Lessons Learned

camp jubilee
Camp Jubilee, Indian Arm, B.C.

“I feel like such a failure”,  I said.

“What do you mean?”  he said.

“This has been such a difficult semester. I feel like I haven’t done a good job at all.”

C looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face, his one hand still holding the bag of ice to the back of his head.  We were sitting on a dock while he recovered from having injured himself an hour before during an outdoor teambuilding activity. In the forested area further away from us, he had fallen in such a way that he cut open an inch of skin on his head. He had been bleeding and so the First Aid attendant had advised that he not continue with the day’s activities.  He didn’t seem to be too disappointed to be here, talking to me as we looked out on a scene of ocean, tree-covered mountains and blue sky.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, he said. “I’m having the best semester I’ve ever had in school! Everyone loves this class. There are so many things I would never have done if it weren’t for this class. I would never have spoken to A, for example. And he’s so funny! He makes me laugh!”

“But”, I said, “I haven’t used many of the tools in my toolbox. There’s so many things I normally do that we haven’t done.”

“You don’t need all those tools. You just need the one you’ve been using to get us to all to talk to each other and enjoy being together. And look at this, look where we are! Everyone loves this field trip!”

On any other day, having a student injured, bleeding, on a field trip would be a teacher’s worst nightmare, but C’s injury turned out to be a gift in disguise for my battered teaching soul. We could not have had this conversation were it not for his fall.

At that point, just weeks before the end of the school year, I felt defeated. I had been struggling all semester with an impossible class and it felt like nothing I did worked at all. I felt like I could not meet the needs of an extremely academic group of girls while I dealt with consistent disruption from a group of boys we called The Crew. (More about them later. C was not a member of The Crew.) Students engaged in feuds with other students in the class and those with learning disabilities had no education assistant support.  There had been days when I did not recognize the teacher I became under the strain.

We must have sat talking for about an hour, and all the while he told me what he appreciated about being in a class that I thought I had completely failed.

When I later reflected on what he had said, I realized that I had not so much failed as I had forgotten what I intuitively knew: teens crave connection.

Helping students to connect to and with each other and to create a classroom community is central to all that I do. It’s the focus of all activities in the first week of class, and it’s  the common handle on all the tools that I use. Having connection as the crux of my curriculum was initially a reaction to Apartheid’s forced separation at the beginning of my teaching career but, 26 years later, there is a different reason for its importance: the most technologically connected generation in history is ironically the most psychosocially disconnected.

Susan Pinker’s book, The Village Effect, cites several studies that point to the critical importance of real world, face-to-face interaction for everyone, but especially for teens who may experience “Facebook depression” even though they have thousands of “friends”. The studies paint a bleak picture of the effect of screens on the lives of teens.

I have very little technology in my classroom. I don’t have a Smartboard. I don’t want one.  There is no way that I can technologically trick my students into consistently paying attention to things that they see as irrelevant to their lives. The content of the curriculum stands no chance in competition with the drama unfolding on social media and the novelty and brain rewards that video games provide.

Many education social media sites  list suggestions for how teachers can add more technological tinsel to their lessons. It can be quite overwhelming to sift through them all, wondering whether I should “flip” my classroom or use tablets to teach storytelling. There are so many ways we can add bells and whistles to try to dress up course content in an attempt to hold students’ attention.

But, in my experience, the attention that teens want and need, the kind of attention they value and appreciate, is the kind that doesn’t require a battery or a wi fi connection.

The Crew knew this too.

The Crew 1
The Crew. Photo courtesy J Newman

The Crew are a group of close friends who got into my class after the shop class they really wanted was cancelled. Right from the start,  our relationship was troubled. They would not stop talking to each other during lessons. They were constantly late to class. They seemed uninterested in anything that the rest of the class was doing. Some of them were suspended from school more than once. Most of them were sent to the office multiple times. But, at the end of the semester, all of them said they had had the time of their lives.

I admit that having them in my class felt like the ultimate test of my teaching life.

After 26 years of teaching, I had slipped into a kind of complacency. I had created a successful menu of strategies and activities. My class was popular and I admit I felt a bit smug about that. But, that smugness tempted fate and along came The Crew who taught me a new lesson about connection that I did not know.

You’ll notice in this photo that they’re all dressed quite similarly, as though in uniform. This was not by design. They were surprised when we pointed it out to them. I would often tease that they behaved like the Borg from StarTrek: multiple bodies with one mind. But they were nothing like the Borg in temperament. They were kind, and generous. Very funny, and very forgiving. It didn’t matter how often they were banished, none of them ever responded in the stereotypical way a hurt or angry teen might respond.

The truth was that they tried really hard to behave but that was like asking a fish to fly. They all had high kinaesthetic intelligence and it was extremely difficult for them to sit in a classroom all day. Amongst them is a competitive wrestler, a Bhangra dancer, two bodybuilders, three competitive soccer players,  and a few artists.

Although students can leave my classroom at any time for a brain break, and The Crew frequently did, they still spent too much time being in a space that was not comfortable for them. I knew this yet felt quite helpless about doing much about it.

I felt like I was the proprietor of a successful restaurant that had seen lots of success over the years by keeping a basic menu that was tweaked regularly. And now I was faced with a group of patrons who seemed to want nothing on the menu.

But I was wrong.

Here’s what two of them said at the end of the semester about their experiences:

H: [This class] has been the most educational experience I have had. In this course I learned many new things about myself and developed skills and abilities that will forever help me in my future. This class was an unusual class.  We learned to see things in many ways and through different perspectives. Through all these experiences I learned a lot about myself and became a more responsible and independent individual. This course always made me think beyond my limitations and really expanded my mind.

J: After realizing what we were doing was bad, and had a negative impact on others, I attempted to change myself a little bit. I started to … clean my act up by considering the feelings of others. I decided that even though it was late in the semester, there was time for change. I was able to start participating in class as much as I could and I took the opportunity to become prime minister of [our Civic Mirror country]

J, the leader of The Crew, was twice elected Prime Minister of the  class’s simulated Civic Mirror country. His government was responsible for the country receiving the highest Civic Mirror ranking of all my classes over the past 8 years.

P, another member of the crew, got onto the Honour Roll for the first time, joining J who got on for the second time since Grade 8.

The entire Crew passed the provincial, standardized exam.

The Crew taught me that I didn’t need to worry about the menu. It was just fine.

C was right.


Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions through our human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws.  One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works far more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that weighs and measures and considers alternatives: our prefrontal cortex.

Have you ever done something in anger you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the prefrontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of these other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss.  Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us vulnerable, so we are not likely to do that as easily as we are to allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a nice comfy blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.


So, no, that student or colleague did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But, there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or two.  When you are first learning how to do this, it helps to walk away, out of the room for a bit.

It helps too if you have a regular meditation and exercise routine. You are less likely to be easily triggered if you do.

It also helps if you regularly release the energy that fuels your anger in healthy ways.

Even though you  may learn all about anger, and what to do about it, changing the way you have been angry in the past is quite difficult to do.  For a while, you’ll forget what to do far more frequently than you’ll remember.

But you need to keep practicing because the only way out is through.

You have to go through the learning curve. The golden prize at the other end is that, when you know how to control your own anger, you will be able to help your students do that too.

You will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem.

When you learn about your own anger, you will know just how really scared or worried or upset that student is underneath their anger. You will feel empathy.

And when you model empathy in your classroom, you will be well on your way to creating a learning environment that is emotionally safe for your students.

19th century classrooms were ruled by fear and coercion. Students in a 21st century learning environment feel safe to express and experience a range of emotions because their teacher is attuned to students’ emotions and knows, both cognitively and experientially,  how to respond accordingly.

Be the Change

Like Water

You’ve watched Ken Robinson other education revolutionaries on TED talks. You’ve attended numerous professional development workshops on the “new” way to teach. You know something has to change but when you enter your room each morning, you are overwhelmed by the demands made on you by the students and the system. You don’t know where to start.

Start here.

Realize that this change, this transformation will not happen overnight. It will also not be easy. It will not unfold in simple, linearity from point A to point Z. It will be messy. You will be frequently frustrated. You will want to give up.


Your students need you to not give up. They are desperately waiting for something more than they’re getting. Some of them have given up waiting and have dropped out. Their numbers keep growing. The ones who are still in classrooms are hoping that this year, something will be different.

Take baby steps.

First change the things you can easily change. Notice how you feel when you make those changes. Notice what happens in the classroom when you introduce the changes. Be like a scientist observing an experiment.

Try titration.

Add something to the way you collect data about the students.

Add something to the way students interact with each other.

Add something to the way time is used in your classroom.

Add something to the way you see yourself as teacher.

Then watch what happens.

Make adjustments.

Evolution is a slow process.

Be patient.

There are many of us out here, working like water flowing over rock, changing the system from within.

Soon all our little molecules of change will coalesce into a stream and then into a river and the system will have been transformed, not by political decree but by the work of teachers like you and me.

Learning Environments


The latest buzzword in educational reform is “learning environments”.  These are, according to the OECD, places where constructive, self-regulated learning, that is  sensitive to context, is fostered. Critical to the success of learning in these spaces is that “learning professionals [should be] highly attuned to the learners’ motivations and the key role of emotions in achievement” and that they should also “encourage well-organized co-operative learning.”

This all sounds really wonderful and very 21st century but as someone who has spent almost 3 decades creating learning environments that are socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating, I can assure you that teachers are going to need much more than a text and a workshop to successfully role- shift from being primarily deliverers of content and dispensers of discipline to being “attuned to learners’ motivations” while they structure learning environments in which learners are at the centre.

It will take much more  than just a cognitive decision to change a way of being in the classroom.

If teachers do not spend time getting to know themselves, truly, and if they’re not willing to look deep into the shadows of why they do the things they do, they will be incapable of  creating for students an emotionally safe space in which miscommunication and conflict that arises amongst students and between students and the teacher is managed in a way that preserves relationships.

When a classroom becomes de-centred, when a teacher is not in complete control of all interactions,  all kinds of wonderful things can and do happen but these can be easily overshadowed if the not-so-wonderful dimensions of relationships within the learning environment are not constructively managed.

Relationships are strengthened when they can withstand, and be strengthened by the fires of conflict.  But how is a teacher to know how to deal with conflict when in her traditional role of dispenser of discipline, punishment or banishment was the norm?

Central to the success of learning environments is that teachers should ‘care’ about students’ emotional well-being but caring is not always rainbows or fuzzy Care Bears  and Hallmark cards. Caring takes courage and honesty and trust and those are not deliverable by a point and click or an announcement of a policy change.

It is not enough to be an educated adult, motivated to create a caring classroom community/learning environment.

Nothing in my undergraduate studies in Anthropology, Sociology or Psychology or my post-graduate studies in Curriculum and Instruction prepared me to know how to meaningfully manage the dynamics and dimensions of classroom relationships between students and teachers and amongst students.

I am still not aware of any teacher-education programme that directly and specifically teaches teachers, in ways beyond reading and discussing a text,  how to develop and maintain and support relationships in the classroom.  Please let me know if you do!

In the absence of such a formal program, I have learned, mostly through direct experience,  how to create a learning environment in my classroom that supports and encourages relationships between students. It is these relationships that are critical and crucial to the health of a learning environment. They are the lifeblood, the ground, of the learning environment.  Just as any biological ecosystem depends on healthy relationships between all components of the ecosystem, social learning environments cannot succeed without healthy relationships among all human beings in that environment.

It is because of this that I structure my classroom/learning environment so that it is socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually challenging.

Teacher as Philosopher?

Greek philosophers

The difference between schoolteachers and philosophers is that schoolteachers think that they know a lot of stuff that they try to force down our throats. Philosophers try to figure things out together with the pupils. Sophie’s World , by Jostein Gaarder, page 70

I wonder if, 2413 years after Socrates, whether the world is yet ready for the philosopher-teacher, a pedagogue whose task is not so much to lead a pupil to a place of knowledge that has been mapped and visited before but instead to help the pupil to prepare for the journey of inquiry and reflection and questioning of all that is accepted as knowledge, and all that is yet unknown.

With oceans of information and knowledge readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection in even the remotest parts of the planet, the role of teacher as “content deliverer” has become defunct. It’s now time that role is replaced with a new role of teacher as co-pilot, as navigator, as logistician, one who anticipates what might be needed on the journey, and travels part of the learning journey with the student.

A teacher-philosopher/co-pilot would not participate in what Ken Robinson calls the greatest suppression of creativity in human history that occurs in our schools when teachers do what incenses Sophie so much. Instead, teachers would be as curious as her students, wanting to learn and to discover what is not yet known.

But for this paradigm shift in the role of schools and teachers to occur, there would need to be a huge shift in our  current socio-cultural  “centre of gravity”.

A modern philosopher,  Ken Wilber suggests that each society has a centre of gravity around which its morals, ethics and worldviews coalesce. This COG acts like a magnet: if you rise above, the centre of gravity pulls you down, if you are below the centre of gravity, it will pull you up.

A very simple example of this is the widely accepted practice of recycling beverage containers in our society. If you don’t recycle aluminium cans and plastic bottles, you will be “pulled up” to this practice by being admonished and persuaded to change your habits through personal encounters, public service ads and incentives such as being paid to return cans to recycling depots.   But if you point out that the manufacture of these bottles and cans is a problem in itself, far greater than recycling can solve, you will be “pulled down”, seen as being “intense” or “extreme”.   You  would be on the outside of society’s centre of gravity around the idea of recycling.

Socrates was on the outside of the centre of gravity in Athens in 399 B.C.E.  By questioning the “wisdom” of the city’s elite, he was undermining the status quo. In order for it to retain its power, he needed to be “pulled down” to the Athenian centre of gravity and its views on “education of the young”, a centre of gravity that held the view that the young should not be taught to question authority or to look too deeply into what was considered “truth”.

Education of the young has long been the site of these gravity tensions since it is seen as the most powerful lever for societal change. But the nature of this change is always contested.

As long as education is performing the function of preparing students to take their place within the status quo, and to accept the current wisdom, then all is well. But should a teacher get the notion that education should be about more than that, there is tension and the COG will “pull down” those attempts in ways both personal and political.

This process of “pulling down” can be like my experience of being accused of “breeding rebels” by colleagues in South Africa during the Apartheid era when I taught my students to ask questions about their learning experiences.  Over the past 18 years of teaching in Canada, I have continued to cause “trouble” in my teaching practice when I allow students to nap, when I invite them to dance, when I encourage them to question, to negotiate,  and especially when I suggest that they look at textbooks as not holding the “gospel” truth about any subject.

Another example of this “pulling down” process is the recent experiences of the teachers of Ethnic Studies in Arizona state schools where  legislation was passed in 2010 to stop them from teaching about the historical and literary contributions made by African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American people. The centre of gravity of the United States public is not yet ready to accept or to acknowledge the injustices of the past and accuses these teachers of inciting racial hatred. Or perhaps they mean,  that those teachers are “corrupting the youth” when they teach them how to reveal the truth.

In the 21st century, teachers who behave like “gadflies” on the horse of the corporate-state may not share the same fate as Socrates if they are lucky enough to live in judicially strong countries and if they are lucky enough to belong to a strong labour union. However, world history of the recent past is woven with numerous stories of teachers risking their lives (and sometimes losing them) in states where there is no access to a functioning justice system. In some respects we have not moved much further than Athens in 399 B.C.

I hope 21st century teachers do not have to be prepared to risk their lives before we see a shift in modern western culture’s centre of gravity with regard to the role of teachers in our age of information, a shift that would provide students like Sophie with philosopher-pilots instead of human  force-feeding tubes.