Staying Passionate in Stormy Seas

It’s April, which means one of two things is potentially happening to teachers- one group is looking forward to planning for next year, and preparing for a new round of students, while another group is feeling downtrodden and uncertain about themselves and their teaching. It’s now the time of year where very few breaks exist until the last day of school. For West Virginia, teachers have a break in May for the election, as well as Memorial
Day. No more big holiday breaks, no more chances of a snow day. Okay, I take that last one back, as some West Virginia counties did receive snow at the beginning of April.

I spoke to a colleague a couple of weeks ago. She was very downtrodden and pessimistic about the path teaching had taken. Many times, she has questioned if she should just retire instead of dealing with these feelings of inadequacy. She wondered if the students would be better off with a younger teacher who was more capable. She’s also seeing some of her closest colleagues leaving at the end of this school year, and that doesn’t sit well. Who can blame her? Some have no choice in the matter, and others have chosen to seek
better options.

She asked my opinion on the possibility of her retiring and what she should do to bring back that zest. I told her that for me, my passion comes from connecting with other educators. Every week I’m involved in at least one edchat on Twitter and am engaging with other educators like myself. I also find my passion comes out within my blog posts and documenting my growth. I actively seek ways to better myself and motivate myself. My passion really comes alive when I attend conferences and professional development of my choosing. I seek out the sessions I want and take notes on what I learn. I share out what I learn with others. Finally, every now and then I pick up an educational book on a topic of my choosing. This has been lacking over the past year, but I’m slowly doing better.

Another way to put it is this: As educators, we are told to do many things, no questions asked. Complete these requirements for one’s classroom. Attend these meetings each week. Make sure to attend this district staff development or that required school staff development. Don’t forget to connect with the families and the surrounding community. We have responsibilities that cannot be shirked. Some of these we like less than others, but we do them because it’s all part of being an educator. There is, however, one thing that no one can dictate for us: our passion.

In education, each teacher’s passion is different. It’s not hard to tell though when a teacher is passionate about a topic. Just watch how they communicate. The eyes will light up, the educator will talk and talk on a topic, sound excited, possibly use hand gestures, and maybe speak a bit too fast. This is me, so I’ve been told. I’m known for my passionate rambles about the things I love best, and I’m also known for driving my friends and family crazy at times. I can’t help it, and I’m sure others can’t either.

Many times, the teacher has found a way to bring that passion into the classroom. I recall one of my cooperating teachers from back when I completed my student teaching. She loved art, and loved drawing. Often times, the projects she designed for her 6th grade students involved creating a visual piece to go with the work. She also encouraged her students to showcase their own work. I have a fond love of Minecraft. Currently I’m
working to bring that passion to the classroom. There are many ways to use it educationally. I even have a Minecraft Spotlight section on my bulletin board for students to showcase their work.

Think about your current passions outside of the classroom. What are they? How do they affect you? Next, focus on your classroom, your subject matter, and your students. How can you bring that passion with you to your classroom? Perhaps you can develop a project that incorporates it. Maybe you host a club after school for students focused on that passion. Perhaps there is a history aspect that would lend itself well to your teaching. Every educator’s passions are different, so it’s easy to see that every educator’s idea of implementation will be different as well.

Let’s bring the focus back to your classroom. Think about your subject matter and the topics you are required to teach students during their time with you. You’re not going to love teaching every minute detail of the curriculum. There are some topics you are less thrilled to teach about than others. That’s okay! Perhaps it’s a topic you need new ideas on teaching about. Perhaps you’re not sure how to make it interesting. Besides, if it’s not
interesting to you, then chances are your disinterest in the topic has been picked up on by the students, perhaps subconsciously. If you don’t like it, then why should they?

Sometimes, our passion flickers and wans. This is normal. We can’t always be passionate about the things we love best, even though we want to be. Sometimes this is due to life events that have affected us deeply. Other times we just aren’t sure of the explanation why. All we know is that we don’t feel the way we used to about something. There are times we just need to step back, reevaluate, and readjust. We often need a helping hand from the outside to refuel, and that’s where this next section comes in handy.

Here are 4 ways to keep yourself passionate about education, or to refuel your passion for education:

1. Attend a conference or professional development about something you love.

Finding the right kind of conference can feel like a mini-vacation. Get away for a few days, learn new things about the topics you love best (or have yet to discover!), and enjoy some good food, too. Of course, if the location doesn’t provide good food, ignore that last one.

There are many conferences available to educators. The problem is often finding one that takes place when the educator is able to go, and one that is cost efficient. There are some amazing conferences with a steep price tag. In my case, ISTE. One of these days I do
plan to attend that one, but for now, I cannot afford it, nor can my district. Some conferences take place at a new location each year, and others stay in the same location.

Attending a conference can bring back the spark because educators choose their own sessions to attend, and focus on sessions relevant to their work. Not every session will live up to expectations, but for the most part, educators will find the knowledge they are seeking. Conference sessions can help educators figure out how to change their teaching, or make adjustments to their current styles.

2.  Research education books, and find a new one that sparks your interest.

Sometimes it’s our mindset that needs a boost. We’re ready to try something new, even though we might not know what that something new is. If you’re looking to bring a change to your teaching, maybe it’s time to pick up a book and see what other viewpoints are out there! Often educators find that there is very little time to read during the school year, and so put this type of reading off until summer vacation. Summer vacation is often an ideal time for a few reasons- educators aren’t dealing with the day to day workload of the classroom, and they are beginning to think about the upcoming school year and how they could make changes.

There are quite an astounding number of educational resource books out there, and not all of them are good eggs. In order to sort through the bad to find the good, here are a few tips. First, talk to colleagues nearby and online about any great resource books that they’ve read and would recommend. Often someone is dying to tell more about a great read. The plus side of getting a book idea from a colleague means that you now have someone to discuss the book with as it’s being read. If a colleague doesn’t have an idea, then sometimes a quick Google or Amazon search might provide some ideas. I love using Amazon to find books because I can read other reviews. Reviews are a good way to see if the book has potential or not. Sometimes a book’s description sounds really good, but the reviews show a different story.

Once a book has been decided upon and procured, it’s time to begin reading. It’s always a good idea to take notes or to write reflection pieces every so often. It’s certainly not required, but it does make the reader think more deeply about what they have read and how they can apply it to their classroom in the future.

3.  Join an #edchat on Twitter.

#edchats are one of my favorite ways to connect on Twitter. Sure I have favorites that I follow and learn from, but there’s nothing like an #edchat to get a discussion going. #edchats provide conversation focused around one particular topic. They usually last for an hour, and can take place at a variety of times. There’s typically a moderator or host, and a list of questions that will be asked throughout the chat. #edchats do move very quickly, especially if there are many participants. For those who have trouble keeping up with the quick pace, transcripts are typically posted after the chat has ended. Educators can go back and reread the conversation whenever they like. #edchats that use the Participate Learn
website will also gather all of the resources together into a section so that readers do not have to search the entire transcript for a resource they remember seeing the first time.

#edchats can renew one’s passion because it’s a professional learning community fully focused on the topic for that week. It’s not a place where everyone vents about “that” student or “this parent”. Educators are focused on admitting faults and coming up with ways to fix them. They are eager to learn, and love to share resources. Leaving an #edchat after an hour discussion often leaves one feeling invigorated and renewed withpurpose.

4. Read blogs on your subject matter, or education in general

Remember what I said above about seeking a fresh viewpoint? Weblogs, or blogs for short, offer this. Educators take on the challenge of using a blog to share their thoughts, reflections, ideas, and suggestions for the field of education. Just like a book, a blog is a way to seek out a different mindset. Unlike a book, a blog doesn’t take as long to
read. Just like books, not every blog stumbled upon is going to be great. Some won’t have been updated for ages, or the content just isn’t what the educator is looking for.

In order to find great blogs to get started with, again, one should ask colleagues nearby and online. There are usually some well-known bloggers that post quality content to get new readers started. This lets the reader get their feet wet before seeking out blogs that are more geared toward their interest or subject matter. Once the newness wears off, it’s time to find some more content to read! Quite a few of the blogs I follow are done by educators I have met through #edchats or conferences. I often like to see what life is like in their school and community, and will follow them, even if their content doesn’t match my own. It never hurts to go outside of one’s content area. Google searches on subject blogs can be helpful, as well.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if you do just one or all of the above. The point is, you’re working to maintain your passion within your classroom. You’re motivated to work toward being your very best self, and actively seek out ways to do so. Got other ways for teachers to maintain passion in the classroom? Send your ideas my way!

Twitter Transcript: #wvedchat on Educators and Blogging

I promise that more updates are coming soon on my reading of Teach Like a Pirate, as well an an update on my #vaedtech journey. However, tonight’s #wvedchat is special to me because it was my first time hosting/moderating one! One of the leaders of #wvedchat, Derek, sent out a notice that there wasn’t a topic for this week’s chat yesterday. He would gladly take over if no one volunteered. On a whim, I decided to set up some ideas on educators and blogging. I want to see more educators using a blog as their way of reflecting and growing, and this was my chance.

I prepped my 5 questions, and I even did some images with text on them to add throughout the hour. Eventually I changed one of my questions and added a 6th one. I was definitely worried that not as many people would be interested in the topic, but we had a pretty good turnout in the end. I did my very best to keep up and reply to as many people as possible. I didn’t want anyone feeling left out or unnoticed. There were so many good points made tonight, and I’m very proud of the WV educators that added their voices to the conversation.

Tonight’s #wvedchat link

#wvedchat meets every other Tuesday at 8 PM as well. Derek Oldfield (@Mr_Oldfield) is one to follow for notices about the chat itself.


Teacher Branding: Because We’re More than a Data Point

Whenever I think of how I first began building my PLN online, I’m reminded of a few posts by a fellow WV educator of mine, Derek Oldfield. He began building his own teaching brand because he wanted to be more than just data collected by evaluations. Let’s face it: We don’t always rock evaluations. Sometimes, things just don’t fall into place. Sometimes, evaluations can be unfair. And sometimes, we just plain mess up. We’re only human, right? Failure is a part of learning from mistakes and making changes to prevent that failure from occurring in the future.

However, with educators only being observed a few times a year, depending on state and district requirements, one bad evaluation can stick out like a sore thumb. We’ll dwell on that one evaluation. We’ll wonder how it will look to others, and we’ll wonder what it will say to future employers, so that case arise.

Just like students, we’re more than a data point.

The question is this: How do we move beyond evaluations?

Answer: Build. Your. Teacher. Brand.

The internet is a place where things tend to live forever, even if they seem like they’re gone. Everyone’s heard the tales of Facebook drama from friends, family, or strangers. Everyone’s heard the tales of tweets that were made by celebrities and politicians without thinking. There are websites dedicated to collecting these bits of information and putting them out there for the world to see. The same, however, can be said for the positive.

As educators, we get the feeling we aren’t supposed to brag about our work. We’re to be humble about what we’ve accomplished so that we’re not “that teacher”. It’s a stigma we’ve created for ourselves that does more harm than good. We don’t want others to shun us if we’re talking and sharing the things that went well in our classrooms for fear the other person will be jealous or annoyed. Sometimes, we’re hesitant to share our lesson ideas with others for the same reasons. This can lead to isolation within our schools and grade level teams. The flow of information and ideas simply aren’t there. We should be collaborating, but instead we lock our ideas inside our heads. Again, we don’t want to be “that teacher”.

This is where the internet comes into play. With the internet, there are many tools that an educator can utilize to build their brand and get their work out there. There are also tools that allow educators to connect and communicate with other educators around the world, no matter the subject. When educators find other like-minded educators, they are more willing to open up within their own schools and districts, bringing the flow of information and ideas to their colleagues without fear.

Without further ado, here are 5 ways to build your brand:

1. Create a professional handle: In our personal lives, we often find ourselves using a similar username online for our activities. When it comes to gaming, social media, and the like, our username, or handle, will follow us. It’s how our online companions know us, and it’s how they may recognize us from another website. In the same sense, educators should do the same thing. A professional handle should be easy to remember, and unique enough that users on other websites have a low chance of having already taken that name. In some cases, it might even focus on an educator’s particular area of interest, but not always.

For example, when I’m joining social media type websites, I always use my tisinaction handle. TIS is short for technology integration specialist, and the “in action” part is pretty obvious. Even though my particular job title has the potential to change, it’s not a handle I will change, simply because it’s how I’m known to others online, and have been for the past 2 years. I want to be recognized immediately by my username, and constantly changing my handle may make it harder for others to recognize or find me.

2. Create a blog: Weblogs, or blogs, have been around for quite some time. They serve many purposes from documenting daily life to focusing on a hobby or sport. Plenty of educator blogs abound online and with a variety of subjects and material as well. With a blog, an educator can talk about their day to day teaching life, reflect on lesson plans, share lesson plans and ideas, discuss new resources and how to use them in the classroom, focus on issues affecting the education world, and more. Many edubloggers have a variety of these topic types within their blog.

If you’re looking for a blogging platform, there are a variety out there to choose from, and all have their own pros and cons. It is best for the potential edublogger to explore what each type has to offer, and its ease of use based on the edublogger themselves. Tumblr is my go to, and I have a few teacher friends who are also users of this platform. However, it’s not for everyone. Blogger, Weebly, and WordPress are other options to explore.

On the topic of blogs, you’ll probably want to come up with a title that gives a hint as to what you’ll be blogging about. Sure, you could simply title it “John Smith’s Blog”. Or you could come up with a catchy title that zeros in on your subject area. My blog is titled Ready, Set, Go Tech!, not only to hint of posting about technology, but also to fit in with the tisinaction handle I use.

3. Connect on Twitter: Social media is a great way to connect, and the educator side of Twitter is no exception. With the ability to create tweet in 140 characters or less in the blink of an eye, and the ease of finding similar tweets with common hashtags. Twitter is a fast-paced world, and it can be scary for educators who have never experienced it. However, there are a few ways to get started without sinking before you have the chance to swim.

First, search online for some of your favorite educational authors or creators. Have a favorite math author? A favorite professional development presenter? Chances are, they have a Twitter account that you can follow. Start off with just a few people at first while you get used to the platform. You can always add more later, and you definitely will. Once you’ve followed a few people, it’s time to find some hashtags that interest you. Hashtags are one or many words strung together that point to a topic. A quick Google search can help you find hashtags in your favorite areas. As a technology person, for example, I always like to keep an eye on #edtech for educational technology happenings. I’m also intrigued by Minecraft in the education world, and was very excited to stumble upon the #minecraftED tag.

Now that you’ve got some people to follow and you’ve found some hashtags, it’s time to begin tweeting yourself. Just like with a blog, reflect on what you’ve done, share your education passions, or share articles you’ve found to be beneficial. A word of caution though: keep it professional. Don’t mix your personal with your professional. Here and there is okay, but if you share too much personal, it may well overshadow your professional posts.

Once you’ve become accustomed to Twitter, adventure into the word of edchats. Edchats exist for states, parts of a state, or a particular area of education. This list from Cybraryman is very helpful in learning about the different chats, as well as the days and times they take place.

Oh, and if you find you have too many educators or hashtags to keep up with, then you’ll want to check out Tweetdeck. This fabulous tool connects to your Twitter account. Create columns to showcase lists you put together or even hashtags you follow. When it comes to hashtags, it even lets you customize what you see. For example, whenever I add a hashtag, I always ask for Tweetdeck to only show the posts written in English since I don’t know any other languages.

4. Connect via Other Social Media Tools: Twitter, though popular, isn’t the only social media tool out there. There’s Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+, just to name a few. Educators can utilize these pages just as they did with Twitter. Create a page on Facebook to share your work. Post your blog on LinkedIn. The best way to do so is in tandem. For example, if you write a blog post, share about it on Twitter, Facebook, and any other social media you use.

Just like with Twitter and your blog, work to be professional on any social media site you use. Chances are, you’ve made yourself publicly searchable, which means your administrators and future employers can also find your work. Make sure that what you say about students isn’t easily identifiable, especially if you’re talking about an amazing lesson you’ve taught on your personal Facebook page.

Do you have to use all of these tools? No, you don’t, and if you’re just starting to build your brand, it would be too overwhelming to try using everything at once. Pick a social media tool and start with it. Learn how to use it in the capacity of an educator. If you’re not sure how, do a search for ways to do so.

5. Go to Conferences: Conferences are wonderful places to connect with other educators and learn new information within your field. It’s one of the best ways to keep up to date on the changes and happenings in your area as well. Conferences are active, busy places. There’s always something to learn, and there are many vendors to discuss with as well. Attend sessions and take notes on what you learn. Write about it in your blog even, or share it on Twitter!

Remember what I discussed earlier about sharing knowledge? A conference is a great way to share what you know with other educators. Yes, it can be scary to be up in front of a group of people, but they are there to see YOU. They read about your session in the conference guide, and are ready to learn new things. It’s time for you to showcase yourself!

When you meet new educators at a conference, talk with them about their own work. If they have their own brand, get their contact information. You never know what you’ll find. In the same view, try to meet up with other educators you’ve only talked to online. Before the conference, post about going and see if anyone wants to host a meetup. These can be information gatherings where you share a meal and enjoy sharing your own expertise.

One of my favorite conferences to attend is the West Virginia Statewide Technology Conference. My first year was busy, as I had to attend as part of my technology integration specialist training. I also wasn’t actively building my brand, so I felt alone in a large sea of people. My second year, however, I chose to be a presenter, and the two proposals I submitted were accepted. At this time I was also starting to build my own brand, and showcased this in my presentations. I also went to a Twitter meetup of educators in my state. If we could, we often went to each other’s sessions as support. This year will be my third year, and I’m just as excited. I decided to present again, and I’m actively working with a group to hold another Twitter meetup.

Of course, these five ways to build your brand are not the only options out there. Not every educator will utilize all of them, especially when they are first getting started with building their brand. Keep in mind that even the best known educators online had trouble getting started. Choose the tools that work for you and go from there. By doing so, you’ll be more than just that data point, more than just that evaluation, more than just that good-idea-horrible-execution lesson plan. You’ll be an educator with talents and expertise that will make you both known and looked to for information and inspiration.

Oh and my buddy Derek? Well if you’re interested in a math teacher who attempts new ways to utilize technology, works to grow his own brand, and “teaches like a pirate”, go look him up on Twitter: @Mr_Oldfield.