Category Archives: Teaching Truths

What leadership really means

dancing-156041_1280This week, I had the opportunity to share some things my district is doing to move its way into the realm of virtual and blended learning. We have made some strides, but we have a long way to go before the dream of truly personalized learning is a reality.

As part of my presentation, I shared the video some of you may be familiar with, “Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy“. This video tied in well to the keynote speaker the day before, Steve Dembo, who had let us all know that the way to build new realities in school is to start off looking like a nut and hope that others will decide to join you so that you’ll look like less of a nut.

I have a respect for the video and the message it delivers, but it misses one vital point. In the video, nearly the entire crowd eventually joins in, either because it looks like fun or because everyone else is doing it and they don’t want to be ridiculed for not joining in. What I see in the video that is vitally important, however, is that the last folks who joined in the dance likely had no idea what the point of the dance was to begin with.

The movement caught on, but those who followed it didn’t necessarily know why it started in the first place.

In education, it is so important that we not only act as the lone dancing guy, or the first follower, but that we make sure that our message is so clear that it gets passed on through those that choose to follow.

If the dance itself becomes the focus, our vision is lost.

True leadership is often about laying the path and providing a venue for the “dancers” to take risks and for the “crowds” to follow. Laying that path takes strategic planning, future forecasting, and flexibility along with an acknowledgement that we are simply putting opportunities in place for others to grow.

Isn’t that, ultimately, what “school” is about?

The power of a student’s words

In an earlier post, “Power of a Teacher’s Words“, I talked about the power that teachers have when they speak to their students – whether positively or negatively. Today, as I was remembering my first year teaching, I came to realize that can be true in reverse.

My first year teaching, I started at the beginning of the second semester. My students had become quite familiar with the teaching style of my predecessor, who told me, among other things “let them have open-book tests and limit the answer choices to two – it makes them feel better.” I was enthusiastic about my new role and very excited about practicing all the things I’d been learning in my alternative certification program.

I planned my lessons really well that year – thoughtfully considering how my students would remain engaged, learn something, AND think I was a good teacher. The reality hit me fairly quickly that I had just stumbled upon the hardest job in the world and I frequently asked myself on my drive home in the dark “have I made the wrong choice?” I would stand in my classroom, looking at the faces looking back at me and think “I’m failing them.”

I struggled with the fact that my students didn’t love Biology as much as I did. I struggled with the reality that they often really wouldn’t do their work at home. I often heard them complaining that I was making them work too much.

Around the end of the 5th six weeks, I was sitting at my desk after school, grading papers when a girl walked into my room.

“Mrs. Plybon?”


“I know you don’t know me, but I just wanted to tell you I wish you were my Biology teacher because my friend tells me that she is really learning in your class.”

The truth is that right before that girl walked into my classroom, I had resolved to make a drastic change in my classroom.

I was going to follow my predecessor’s advice – assign no homework; don’t expect anything out of them; give them all the answers; make it easy on them; pass them all.

After she walked out, I was thankful for the reminder of why I wouldn’t do any of the above.

One student changed the rest of my life. If I had, indeed, fallen victim to my desperation that night, I can confidently say that I would no longer be a teacher.

One student. One sentence. Powerful. My advice to new teachers – don’t focus on the multitude of complaints – hang all of your strength on small sentences. They will be enough to carry you through.

The microcosm of today

One of the teachers at my school sent an email to everyone this morning that contained an essay he had written after a particularly noteworthy day for himself and for the students on his robotics team. I post it here with permission. I think it is a beautiful example of a teacher who genuinely “gets it” and a team of great kids who don’t fit the stereotype I hear so many teachers describing when they talk about teenage students.
The Microcosm of Today by Luis Mendoza

Today (2/21/11 – A day that we weren’t supposed to be at school)…

Today I saw a group of students grow more in one day than in any other day before it.
Today was not unprecedented, but it was not expected, and it was pleasantly received.

Today was day 41. Since January 8th, the day that kicked off the FIRST Robotics Competition Season 44 days ago, the Robotics Club has taken only 3 days off – working diligently to design, program, and build a competitive robot, a competitive website, a competitive 3D computer design, and even a competitive spirit brand. They didn’t stop during the snow days; they were designing and planning from home.

Today wasn’t the grand finale of a smooth crescendo. Throughout these past few weeks, they have faced major engineering problems – some from innocently overlooked details, others painfully unwelcomed – overcoming, nevertheless, as engineers often do in the real world. These past few weeks, the engineering lab in the first floor, now affectionately called “The Dungeon,” was turned into a real-life laboratory of critical thinking and problem solving more so than nearly any high school, or perhaps even some colleges, can offer.

Today, however, began intensifying since last week. In the final week of the robot building phase, as they were reaching their final reserves of energy, the teachers of the first floor came through with home cooked meals for the students replenishing more than their physical energy. As the students gathered around the table for Saturday night’s dinner, after thoroughly impressing our main sponsor that afternoon, they mentioned how they felt so loved by the teachers.

Oh but today…..

Today they came into The Dungeon before school to prepare for today, the last day of work before shipping to competition. During lunch, they displayed their robot to the entire school; the fruit of their labor, both intellectual and tangible. They felt like super stars showcasing the robot, the scoring grid, the artistic crate, all of their work. They had previously oblivious students from all floors interested in them and their project. By noon, they must have felt like varsity athletes on game day at a regular high school.

By 3pm they must have felt like college athletes after receiving special recognition from StuCo and invitations to an after school function – the perks of local stardom. And by 4pm, today became what I can only equate to a quasi Super Bowl media day when the Media Tech interns came to interview the team – not the individuals of the team, but a team of students at once, riding the energy wave of the magic of today – laughing, finishing each other sentences of candid responses, conveying the camaraderie that has coalesced after so much time spent together in the lab. After that interview, one which even the interviewers enjoyed, the robotics students could not have been flying any higher.

Today was the day that I saw them grow more than any other day. By 8pm today they discovered that the primary computer, a very unique piece of hardware, is irreparably damaged. Without this piece, a fully equipped and fully wired robot cannot move an inch on command, rendering it useless for competition.

Today they went from the highest high to the most dramatically disappointing low. With the clock hitting midnight, the cease-work deadline for all teams across the world, they had to pack up, in a beautiful crate, an awesome robot that cannot move. Yet.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Within minutes of processing the emotional swing, they began to brainstorm ideas to resolve this momentous set-back. Not once did I hear a student say anything about giving up. They’ve created a list of potential solutions, good enough to keep alive the hope of implementing their solution (still to be determined) within hours of arriving at the competition site on April 7th.

Today they chose to respond to this terribly deflating set-back with intrepidity, optimism, and resolve – but the robot’s computer is still damaged.

Today, what would have been a grand finale to weeks of hard work in a magical day of recognition for the students, turned out to be a microcosm of adult life. A lesson well learned in preparing for the expected, trying to prepare for the unexpected, and responding maturely to adversity because it’s the right thing to do.

Today I saw the students grow more than any other day by the decision they have made – a decision that directly or indirectly came from a variety of influences, including the strong character building that they have received from you, their teachers.

Today they learned that after everything that happened, today was just another day.

The Power of a Teacher’s Words

My son came home from school yesterday asking me “Mom, is it illegal for a teacher to call their students losers?”

Two years ago, a colleague of mine walked down a middle-school hallway and heard a teacher scream at a class “you are all so stupid!”

In 1981, I sat in a classroom of 12 bright students who had been hand-picked to be in an Honors Chemistry class while the teacher told us all how unworthy we were, how worthless our thoughts were and that she was going to save us from our ignorance.

The bad.

In 2000, I visited with a college professor of Biology in her office at her request where she said “Elaine, you would make a fantastic science teacher.” I had not considered even enjoying science after 1981 and this revelation changed my life, making me mourn the loss of 19 years of what could have been a life filled with science.

In 2006, I sent a note to the parents of one of my students, who I had had for three years straight (Biology, Chemistry, and an elective science), that said “Your son has a scientific mind. He should consider a career in engineering.” This student, who had simply not cared about science during his freshman and sophomore years, finally started caring after that note and ended up applying to engineering colleges during his senior year.

I listened to a speaker on Wednesday talk about how she had made the decision to become an engineer. She had a teacher at a community college pull her aside and ask her if she had ever thought about engineering as a career. She had not. Now she is a manager at a little global company you might have heard of – Texas Instruments – where hundreds of employees answer to her.

The good.

I’m going to make a statement that is not supported by my diligent research – it is just a speculation on my part:

The words of a teacher have more power than any other unrelated individual in a child’s life.

If a teacher, even sarcastically, tells their students they are losers, some of them will believe her. If a teacher tells a student they need to accept the fact that they will always have to flip burgers at a fast-food restaurant, many of those students will believe him. If a teacher tells a student they are capable of amazing things, some of them will do amazing things.

Please choose your words carefully in your classroom. If you say something and see that young face reflect the negativity in your words, correct it immediately. Look for things that will instill that spark in your students’ eyes. Give them hope that they can make a difference in the outcome of their own lives.

Don’t call them losers. It isn’t illegal – it is just wrong.

What was that again?

I spent the day with a group of educators in Tyler, Texas, at an event called Podstock Pineywoods. This day was a miniature of the bigger Podstock which is an annual event in Kansas, created and hosted by Kevin Honeycutt.

I’m sure a few hours on a Friday cannot compare to the bigger event, but I truly value everything I learned today. It was a two-hour drive to get there, but it was so worth it. I’m not going to go into all the new tools I have in my digital toolbelt, but let’s just say that I added several new bookmarks to check out later!

As is my practice after a full day of learning, I reflected all the way home. Several cars had to drive off the road because my reflections were shining in their eyes, but . . .

Okay, seriously – I did a lot of thinking. The first thing I thought was this:

I am in such a good mood.

Naturally, I had to wonder what put me in such a good mood? That was a no-brainer:

I learned so much today.

It wasn’t just the learning, it was the refresher course I received on how to feel good about the work I do. It was the reminder of the passion that all of us as educators need to feel to continue our work. It was the smiles and oohs and ahhhs from all the educators as Kevin expertly took us on a journey with him from his own beginnings to the day before us.

The refresher did something else for me. It reminded me of all the things I’ve learned and forgotten. (okay, obviously not everything or else I would totally understand again the life cycle of a star, and what an erg second is, and how to do trigonometry . . .) But it did remind me that there are technology tools and codes that I have at one time known a lot about, but have since forgotten.

In his keynote speech, Kevin said that we have to get kids to “learn to love learning”. I do love learning, but somewhere along the line I forgot to remember what I learned.

My big takeaway today then? A renewed passion to learn more, to teach more . . . and to revisit things I’ve forgotten – just in case the relearning might turn up a hidden treasure useful for creativity.

Our teacher is learning with us . . .

I’m not in the classroom this year, so I have an opportunity to see many classrooms in action and visit with students. Yesterday, I was walking down the hall and a former student stopped to say hi to me. I talked to her about her science class this year. She is taking Forensics. This class is in its first year at our school and several of my Chemistry students last year signed up for it.

I asked her how she was liking it and she said, “I think it’s going to be cool. Our teacher is learning with us.”

I was delivering webcams to students who are taking an online communication applications course and found that the next room I was visiting was . . . Forensics, so I headed that way.

When I walked into the room, I saw several of my former students listening to the teacher, who stopped and came over to visit with me. Among other things, he said “we’re figuring this out together.”

I absolutely love it when I hear things like this from students and teachers. The idea that a teacher can be comfortable enough to invite students to join him in a year of discovery is refreshing. So often, teachers are afraid to admit to their students that they don’t know everything. Students are quick to recognize that their teachers really don’t know everything, so when we try to convince them we do, we lose our credibility.

I’m really looking forward to watching the Forensics class this year. With a really good teacher and students who are interested in the adventure, I think I’ll see a lot of great things!

Going Paperless: Journey or Destination?

I had the opportunity to make a very brief presentation to Discovery Educator Network (DEN) educators during a webinar last week. It is part of the DEN “Shining STAR” series of webinars where Discovery STAR Educators like myself can share the things we are doing in our classroom.

Making the move toward going paperless has become a focus of mine this school year, so I shared some of my thoughts about the process. I really don’t know if every teacher can accomplish being completely paperless. I really don’t know if every teacher in a 1:1 school district can accomplish being completely paperless. What I DO know is that every teacher CAN make steps toward becoming paperless. Now is the time to do it. With Earth Day coming up April 22, there has been a push for teachers to make the pledge to be paperless on that day. This pledge isn’t about making sure you’ve made all your copies the previous day, it is about trying to develop lessons for the day that do not require the use of paper and create positive learning experiences for students. To make the pledge, complete the pledge form. This movement was started on the TeachPaperless blog.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting parts of my presentation on this blog with a more detailed discussion of the things I’ve learned through this process. Stay tuned!