Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What I've learned about teaching IT by climbing Swiss mountains

This is now my third year in Switzerland and of all the 7 countries where I've lived it's definitely the most beautiful.  I really appreciate being able to get out at weekends, walk in the mountains and get a fresh perspective on life.  Last weekend I hiked from the Fronalpstock to the Klingenstock - it was a hike I've wanted to do for many months but one that I knew would not be an easy one.  There are a lot of ups and downs on this route and even the flat ridge section is quite difficult because of the sheer drops on either side.  It's definitely not a hike for anyone who is afraid of heights.

At times the hike seemed quite daunting.  When I was down in the valleys looking up at the peaks, I thought to myself "I'll never get up there" - but I did.  The secret was to take the uphill sections in short, slow steps and to focus on the bits that were right in front of me, rather than looking up to the peaks themselves.  Along the way I decided this was also a metaphor for dealing with the tough, rough parts of life too.

Think big and start small:  for the past couple of years I've been looking up to the top of the mountain in teaching - specifically where technology can take student learning.  I've been comparing where I am now to where I've been in previous schools.  I've been thinking about what a long, hard slog it will be to climb this mountain, to get the teaching and learning with technology to the point I want it to get to.  As I was climbing up this peak at the weekend I realised that in order to get up it I had to slow down and take smaller steps.  Sometimes the fastest way to do something is to go slowly.  With the IT programme I'm often impatient - I want to do things quickly to get the students here to the same level the students are at in other schools.  I'm thinking big, but without the proper support, I know need to start small.  On this hike many people passed me, but for me that didn't matter.  They could maybe climb this mountain in 2 hours, for me it might take a lot longer.  The important thing was that I did it, that I was moving forward, that I was enjoying the journey.

Realise that others are also carrying a heavy load:  the photo shows part of my weekend hike - I had to get up to the top of that peak in order to get onto the ridge between the mountains.  Right up on the top there's a cross and as I was hiking up I could see someone standing right next to the cross - and I could hear him playing the bagpipes!  It was a great encouragement to me to know that someone else had made it up the mountain before me - and that person was also carrying a heavier load - if you click on the photo you'll see a bigger version and will be able to see him better.  For myself I think I often fall into the trap of comparing my teaching load with that of others.  This year I've started the year with 627 students as one of my colleagues is off sick and I'm supporting his classes as well as my own.  Last week I was asked to do 3 sessions of after school training on top of this.  For me it was too much.  The load was too heavy.  I started to think to myself "How is it that I have to teach 627 kids across 7 grade levels and 2 campuses, when some of the other teachers are just supporting one grade level with maybe 20 students who need their help?"  I know this is extremely negative, it's not a productive way to think.  Rather I need to think that there is no shame in saying no, it's too much, I just can't do it, I don't have time.  The shame would be in saying "sure I'll do that" and then not being able to do a good job of it because of being too busy doing everything else.

Stop and look back - appreciate how far you have come:  another thing I have come to recognise is that you need to stop and look back to see how far you've come.  Sometimes we're so focused on getting to the end of the journey we forget to turn around and look at the view.  This photo shows the other side of the peak that I climbed - at this point I was a lot further on, on the ridge section.  It was a real sense of achievement to turn back and to think - Wow! I made it up there, right to the top!  In IT while I'm impatient to move on I need to think about the achievements of the past few years.  We now have a flexible IT schedule so that we can integrate into all the PYP units of inquiry.  We now have more collaboration between the class teachers and the IT teachers.  There are more opportunities for the students to use technology in the classroom as we have carts of laptops.  We have more emphasis on 21st century skills and on students using Web 2.0 tools that they can access any place, any time.  We are working closely with our librarians to develop information literacy skills in our students.  All of these are significant achievements - I know I need to be proud of them.

Don't lower your goals - increase your support:  One of the biggest things I have to deal with on a daily basis is the feeling that my knowledge and experience is not valued.  In a situation like this it would be easy to lower my goals.  In the hard parts of this hike there were steel chains hanging down to grab onto to help pull myself up.  In some places rough steps had been cut into the sides of the slopes.  At a couple of points there were flat rocks where I could rest or sometimes even sit on a bench.  I needed those supports to get me through my hike.  My supports in my job are the many wonderful colleagues I work with, and the amazing members of my PLN.  When I'm feeling low, their encouragement helps me to carry on.

It's important to have balance:  The ridge section of the hike is fairly flat, so not hard to walk along - but it's important to have balance.  In life it's important to have balance too.  Currently I know I'm in danger of working myself into a situation where I become sick - I know many colleagues who do this too because they put themselves last all the time - they struggle to go in even when they are not feeling very well.  Someone once said to me "a one legged chair, or a two legged chair doesn't balance very well".  That's true.  To be a good teacher, I need to be more than a just a teacher. I need to have a life, to look after myself, to find the time to relax and to rejuvenate.  I need to say yes a little less.  I need to say no a little more.  I need to think about my family more and especially, in my daughter's final year of school, the tough year where she's doing the IB Diploma, I need to be there for her a little more too.  For the past 2 years I have not been balanced - now I'm in danger of falling over the side of the cliff.  I need to stop for a bit, get back onto the ridge, regain my balance and slowly start moving forward again.