Shifting Paradigms

If you’ve experienced any FranklinCovey PD or read Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you are familiar with the concept of changing your paradigms. Our paradigms influence how we see the world.  We use paradigms to explain the behavior of others while paradigms also shape our behavior.

Adobe Spark (3)

In Psychology, we talk about this in another way — behavior attribution.  We can attribute someone’s behavior to personal dispositions (he’s acting like a jerk because he’s always a jerk — that’s just who he is), or we can attribute their behavior to situational factors (he’s acting like a jerk because he’s under a lot of stress at the moment and he just received more bad news).  The trouble with behavior attribution is we tend to overemphasize the personal factors to explain the behavior of others while underemphasizing the situational factors that might shape their behavior.  For ourselves though, we overemphasize the situational circumstances and downplay our personal dispositions.  This mismatch between how we attribute the behavior of others versus how we attribute our own behavior is a phenomenon known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  Once we recognize that we are prone to the Fundamental Attribution Error, we might start paying more attention to the situational influences on someone’s behavior.  In other words, we shift our paradigm.

I experienced a paradigm shift while teaching when a student answered her cell phone in the middle of class.  I encouraged students to bring their phones to class — in a school with limited technology, we used their phones as learning devices often, and I trusted students to handle their phones and manage their phone behavior appropriately.  Though normally considered a rather patient person, having a student actually answer a phone call while I was teaching made me furious.  I couldn’t believe this student could be so bold.  In disbelief and frustration, I said, “You have got to be kidding me!  What do you think you are doing??”  My student held her phone to the side and told me quickly, “Mrs. McKay, it’s my mom.  She’s calling from prison so I never know when she’ll call and we don’t get to talk much.”

All my righteous teacher anger dissipated immediately.  I cringed and mouthed “Sorry!” while motioning for her to take her phone to the hall.  When she was done talking to her mom, she came back into class.  I apologized again and told her to just give me a signal next time, and it would be fine for her to take the call in the hallway.  She was so relieved to know it was ok.

Understanding my student’s situation was a shift in my paradigm.  I was able to see her behavior in a new focus.  I better knew how to help her and teach her with that new understanding.

We don’t always have all the information we need when it comes to reaching our students or being their support.  And we don’t always do the best job of asking for that information.  One teacher, Kyle Schwartz, found a simple way to learn about her students’ situational factors with a post-it and the prompt, “I wish my teacher knew . . . “  — a practice that forever changed how she interacted with her students.

In our online courses, many of our instructors provide a “getting to know you” introductory survey to their students.  They collect typical student data, but they also include questions asking about students’ interests outside of school.  A favorite question many instructors ask is, “Is there anything else I should know about you?” or “Is there anything else you would like to share?”  It’s incredible what one thoughtful question will reveal about your students.

In what ways have you experienced a paradigm shift?  How does your new understanding shape how you view the world?



Coaching Our Students to Their Personal Best

My son is a high school cross country runner.  When he joined the team in middle school, I was supportive but secretly perplexed.  Who are these people who run for sport?  What motivates them to just keep running?  Up until he joined the team, I had never been to a cross country event.

It wasn’t what I expected.  I was struck by the positivity of supportive people from competing schools.  The entire group of parents, coaches, and teammates jog to different places on the running trail to catch sight of their runner at various moments of the run.  The supporters line the trail and cheer and clap loudly as their runner goes by, telling the runners “You got this!  Keep it up!  You’re almost there!”  All you hear is encouragement and support.

Every kid works toward doing their best.  They are not all going to win the race, but their goal is to finish and to be proud of their own personal performance.  While I’m impressed at the ones who finish fast, I’m often more amazed by the runners who finish last.  They persevered.  They didn’t quit.  While seeing everyone else ahead of them, they kept their eyes up and just kept going.  These last runners are so happy when it’s over, but they know they’re going to do it again in a few days.  In between races, they show up willingly to practice in hopes of improving their time.  I love seeing the large numbers of parents, coaches, and teammates who are there cheering just as loudly for those who come in last, shouting encouragement and pushing them on as each runner reaches for their own personal best.

Do you teach your students with a coaching perspective? This year, your students will not be running at the same pace.  You will have students way ahead, some comfortably on pace in the middle, and some you will worry about how they will ever make it. Imagine if along the way, parents, coaches, and classmates were cheering each of them on in a way they could see and feel.  “You got this!  Keep it up!  You’re almost there!”

How can we train our students to persevere through their difficult run this school year? We can coach them through regular practice to help them improve performance, knowing well what challenges they will need to overcome.  We can celebrate them along every part of the bend.  We can meet them where they will struggle, realizing it won’t be easy for all of them.  We can cheer for each student individually with the support of their parents and fellow students, motivating them to keep their eyes up and keep pushing forward toward the finish.


It won’t be easy, but at the end, you and your students can feel proud of their personal performance.

One night after practice, my son was talking about how great his cross country coach is at motivating the team.  “He really pushes us to do better,” my son said.  Thinking about my students, I asked him, “How does he do it?  What does he do to motivate you?”  My son replied, “Mom.  He literally runs behind us, puts his hand on our shoulder, and pushes us forward.”  I guess some kids need that extra nudge.

For more ideas on encouraging students to work toward their personal best (without actually touching them), check out:

Pants Not Required

In August of 2015, I left my full-time public school teaching position after nearly fifteen years and transitioned to the world of full-time online teaching.  The move was a big change for me, and while I greatly missed seeing my students most days, the transition to full-time sweatpants was much less difficult.


I quickly learned that working in pajamas didn’t mean I was less of a teacher.  As an online teacher, I felt busier than ever.  In a face-to-face environment, much of my time was spent planning lessons and preparing material for class, followed by endless amounts of grading.  My online courses were already prepared for me, so most of my time was given over to fully attend to my students and how they were learning.  Grading work was constant, like shoveling in a snowstorm, and sometimes the sheer amount of work being submitted by students made me wish for an internet snow day.  Online teachers don’t get snow days.

Face-to-face teachers would look puzzled as I explained that I was teaching online.  “But don’t you miss students?  It’s not like you get to see them online.  You’re not exactly teaching — you’re just grading their work.”  I did miss the classroom interactions with students, but I couldn’t help feeling offended by comments like this.

Online teachers don’t just provide a score on work.  As an online teacher, I assessed each attempt at learning, wrote detailed comments to students on what they did well, where they needed to improve, where they were going, and how to get better.  I instructed them on each assignment, giving them the necessary tools and remediation to move ahead before accepting another attempt on their work.  Grading student work became a major way I connected with my online students.  I left jokes and asked questions in their feedback, and many of my students would share what was going on with them in their daily lives.  I sent them encouraging messages and wished them luck on their other high school activities.  I shared material and resources to individual students who expressed an interest in learning more about certain topics. I created videos to answer their questions and give them guidance when necessary.

Online teachers also monitor progress constantly.  We know that if our students fall behind, they will face an overwhelming amount of work later in the semester (and that translates to a mountain of work for us teachers all at once too).  We send frequent progress updates to students, parents, and mentors.  We constantly look at the grade book to see how each student is progressing and achieving.  We address gaps in performance when we see them, and we provide individualized coaching to keep our students growing.

As it turns out, pants are not actually a requirement to be an effective teacher.  I do highly recommend them for the classroom though.

“You’re going to love working here!”

I recently left the public school where I had taught for almost 15 years, the public school where I started my first teaching job ever.  Though I learned so much working there and grew professionally every year, I was ready for something new. I was ready for more of a leadership role.

So I when I was offered a new gig as a Lead Instructor with Michigan Virtual University, I jumped on the opportunity.  I had already been teaching with them part-time for a year, so I knew a little of what to expect.  And though I’ll very much miss being in the classroom with students face-to-face, I’m excited to expand my reach as an online teacher.  I’m looking forward to learning and mastering new ways to connect and teach students in a new environment.  I’m thrilled to be leading a department of amazing teachers from all over the state.

Starting a new job is not easy for anyone.  I was really good at my old job, and now I feel like a first-year teacher again with so much to learn.  While I have a well-developed tool belt of teaching strategies at the ready, it’s different to apply those skills in an online setting.  I’m learning, which is wonderful, and I do love it.  The experience reminds me of what it’s like to be a first-year teacher again.

Some of my first interactions with the Michigan Virtual team members left me amazed.  Upon meeting me, several MVU employees shared a phrase that I keep replaying in my mind.  Are you ready for this?

They said, “You’re going to love it here!”

That’s exciting to hear for sure, but it got me thinking about being a first-year teacher in a Michigan public school.  In all my years of teaching, no one EVER said “You’re going to love it here!”  No matter how wonderful my previous teaching colleagues are, that is not something that veteran teachers say to new teachers.  In 15 years, I never spoke those words to new teachers!  I offered my help and assistance, guidance, mentorship, and lesson plans . . . but I never once said “You’re going to love it here!”

And isn’t that a huge problem?

I love teaching.  Most teachers I know are truly passionate about teaching.   The best parts of being a teacher — without question — are the relationships you develop with your students.  I loved the kids in my room. I loved planning lessons that would connect with my students.  I loved helping them consider new information in new ways.  I loved the challenge of making my subject meaningful to them.  I loved helping them through difficult patches in their lives.  I loved being a part of their stories, their stumbles and their successes, even if only for a short time in their teenage existence.

No one says to new teachers “You’re going to love it here!” because they know the truth, and the truth is this:  you are going to love the kids, and you’re going to love teaching those kids, but you’re not going to love all of the other parts that have been hoisted onto the shoulders of teachers.

Spending hours analyzing data, more hours preparing evaluation materials (I’ve seen teachers cart in their evaluation files and portfolios on carts with wheels!), and even more hours sitting through professional development that doesn’t apply to you will take valuable time away from the part of the job you love. Mandated writing assignments that require a minimum of 20 hours to grade during exam week might cause your head to spin.  And even the most devoted teachers start to crack when several weeks of the year are spent rescheduling lessons so students can take part in district mandated testing that is separate from state mandated testing.  You will feel powerless as a professional while decisions are made that affect you and your students, and you are not once given a place at the decision-making table.

Please know that these are not issues affecting one district in Michigan.  I connect with teachers around the state, and I hear the same stories everywhere.  Teachers love teaching, but teachers are unhappy with their jobs.  And around the country, other teachers feel the same.

How can we take the job of teaching and make it again about teaching and learning?  What can we do to make new teachers love it here?



So What Do YOU Want to Learn?

The first day I introduced Genius Hour to my students, I asked, “How many times over your entire school career has anyone asked you what you want to learn?”  I teach high school seniors, so this question created more reflection than if I taught young students with only a few years of learning under their belts.  My Advanced Placement seniors looked totally baffled, which was a new experience for some of them.  “It’s true,” said one student, perplexed.  “No one’s ever asked me what I want to learn.”

There was never a genius without a tincture of madness. — Aristotle

Before this school year, I was also guilty of not asking students what they were curious about studying.  If you saw the pages of Economics benchmarks and AP Psychology objectives that students must learn in my classes, you wouldn’t ask students for their opinion on much.  I’ve learned a few things over the last year or two that have helped to change my mind.

Think about your typical school PD session.  For years, I sat through PD sessions that killed my desire to teach.  Two years ago, several required hours of PD had gone unplanned, and teachers were told to put together our own PD.  While it still felt like a hoop to jump through, soon teachers were exploring topics, strategies, and programs that interested them.  It was the best mistake ever.  Teachers grouped together to research topics they had wondered about but didn’t have the time to explore otherwise.  Soon teachers were collaborating and even developing websites for colleagues on topics they were passionate about, from PBL to flipped learning.  I wondered why we don’t conduct PD in that way all the time.  When given the time, I am excited to learn about educational strategies and instructional technology in any way that I can.  When given the time, I am happy to share what I’ve learned with other teachers.

Is it the same for our students?  I think it is.  We use all kinds of strategies to make them interested in what we think they should learn or what we are forced to teach.  But I’ve learned over 13 years of teaching that it’s a rare high school student who is passionate about learning economic theory.  And while students see my passion for all things psychology, it doesn’t necessarily translate into their passion.  I feel successful if they develop an appreciation for the science and look at life with a psychology perspective, but not all of them continue on to study psychology in college (though I want to hug the ones who do).

Genius Hour gives students one hour a week in your classroom to find their passion, to explore a topic of their choice in depth and over time, to research, think, and collaborate, and then to publish and share their reflection with the world through a personal blog. At the end of the project, students present their reflections in a TED-type presentation to their classmates and members of the school or community.  Before jumping in, I spent a lot of time reading about Genius Hour and how other teachers have made it work in their classrooms.  You can view the list of resources I have collected about Genius Hour here

I started implementing Genius Hour at the beginning of our second trimester in late November, and my students continued their Genius Hour projects through  May.  I only offered Genius Hour in my AP Psychology classes because it’s a year-long course, and I know exactly what activities that I can whittle down or cut without skimping on content.  The other courses I teach are one trimester courses lasting 12 short weeks, and I will have to look hard at my plans to decide what I can change about the curriculum.

The initial excitement about Genius Hour in my classroom led me to propose Genius Hour as an elective for the 2014-2015 school year, and the proposal was approved by our curriculum council. I’m a little nervous about how it will progress — it definitely was not all joy and cheer throughout the process — but I’ve learned a lot this year about success, failure, and student motivation, all of which will change the way I guide my students.


Building the New

The secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

— Socrates

Over the past few years, my focus has been on learning and using educational technology as a teaching tool.  During that time, I have had the privilege of attending several #edtech conferences where I have learned techniques that have transformed my teaching.  I just returned from an awesome 3 days at MACUL ’14, where I attended sessions on all kinds of edtech strategies of interest to me.

But I’ve also discovered a secret:

Edtech conferences are not actually about edtech.  

Don’t be confused — there is plenty of edtech at an edtech conference.  I’ve engaged in sessions on everything from Chrome to scripting with Google Drive, from useful digital tools to creating iTunesU courses, from screen-casting to blended learning to online learning.  It’s exhausting to think about how much I’ve learned over the last three years alone.  With “love of learning” as one of my core strengths, I soak it all up and bask in the brainstorming, sharing of knowledge, demonstrations, and teaching.

Yet the biggest learning experience for me has been discovering the philosophy of the edtech people, the people I call “my people” (I also call Star Wars people my people, and luckily there are also several of those at edtech conferences as well).

Edtech people see possibilities.  They see potential — the potential of education, the potential of students, and the potential of teachers to shape and change lives.

Instead of focusing on what teachers aren’t doing, edtech people focus on the good things teachers are doing.  They celebrate the risks that teachers take using technology with their students.  They support and encourage teachers who are willing to try.  

Edtech people say, “Just try it and see how it goes.  We’re here if you have questions.  And good for you for wanting to do this for your students!”  If you knew how often I’ve heard about what I MUST be doing on a daily basis with lesson planning, you’d understand how great it feels to be appreciated for learning something of value.

Edtech people like to share.  Instead of competing with each other and keeping resources to themselves (which our current teacher-evaluation system promotes), they encourage share-and-share-alike.  If you’re doing something that works, they promote what you’re doing.  They go out of their way to share your story.  

Instead of saying “you need to be doing more,” edtech people say “we know how hard you’re working” and “you are making a difference.”  They recognize and trust teachers as highly-educated professionals.

Edtech people don’t make excuses.  They don’t talk incessantly about theory.  They put their energy into building instead of tearing down.  They produce change.

Edtech conferences are all about creating change, from a single lesson or strategy, to an individual teacher, to the entire business of teaching and learning.  They do so by bringing in educators who support, encourage, collaborate, and respect.  They bring in people who want to build the new.

It’s a philosophy that is heartening and too often missing in the daily lives of teachers; it’s why I consider myself an edtech person and keep going back for more.


Finding Happiness through Your Strengths

As an AP Psychology teacher, I know my students are always fascinated with mental illness — admittedly, so am I.  If you can turn off Hoarders or My Strange Addiction, you clearly have some sort of superpower I don’t possess. Psychology has done an incredible job of cataloguing the many interesting ways human behavior can go wrong.  But we can also learn from human behavior that is going right.  Positive Psychology is a growing field that shifts the focus away from defining and treating mental illness to studying mental health so that we can learn to be more proactively psychologically healthy and happy.

A few years ago, I read the book Authentic Happiness by  Dr. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Network and former president of the American Psychological Association.  Dr. Seligman writes about how to experience happiness in your life by using your signature strengths to achieve flow and positive emotion. Seligman argues that even happiness can be learned, and I think it’s so cool that my students could learn how to be happier in life.  Learning how to be happier goes beyond any classroom curriculum.  It’s my goal to be able to share with my students some of the keys to achieving happiness in their lives, and we always spend time towards the end of the year studying the science and research behind happiness.  

So what’s the point of discovering your strengths?  In Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues that cultivating your strengths can benefit your health, relationships, and your career.  Much of his book concerns discovering these strengths and how to use them to increase happiness.  You can take the VIA Survey of Character Strengths to determine your top strengths.  The survey takes around 25 minutes to complete, but it’s time well spent if learning your strengths can increase your level of happiness, right?

Before taking the survey, I had never considered my cautious behavior a strength.  In fact, I’ve always assumed people who were less cautious were probably having more fun.  I’ve tried to rebel against my top strength — but my most reckless behavior is probably my tendency to overdose on Nutella (come on, you have a Nutella problem too, admit it and maybe we can start a support group together).  As I look back, my top strength has served me well in my life.  I am careful about what I say and do, and as a result, I don’t have many regrets . . . until I’m looking at the bottom of the Nutella jar.  Instead of rebelling against that strength, I can recognize ways that it helps me to be a happier person. Humor and playfulness and love of learning are a part of my everyday.  If I’m not learning something new, I feel stagnant — and you can count on my nerdy jokes along the way.  I can work my favorite Snoop Dogg joke into any lesson plan.  No matter how they do on standardized tests, my students will know why Snoop Dogg carries an umbrella.*


My Top Strengths

My students are working on Genius Hour blogs weekly, and I asked them to take the VIA Survey to determine their top strengths and to post their results.  I loved seeing how their results fit their personalities.  I hope that identifying their strengths will lead my students to use strengths to increase the happiness in their lives.  Here are just a couple of their thoughts on their VIA results:

“Having a future mindset will definitely help me accomplish my goals in life and humor and zest will help the journey be more fun.” – M.F.

“I never really thought of being interested in the world as a strength. Like, I’ve always been curious, and have always loved to learn. I guess I’m just now realizing that being curious will make me a smarter and more well-rounded individual, and therefore more valuable to work and other people.” – M.R.

If you have the time, take the VIA Strengths Survey.  How will you use your top strengths to increase your happiness? How might it help your students to know their strengths?

*Why does Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?  For drizzle.  HA!