Monday, 29 July 2013

GOALS - Cliche or Tools for a Purpose?

I'm not in the habit of being self-indulgent, but to make my point here I'm going to be!

If you have ever been to a professional development workshop on goals, or goal-setting, you would be familiar with the drill of brainstorms, group discussions, strategies etc....and the odd cliches. Sometimes we get lost in the hype and the obvious - and, unfortunately, it's the obvious that doesn't seem to be common practice amongst many of our young people.

Whether we are talking to our own kids or students in a classroom, invariably the common question of "...but what do you want to get out of this?" crops up. Correct me if I'm wrong, but often we are faced with a blank stare, a shoulder-shrug or a "Dunno" - why is that? Based on personal experience and reading loads of evidence confirming the long-term value of goals, I believe we often approach the whole notion of goal-setting the wrong way.

As a youngster I suffered with chronic asthma and eczema. Frequent trips to the hospital led to a doctor recommending I take up some kind of sport to build my lung capacity. Choices were pretty basic back then - athletics and swimming were the obvious picks. I had never been a 'star' sports person at school, but I was always active so I chose athletics. My short-term goal was not to win races and become a 'star' athlete, but simply to breathe without wheezing!

I tried (and failed) to be a sprinter, so I turned to race walking. Despite the club coach suggesting to my parents that it probably was not the event for me, I continued to train twice a week.....for no other reason other than I loved it. I got better and better, and six months after starting I won my first of four junior and open national titles.

After two short years of race walking, I switched to middle distance running. My goal was to change my style from running like a duck to running like a REAL runner. Just as I did with walking, I started with small (and seemingly insignificant) progressive steps. I simply wanted to see where it would take me - with my asthma now under control.

One small, progressive step followed another - and within six years of starting with a duck-like style, I was the sole female Australian qualifier for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games over 1500m. Injury prevented my participation, but by the time I retired from running I had several Australian championships and records under my belt, two City-to-Surf wins, and had represented my country on the world stage on several occasions.

Goals have been part and parcel of my personal and professional life, and it disturbs me when I work with young people who are unable to identify something, anything, that is important enough to them to want to work towards achieving. We all know goals give us focus; give us direction; keep us motivated....and feel good about ourselves when we reach them. But what holds some young people back?

Are we sending the wrong messages to our kids? Do we imply that only lofty goals are worth the effort - that it's all about winning and being 'the best'? Do we fail to acknowledge that the small steps along the way are, in themselves, goals achieved - even if the final result might not match initial expectations? Are we, as parents or teachers, guilty of pushing our kids towards something WE might recognise as something of value...but which they do not?

It's a little scary to be working with a room full of incoming Year 12 students and their parents and to ask the question "Anyone have a goal for next year?", only to receive a list of goals.......but no ideas on how to break that big 'blob' of an idea into smaller, achievable and progressive steps. No wonder so many of us back away from committing to goals - it's all too hard. If I had thought on Day 1 of running that my goal was to qualify for an Olympic team, I doubt I would have made it - too far away, too lofty and probably too hard!

I think we need to re-evaluate the way we have been 'inspiring' our kids to achieve. We need to motivate them to think about what makes them tick; what turns them on; what inspires them. Goals don't have to be lofty; they don't have to be academic or sporting....but they DO have to mean something to the person setting them. Goals need to be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed - and they need to be their goals, not our goals for them!

Think about it. Sometimes all it takes to transform an "I wish..." into an "I can..."or an "I will..." is the desire and a plan. Might not always pan out the way we hoped, but to plan and try is better than doing nothing at all.

photo credit: Carissa GoodNCrazy via photopin cc

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Dealing with the Disappointment of Missing Selection for your chosen High School

My final two years of full-time teaching were spent working with an Opportunity Class (OC), with thirty  Year 5 and 6 students, all eager (and often parent-driven) to gain placement in a selective secondary school. Most of them were offered places - not always for their first-choice school - but those who missed first round offers and were placed on a reserve list were shattered, as were their parents.

Let me say that several of these OC students were not necessarily naturally 'gifted' nor naturally 'talented'. Many were what I would describe as 'hot-housed' - driven by well-meaning, but achievement-oriented, parents to excessive hours of tutoring and sitting for endless hours poring over past test papers to improve their test-sitting ability.

What kind of system does this to a 12 year old? The notion that a child has 'failed' if they miss a spot for a selective high school is ridiculous - as is the notion that if a child does not attend their secondary school of choice they are suddenly less likely to 'achieve their academic potential' by Year 12!

This month, students across NSW will receive notification of their 'success', or otherwise, in gaining placement at their first-choice secondary school. I believe that there are always those children who breathe a quiet sigh of relief, as they are more a product of parental desire than innate ability, and many of these kids are frightened to fail.... and anxious about their capacity to keep up with the so-called 'best and brightest' at selective high schools.

So, for those (including parents!) who are disappointed at missing first round offers - or indeed an offer at all - here are some tips to help overcome this initial disappointment:

  • Don't dwell on why they missed selection - comments such as "The system is unfair" or "How did they get in and you didn't?" just adds to the disappointment and establishes a sense of failure at a time when it is critical to be building positive attitudes towards starting high school.
  • Focus on what the new school has to offer - avoid comparisons between the school they missed and the school they will attend. ALL secondary schools cover the curriculum, and kids won't miss out on their special interests by attending a mainstream high school.
  • High school is what you make it - encourage your kids to have some goals. They don't always need to be academic, but they do need to be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed. Goals are motivating; they give kids direction and keep them on track, but make sure your kids decide on their own goals....not YOUR goals FOR them! Encourage them to consider the stepping stones needed to achieve these goals - each stepping stone is an achievement in itself.
  • New friends - one of the keys to developing resilience (and don't we all want our kids to develop the capacity to bounce back after adversity?) is to develop a mixture of friendship groups. For kids, high school is all about 'fitting in' - so encourage them to be part of activities which hold their interest. Diverse and multiple friendship groups is critical for this age group - regardless of what school they attend!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The New Rules of Engagement - Teachers and Parents

One of the big buzz terms in education today is parent engagement, but it seems that it could well be one of the least understood as well. So, what is parent engagement and how does it affect our children's learning and wellbeing?

Pushor and Ruitenberg (2005) suggested that engagement implies a close and working relationship between teacher and parent; a sharing of parent and teacher knowledge of each child to promote long-term academic and personal success....and this is often where the confusion lies.

Just prior to running a professional development session recently on this exact topic, one teacher commented, "I nearly didn't come because we have enough parent engagement .... we can't get rid of them! They're always there!" She had a whole different perspective ninety minutes later.

For many teachers, particularly those in the 'baby boomer' category, parent engagement is synonymous with parent interference. Many believe that their professional judgement will be taken to task; that parents will tell them how to teach and what to teach; that parents will be constantly challenging school decisions on everything from what is being taught in the classroom and how it is being taught, to what is sold in the canteen and why.

Research indicates that we need to move away from the 'ivory tower' perception of schools and the 'locked gate' mentality to embracing family engagement as policy, as education reform. Weiss, Lopez and Rosenberg (2010) assert that 'family engagement must be a systemic, integrated and sustained approach, not an add-on or a random act.'

So, how do schools engage families in their children's learning, and why is it so important to children's education, the long-term love of learning and developing life skills?

A good place to start is to open up the conversation with your parent community. There is no 'one size fits all' but, in most cases, these basic strategies work:
  • Form a parent task-force - they help to forge a connection between school and home
  • Conduct surveys (but make sure you follow through on the results!)
  • Establish a parent 'hub' within the school grounds where parents can meet, have coffee, access resources to community services, build relationships
  • Invite parents to be part of an advisory board to assist with strategic planning, not just fund-raising
  • Encourage parents to share their skills and knowledge with students....even at high school. Parents helping to 'chef' for a class, or demonstrate how to use a lathe etc goes over really well with the kids.
This is not about bailing teachers up and asking lots of questions after school; and it's not about parents telling teachers what to teach and how. This is about parents working alongside teachers in the education of their children - not a curriculum-driven relationship, but a human relationship which has an enormous and powerful impact on kids.

"When parents are involved in their children’s education at home, they do better in school. And when parents are involved in school, children go farther in school and the schools they go to are better" (Henderson & Berla, 1994)

Parent engagement is not about teachers relinquishing their role as educator; it is about sharing the responsibility of educating, nurturing and guiding young people towards a positive future. There are certainly vast numbers of 'invisible parents' who, no matter how hard the school tries, cannot get them through the front gate. There is no simple solution to how to engage ALL families, but the offer must be there at least!

photo credit: Enokson via photopin cc