Goals #sundayfunday

I’m participating in the #sundayfunday blogging initiative within the #MTBoS community.
More info here.  

1. Build a thinking classroom. 
This isn’t a new goal for me, but something I’m always trying to do better. In teacher’s college, I was introduced to the phrase “Explore First, Explain Later” in my Introduction to Biology Teaching class and this is something I try to incorporate into my math and science classes every single day. The concept is self-explanatory; students are given a chance to explore, investigate, and uncover ideas within a particular topic or concept prior to taking formalized notes. This teaching methodology is congruent to the constructivist theory of learning which states that “that learning is an active, contextualized process of constructing knowledge rather than acquiring it” (learningtheories.com). 

“Exploration” can take many forms; investigation, experiments, noticing and wondering… however, something I’m keen on devoting more time to in my planning and lessons is developing the question. Daniel T. Willingham writes about this in his book Why Don’t Students Like School, “Sometimes I think that we, as teachers, are so eager to get to the answers that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question.” I’ve really been following Dan Meyer’s lead on how to do this; his blog post on “The Three Acts of a Mathematical Story” are a good place to start. 

Peter Liljedahl also hosts a free webinar on how to build a thinking classroom, available here

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Visual summary of Peter Liljedahl’s research, as summarized in a sketch note by Laura Wheeler.
2.  Get students to talk more.
​It is so easy to just fall into a routine of lecturing/note-taking followed by independent (usually textbook) work, but I eventually want to create an environment in which students manage themselves. This begins by getting them to talk more, exchange ideas, and share what they already know. Some things I’m excited about trying in my classroom are Stand and Talks (Sara VDW), and talking points (adapted from Lyn Dawes). 

3. Do fewer things better.
When I first started my student teaching, it consumed my life. Go to school, plan for the next day, sleep, and repeat. I stopped exercising, watching TV, hanging out with my friends… and basically anything that was not work-related. I could’ve used an old lesson plan my associate teacher has taught before; I could’ve downloaded lesson resources online; or I could have picked one really good question and focus the class on that for the entire period. There were a million things I could have done better, but no. Instead, I scoured dozens of sites for lesson ideas, worksheets, and activities before creating my own unique cocktail using an amalgamation of the best ideas I had gathered. I made my own worksheets and presentations because I wanted things done in my own exact, particular way. Planning  a single lesson would take me hours – this is not sustainable!

I know better, so I’m going to do better this year. Angela Watson’s keynote presentation for the Build Math Minds Virtual Summit really helped me refocus and re-evaluate my priorities. I’m going to invest my energy in doing the stuff that matters, and NOT because:

  • Of peer pressure “Everyone else is doing it, so I’d better do too!” 
  • It’s tradition “We do this every year, so we must do it this year!”
  • It’s instagram-worthy “OMG this will look so cute when it’s done!”

Instead I’ll only commit my energy to doing something if:

  • It will help me help students engage and interact with the subject in a meaningful way 
  • I believe it is the best use of my students’ class time
  • It is something I am genuinely excited about trying in my classroom

Three things I’m going to start doing now to achieve this goal:

1) Manage my time by setting a timer for the tasks that need to get done, and stick to it. Whatever gets done during that time doesn’t have to be perfect or have beautiful fonts and layouts, it just needs to be good enough
2) Reduce my workload by only formally assessing student work if I believe it is a TRUE reflection of student learning. 
3) Increase efficiency by delegating tasks to students, like self-marking formative assessments.
 

Sketch a Scientist

 A few years ago, I read a chapter in Tina Seelig’s book called “The Upside-Down Circus” and the concept was so sticky it did what sticky things do best – it stuck. The Upside-Down Circus is a case study in creativity and design. How do we go from a generic $5 circus show with elephants and clowns to a fully-fledged, high-end spectacle like Cirque du Soleil?  Much like the ideas presented in that chapter, The Upside-Down School is about questioning the traditional assumptions of schooling and education and flipping them on their heads – the same story with a different twist.

In science, one of the first activities I do with my students is have them sketch an image of a scientist. That’s it. The activity is simple but reveals a lot about our preconceived notions of what science is and what exactly it is that scientists do. The stereotypical image of a scientist is presented as follows: a white male with wacky hair in a white lab coat working in a laboratory with chemistry equipment. We talk about what these stereotypes mean and where they come from. We talk about why these images are problematic and what we can do about it. And then, we revise.

Scientist sketches, before discussion.
Scientist sketches, after discussion.
The most interesting part of this activity is seeing the variety and differences in approaches that students take when drawing the second sketch. By bringing to awareness our biases and questioning those initial assumptions, we freed ourselves from the initial, rigid, locked in notions of what constitutes “scientist.” I feel like this is what we need to aim to do more often in our own thinking DAILY. That’s what I’m going to attempt to do more often on my blog as well. 

A Collection of Moments

For the last two months at my new school, I have been devoting so much of my time and energy planning and preparing that I haven’t really been enjoying the actual teaching. This past weekend was the first weekend where I hadn’t felt pressure to do something – I could just be. Sure, there was marking to be done and rubrics to be made, but I no longer felt the urgency of it all. I simply existed. I was just another presence in the universe with no agenda or ulterior motive. It sure felt great. I had a life again, and it was mine. For the first time in a what feels like a VERY long time, I did not put my students first. 

That much needed mental break was just what I needed to be able to step back and appreciate all the good things that had been going on in my classroom that I subconsciously chose to ignore. It’s ironic really, that choosing to be a good, well-organized, and prepared teacher for me meant being less emotionally available to my students. An odd realization to have, but a necessary one. 

Teaching is very much a collection of moments, and if I’m not careful they quickly slip away and are lost to the busy hum of school life. Yet, it is precisely those little moments that make teaching so extraordinarily wonderful. You never know when it’ll happen, but when it does, it is magical. 

Today, a student of mine, one who is not particularly keen or motivated in school, who frequently falls asleep in class, and is usually late, RUNS into my class at lunch time  and excitedly yells, “MS. SOO I’M HERE! CAN I LOOK AT THOSE FLOWER PARTS UNDER THE MICROSCOPE?” 

​Me on the outside: 

“Why, yes good sir, you may examine those flower parts under the microscope.”

Internally: 

“OMG, YAAAAS!!!”

Music to my ears. 

Geeking Out and Freaking Out About School

“Summer’s off.”

“All the vacations!”

“Only work 10 months of the year.”

Anyone who’s ever cited the above reasons for why they became a teacher is a liar, and anyone who assumes the above is actually true has clearly never lived with a teacher. While I can confidently dispel the myth that teachers do not live at school, I cannot say that the dwelling of a teacher (or any educator, for that matter) has not effectively become a school, in the sense that the “teacher hat” rarely ever (truly) comes off. 

While I’m sad to say that my year of teaching mathematics to a brilliant group of students in Kazakhstan is now over, I am happy to report that I will be working as a science teacher at a Canadian international school in Seoul, Korea come Fall.  Currently unemployed, I have been spending my summer months contemplating the new school year to come. As a new teacher, I get thrown with a lot of advice: 

“Make learning interesting”

“Don’t just lecture”

“Let your students have FUN!”

“Whatever you do, don’t smile until December”

“Whoever said not to smile until December is throwing out a bunch of bull-crap” 

I mean, all this advice is helpful in some way, but mostly, I worry. I worry because I know that the advice usually stems from some past experience; perhaps my adviser has had a brilliant teacher in the past and wants to give me some insight on best practices, or maybe the experience was so traumatic that it is a warning against what I might become. I know, and am reminded every day, that teachers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the lives of their students, whether its for better or for worse. I would be lying if I said that thought has never kept me up at night. 

So what does a young, novice teacher like me do during their free time? Well, this summer (like the last, and probably for many summers to come) has been filled with a lot of reading; books about science education, classroom management, cognitive psychology, teaching and learning . . . you name it. Books, and also a lot of web-surfing in search of inspiration and ideas for the next school year. The great thing about being a teacher today, versus 50 years ago even, is the incredible, vast, and extensive amount of information available literally (excuse the cliche) at our fingertips. With the advent of online textbooks, YouTube, massive open online courses (MOOCs), I really have no excuse for not knowing better. The issue now becomes knowing how to efficiently and effectively conduct searches, filter out the big ideas, and not get caught in fun  yet unproductive Pintrest spirals, or the ever-so-looming YouTube vortex. 

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A sample of my summer reading.

I find myself constantly striving to be perfect. I work, rework, and surgically remove minute details in my lesson plans until I am convinced they are just so. Then along will come some new insight I’ve read in a book or online article and I will repeat the process all over again. I worry about many things:

     Will my students find this topic interesting? Can they relate this to their own lives?
     What will they remember 10 years from now?
     Is this an example of content-based, activity-based, or inquiry based teaching?
     How can I work towards developing lessons that are more minds-on rather than hands-on
     How can I better scaffold this project to ensure top-quality work? 
    . . . and so on. 

The result of all this worrying is twofold: 1) my brain is now attempting to process more information than it can actually take on, and 2) very, very slow progress with my unit planning. I realize that I need to just give myself permission to just be okay with being a novice. I mean, there really is nothing more liberating than knowing you are not the best and that it is okay (splendid, even) to keep learning – that is a belief I want to instill in my students too! Of course, knowing all this, it is still a constant struggle to be mindful of it, and I am sure I will be reminding myself (and my students) of this more than once. 

So here’s to wanting to be a great teacher, but okay with being good (modest?) one (for now). 

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

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Angela Duckworth is an American psychologist whose work is dedicated to helping kids succeed (you can read more about her here or watch her TED talk here). Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance provides a summary of  her own research and related findings on grit and it’s reliability as a predictor for future success. The last chapters also include insights on parenting grit and examples for how teachers can create a classroom environment that supports grit. 

As evident in the title of her book, Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. It is reminiscent of Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset, the idea that your skills and abilities are not fixed, but can be developed over time. The message of grit is similar to one that my grandfather has often repeated, “I might not be smart, but I know how to work hard” – that is, hard work exceeds talent. With effort-ful and deliberate practice, we can all acquire the skills we need to achieve the goals we set for ourselves

Duckworth’s research has been mentioned in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed (see my blog post here) which in large is what compelled me to learn more about her work. Of particular interest to me is how I can use this information to better inform my classroom practices as an educator. Throughout my reading I made some observations and reflections, which I share below.  

The ‘Fragile Perfects’ and Creating a  Classroom Culture of Error
The term “fragile perfects” was coined by Duckworth to describe those who have yet to experience failure in a particular area, like straight-A students who have yet to receive a failing grade before they reach university. “Fragile perfects” are most at risk to be lacking in grit in their adult life. In order to develop grit and resilience, however, opportunities must first arise that demand it. While I do not believe it is within our scope as teachers to intentionally help our students fail, I do believe, however, that setting high standards* and creating a classroom culture of error can go a long way in fostering grittier students.

(*still trying to figure out exactly what this means)

First, it is important that each student is adequately challenged in the classroom. When basketball coach Ken Carter (made famous by Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal in the movie Coach Carter) benched his entire team for their low academic performance, he was met with anger. “Basketball is the only positive thing these kids have in their lives,” many teachers and parents argued, “If you take that away from them, they have nothing.” But therein lies the problem, Carter asserted. If we hold our students to low standards, we box them in and we send the message that they aren’t capable of doing more. Carter had higher aspirations; he believed that every one of his students could go to college. Rather than relenting to public opinion, Carter fought to continue the lockout despite protestations from his community. Playing basketball, like learning, is a privilege that needs to be earned. As teachers, we need to resist allowing students to fall into passive learning modes and refuse to accept anything less than their best. One of my favourite quotes from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov is, “The reward for a correct answer, is a harder question.” I think that as teachers we need to send the message that great success demands a high level of challenge and rigor, and that everybody is capable of success so long as they are willing to put in the work. 

Next, it is important to show students that perfection and being right is not as important as the ability to bounce back from failure. Creating a classroom culture of error means that teachers need to be conscious of how we react when we make mistakes in the classroom. Do we get flustered and embarrassed, or  do we say, “Oh it seems I’ve made an error somewhere, let me try again”? How we respond to incorrect responses and the words we choose when praise students also matters. Do we praise on intelligence or effort? “You’re so smart!” sends a different message than “I like the way you kept trying to rework the question even though you didn’t get it right the first time.” Adequate challenge, a culture of error, and specific praise all make a difference in creating situations in which students gain more confidence taking on increasingly more difficult challenges. 

Goal Hierarchies 
One approach to prioritizing goals in your life is to create a list of all the things you want to accomplish, and organize them according to their goal hierarchies. It’s easy to say, “I want to be an all star baseball player,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. In the short term, you might be praised for your ambition towards this higher level goal. However, simply having a high level goal without any mid or low level goals to support it is just an empty goal. Aligning your goals into one goal hierarchy that supports a higher level goal looks something like this:

“Pitching . . . determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I’m awake. It determines how I spend my life when I’m not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can’t get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too . . . Pitching is what makes me happy. I’ve devoted my life to it . . . I’m happy when I pitch well so I only do things  that help me be happy.” – Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver in Grit

Generally speaking, we are not all that extreme. Nor are we all fortunate enough to have realized what our passions in life are. As a teacher, I think it’s important to realize that most of us only see our students in the classroom context. We cannot force our students to enjoy learning science or math, but we can share the joy of learning and help students develop the skills needed to accomplish their personal goals. I admit, most of my students will probably never have to use advanced trigonometry ever again in their lives, but it doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t learn advanced trigonometry. In learning content that is difficult and challenging, students inevitably hit a brick wall. It’s what they do in those moments of difficulty that is most defining. Whether they give up or persevere can either set them on a path for future failures or successes. Thus, I believe that the value of content is its ability to drive skills development in order to help learners become proficient citizens of the 21st century. 

Developing An Interest – Play, Passion, and Purpose
The importance of discovering and developing one’s interest is a topic explored in depth throug
hout the book. Is it true that the more you are interested in something, the harder you’ll work at it? Or is the opposite true: the more you do something, the more interested you’ll become? Duckworth contends that there is a third, more important consideration – do you find your work meaningful? To illustrate her point, she recounts the tale of the three bricklayers: 

“There were three bricklayers. Each one of them was asked, ‘What are you doing?’ The first one said, ‘I’m laying bricks.’ The second said, ‘I’m building a church.’ The third one said, ‘I’m building the house of God.’ The first one has a job, the second a career, and the third a calling. “

Duckworth’s insights are not groundbreaking or new. Time and time again, we are told to follow our passions and that if we are able to do what we love, not a single day of it will feel like work. Yet how does one develop a sense of purpose? I noticed an interesting parallel between Duckworth’s ideas about developing and interest, and Tony Wagner’s beliefs about fostering innovation in today’s youth. According to Wagner, play, passion and purpose are forces that drive young innovators. Both Duckworth and Wagner emphasize the importance of a childhood of unstructured play and supportive parents who give their children permission to pursue their interests and develop their passions. As a classroom teacher, the most powerful tool I can provide my students is choice. In giving them room to explore a variety of topics that interest them, I can hopefully pave the way to helping learners develop a lifelong purpose.  

Final Notes
I would recommend this book to any educator, administrator or parent looking to foster a culture of grit in the classroom, workplace, or in their children. In education, there seems to be an increasing trend in emphasizing the development of positive character traits (e.g. grit, resilience, optimism…etc.) rather than intelligence, which is well supported by the points made in this book. Also, I enjoyed the personal anecdotes and stories which helped make the research findings more relate-able. Moving forward, I’d like to adapt some of the ideas in this book into my classroom teaching. Specifically, I want to open conversations with my students about growing grit and developing a growth mindset. I hope that these conversations will be the spark needed to set students on a path to continued self-improvement.

Duckworth, Angela. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Simon & Schuster.


A Lesson About Privilege

Privilege is like an invisible door. You can walk right through it and never realize it’s there until it shuts close for somebody else.

My grandmother never went to school past the age of ten. She’s a little too loud and boisterous at times, is never afraid to speak her mind, and to my family’s embarrassment, can always be found haggling shamelessly with local shopkeepers to maximize savings. To some, her behavior may appear crude, but to me, my grandmother exemplifies the kind of rare and selfless individual who gives so much of herself away to help others that she’s perfectly content with just being happy that others experienced success from her sacrifices. 

 Grandmother never went to school past the age of ten. Being the eldest of three children, she stayed home full-time to look after her younger siblings. Born and raised in a time and place where getting an education was considered a luxury, my grandmother never had the chance at a post-secondary education, but I did. I am afforded so many more opportunities because of the country of my birth and the situation of my upbringing.  It took me a while to realize it, but the success I’ve experienced in my life was as much pure luck as it was hard work. I was born into a privilege that my grandmother did not have and I have the chance to do something about it.  

Inspired by my grandmother, I adopted a simple classroom activity about privilege from an article I found here. ​

I remember talking excitedly with a friend about this activity and the powerful messages it sends about the concepts of privilege, equity, and equality. I was not a teacher yet, but I was keen to start  building the foundations for a classroom environment structured around social justice. My friend considered this for a moment, then said to me, “It’s a great exercise. But the problem with these types of activities is that it can’t just be about awareness. Okay, so we all have privilege to varying degrees, some more than others – so what? The question you need to ask next is: ‘Now what can we do about it?’” I took her suggestion to heart and asked my students exactly that. 

With some help from a colleague, here is the follow-up activity I presented to my students:
1. Draw it- draw a picture to show what you would do to solve this problem.
2. Share it- share your solution with three other students in the class.
​3. Write it- Now that you’ve listened to others’ solutions, write down a few sentences to add to your solution. 

Despite the language barrier, my students surprised me with their many insightful  responses. See their work below:

Instead of sitting in rows, we should aim for a more optimal arrangement.  

Even better, perhaps we should all be equidistant from the bin. 
Sometimes, we need a little help from each other.
Or maybe each person should be given multiple chances.
Or what if… we each had our own bins? 

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Meeting the Students

Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me “Ms. April.” Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows: 
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end: 
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Picture modified for privacy reasons.
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, “Ask me anything,” and it’s stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!). 

Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I’ve had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express. 

After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined “Canadian.” Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of “World of Warcraft” which I wasn’t expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that. 
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called “How to Ace Math Class.” There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes – and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together. 
My concluding message? “Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous,” (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – First day of classes!

Today was the official first day of classes, and I did absolutely nothing. As someone who values organization and preparedness, I am left feeling adrift. I feel like I’m stuck in a cycle of restlessness and unproductive-ness, and I’m itching to get out of it. But since everyone is assuring me that this is normal, I am doing my best to just go with the flow. 

Flexibility is Key
To give you a little bit of context, all international teachers are paired with local Kazak or Russian speaking teachers for every class we teach. An international teacher may be working with anywhere between 3-7 national teachers each year. As a result, curriculum planning is arguably one of the most difficult  parts of the job. Aside from those who teach English, a majority of national teaching staff only understand limited English. Google translate is not always the most reliable, which means I have to muster all the charades skills I have just to communicate simple sentences with the local teachers whom I work with. To add to the challenge, the school timetables are still in the process of being finalized since every school within the *** network (acronym omitted in case of publishing issues) must wait for a set of directives from the headquarters in Astana before the real planning can begin. This means that everything is currently being run on an ad hoc basis, and will likely continue this way until mid-September. Since I’ve had so much free time in the last two days, I’ve mostly been reworking my introductory powerpoint and reviewing key concepts for the first unit I will be teaching (whenever that may be). 

Aside from wanting to just hit the ground running (a sentiment I’ve been warned I might later regret having), my experience at *** have been very positive so far. The staff are supportive and the students are extremely talented and well-behaved. 

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A little snippet from my “first day” introductory powerpoint.
Some Background Information About the School (‘Shkola’)
For those who are new to my teaching journey, I am a new teacher at the *** school of Math and Physics in Kazakhstan. *** is a network of schools around the country whose aim is “to increase the intellectual capacity of Kazakhstan as well as to implement the best Kazakhstani and international practices.” The locals usually refer to *** as the “President’s School.” *** is an extension of the public education system in Kazakhstan, but students must pass an exam to get into the school, and they must  maintain their grades to stay.  The schools have a trilingual policy in which students receive instruction in Russian, Kazak, and English. 

The facilities are clean and well maintained. The hallways are MASSIVE compared to the schools in Canada. There is a canteen that is open all day, where teachers and students can have lunch for cheap (a regular meal at lunch would cost me no more than 3 USD). In all, there are over 300 staff members that assist with various upkeep activities at the school; from security to plant maintenance (they take their plants very seriously here). 

The Teachers (‘Uchitelya’)
International teachers are invited from around the world to help shape the new educational models and introduce innovative teaching practices into the country. Out of the 170 or so teaching staff, there are about 20 international teachers. One of my favourite things about teaching in Kazakhstan is getting to know the other international teachers in our staff team. A lot of people back home think I’m crazy for coming here, but it’s good to know I’m not the only one! I have colleagues from England, South Africa, the United States, Canada, Germany, Kenya, the Philippines… and now we’re all in Kazakhstan! They have all different types of accents and have taught all over the world. I love listening to their stories and hearing about the experiences they’ve had prior to teaching in Kazakhstan.

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The moment you realize you just fit right in.
That’s all for now. Stay posted for updates about my teaching journey, and what it’s like living so far from home. Leave a comment below if you have questions or words of encouragement, they will be most welcome. =)  

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Day 1

I’m so grateful to have the support of my school and colleagues for my transition from Canada to Kazakhstan. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was met by a school representative and driver at the Almaty airport who accompanied me on the trip to Taldykorgan. Then, when we arrived at my new apartment in Taldykorgan, I was met by a VP (one who deals with the international teachers at the school) and a friend of mine who also works at the school. They helped me move my belongings into my new apartment, and later that day, two of my colleagues took me on a basic tour of the town.  

My New Apartment
As someone who has been living the student life too long to have high expectations, the apartment I have been assigned is more than I could have asked for. While the decorations are a bit on the lavish side, I definitely have more space than I need! My apartment came fully furnished with a kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and spare room. In addition, I have  a few updated appliances including a plus size fridge and a new washer.  I was also left with some some kitchenware (likely from the previous owner), and given new bedding and bath towels to help get me started. The VP also bought me some food items like bread, yogurt, water so I wouldn’t have to starve on my first day.

A Festival
What a treat on my first day! We managed to run into a festival/celebration (of what, I’m still not sure) in the streets across from my place. There were tents of cultural displays, people playing music, and someone even brought in their pet eagle! 

The School
About a 10 minute walk from my apartment, the school is large and spacious with a swimming pool (the only school with one in my city), tennis courts, a gymnasium, auditorium, library, canteen. . . you name it. The hallways are also incredibly spacious, contrasted to the narrow ones I’m used to at the public schools in Ontario. There are many pictures and statues of the President Nazarbayev throughout the school.

Adventures in Kazakhstan – Getting The Job

To read the prequel, click here.

Before the school year came to an end, I spoke with a school counselor in regards to my worries about finding a job and having to fend for myself in the adult world. I asked for some practical advice on the job hunt/interview process, and the top five pieces of advice he gave me were:

1. Get a LinkedIn account.  It really works! Exhibit A: my current job. Unlike visiting individual job search sites that add spokes to your wheel, networking is like adding entire wheels to each spoke (see diagrams below). 

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Type of connections individual job search sites offer.
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Networking opens up more connections.
2. If you have an online or phone interview, don’t wear pants. Check out my version of “letting it loose” below. 

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An interview is already nerve-racking enough. Loosen up!
3. Always follow up. Call, email, or send a card to your interviewers to thank them for their time, and this could also be a good time to ask for feedback about the interview.

4. Practice, practice, practice, practice, and practice some more! There’s no way you can prepare answers to every single possible question they will ask you at an interview, however, you can think about situations in which you’ve exemplified a certain skill that’s relevant to the position, and practice telling that story in a clear and concise manner. If you’re like me, not practicing prior to an interview will only end one way:

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Word vomit.
5. After you’re done school, take some time to relax and do NOTHING (easier said than done). Then devote a good two weeks to the job hunting process – it’s a full time job! 

So, it turns out I didn’t have to spend the full intensive two weeks job hunting… I was haphazardly updating my LinkedIn profile when I saw that a friend of mine whom I worked with two years ago made a post about teaching positions available at his school. I sent him a message, and a few emails, a lesson plan, resume, and Skype conversation later, I managed to get an interview with the school! 

The interview was an important deciding factor for me, because it gave me the chance to ask the interviewers about the school culture, some of the things they enjoyed most about the school, and some things they thought could use some improvement. Their responses were genuine, and they didn’t give me stock responses that made me want to cringe (“Oh the students are great, yeah, really great! [Full stop. No further explanation provided]”). Another thing I appreciated was the fact that the school sent me a sample copy of the contract to review right when they gave me the offer instead of swaying me into an agreement before I could review the terms and conditions for myself. (SIDE STORY: During my time of post-grad panic, I accepted a part time position as a tutor for a tutoring company that was a two hour bus ride away from home. It wasn’t until after the first training session that the employer revealed to me that training was unpaid. Which, isn’t the worst thing if that was the whole story, BUT I was expected to attend monthly training sessions (an additional 5 hours a month, not including the induction process), AND that bit of information just happened to have been left out of the contract.) 

Tangents aside, because I was able to see myself working well with the people at the Nazarbayev Intellectual School in Taldykorgan, KZ, because they had been honest and professional in their dealings with me, and because I knew I would have at least one friend at the school, I decided to take the job. 

Of course, my family insisted that I also do a sh*t ton of research before committing myself to the position, so I did my due diligence and asked as many questions as I could before accepting the offer. After that, the rest of the summer was spent vegetating at home and gathering all the paperwork that was needed to obtain my visa. 

Up Next: Adventures in Kazakhstan – Getting There

Adventures In Kazakhstan: Prequel

This is the story of how I ended up with a teaching job in Kazakhstan. Here, I’ve decided to include a “prequel” because, unlike getting a job in a local public board, the UK, Australia or the like, telling people that I’m going to Kazakhstan usually demands a more rigorous explanation. For one, people either assume I’m going to an extremely remote part of the world, or some sort of war-torn country. I’ve found that telling this truth generally elicits a visceral reaction that causes family and friends to begin to fear for my safety, and strangers to look at me like I’m crazy. My grandparents have already revealed to me that this fear has caused them to have regular nightmares of me in life-threatening situations across the world. The other explanation for a background story is that I also feel the need to justify, or at least consolidate some of the choices I have made that led me here. This post was not easy for me to write, because it meant confronting some ugly truths about the decisions I’ve made, and the after-math of living out those consequences. But I am writing with the self-assurance that “the truth will set you free,” so please bear with me.

                                                                                . . .

A Fear of Commitment

It was three months prior to my expected graduation date I was already panicking about the ominous and uncertain future ahead of me. Scattered about teacher’s college were select students who had already been offered teaching contracts in different countries overseas (and even public school boards for a lucky few!). One by one, as the pool of unemployment began to shrink around me, the reality of Life After School became more and more real. I began to question a lot of things, including the vocation I had chosen. University life had opened me to more possibilities than just traditional teaching. Throughout my time at university, I had the privilege of working within the student housing and academic affairs department. I learned that the skills I possessed as a teacher were also invaluable to positions I held outside that role. What if I had picked the wrong profession? Should I explore other options before settling down? Those were the types of questions lingering in my mind. Maybe I should have been asking myself why I was having those thoughts in the first place.

Those last three months before the end of the school year not only exemplified a period of great uncertainty, but also some of the worst decision-making I have ever done in my life. Wanting to keep my options open, I applied to any and all jobs I had the qualifications for, and yet I would find some excuse or other to not take the jobs I had been offered. Not really knowing what I wanted, I deluded myself into thinking that every job I applied for was going to be “the one.” I was desperate and picky; and because I did not take the time to truly understand the rationale behind each one of my actions, I was not able to act with honesty or integrity. I sought explanations outside myself, and rejected offers because my family did not approve, because I would not be able pay off student loans, because it was too far from home, because, because, because…  All of my excuses, compounded with a deep inner desire to make my family proud, ended up sabotaging the healthy connections I had created while in university.

Burning Bridges

To give you an example, there was a summer job opening within the student housing department at my school that would allow me to stay in town a few months longer doing work for the people which I owe much of my gratitude. I interviewed for the position and was offered the job. I, being stupidly short sighted, I only thought about how great it would be able to continue working at the university, and did not factor in any long term goals or plans. When I eventually went to turn down the job – (Okay, dramatic PAUSE here) I mean, who DOES that anyway? Not many new grads are lucky enough to find employment, let alone being able to afford the luxury of turning job offers down – I faced a painful reality check.

My interviewers were gracious enough to provide some feedback for the interview upon my request. To foreign ears, this feedback may seem unsolicited or unprofessional, but because these people had been my mentors for the last few years, I took their advice with an open heart. The conversation went something like this, “April, I think you really need to assess your own values and where they stand in relation to your family’s values, and what they want for you. This is not the first time you’ve turned down a position like this, and people will remember you for that. Employers invest a lot of time and energy into the hiring process, and when they make the decision to hire you, and you reject that offer, you are burning bridges in a way.” Those words struck me like massive blows to the head, and the reason I felt them so harshly was because in my heart, I knew them to be true.

It is not easy to confront the ugly, selfish, and completely idiotic side of yourself. People always have a tendency to deny its existence. Luckily for me, I had some pretty wise mentors who were not afraid of holding a mirror up to my face and showing me what I had neglected to see. When I think on this memory I am reminded of something a good friend said to me, “People of our generation think that just because we’ve gone to school and graduated with fancy diplomas, we are entitled to a well-paying job” – it simply isn’t true. It was lesson in humility that will stick with me forever.

After that episode, I gave up on the job hunt for a while, which eventually led me to a position as a senior math teacher in Kazakhstan. More on that later. 

Alfie Kohn: Rewards and Competition

A question I’ve considered many years: Why is it that so many of the tasks we perform in our culture – at home, at school, at work, at play – are set up […] where most of us can succeed only at the price of another’s failure. – Alfie Kohn

Alfie Kohn is one of my heros in the field of education. He is an American author and lecturer on topics pertaining to human behaviour, parenting, and education. His website contains a series of links to articles he’s written, books published, his personal blog, and a series of “online freebies” (e.g. video/audio). 

In the video below, Kohn speaks to a group of educators about the effects of competition in the classroom (my thoughts here). To put it simply, competition kills creativity; it teaches students a “sink or swim” attitude and that one’s success comes only at another’s failure. He argues that competition is never the optimal arrangement. In contrast, cooperation and collaboration lends itself to better attitudes and results, both in the classroom and in society as a whole.

As an aspiring educator, I couldn’t help but also notice the way Kohn engages his audience as well. He skillfully navigates the content of his lecture while drawing his audience into the discussion as well. He starts by surveying the audience to see what their professions are, creating a simple but effective connection. Then, he provides an example of a study having to do with competition that yielded some fascinating result, and prompts the audience to think about why those results may have been produced. He gives the audience a chance to discuss their thoughts with someone near them, and takes some time to talk about other relevant observations he’s made on the topic before getting the audience to share their responses. That way, he sets the stage for the depth and type of responses expected of his audience, and they also get some time to refine and further develop their responses before sharing with the larger group.

Watching and listening to Mr. Kohn speak is such a privilege. He’s funny, insightful, and thought provoking. Definitely worth the watch!

Rewards and Vacuous Praise

Think back to your days in the elementary (or even secondary) classroom. I’m willing to bet that most of you will be familiar with some version of the controversial reward chart as exemplified above. What are your thoughts? Do rewards work? What has been your experience with rewards in the classroom? Go ahead and think about this for a minute before you read on. 

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Pintrest board on reward systems.

My Grade 2 Experience:
I distinctly remember the day my grade five teacher decided to implement a “Merit Points” system in our classroom. There was a blank chart on one of the the side walls with each of the student names listed in rows, and empty boxes for check marks next to each name. Our teacher explained that these points will be very difficult to earn and would only be awarded for “exceptionally good behaviour”. None of us really knew what that meant, but I was interested in seeing how this would play out. 

After our return from recess that day, the class began filing in when all of the sudden Mr. R yelled, “EVERYBODY FREEZE!” And so we did – “Megan has earned her first merit point. She picked up a piece of garbage that wasn’t hers – WITHOUT BEING TOLD TO DO SO.” Man, I thought, if that’s what it takes to get these merit points I’d better pick up every single piece of garbage I see, but only when I’m not being told to do so. 

As the year wore on, Megan, a naturally kind-hearted person and good friend of mine, began accumulating more and more points. Eventually, there was no way to catch up. A large portion of the class had no points at all! Naturally, I stopped caring – what was the point? I was never going to get enough merit points to win the prize, and it didn’t matter if I did good deeds outside of the classroom because Mr. R was never going to see them anyway. 

What I Know Now:
I watched a lecture presented some years ago by Aflie Kohn  as a part of the MacClement Lecture Series at Queen’s University. To answer the question, “How do we create kind, compassionate, and caring children?” he asks us to consider the following question, “How can we destroy a child’s inclination to care?” The answer: competition and rewards. 

Grades, stickers, praises, money, are all forms of rewards commonly used by parents and teachers – these are thought to encourage positive behaviour when in fact research shows the opposite effect to be true. Providing extrinsic motivators (i.e. rewards) for what are inherently intrinsic values and behaviours (compassion, resilience, grit…) simply does not work! Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are inversely related. According to Kohn, research shows that children of parents who frequently use rewards tend to be less generous than their peers. 

Thinking back to my grade two classroom, the only thing that the Merit Points system did was reward the students who were already good. While I was motivated to “try” for a short period of time, I quickly reverted back to whatever I was doing before once I decided it was a waste of my time. 

Praise can be similarly perilous to your child’s development. If you are like me, you often get annoyed when others give you empty praises like, “Good job!”, “You’re awesome”, or “You’re so smart!”. Not only do praises like these provide no context or constructive feedback whatsoever, they can also be detrimental to a child’s confidence, grit, and self-esteem. This article (“How Not to Talk to Your Kids”) does a good job at explaining the basics. In general, kids who are praised for intelligence over effort tend to give up more easily on tasks that they believe they have no inherent talent for. Specific praises like, “I like that you moved on to the next question when you got stuck,” are key to providing students helpful strategies to succeed. 

In general, I think that rewards can act as good short term motivators for getting necessary but uninteresting tasks done and out of the way, like rewarding myself with candy for completing  chapter readings for a course I don’t enjoy for instance. However, in the long term, rewards can hinder a child’s development of good attitudes and behaviours and should generally be avoided.

Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well. – Judith Brook, New York University Professor of Psychiatry

For more information on this topic, I recommend reading more of Carol Dwek‘s Mindset Research.