what" and "why" we've posted on our walls.  Do my actions and activities support those goals?  Is there anything I can get rid of, stop doing, to help me focus on what I feel is important?
Did you hear that?  Is there anything I can stop doing, give up, to help me concentrate on what's important?  We don't always have to do one more thing to become a better teacher; sometimes we can let go of expectations and get back to basics.  When I feel overwhelmed by my librarian duties, I think back to my beliefs about a library program, and focus my attention on sharing my love of literacy, getting books into kids' hands and supporting my teachers.  All else is secondary.
The older I get, the more I recognize that I cannot do it all at the same time--and that is okay. I would much rather do a few things very well, instead of spreading myself too thin and emptying my well of energy and resolve in the process--which serves no one.
If you are someone who operates in rapid-fire mode, tackling many big projects successfully at once, lucky you.  Not everyone operates that way; I certainly don't.  With every request for participation or a leadership role, I consider my current commitments. If this new task is going to make my job more effective, fills a need for learning, or speaks to a passion of mine, then I’ll sign on.  
If it's going to interfere with what is running smoothly, if it doesn't pique my interest, or negatively impacts my family or my health (i.e. sleep!), then I am not going to feel guilty about turning it down.  I can say no to the request for now, because there are always opportunities to learn/grow/lead. Think about it; have you ever had a year in education without a chance to do more or be more?
It's natural to have ebbs and flows in energy and creativity. Wanting to lay low and tackle the matters at hand is not a sign of weakness or laziness; it's your time to focus on what's important and working right now.  Think of it as fine tuning your expertise to pass along to someone else.  You'll know when the timing is right to step up and share.
Maybe you'll find increased confidence in your abilities as an educator. You might take stock of your unique talents and decide that you don't want to be a teacher in the traditional sense anymore.  Other roles in education might bring you joy and maintain your positive impact on your learning community.
When you get ready to share, you have options there, too.  Talks like these, blogging, workshops, team meetings, social media, coffee klatches with educators outside your school, MOOCs, websites--there are so many ways to spread the wealth of experience and ideas these days.  
Just remember, you don't have to do it all at the same time.
While I was implementing concepts from The Book Whisperer in my resource room, I was also attending training on writing IEP goals and objectives for students.  The overall message of that training?  Keep the IEPs simple, reasonable, manageable.
Simple, reasonable, manageable.  Those sound like good guidelines for our own personal expectations, as well.

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