Friday, January 16, 2015

Educational Erosion

In my heart I believe every single teacher went into the profession with the intention of changing lives and inspiring kids. I truly believe this because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Yet, every single one of us can name a teacher or two in our building who seem to have lost their desire to do amazing work with kids. On the surface you may think these teachers are “sucky” but I think we are being a bit shortsighted and missing the larger picture when it comes to less effective teachers. It is my belief many teachers are simply experiencing symptoms of educational erosion. Just as cliffs along a coastline erode and shrink, I too think teachers suffer a similar fate. There are many variables, which impact the rate of this erosion.

Water Pressure
Just as cliff sides around the world experience different waves, storms, and tides, teachers have different pressures put on them as well. These pressures come in the form of testing, evaluations, initiatives, administrators, parents, legislation and the laundry list of things, which ultimately stand in the way of teachers doing their jobs. While a teacher may have stood tall on day one of their first year, the job and the stressors eventually erode away the tough exterior.

The number of initiatives, programs, and new responsibilities being placed on teachers is increasing to a monsoon level in some schools. Teachers’ very fabric of being which they started their careers with is being blasted out to sea.

Type of Rock
Cliffs can be comprised of different rocks determining the erosion rate and the same can be said of teachers. Some teachers are emotionally and mentally more prepared to withstand the years of teaching with its onslaught of emotional and physical waves. The reality is, some teachers are built differently and can handle all that is tossed at them. Yet, just as it is with rock, they all have a breaking point.

The hardest rock can withstand the strongest Mother Nature can throw its way. However, over time the rock changes and erodes into something different. The inspired and passionate teacher from day one evolves and erodes in the same manner. When you see a “sucky” teacher, stop and wonder what they have experienced to make them the way they are. While this is in no way supporting poor teachers, it is to say sometimes people have been beaten down so much they can’t stand back up enough to return to that person they were on their first day.

As a trail runner I see places where erosion is being stemmed and even reversed through supports such as walls, barriers or other assistive measures. Teachers need support to survive the waves of standards, assessments, initiatives, meetings and everything else wearing them down. This is not to say teachers are pathetic and can’t handle the rigors of teaching. However, I fear we will have a generation of teachers leave the profession because teaching itself is eroding into purely data management and assessments rather than relationship building and learning as a joyful act. I have yet met a teacher who says they are tired of teaching. Yet, they are tired of everything else asked of them, which ultimately gets in the way of the job of actually teaching.

Administrators who step up for their staff to push back and protect them from the storms of our educational systems are to be commended. They are the ones who can help stem the erosion of our teachers so as not to lose them. In addition, fellow teachers need to be able to support one another and help weather the storms cropping up seemingly more and more regularly.

Just as harbors and bays provide shelter from the storms, teachers too are seeking shelter. In some extreme cases, they seek shelter by simply leaving the profession all together. The feelings of stress overwhelm them to the point of exhaustion and they leave. It can be argued some of these teachers should leave but I argue we are losing the good ones too.

Another shelter teachers are taking is through leaving for positions of less accountability and pressure. Instead of teaching tested subjects they head into the waters of electives and other roles where there is shelter from high expectations in the form of rigid standards or high stakes testing. This is not to say these teachers are hiding from accountability but they need a space where they can interact with kids in a positive way without the pressure and stressors looming over them brought on by over standardization and testing.

The final shelter teachers are taking is holing up and shutting down in their rooms altogether. They ignore the new initiatives and everything new being asked of them. For them it is about survival and getting through the day.

Educational erosion may be a made up idea but the reality is teachers erode over time. Most if not all teachers walk into their first teaching job with the best intentions and a good heart. Yet somewhere along the way the system batters them into a shape or form almost unrecognizable to where they started. We must be better to our teachers, especially our new ones, if want them to withstand the weathering of a career in education. Erosion over time can create smooth and polished masterpieces if it is controlled and nurtured. However, if unprotected it will ravage and destroy all in its path.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bullies, Trolls and Fakes

As many of you know I am a huge proponent of social media use for educators. The potential positives for teachers and administrators alike are boundless and I know my professional growth has been impacted greatly through my use of social media. I have been able to gain countless resources to pull into my practice as a classroom teacher, which has benefited my students. In addition, I have been exposed to ideas and thoughts influencing the way I think about and perform my duties as a teacher. On top of it all, I have made countless connections with inspiring, friendly, helpful and even humorous individuals around the globe. Every single one of these people has changed the way I look at many aspects of my role as a teacher both from the good and the bad.

However, having said all of that, I feel as though there are pieces to social media many people are aware of but seldom point out when talking about it to new users. In fact, there is a pretty dirty underbelly to social media worth mentioning and being made aware of.

For starters, there are bullies abound in the world and social media is no exception. There will be a time when you will share something and you will be bullied for what you share. It will come in the form of derogatory tweets or negative comments on your post, picture or video. In some cases you may want to write about something culturally, politically or racially charged. Inevitably you will be harassed because you are not ____(fill in blank with a race, gender, other social status)____ and therefore you are not worthy of taking up that banner. On one hand some will ridicule you for bringing the subject up at all while on the other you will be ridiculed because you should have written or talked about it sooner. With some people there will be no winning.

Another thing will be when you share something and someone else will tell you they are already doing it or has previously done it. These trolls will claim your idea is not new and therefore people shouldn’t celebrate your own personal innovation but rather condemn you for not arriving at that idea earlier. They will not be content with your personal discovery or a new idea but rather judgmental you didn’t come up with it sooner or that you are just copying something already being done.

In addition to bullying, you have to watch out for the fake teachers out there trying to put out the persona of perfection. If you follow certain individuals or groups you might think you are inadequate or in no way capable of teaching at the level they do. Every post, tweet or picture is the model of the perfect classroom and the perfect lesson. It is easy to follow them and feel like there are impossible standards to live up to. In many cases I have looked at teacher’s content online and feel as though they are prefect in every single aspect of teaching. It appears as though social media is being used as a way to make others feel bad for not doing all the amazing things other people are doing in their schools or classrooms.

Having said all of that, I still support social media use and encourage teachers to use it as a way to connect themselves to the world. Bullies, trolls and fakes are there but that is life. Ignore, block and move on. Also know they are clearly in the minority. Don’t ever be afraid to stand up for what you believe in and write, tweet, post what you are passionate about. Recognize everyone is at a different place in this wild journey we call education and life. Some are further along than you and will potentially put you down for it. Ignore them and think about those who are at the same place or a different place and will be influenced by you sharing your work. As for the “perfect” teachers out there, recognize it is not all true. Many teachers talk themselves up in social media but also they are not completely honest or at least not fully transparent. It is not popular to share real failures and days where we had a horrible lesson or blew up on a kid. Bottom line, people are only sharing the best of what they have to offer. There is nothing wrong with this but just keep this in mind when reading about those so-called perfect lessons or strategies. Realize it and just keep focusing on making yourself better one day at a time.

Social media can be the key to unlocking great connections for you and your students. However, just be aware of the trolls, bullies and fakes out there. Recognize them and move on to create those meaningful connections that will better you as a teacher and as a person.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


As a parent and a teacher I often reflect on how these two roles intersect and are greatly influenced by each other. Lately I have been thinking a great deal about failure and how we “use” it in school as well as outside of school. I worry we might be, for lack of a better term, screwing up a generation of kids due to the way we are using and not using failure as a learning tool.

For starters, have we become overly obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves and in doing so reducing our conversations to dishonest and artificial? For example, when we give every kid a trophy or a ribbon just for trying, are we watering down accomplishments and celebrating kids’ inadequacies? While that may sound harsh, should we artificially be building kids up and telling them they are good at something they are not? In doing so do we run the risk of kids never developing coping skills to deal with failure or a situation where they are not the “best”? By falsely telling a kid they are good at something or being shielding them from failure, are we helping them in the long term?

Along those same lines, are we actually letting kids fail? Is there an environment in our houses and schools where kids can experience failure? This does not have to be soul crushing or life altering failure, but they need to fail at things. When a kid produces a poorly written piece of writing do we give them an “F” is that is deserved or do we inflate it to protect the student from the feeling of failure?  If we are watching our kids learning to ride their bikes do we run in and hold the seat before giving them a chance to fall and get back up? If a kid fails, let them fail. Stand right next to them and help move on but don’t shield them from the failure, they need it.

Another aspect of failure is the notion of celebrating failure, which has become rather popular among teachers and parents alike. However, I disagree with this idea to a point. If my kids fail at something, I don’t celebrate it nor do I encourage them to fail. Celebrating failure is telling kids failure is something to aspire to and places value on something we shouldn’t value. Instead the focus should be on getting back up and trying again. When our kids fall when we are teaching them to ride that bike, do we celebrate the skinned knees and bruises? No, we pat them on the back and encourage them to get back on that bike and keep trying. We celebrate their ability to stick with it and finally succeed. Shifting the focus off the failure and on to the “what now” is the key to making sure our students and children have the skill set to face adversity and keep going.

When kids do fail it is ok for them to feel bad about it. Failing should not be a positive experience and for those who have failed, they know this to be true. I cannot think of a time in my life where I failed and felt good about it. I hated it and it fueled to me to get better and avoid that feeling. Kids need to feel that if they are to understand how to grow and learn from those mistakes and overcome obstacles. Constantly protecting them from those negative feelings will create a false sense of confidence which will likely not serve them well in the long run.

If we are going to use failure in schools or in our homes, we need to make sure we are doing it effectively. Simply shielding kids from failure or giving them cake and ribbons when they do fail may not be the best approach. Let’s create environments where kids are safe to take risks with the potential for failure. Let them experience failure and not enjoy it but help them use that feeling to get back up and move past it. It is only through allowing kids to truly experience failure and let them learn from it that it can truly have value.

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Teacher Revolution

I am really excited that very soon I can officially call myself an author as my first book is now released for pre-published purchase through Corwin Publishing. For those that have published a book, you know the process is daunting and liberating on so many levels. As an English teacher is was great to be able to share the writing and revising process with my students in an authentic way.

As for the book itself, it is a bit of a play on words as the titles is “The New Teacher Revolution: Changing Education for a New Generation of Learners”. While many would think it is simply a book for new teachers, it is for all teachers wanting to look at teaching in a new way. If you want to get yourself an early copy be sure to check it out here. Below is the blurb from the Corwin Website about the book.

For 21st Century Educators – The New Rules Of Student Engagement
 It’s time to throw out the old rulebook. Today’s classroom demands teacher innovation, embracing of new technology, and rejection of outdated practices, especially when someone tells you it’s “always been done” a certain way.
 Meet Josh Stumpenhorst, former Illinois Teacher of the Year. Stumpenhorst’s orthodoxy-challenging methods have produced outstanding student outcomes, and in these pages he details how to maximize teacher effectiveness by thinking outside the box:

  • Build student relationships on trust and respect rather than fear and punishment. 
  • Rethink homework and letter grades, which—in their current forms—are harming learning. 
  • Leverage technology by not treating it as a “shiny toy”, but rather understand its power as a tool for rapid progress. Educators who welcome large-scale change are about to pull ahead of those who don’t.
"Josh Stumpenhorst is an all-star teacher. And the advice he provides for his colleagues comes from his own authentic experience in the classroom and from a place of deep respect for students and learning. For new teachers in search of mentoring, this book is the place to start.”
- Daniel H. Pink, Author
 "The dynamic changes in society have fundamentally altered our learners, resulting in a system that no longer meets their needs. Josh Stumpenhorst not only provides a plan to right the ship, but backs it up by including numerous strategies that have been successfully implemented."
-Eric Sheninger, Author and Award-Winning Principal
 “Josh clarifies the goals most salient to the teaching profession, while providing solutions to entrenched challenges. Any teacher, new or veteran, will rethink their classroom after reading this book.”
-Angela Maiers, Educator and Author

I am incredibly hopeful readers will find the book useful in sparking conversations about the work we do as teachers, parents, administrators and all those who work in behalf of students.

Friday, December 19, 2014

It's About the People

School districts, states and even the Federal Department of Education have rolled out initiative after initiative after initiative in schools. These initiatives come with programs, protocols, procedures and all have intentions of improving student learning at some level. Many of them are conceived with the best intentions in mind. The creators of any one of these programs or plans were interested at some level in making school better for kids. You can define "better for kids" in a lot of different ways. We want to make schools safer. We want to allow more collaborative work for teachers. We want to increase student test scores. We want to prepare kids for college and career. We want a great many things for our students and teachers and we put in place many plans and initiatives to attempt to do this.  In schools we have a plan or a procedure for just about anything we think can and will happen. On paper many of them look really good.

However, a vast majority of them fall apart or are not effective in the manner in which they were intended. The simple reason behind this is often not a fault with the plan or the program but rather the people involved. I have spent countless hours of my career being professionally developed or trained on any one of these new programs or initiatives. Yet many of them fail to reach their intended results when it comes back to a building level because of the people actually responsible for the follow through and execution. At the end of the day there are some people that just don't have any interest in following the plan or getting on board.

You can look at Common Core as a contemporary example of this notion playing out in schools. Many districts have gone through curriculum review and are implementing new Common Core aligned units of study. Yet, even with new standards and new curricula, there are still teachers refusing to change or incapable of changing. They are holding on to their old ways and refusing to adapt or change for the sake of the students. Much of the failure I have seen with the new standards has little to do with the standards but rather with the individuals attempting to implement them. From PLCs and special education to BYOD and flipped classrooms, there is a program or initiative for everything and they depend on the people involved to make them succeed. It doesn't matter how good a plan is if you have the wrong people.

I wonder if we shifted our energy and resources away from programs and initiatives and into hiring and inspiring the right people we might be better off. How can we get to a place where we are constantly improving the level of teaching and learning through ensuring the right people are in our buildings rather than trying to change those who are already there and resistant to change? If we want to look at impacting students it is the people not the programs that will do that. Programs are important. Procedures are needed. Protocols must be in place. However, none of them are worth the paper they are written on if you don't have the right people in place to do the work