What Defines Us

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Audio version of this post:

“Why would you want to be like anyone else?”

Trying to figure out how many times I have been asked this question would be like attempting to count the number of shoes in a Kardashian closet.  More than a hypothetical question meant to ward off bad behavior, if you grew up in my house, it was a mantra, an embodiment, the law.  

My parents didn’t just preach this question, they lived it.  When my mom was a young adult she wanted to see the world, so instead of booking a trip she auditioned for a christian music group, recorded an album and went on a world tour.  As I was growing up she was on pretty much every board in town and was constantly in the paper for the innovative work that she did. 

One of my favorite stories though is how my mother convinced a large organization to hire her as a prevention specialist with absolutely zero experience after staying home for 10 years.  How did she do it? She first decided to call her local state official, arranged a meeting, and got them to recommend her for the position (after only seeing her once). At the actual job interview they told her they would hire her over the other candidates, but she had never written any grants, a large part of the position. So, she left the interview, went immediately to the library, checked out every book she could, wrote a 20 page proposal, sent it to them, and was hired the next day.  I could honestly go on for hours about how, throughout my life, my mother has taught me the value of doing things that may be inconceivable to others.

From my dad I learned this same value, but in a different context.  A devout christian (we called him Mr. Holy Man growing up), all of his decisions and interactions with people are made based off of the scriptures in the Bible. Instead of spending his life pursuing his greatest dreams, he has dedicated it to supporting others.  I have watched him over the years devote his time to connecting with people, giving his time even when he doesn’t have it and living a life of gratitude and reflection regardless what is happening around him.  An avid reader of a variety of genres, he believes in his convictions and finds ways in any interaction to teach a lesson, encourage growth or offer support. It is rare that I have met anyone who rivals him in convictions, knowledge and servitude.

A Personal Reflection

This simple family belief has had a profound effect on me throughout my life, but especially as an educator.   When I was in the classroom I dreamed big and often altered the curriculum in favor of more meaningful learning experiences for my students.   I didn’t do this for the sake of being different, but because I wanted to plan learning activities that would truly engage all of my learners.  By my last year in the classroom, this meant more opportunities for students to drive their own learning through goal setting, reflection and feedback.   The students held book clubs and blogged about their books, planned out fundraisers, participated in back channel discussions, produced math and reading videos and owned their learning because they chose the activities to meet the weekly goals.  (Click here for example)  

I welcome risk and crave new experiences.  As a result I see change as a positive.  In my almost 20 years in education I have accepted tenure only once, not because it wasn’t offered, but because I have always had a desire to learn and grow.   Every 3-4 years I have left my current job to work in places that I knew would push my thinking.  In 2012, I left THE BEST team I have ever been on to become an instructional coach in Naperville because I was inspired by the amazing work I had heard the teachers were doing with students there.

On the flip side, I truly struggle when I am told that there is only one right way of teaching or I must do something exactly as described.  Telling me to “teach with fidelity” is the equivalent of the friendly finger in my book.  I am not saying that I don’t believe in following rules or that I don’t follow a policy when it has been agreed upon, but when a stringent approach is being made my gut reaction is to question it first.  Simply based on the fact that students are all unique, how on earth could one way be the right way to teach ALL students?

How Our Perceptions Influence Us

According to Ambrose (1987), meaningful change will occur if the following are present.

Vision+Skills+Incentives+Resources+Action Plan+Results 

If any of the components are missing then a variety of negative outcomes will result instead including anxiety, confusion, resistance, frustration, false starts and inertia.  I completely agree with this assertion, but I would also argue that considering people’s prior experiences and perceptions is another factor that needs to be a part of the equation.

Perhaps naively, when I became a coach I thought everyone had the same viewpoints as I did.   I thought that by simply providing enough background and sharing new ideas with a detailed plan that everyone would want to jump in and start whatever initiative I was introducing.  Although there were definitely people who were like me and jumped in right away, there were many others who responded differently.  Some people I found just needed more information than I had provided, some needed to “see it” first in action, some implemented slowly and others appeared to be completely uninterested.  

The more I got to know my colleagues, the more I saw how people’s prior experiences, backgrounds and beliefs influenced how they would perceive the work we would do together.  Combining this with what I learned about their strengths and passions I was able to much better tailor the learning to what my staff needed resulting in greater ownership and meaningful change.  For staff members in which change created anxiety, I made sure I incorporated connections to how the new initiative was similar to strategies or approaches they had previously experienced.  For educators who valued individuality I looked to include opportunities to personalize the new initiative and tailor it to what made it meaningful to them.

Students come to the classroom with past experiences and dispositions that affect the way they receive new learning as well.  Charlotte Danielson advocates seeking out information on students’ “backgrounds, cultures, skills, language proficiency, interests, and special needs” and incorporating this information into planning learning experiences.  Many educators interpret this part of Domain 1 as knowing information about the culture or ethnicity of the student.  If we are going to reach every child, we have to go further than looking at generic stereotypes of ethnicity or background and delve deeper into the beliefs that a student has developed during their individual upbringing.  

Three Little Questions

So how do we learn this critical information about those we teach, lead or work with?  For me, it starts with finding out the answers to the following questions:

  1. What does your family believe is most important? (For students, what is a lesson your parents have tried to teach you a lot? OR What do you think your parents think is the most important thing in life?)
  2. What do you value most?
  3. What can I learn from you?

Gaining the answers to these questions can be done in a variety of ways.  I personally prefer individual conversations, but I know that is not always realistic.  Having teams discuss these questions at a staff meeting or PLC is a great way to build upon a positive culture in the school.  It is amazing to see the connections that people make as they share ideas or values that are meaningful to them.   When staff members know the strengths of their peers, it grows the dynamic of a collaborative environment where everyone has a chance to shine and learn from one another.

In the classroom structures like genius hour or passion projects are a great way to bring out the interests and values of the kids.  Giving students opportunities to be the expert and teach the class is another way to highlight and build upon their strengths.  Learners could also create projects answering one or more of these questions or simply journal about them or discuss them in small groups.   As with adults, there is also great power in having 1:1 conversations with students about these questions as well.


In his insanely popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey addresses perceptions and the impact they have on the way we view the world.  His position is that if we acknowledge and analyze them, then we can have a much more open-minded and objective view.  I believe that when we know the values and beliefs of those around us, including our own, we can better build upon strengths and create learning experiences that are meaningful and powerful for all stakeholders.  

I would love to know your thoughts and what you have done to learn the values, strengths, and passions of others.

Christina

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