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Modeling the Way

Earlier in the week, I had a great opportunity to drop by two fourth grade field trips, each of them taking place at Four Mounds, a high ropes and team-building site that our students visit each year to wrap up a fantastic career in elementary school. I have said for many years that this is the best field trip that I have ever been part of because of the incredible experiences that students gain in a short amount of time. During their time at Four Mounds, students participated in high and low ropes courses that present physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Communication, teamwork, encouragement, perseverance, mental toughness, and the ability to step outside of one's comfort zone are essential within the various activities. As I observed, talked with others, and participated in the activities myself, I thought about key take-aways that can guide our work as educators.

Taking Risks There is no question that students were pushed outside of their comfort zones as they rotated through the rock climbing wall, zip line, "flying squirrel," and the lower course that required clear communication, teamwork, persistence, and emotional stability. It was powerful to see students face their fears while climbing the pole to get up to the zip line and balance beam platforms. They were scared, but they knew the feeling they would get after hopping off that platform would be worth it. As I drove back to school that day, I couldn't help but think about how this type of risk taking can apply in a classroom, school, or district setting. Each day educators are faced with hundreds of decisions; some are big and others quite small. We can make a choice to play it safe and do the same things we have always done or we can try something new that could truly make a difference in the lives of others. Pushing our comfort zones is hard, but we must remember this is where true growth and learning occur. Here are a few thoughts that may push your comfort zone and can lead to improvement:

  • Video yourself teaching a lesson or leading a professional learning session. Analyze this and make changes to improve your practice.

  • Implement a strategy or idea that will push your comfort level and benefit students. Select something that you learned about online or from a professional journal.

  • Solicit the voice of your students or the staff members you serve to make a decision that may not be convenient for you, but is certainly best for students.

Encouragement | Appreciation | Recognition As our fourth graders were working through these stations, I was impressed with the amount of encouragement, appreciation, and recognition that they provided to each other. When their friends were struggling with climbing or were afraid to go to the next station, you could hear all kinds of encouraging words that motivated kids to push themselves even further. Being an educator in 2016 is hard, particularly with the negative rhetoric circulating in the national media stating schools are failing. High stakes accountability measures have threatened the autonomy of educators making it challenging to do what is best for kids within this system. We must remember to take the lead from our students at Four Mounds and continue to encourage, appreciate, and recognize those within our environments. It is up to us to contribute to positive cultures where student learning can flourish. Here are a couple of ideas to promote more encouragement, appreciation, and recognition within our school settings:

  • Write two hand written notes each day this week to students, colleagues, or someone important to you to let them know how much you appreciate what they do.

  • Greet everyone you see within your school in passing and ask them about their day or weekend. When they respond, truly listen in an attempt to connect further.

  • Provide a genuine thank you to someone who has recently helped you accomplish a task. (I realize all of these thoughts are common sense, but I would argue that they are not common practice, particularly when life gets busy).

Response to Feedback One of the greatest parts of this field trip was watching students listen to the feedback provided by the workers at Four Mounds while using it to help them move forward. For example, there were a number of students who were climbing the giant rock wall and came to a place where they appeared to be "stuck." The workers would get their attention and say something along the lines of, "Pull up with your right arm and extend your left leg to the next ledge." The feedback was specific and actionable which led to results. I witnessed this on numerous occasions on the high and low ropes courses which gave me an excellent reminder about how to effectively provide and use feedback to improve performance. I was reminded that feedback needs to be specific, immediate, precise, and actionable to lead to increased performance while addressing the question of, "Where to next?" I think at times we get tied up in the day to day operations within our settings and forget about the power of effective feedback. Sometimes our eyes are only open to what is going wrong rather than seeing all of the good around us. When we take the time to provide specific, precise, and actionable feedback, we greatly increase the chances of seeing the desired behavior in the future. What can you do this week to provide more effective, more regular feedback?

  • Be a witness to the good (thank you for the terminology, Jim Knight). Pay attention to your students or staff members and look for things that they are doing well and let them know about it. For example: "Thank you for entering the classroom so quietly, Steve, and getting right to work on your bell ringer assignment. When you get right to work to begin the day, I know that you are ready to have a great day of learning."

  • Take the time to listen to the feedback that you are provided throughout the week and think about how you can use this to improve your practice.

These two visits to Four Mounds were remarkable and sparked so many thoughts about how to improve our settings with simple reminders. Kids are amazing and they can teach us so much if we simply take the time to stop, listen, and observe. As I watched students climb up to the zip line, problem solve on the lower course, push through to get to the top of the rock wall, and encourage others on the "flying squirrel," I couldn't help but appreciate all that I am able to learn from these amazing kids.

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