Awards aren’t evil

A few days ago, @corisel posted this thoughtful reflection on awards in teaching. It’s well written and touches on a really important point: that teaching is a team sport. A single child is raised by a community of educators, not by any one teacher in isolation. So, individualistic awards can be a dangerous thing; they can wrongly emphasise the recognition of one person over the whole group that is really responsible for any positive thing that has been achieved.

The whole discussion reminded me of someone else who was very opposed to the whole system of awards that seems to exist in every field under the sun. That person was the renowned physicist Richard Feynman.

Feynman

Feynman was an incredible scientist, but he was also an amazing personality. If you’ve got 10 minutes and want to marvel at his life, watch this very entertaining video about him by Scishow. The relevant fact about him, though, was that he hated the idea of awards. As in education, science is always a group endeavour. Every discovery stands on the progress and work of others. So, Feynman argued, it was wrong to recognise individuals with awards. In one TV interview he said:

I don’t like honours… I don’t need anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone… should decide this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use. Those are the real things; the honours are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honours. It bothers me. Honours bother me!

His words seem to capture the essence of what many people have been saying so far in the discussion. But there’s more to the story. Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 – and given his whole stance on things, you would expect him to have refused the prize (he wouldn’t have been the first). However, he didn’t; he accepted the prize. This wasn’t just because he wanted his name up in lights all of a sudden. He actually went through a philosophical reversal about prizes when he saw the response of his friends and the common populace when he was awarded the prize. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he said:

And so, you Swedish people, with your honours, and your trumpets, and your king – forgive me. For I understand at last – such things [awards] provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own. For that lesson, I thank you.

His point is that awards have a power to draw attention to things that are good, and make people aware and curious about good things that they otherwise would not have done. Yes, they can be abused – they can be pursued for selfish reasons or given out as mere political gestures – but the awards themselves are not bad. In fact, they can be wonderful.

All this is just to think through the other side of things. I have no personal stake in the issue as I’ve never done anything to deserve such awards anyhow! But I thought it interesting and thought it would be nice to hear another point of view (namely Feynman’s – not mine).

#ozftchat

It’s taken me a long time to dip my toes into the ocean of Twitter, but I’ve found it to be a really enriching place to go. I’ve had the opportunity to strike up lots of relationships and be exposed to lots of ideas that I wouldn’t have heard about if I stayed in my own little educational neighbourhood.

One of the greatest social structures that have emerged from Twitter are the scheduled chats. These are often run weekly (others run once a month), and see people gather to chat about a theme that’s related to their field. Naturally, I gravitate towards the teacher chats. Twitter isn’t the ideal medium for lengthy discussion of complex and nuanced issues, but that’s not what these are about. They are more like a teachmeet than a lecture: they cover a broad range of topics and connect a variety of people together, which then opens the door for further conversation later on.

I was very privileged to be the guest on #ozftchat a couple of weeks ago. Australian Family-Teacher Chat is hosted by the wonderful Jeannette James, and is exactly what it sounds like: a time for teachers and families to interact on questions and issues that affect them both (and there are lots of those). It’s a brilliant idea and a great way to open lines of communication that are more frequent and flexible than the annual parent-teacher interview.

As you might be able to imagine, I was brought in because the theme of this particular chat was mathematics. You can read a Storify of the chat here to see how it unfolded.

In preparation for the chat, I threw together a few quotes that communicated some of the key ideas I wanted to get across. Here they are:

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If you’re into education at all, whether from the parent or teacher side (or both!), the @ozftchat account is definitely worth following!

Troubled Acronyms

Random thought of the day…

Why have there been so many ways to describe people whose main language isn’t English? I count the following acronyms:

  1. ESL: English as a Second Language. Okay, so maybe English is your third or fourth language – I get the problem.
  2. LBOTE: Language Backgrounds Other Than English. So it has BOTE in the acronym, which is a homonym for BOAT, which might be the way that some refugees arrived in the country and has negative connotations with some? Okay, I guess that could be construed as an issue.
  3. NESB: Non-English Speaking Background. So what’s wrong with this one? I thought it rolled off the tongue quite nicely, actually.
  4. EAL/D: English as an Additional Language/Dialect. This one wins points for using an extra symbol to squeeze in more meaning. Yowzer, it sounds so awkward to say out loud: “Eee Ay Ell Slash Dee”.

I guess I shouldn’t stress about it… in a year or two we’ll probably have a new one.

Don’t smile till Christmas

I started publishing videos for students. But one of the things I least expected about doing this is how many teachers who have reached out and gotten in contact with me. I wanted to share one of the questions that was sent in, and my response.

Hey Eddie,

I am at university and about to begin my teaching internship. I am often asking educators about classroom management and behavior strategies since its the one thing I am most worried about in terms of becoming a teacher. The most common response I get is the need to set up routine, but also to literally be in terminator mode in terms of strictness and firmness for a term (I have also been told about the “don’t smile till Christmas” idea). Whilst I understand the need to be firm/strict, I came into teaching because I knew it could be challenging but extremely fun at the same time and it just isn’t in me to be that teacher that is constantly nagging and picking on minor things in order to set a standard for the class. I think me and you are similar in the sense that we like to, or even NEED to, engage with the students on a level that makes it enjoyable for the both of us. However its clear that you have accomplished this to a much higher level than I have even come close to in the past on pracs and you have found that balance between engaging with students and knowing when to assert your position.

So my question for you is, how do YOU set your standards, routines and behavior expectations with a class in your first couple of weeks with them and how do you go about easing those expectations over time to create that relaxed classroom nature.

As you might be able to tell from how I interact with my students, I have never felt entirely comfortable with the Terminator mode idea. I received similar advice while at uni and gave it a real go, but found it didn’t gel effectively with my personality. I felt like I wasn’t being myself whenever I took that approach to interacting with students, and it didn’t seem to help me or them at establishing a positive learning environment. I did, however, recognise that I needed to act and speak in ways that didn’t come naturally to me at first. I couldn’t be a Terminator all the time, but I had to master the ability to be a Terminator some of the time – when it was really necessary to draw the line in terms of expected behaviour inside and outside the classroom. It wasn’t in my personality to be dead serious about everything, but if I wasn’t able to be dead serious some things, then I would just come across as flippant and dismissive. That’s not doing a service to the kids any more than being angry all the time would be.

I guess my primary tip for classroom management is this. The key is not any technique or program in particular – even though I’ve learnt tons and they’re all useful. The key is relationship. When we walk into that classroom, we are not just there to transmit information. We are there to form a relationship with the kids, and that relationship becomes the conduit through which information and understanding flows. Have you heard this phrase before? “Students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” It sounds a bit cutesy, but I’ve found it to ring very true with my experience. That means you care about them and ask how they’re doing as human beings. But it also means you care about their standard of conduct and will discipline them where necessary. If students see you don’t care in either of those ways, you will quickly see that no management strategies in the world can establish a really effective environment for learning – at least not for long.

So to answer your question directly: what do I do in those first couple of weeks? I don’t think I can give you any blanket advice here. I’ve taken a slightly different approach with every single student I’ve ever met, and that’s because (for all their similarities) every single student is unique. This is something that is best gained with experience: you need to learn how to read students and their particular needs, and respond accordingly. Some of them need you to be really serious, sure. But they also need to see that you can laugh. That you are genuinely concerned when they are going through hard times. That you can call them by name, look them dead in the eye with burning anger and tell them to leave the room immediately when they act in a way that harms or endangers another student. And to do all this in a way that’s consistent with your own character and personality. They need to experience your full range of emotion, in the right place at the right time, for you to earn their respect. And in that context, learning can really thrive.

The pizza slice that changed everything

Sometimes it’s the little things that really make a difference.

It’s been a year of big changes for me. Many of those changes have been deeply and personally challenging, and I’ve lost count of the number of days when I’ve laid my head down on my pillow at night  in an exhausted state and wondered what on earth I was thinking when I took up this new role!

At that point in time, I call a variety of things to mind to rationalise for myself and make me feel a little better after a long and trying day. This week, one of the things I called to mind was a slice of pizza.

pizza2

Context will help. One of the most novel experiences for me this year is being genuinely disliked. I have a feeling this is going to come across the wrong way, but most of the people I’ve interacted with in the past like me (or are very good at fooling me into thinking that they like me). For better or worse, I’m used to being fairly well regarded by those around me – and I’ve tried my best to give people good reasons to do that.

So this year it was a bit like jumping into a pool of ice water to have people – lots of them – really, honestly, openly, not like me. At first, like ice water, it was a raw shock to the system – was it going to get any better? But as time passed, I realised that there was no quick fix. I’d just have to get comfortable in the cold. Even though I didn’t like it, I understood very well why I was being treated this way – I was alien and unfamiliar to the school, not to mention inexperienced and making mistakes that had a flow-on effect to lots of other people. Well, fair enough then. Don’t expect to be liked – it’s not part of the role description.

But enter a group of year 12 boys who had their lunchtime hang-out spot in front of my classroom. One or two of them were in my class, but most of them I just got to interact with when I bumped into them in between classes. And frankly, whether intentionally or not, these boys just welcomed me. No matter what was happening, they would always greet me with a smile and chat with me as if they’d known me for years.

Friday was their last day of school before the HSC trial exams begin, and I had just wished my own year 12 class good luck for their assessments. The lunch bell rang and as everyone filed out of the room, I set about packing up all my things (whiteboard markers, worksheets, tripod, microphone)… only to be surprised by one of the aforementioned year 12 boys entering the room. “Sir, do you want some pizza?”

Some of them had gone and ordered pizza as a kind of pre-emptive celebration, I guess. The reasons for the food aren’t all that important to me, really. I was just touched that they invited me – a teacher, and a teacher who has just turned up at their school this year – to share some food with them. It was completely unrequested kindness – the very best kind.

Have you ever received a “slice of pizza” (or other unexpected gift) from a student?

Semester 2 returns with a bang!

After a pretty intense Term 2, I’ve hit the ground running in Term 3. Highlights include: preparing a new Year 8 program aligned to the NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum; motivating my year 12s to make the most of their final term in school with a stirring story from the 2000 Sydney Olympics; and having a cracker of an introductory lesson to the Stage 5 elective maths course that I’ve started teaching this semester!

A brief note about that last point: the elective course (open to year 9-10 students) is called Exploring Mathematics, and it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity for me. It provides the chance to dig into all kinds of maths that have to be passed over in the BOS mathematics courses (due to lack of time, difficulty of assessment, and a variety of other factors). I intend for it to feature fairly prominently on this site; Í’ll write more details about this in the future as everything is still is in a state of flux for now.

What’s on the cards for your Term 3?

168 hours & 857 tweets later…

What a week! It was a fantastic privilege to host EduTweetOz last week – I gained so much (in terms of conversations and connections), and can only hope that others got to benefit by coming along for the ride. Many thanks to the admins of the account – Corinne, Michelle, Donelle and Liz – for initiating such a fantastic community-building project and working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure it’s valuable for everyone involved.

One of the things I loved most about my experience is that it confirmed something for me that I was hoping to be true but that I wasn’t sure of yet: namely, that there is a wonderful world of educators out there who I can connect touch with and form a mutually symbiotic relationship. There are many kinds of ecological relationships between species in the animal kingdom, the most common being predator/prey, competition and parasite/host. In each of these one group’s gain necessarily means the other’s loss. But in a mutually symbiotic relationship, everyone wins.

That’s what I was hoping to tap into when I first joined Twitter. My first tweet proves it. But it took me many months before I got in touch with anyone who could actually show me that this could become a reality. And seeing others get involved with Edutweetoz showed me it was possible – and outlined a path that I myself wanted to take and contribute to as well.

In the lead-up to my 7 days in the chair, I provided answers to some interview questions that each of the hosts gets given – and thought it would be nice if those were recorded here for posterity!

The content below was originally posted on the EduTweetOz blog.

Please tell us a little about your background in education. Why did you decide to become involved in education? What are some of the roles you’ve had and what does your current role involve?

During high school, I found that I loved to explain things to my friends – I got a real kick out of seeing the light bulbs come on inside someone’s mind, so the idea of being a teacher and doing that all day every day seemed attractive to me. In addition, I was deeply drawn to the profession due to the massive personal impact that teachers can have on students.

I trained to teach mathematics and computing studies. Immediately out of university I got a position at Fort Street High School teaching Software Design & Development (among other ICT courses), till I landed a job at James Ruse Agricultural High School where I was given the opportunity to use both of my teaching methods. One of my highlights at James Ruse was overseeing many of the school’s technological resources and migrating the entire staff to an information ecosystem built off of Google Apps for Education (GAFE). My work in that area contributed to paving the way for the DEC to adopt GAFE as one of their officially endorsed software tools, with the goal of moving toward a state-wide implementation. That’s an exciting project that’s still very much in motion.

This year I just took up the role of Head Teacher Mathematics at Cherrybrook Technology High School.

Who or what keeps you inspired and motivated in your work?

There are a whole host of things that inspire me every day – from the elegant simplicity and profound insights of the subject matter I teach, to the piercing insight and unwavering dedication of my fellow teachers – but I think the main thing that keeps me motivated is the thing that got me into the profession in the first place. I constantly encounter powerful reminders of the enormous positive influence that teachers can have on students – it’s an unmatched opportunity, and it’s endlessly novel for me to see it happen in diverse ways for each unique student.

What do you see as some of the biggest rewards and challenges for people working in education today?

Having just become an executive member of staff, I’ve been exposed afresh to the reality of just how much people working in education are expected to devote their time to things that are quite peripheral to actual teaching and learning. To be sure, the vast majority of administrative tasks and extra responsibilities do make their own valuable contribution to the school environment and hence to the educational experience as a whole, but I still feel myself and the staff I lead being tugged away from focusing on that most wonderful privilege: engaging students in the classroom. I think that regaining and maintaining that focus is one of the primary challenges for teachers today.

As for rewards, sorry to keep banging on the same drum, but I feel that the most precious reward is seeing students succeed in life. For some students, it means a university scholarship. For others, it means getting their ROSA and starting that apprenticeship they’ve been eyeing for ages. For some, it means finally understanding the connection between the volume of a sphere and the process of integration. For others still, it means being able to sit with a group of peers at lunchtime and being able to have a conversation that isn’t awkward. Whatever it might be, seeing students overcome their fears or self-doubt and achieving something they had never dreamed of reaching – being able to participate in that moment is priceless.

If you had the ability to make changes to the education system in Australia, what would you do?

I don’t know how I would practically achieve this – if I did, I would already be doing it – but I somehow would want to work toward an education system that placed value on things even when they cannot be directly assessed or quantified. For instance, I’m convinced that whole generations have a bad attitude toward mathematics because the mathematics taught in schools is heavily skewed toward mastering a set of processes that can be applied to a relatively repetitive set of problems to produce desired answers. The reality, though, is that actual mathematics involves play, abstraction, imagination, exploration and the formation of unanswered questions – but none of these are easy to assess, so they fall by the wayside in the syllabus documents.

I’m sure mathematics isn’t the only KLA that suffers from this problem. I wish I could change this situation but I don’t know how yet!

What role do you see EduTweetOz playing on the education scene in Australia and what are your hopes for the account this week?

EduTweetOz, like the internet in general, is a disruptive technology. It takes something that ordinarily takes place in the “real world” (namely, professional relationships and dialogue) and disrupts the ordinary supply chain by providing a way to get it without any of the extraneous elements (e.g. a physical location, food, pre-existing networks of relationships). It lets people dive in and connect with people they might never cross paths with otherwise, and provides them with avenues for learning that they might never have encountered even if they availed themselves of all the real world opportunities that were available to them (that’s certainly been my experience!).

So I view EduTweetOz as accelerating the formation of those kinds of wonderful symbiotic professional relationships that you might only make one or two of during a conference for your professional association of choice – without all the stress and fuss of actually physically attending such a conference!

My hopes are pretty simple: (1) that together we’ll raise some interesting and valuable conversation, (2) that we’ll all be exposed to people and ideas in the educational world that we wouldn’t normally see, and (3) that I won’t drown in tweets!! (I can see the headline now: “Sydney teacher dies in horrific self-inflicted Twitter accident.”)