My current job title is: TOSA (Teacher On Special Assignment). It is an interesting title, if you think about it. What is a "special assignment"? My full title is ELA (English Language Arts) TOSA. So what does that mean? That is the question. People joke that it sounds like a "spy" or "top secret mission". I hate to break their hearts and tell them that it is not that glamorous.
I had to write up my job description earlier this year. I guess I could look back and see what it says. But that is not the purpose of this post. The purpose of this post is to talk about what I feel is my "special assignment". It is not found in my official job description as it does not relate to ELA content. I have found that much of what I do, falls under the line: Other duties as assigned and I am good with that. I try to do whatever is needed to help move people, our team or our organization forward. But this one thing...that I consider "special", I feel is THE single most important part of my job, yet it is not listed...
For me, everything comes down to one word: RELATIONSHIPS! Everything. This is actually quite funny to me as I am quite the introvert.
When I was a classroom teacher, the number one thing I did with my students was connect and encourage them. After that, everything else would fall in to place. When a student knows you care, that you believe in them, they will go through great lengths for you and themselves. I use this same idea of, relationships first, with all of my encounters in my position and in life.
If my job is to support staff in our district, I need to have relationships, connections with them. How does one do such a thing? These have seemed to be what has worked:
1) Be authentic: I am completely authentic in my interactions with people. I hope that when we talk, they understand that I truly do care about them and what they are doing. That I only want what is best for them in moving forward.
2) Don't just listen, HEAR: There is a difference between listening and hearing and people know it. Many people don't often feel heard. I make this a priority when people are talking to me. I take it all in, try my best not to interrupt (one of my many flaws), and then decide the next steps. Does this person need help? Advice? A shoulder to cry on? An empathetic ear to listen? All or none of the above. I try very hard to be what that person needs at that time.
3) Create trust: Trust is something that has to be earned but is easily lost. I have to say, the most common phrase I have heard in the past two years has been "This is just between you and me...". And I always respond with "Of course, I am a vault" And I am true to my word. The other interesting phenomena is when people try to get information out of me. This is always met with "Not my story to tell. If I tell you about______then how would you be able to trust me with what you tell me?"
4) Value people: I understand that many people just want to feel valued. It is a simple thing, but often gets lost in the hustle and bustle of life. By doing the above three, it shows people that you value them. Time is free, and makes all the difference. Give people your time, your undivided attention (another one I am working on). I also believe in letting people know their worth. Often times, people are second guessing and questioning themselves. It is nice to let them know that they are worthy and valued.
5) Encourage: This is a big one for me. This is what made all the difference for me, personally. When someone finally took the time to encourage me, that was all I needed to take off and fly. So, I try to find the bright spot in everything and everyone. Once I find it, I like to help that person see it and shine. Many times, they are not aware of this "thing" in them, but with a little acknowledgment and encouragement, it flourishes.
6) Check in: I always like to touch base with people, as our lives are all so crazy busy. A quick little text, note, email is a great way to keep that important connection going. Whenever I am on a school site, I always like to "cushion" some time to go visit people and check in. This drives my colleagues crazy, because we are all so busy. They know that if they go with me to a school site for a "quick" stop, that it is never quick. But I feel this is an important piece.
7) Connect people: In the past, as educators, we often felt alone...in silos. I am so happy that this is changing and people are collaborating and sharing ideas. I like to connect people who I think will benefit from such connection. It makes me happy when I see people working together who may have never found each other because of different grade levels, sites, subjects, proximity.
8) Celebrate people: One of my favorite things to do is celebrate great things. I am lucky that I have had the chance to work with so many amazing people and have seen so many amazing things. I like to show them off, because others aren't so lucky to step out and have these encounters. I hope by celebrating, others will get inspired. The spark will ignite.
9) Follow through: Do what you say and say what you do. The easiest way to lose someone's trust is to not follow through on your word. This one is KEY for me. I try my hardest (no one is perfect) to get back to someone, find information, get a resource, make a connection, show up...if that is what I have said. My word, my integrity is everything to me, I hope that is shown by my actions. If you need to put a reminder in your calendar, so you don't forget, so be it. It is that important.
10) Promote and support risk taking: I get the biggest kick when I see someone taking a risk! Whether it is trying out a new lesson, a new tool, writing a blog, joining Twitter, jumping in a Twitter chat. This makes me so happy! It has absolutely nothing to do with me, but I just grin from ear to ear when it occurs. There are times that I know someone is "on the bubble" and just needs a wee bit of encouragement...when they take that leap...to me, it's magic. And if I can support them in any way (they usually don't need me), I am there.
My hopes are, that I do these things on a consistent basis. It is the people that make our classrooms, schools, districts; great. Education is a "people business". Our people need to know their importance. It is a collective "we" that will move us forward.
I have said before, that we are all leaders in our own right, relationship building is the foundation on which everything else should be built. So what ever your role (professionally or personally) make relationships the cornerstone of everything else.
So what does this have to do with my "job" as ELA TOSA? Well, if my main job is to support the staff of our district, I need to create a relationship with them first and fore most. So, if I look like I am in the corner of a PD, talking to someone...that is what I am doing. It may not have anything to do with the PD, with the job, it could be personal and that's alright. I happily take that on as part of my "Special Assignment".
that I like. I know it is annoying and joke that someone could either tally mark me or make a drinking game based on my "go to catch phrases". For the first time, yesterday, someone called me on my phrase..."What was that phrase you used? I have never heard that before, what does it mean?" EEEKK! Think fast...come on...you can do this....
After my quick recovery and stellar response, I reflected on this phrase that I have definitely "over played".
Where did I even get this from? I know it had to be from somewhere, as many of my thoughts originate from elsewhere. Oh yes...someone was talking to me about their place of business. They described it as a "flat organization". So, admittedly, I had NO CLUE what that meant, so during the discussion...I Googled it. Thank goodness for Google! I was able to continue in the conversation without missing a beat. I liked this idea of "flat". The way I understood it, in this context, was that this business had very few levels. That "titles" and "ego" were checked at the door. It had a team atmosphere; all for one and one for all! People were free to communicate with whomever they wished, about whatever they wished. There was transparency and the idea of all being on the same side of the coin. Maybe I'm wrong, but to me, I liked the idea. So I have run with it.
How "flat organization" turned into "flattened walls", I have no clue. Is that even a "thing"? It sounded good to me. When I picture "walls flattening", I picture them falling down to create bridges, a way to bring people together. Here are some of my ideas as I discuss the "flattening of walls":
community as a whole. The students know this and they feel it. They feel as close to the teacher they had 4 years ago, as to their current teacher. They know the teacher down the hall, and that teacher knows them...regardless if they have ever visited that class. The students feel a sense of belonging and community regardless of their grade, class, SES, IQ, grades. It is a community of learners and everyone has the ability and opportunity to contribute.
2: The staff of a school feels that same sense of belonging. Staff feels comfortable sharing and discussing ideas. No one person is valued more than another. They are a team, regardless of titles, positions, certifications or years of service. There is no "us" vs "them" when it comes to doing what is best for kids.
*I just read an anecdote where someone was interviewing staff at a hospital. They were simply asking them what their job was. This person had interviewed a maid, who had just changed some sheets. When asked what her job was, she responded "I help cure cancer!". Someone on that staff had flattened those walls with the belief that EVERY single person played a part in a patient's recovery, regardless of the task. That maid took pride and ownership and value in her position as she was helping to cure cancer. AMAZING!
3: The idea of parents as partners. Families should feel welcomed and connected to their school site. This would look different from site to site, but it is the idea that everyone is working together for the common goal: the students. Whether it is in the form of a warm welcome in the front office, parents working in the classroom, family nights, sharing school happenings via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, flattening the walls to let families in is important. They want what is best for their kids and so do we. It's a shared responsibility.
Flattening the walls for professional learning and collegial discussions: We are very fortunate to have platforms such as Twitter, to form connections with people from all over. It is a fantastic place to collaborate with people on shared topics. The great thing about this platform, to me, is that the "walls are flattened". Everyone is so willing to share and discuss. People whom I consider my "eduheros" will join in on my discussions. Authors chat frequently with their readers. It is a place where, hopefully, people's ideas feel valued. It is a place to grow and learn together, no matter who you are, or what you do.
Flattening the walls of an organization: More often then not, in any organization, there is this feeling of division. "Us v Them". Division based on rank, titles, positions. I understand and respect the importance of such titles, ranks and positions, but I don't believe it has to be a hard line drawn with a sharpie, that can not be crossed. I know there are leaders for a reason, and I absolutely respect that. The idea of flattening the walls, to me, means that all stake holders feel comfortable in sharing their ideas, feeling valued. To me, since the walls are down, it also means transparency for all. No secrets as everyone should be working for the same goal.
When I was in high school, I was a "copy girl" for a big environmental research company. I was the bottom, of the bottom. I wore t-shirts and jeans while everyone else wore white lab coats or suits. What I remember most from working there, was that the owners of the company had a system where any employee...from the top chemists to the copy girl; could write up a suggestion to help the organization. If they liked your suggestion, you earned a $25 gift card to Macy's. Now to a 17 year old girl, way back then...that was a BIG deal. And being 17 and naive, I had no qualms about dropping in my suggestions. Well low and behold...this little copy girl earned herself a whole new wardrobe from Macy's. I put in suggestion after suggestion and I received gift card after gift card. I don't think, to this day, I have ever felt so valued.
None of my suggestions had to do with what the organization actually did, but were about the environment of the organization and the health of the employees. Some had to do with helping the organizational flow of the endless papers I would copy and file. But MY suggestions were being honored! I felt amazing!!! To me, that place had some flattened walls and it made an impact on me. It taught me how to treat people. Treat all people with respect and show them that they are valued. ALL people.
Whatever you think of when you hear the term, "flattened walls" my hope is that it conjures up some ideas of teamwork, collaboration, bridges, belonging, honor and value. I believe that we are all better together...so let's knock down some walls and join forces!
It is my first official day of summer and I, for one, am completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. But for good reason, for a fantastically, positive reason. Our team just completed training almost 400 educators who will be receiving a class set of Chromebooks in the fall. It was a huge undertaking and we spent a lot of time, to thoughtfully plan it out.
We wanted to make sure that the training was not about the device, not about Google. We wanted it to be about the learning. This could have gone either way...
direction it took. It definitely was about the learning, but that definition of "learning" is different than what we had thought during the planning stages.
Each of our four sessions were jam packed with great information on how to use the device and programs to move students forward. They were filled with great strategies to increase student engagement and learning. One teacher attributed it to "drinking water from a fire hydrant"...and that is exactly what it was. Although people were very positive and excited about their new learning, their heads were full, their heads were spinning, they were overwhelmed. Finally, in my last session, on the last day...I had a huge "AHA" moment.
In my session, participants work in collaborative groups to complete a task. The first part of the task is to come up with a team name. I listened in as these groups were working. One particular group of principals and teachers, blew my mind. They came up with the team name "Silkworms". That in and of itself was not mind blowing...it was the conversation that took place: "I have gone through a metamorphosis in these two days. I have changed. I am a completely different teacher than I was two days ago!" OMG! Chills...tears...a flutter in my heart! That's it! THAT is the learning!
As our team debriefed, my colleagues heard similar sentiments. We talked about the "drinking from a fire hydrant" phenomena. Finally, in this last session...I realized that I kept talking about the same "philosophical" ideas...it is my hope that this is what the learning was; as it transcends any subject, any grade, any title, any position, any age......I found myself saying: "I don't care as much if they learned the strategies, the tools in my session...my hope is they took away..."
1) "The only thing constant in life is change" Although some may fear change, embrace it...it will happen with or with out you. The face of education, the face of our students is in a constant state of flux...we too must be flexible and transform with it.
2) "Our students may know more about something than we do" This could be a harsh reality for some. But it is the reality; especially when we bring technology into the mix. We need to be ok with that. In fact, I say we celebrate it! I talked about the fact that I checked my ego a long time ago and I, for one, am excited to learn from the students! When students teach, it not only solidifies their learning, it boosts their confidence. And the added bonus is, we learn something as well.
3) "Be awesome and dare greatly" We talked about the idea of "taking risks". This idea makes many uncomfortable. But...we need to take risks to change and grow. If we aren't growing...what's the point? We need to try new things. They may not all work, but if we don't try, we will never know. It is important for students to see us take risks, it is important for students to feel comfortable enough to take risks themselves. Building a climate, a culture where all feel safe to jump in and take risks is incredibly important and a game changer.
4) "Fail Forward" Whether you call it "failure", "mistake", "bump", "blip", "oops"...those moments are going to happen. How do you handle it? We have a choice...to let it take us down, or to let it propel us forward. The key of "failing forward"; is to own it and find the learning. I would go so far as to even say; share it. By sharing our stories of failing forward, we can model for others that aren't quite there yet. Talk about our "failures" and how we handled it, how we moved forward, how we learned. There is power in sharing our stories.
5) "Lean into the discomfort" With the introduction of these devices and technology, there is bound to be discomfort. I say...lean into it. Go with it, don't fight it. Push through the discomfort and you will find magic. You and your students will find learning and growth, if you just let go and go for it.
6) "Student centered learning is key" We are hoping that there will be a much needed shift in classrooms. No longer is the teacher "the keeper of all knowledge"...There is value and huge gains, if we relax on the reins and allow the students to dig in. Move from "Sage on the Stage" to "Guide on the Side". When students DO, they LEARN. Student engagement will increase, student buy-in will increase. With this autonomy, the students own their learning. The ones talking, the ones doing the work are the ones learning. Let them own it.
7) "Soft skills are as important, if not more important than content" Not only do we want to instill content knowledge in our students, we want them to be able to successfully function in the "real world". Those 4Cs (Critical thinking, Collaborating, Communicating, Creating) are some of those important skills. We need to provide opportunities and support for these in the classroom. Students need to be able to "play well with others". To adapt to new people and situations. We also need to instill the idea of "grit" and "perseverance" in our students. How will they face challenges that pop up? How will they cope? One participant said: "These skills are what students need, they will help them in life much more than knowing "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue"
8) "It's about the journey" As one group played Journey's "Don't stop believing"...it was a great reminder that learning is about the journey, the process...not necessarily about product. It is important to give time, honor and reflect on the process. This is something that students will need help and guidance on, but it is so important. This goes for adult learners as well. The hope is that as educators, we are life long learners, we are on a continuous journey.
9)"Just because something worked in the past, doesn't mean it still works now" Times are changing rapidly and we as educators need to do the same. This doesn't mean that EVERYTHING we have done before needs to go away. Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. But maybe it is time to look at things differently. If there is something that we want to hold on to, let's look at how we can make small changes, to make it relevant and engaging for today's learner.
After I show this video, I ask my participants: "What would a school museum look like if you were to create one based on when you were in school?". This always brings out a lively discussion, about ditto machines, eating paste, straight rows, quiet classrooms and for some, some bad memories of rulers and closets. But it always leads into a great understanding of the idea that: Just because something worked before, doesn't mean it necessarily works now.
10) "Don't let the pendulum swing too far one way" I am afraid of what could happen as these new devices are introduced in classrooms. I am weary of two things, either they will not get used or they will get over used. I am more worried about the latter. When people say "I am going to have a paperless classroom", it causes me anxiety. There is a time, a place, a reason and research to back it up, for putting pencil/pen to paper. People need to cut with scissors and stick things with glue. They need to color with crayons, markers, colored pencils. They need to have an actual book in their hand, turn and mark the pages. I caution teachers to not completely move away from these things. Everything in moderation, an equal balance must be found.
So as teachers were incredibly positive, excited and overwhelmed about all of their learning; for me...the above are the take aways that I wanted to instill. The other things in my session, can be taught/learned at a different time, if needed. My hope is that on top of or regardless of the content of my session, the participants are now thinking differently. The hope is that seeds have at least been planted .
It is not a sprint, but a marathon. I hope that the participants are able to take small sips from the fire hydrant. Start with small changes and continue to grow and evolve.
I am very proud of the educators that we have worked with, these last two weeks. They came in with such enthusiasm and open minds! The days were filled with much positivity, learning, growing and collaboration. It was an incredibly powerful way to kick off the summer!
My district has just begun the first steps in an exciting and monumental initiative. In the Fall, 14,000 Chromebooks will be given out for student use in classrooms. This is not a 1:1 rollout, but a cart model. A few months ago, teachers signed up to receive a Chromebook cart filled with enough devices for their class. We had over 300 teachers sign up within the first half hour and we had to cut it off at 460 total because of PD day restraints. For a teacher to receive their cart in the Fall, they have to complete a 2 day (10 hour) training at our Digital Educator Institute (DEI). This is being run by myself and my three fantastic TOSA counterparts. Let’s do the math...yeah, that is a lot of people for 4 people to train! We have worked extremely hard to create a Professional Development that does not focus on the device, does not focus on a program, but rather pedagogy and the learning. We wanted to stress the idea of a student centered classroom...this may rock some people’s world. It was a huge undertaking and as people started trickling in on Day 1, at 0’ dark 30 we strapped in, held on tight, and jumped in! The days were filled with a lot of collaborating, a lot of learning and a lot of smiles!
This is not a post to focus on myself nor my team. Not even on the content of the DEI. This is a post to focus on the amazing phenomena that I witnessed over the last 4 days (2 rounds). But here is a little background...there was no criteria or prerequisites for teachers joining us in the DEI. We know that we have teachers all over the spectrum in terms of basic Google and tech skills. We were not able to create groups based on Google/Tech level, nor grade/subject/school. This turned out to be a good thing! Each day of the DEI was made up of 4 sessions, participants went to 2 sessions per day. Since we were all presenting at the same time, I can not speak to my colleagues’ experiences, only my own. I have heard all of the positive feedback about all the sessions and I have complete confidence in saying that I know my colleagues rocked it!
In my session, we were looking at the content of Digital Portfolios through a fantastic collaborative activity called Iron Chef Slides created by @jcorippo. One of the beautiful things about this activity is it forces the classroom to become student centered. They were the ones doing the work, they were the ones doing the learning. So much so, that I had someone stand in the room when I ran to the bathroom and no one noticed! They were so engaged! I was not needed at the front of the room, so as the participants dug in and got messy with it; I was able to have “face time” with groups. I was also freed up to do a lot of observation. What I witnessed was magical. I had many goose bump and happy tear moments!
My observations from the sidelines:
*There was one particular teacher who was being particularly hard on herself. She was close to tears as she was feeling too pressured and not up to speed. I went over and gave her a big hug and said “You can do this, this is not built to cause you anxiety, it is for learning. Tell me what is frustrating you.” I worked with her for maybe only 2 minutes and let her loose. At the very end of the session, she called me over and said “I just have to show you what I have done, I’m so proud of myself.” and she showed me the beautiful slide she created. That is when I got the goose bumps and the tears welled up. I gave her a big hug and a high five and her team, the whole group and I celebrated her.
4) Excitement and inspiration: I don’t know if I mentioned that this started on the first day of summer! These dedicated teachers were there on the first week of summer break. You wouldn’t have known it as the energy throughout the whole 4 days was so positive and encouraging. Teachers were already thinking about how to
incorporate their new learning into next year. One of the sessions is about PLN and part of it was getting people on Twitter. It has been fantastic seeing how people are
connecting and sharing like never before. They are inspired by the learning, and they are
inspired by each other.
*One particular participant: @MelissaE5407 has taken the reins and is off and running. She took to Twitter like a fish to water and is so excited with all she is learning. She wrote her first blog, after day 2 and is ready to jump into our Twitter chat this week. Check out her journey here: It's All About the Learning
Another wonderful colleague: @Ms_Woz wrote a blog post about the training as well: DEI Simi.
I am a big proponent of sharing your learning, sharing your journey, and taking risks. I am so pleased and excited with the observations I have made over the last 4 days. This is a huge organizational change, and it could have gone either way. I think the fact that the teachers are owning their learning, taking risks and being forward thinking, is what is going to continue to make this initiative a success. Kudos to our wonderful teachers!!!
been doing a lot of this lately. It is by no means an easy process, but it is in fact, an important process.
I recently finished my portfolio for my administrative credential. There were seven elements to produce field work examples of and reflect on. Here is the problem. We did not know we would be doing this, at the start of the program. In fact, we learned of this during the last semester. Why am I sharing this? The reflection piece was extremely difficult because it was very contrived. We were forced to reflect on things that we did almost two years prior. Instead of reflecting in "real time", when it could be valuable, we were pretty much making things up to fit the assignment. The purpose of such reflection was...to get it done. Since this was the purpose, that was the outcome. It got done.
Funny enough, I linked this blog site, to my portfolio site. In my exit meeting, my advisor said to me: "I have read your blogs and really enjoyed them, this is what I was trying to get you to do in the portfolio". Ha! Go figure. Too bad my posts didn't fit into the elements.
So, the very first part of reflection is to know the purpose. I know what it is not. It is not a time to focus on the negative. It is not a time to beat oneself up. It is not time to go down the rabbit hole. This was how I have reflected in the past. What I have found is, no good comes from this. This is why it is crucial, that before you decide to reflect, you need to set your purpose.
For me, now, the purpose of reflection is to learn and grow. It is a chance for me to become a better version of myself. It is a time to look at where I started and where I want to go. It is a time to assess what has and hasn't worked. It is a time, for me, to make a plan for the future.
So for me, I have to actually set aside a time and a place. I personally have two preferred places for reflection. One is my childhood (which is also my current) neighborhood park. As an adolescent, I would go there to shoot baskets and think. As an adult, I either sit under a tree or swing on the swing set. For whatever reason, my thoughts seem clearer.
These work for me...you need to find what works for you.
Now comes the real work. How do you reflect? What do you reflect on? What does that look like? This is something that you need to define for yourself. My only suggestion is be cognizant of your thinking and remember your purpose. Stay positive, this is for growth. Celebrate the bright spots, they are there.
Here are some questions that have worked for me...
1) Where was I a year ago? What were my goals?
2) Where am I, currently, in meeting those goals?
3) What have I done to move myself forward?
4) What have I done successfully? What led to the success?
5) Where did I stumble? Where did I fall? How did I handle this? What was the learning?
6) Where were my struggles, my roadblocks? How did I handle this? What was the learning?
7) What do I need to change, moving forward?
8) What are my new goals? What steps will I take to reach these goals?
We all have our strengths and weaknesses. We all have areas of growth. As long as we recognize these things with in ourselves and keep moving forward, we are on the right track.
Mother, teacher, TOSA, GCE Level 1 & 2, Encourager of others.
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