Thursday, October 15, 2015

A Passion for Success

In my experience, we are engaged when we see someone with great passion.  This is true, even when we are not necessarily as interested in their passion as they are.  In my own school experience, I realize that most of my most memorable teachers represented the extremes on a passion continuum.  Those that had no passion were like Ben Stein's rendition of an economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  These were my least favorite teachers and served as great reverse role models for my own teaching style.  I survived in these classrooms.  My favorite teachers were on the high end of the passion scale.  These teachers were more like Jack Black’s character in School of Rock! I thrived in these classrooms.

At Morton Ranch Jr. High, 2012-2013 was a year devoted to passion!  I kicked off staff development week with the staff brainstorming descriptors of what passion looked like in a classroom.  We took those words and created a Wordle to represent our collective beliefs.  

Specifically, we identified two areas of passion that we believed accomplished teachers modeled. A passion for one’s content and a passion for student’s success were our focus.

The Morton Ranch staff identified passion for one’s subject with terms like, enthusiasm, energetic, fun and knowledgeable.   Relationships, caring, genuine, and supportive were words used to describe passion for student success.  How does one measure the passion an individual has for their work of growing students?  In response to this question, we made the decision to begin purposefully celebrating the number of students our teachers supported with extended learning opportunities.  A weekly competition was established. The grade level providing the most after school tutoring earning a jeans day.  We began to see an increase in the number of students assigned to stay after for help.  Ultimately, we rewarded specific teachers who were our top interventionists with gift cards donated by business partners. 

As I reflect on the most accomplished teachers I have had the pleasure of working with, I see the balance they showed in their passion for their content and for their student’s success.  The least successful were dispassionate in both areas.  These folks find little joy in our work and quickly exit or are escorted from the profession.  Let’s take a moment to develop a scenario that a reflective teacher could use for goal setting related to passion.  Since my background and teaching experience was in science, I will stay in that content area.

The passionate SCIENCE teacher:  This educator is extremely passionate about his subject area, science.  He has little passion or energy to ensure success of the students.  Professional learning opportunities most sought after involve learning more about the content.  Typically, this teacher has a deep understanding of science, but struggles in effectiveness due to a "curse of knowledge."  The “curse of knowledge” is a cognitive bias that leads better-informed parties to find it extremely difficult to communicate concepts at the level that a novice learner needs.  Students can become intimidated and reluctant to ask questions for fear of looking less than smart.  When questions are asked, this teacher is able to elaborate and give rich detail drawn from their strong understanding of science. The SCIENCE teacher typically has a very teacher-centered approach. He is the sage on the stage. Instead of the students engaging in exciting labs where they can directly experience science concepts, the SCIENCE teacher does demonstrations.  He is very engaged and enjoys his activity, while the students are reduced to on-lookers.  Intervention for struggling learners is episodic, and done in an invitational manner.  When one looks closely, the intervention really is little more that repeating the first teach approaches slower and louder than before.  Students are often blamed for their lack of success.  This teacher is most successful with students who come to their class with all the necessary prerequisite skills, and have an intrinsic interest in science.

The passionate science TEACHER:  This educator is extremely passionate about the student’s success.  He is intimidated by the content area and has little passion or energy to delve deeper into the concepts.  Many times the science TEACHER would prefer to teach in a different content area and is looking to make that move as quickly as possible.  Professional development that is most sought after relates to teaching techniques and strategies.  These teachers are masterful at building relationships with kids.  Many times they are able to reach the novice learner because they can relate to a more basic understanding of the content.  These teachers often have more student-centered classrooms where they serve as a guide on the side.  Students are willing to be vulnerable and ask questions because the environment feels safe.  Unfortunately, these teachers can struggle with stretching learners to the highest levels because they have yet to reach that level themselves.  When asked questions that are at a higher level, this teacher often restates what was in the book rather than draw from their deep understanding.  These teachers provide extensive and varied opportunities for students to gain and show mastery.  Interventions are purposeful and students are not merely invited, they are expected to attend them.  When their students are not successful, they feel shame and hold themselves personally accountable for student failure.  This teacher is able to grow struggling learners from where they are and close conceptual gaps. They are limited in how far they can grow students due to their own limitations with the content. 

The most accomplished teacher would be the PASSIONATE SCIENCE TEACHER.   This teacher is balanced in both his passion for the subject of science, and for the kid's learning.  This type of educator is effective with all populations and is a master of their craft. This is what we must strive to become.

I set the examples above up to be somewhat extreme in their strengths and limitations to give clarity to how an imbalance in one's passion can be an issue for student success.  Although I focused on teachers of science, the idea is in play in all content areas.  I would challenge you to reflect on your passion.  Do you need more focus on deepening the content of the subject area that you teach?  Do you need to focus on relationship building and learning more about interventions that promote student success?  I believe this is a powerful area to explore for goal setting.  In fact, I am quite passionate about it!