As educators, we are continually seeking ways to create a new and better classroom environment for our students. Be it developing enduring relationships where kids can safely take risks or by searching for ways to allow students to create and investigate their true passions and interests, the question should always come back to What is best for kids. This week’s topic was all about building this foundation as leaders to optimize learning for every single student in an effort to bring out his or her strengths and talents and how we need to work to disrupt the status quo and embrace innovation by “look[ing] in the mirror not the window” (Rashad, 2016).
I can’ t help but connect this week’s MOOC to being a fur parent. I know, it sounds crazy. But let me explain. At one point in my life I was a cat-only person. Of course, growing up my parents owned dogs and when they would jump up with muddy paws and lick me with their slobbery spit, it did something disturbing to my psyche. Dogs were by nature just, well, not cats. They were dirty. Cats were clean. They were loud. Cats were quiet. They ran around like lunatics. Cats slept all day. They hid and dug for buried treasure. Cats, well, they slept. I was 9 years old when I donated my coveted Barbie Star Traveler Bus to a litter of kittens who were more than thankful for the classy digs. Cats were my world from a young age. I remember combing the cat food aisles of the grocery store in search of the most delicious cat food brands. This decision was one I did not take lightly. I was a cat mom after all.
Fast forward almost 30 years. I met and fell in love with Bella, a one day old chihuahua born from a litter of my sister’s dogs. When the puppies were born, my daughter Sarah begged and pleaded to at least go look. Of course my sister had asked if we wanted one. Sarah instantly decided that yes, we did…the brown one, sight unseen. I figured I owed it to the kid to at least go see, I mean that way I could let her down easy. At the time we had just been rescued by a feral momma kitty and her litter of 7 babies, plus we had my original cat Sadie, so it was a full house, or as my husband lovingly referred to it, a zoo. But when I set eyes on Bella for the first time, I knew a piece of my heart had been missing all along. Here curled up in the palm of my hand was true love itself. How could I have been wrong all of those years? Think of what I had been missing out on by being so set in my ways. A year later, we got Maci, Bella’s sister from another litter. Again it took some convincing (this time on my husband’s part). On Christmas Eve I told him, “Your baby was born today…” and with that addition to our family, my heart grew again. Bella and Maci are the loves of our lives. Of course, our cats are amazing too, but there is something so special about a dog and what they can teach us about life, how to treat others and what truly matters.
George Couros refers to, in the Introduction of An Innovator’s Mindset, a video clip entitled “Be More Dog” which really got me thinking. What if we truly embraced that notion? What if we all became more dog? In an ongoing effort to become the best version of myself both in and out of school, I have been really looking at life through that very lens. In the School versus Learning chart in the Innovator’s Mindset, when you take the time to really think about it, even dogs have it right. They are in the camp of learners when it comes to tackling the every day. What if we shifted our thinking enough to let man’s best friend guide us in becoming the best version of ourselves? What if we embraced the messy, loud, exploratory nature of a dogs energetic spirit and applied it to our schools and life? What if the answer truly lies in embracing our inner dog? I’m pretty sure they’ve had it right all along.
One key element of school versus learning is the ideas that school is isolating where as learning is social. This is so true of the typical classroom where desks are in neat little rows and the teacher stands at the front of the room. This “assembly line” style of learning really serves to create a culture of compliance as students are discouraged from interacting. This suggests that learning is an isolated task when really it is just the opposite. Learning should be social, interactive and connected. Just ask a dog. Dogs are social creatures by nature. Even at the vet, tails between their legs and quivering in fear of the great unknown, they still take the time to sniff, acknowledge and interact. They learn from one another in so many ways. I never had to teach my second dog how to potty on the pad or how to bark, she watched, learned and figured it out by learning from her sister. Maci, in turn has taught Bella some things, like how to be cute and beg for a treat and use her paw to wave and ask for attention. In this way, they also embrace the notion that “…everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a learner,” (Couros, 2015). It is not enough for students to compliantly sit in their neat little flower bed rows, when instead we need to empower them with skills they need on a much deeper level. As teachers this means “…teach[ing] learners how to be self-directed and guide them on their own learning rather than rely on others to simply engage them,” (Couros, 2015).
Another key area where schools and learning look very different is the surface level thinking versus deep exploration. Too much of traditional schooling is of the notion of teaching a mile wide and an inch deep. I remember a colleague once telling me when I first started teaching that it’s not about what we cover but rather what we uncover that matters. As teachers we need to disrupt that “….culture of compliance [that] will not foster the environment we want for students…” (Couros, 2015). Unless our students are one day going to make a career of Jeopardy or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? this surface level, low DOK thinking serves no purpose. Learning should encourage kids to ask their own questions and find their own answers (Couros, 2015). Furthermore, “creating opportunities for students to explore their passions and interests empowers them in their learning,” (Couros, 2015). Dogs know this all too well. Never would they allow us to hide the bones and toys for them. Nor do they keep it safe and to the surface. No. A dog’s philosophy is to explore. Take a risk. Hide the toy in a new location. Go for a ride in the bed of a truck. Stick your face outside the car window and let the wind kiss your face. They don’t worry about how it will work out in the end. They are here. Now. As teachers of learners we need to be so bold and allow our students to “unleash” their potential and by being more dog “…explore and make meaningful connections to the content to deepen their learning,” without being afraid to take some risks along the way (Couros, 2015).
In the MOOC discussion, the notion of trust and risk taking came up and how when having an innovator’s mindset, we can not be burdened or hindered by worry. A big portion of being able to grow as a teacher and life long learner is trying out something new and being trusted professionally to do so. In the Innovator’s Mindset, Couros refers to a quote by Steve Jobs, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Giving teachers the autonomy to make choices on what’s best for kids and the trust that goes along with that is huge. It seems more and more these days that with bureaucracy getting its sticky fingers in the education system, teachers feel the opposite of what we are trying to create for learners in the classroom. Teachers need to feel empowered so they can in turn empower their students. Instead of “…limiting educators’ initiative, and thereby students learning opportunities let’s create environments of competitive collaboration, where educators at all levels push and help one another to become better,” (Couros, 2015). In order to sustain innovation, we need to move away from pockets to a culture of innovation. This means we need to look both inward and outside of our schools to evaluate what we could do better in an effort to improve the learning environment for kids (Martin, 2016). In addition, a safe environment should come with a teacher’s ability to take risks without worry about getting in trouble (Martin, 2016). This element of trust is a topic near and dear to a dog’s heart. Dogs are trusting, forgiving creatures that in a single moment can overlook a negative and focus only on the positive. They have faith in those that they trust and care about who they know have their best interest at heart. In the words of Kaleb Rashad, “The more you trust people, the quicker things happen,” even if they haven’t fully proven themselves (2016.) Dogs know that from the start. Faith moves mountains.
One of the last big discussion points that really resonated with me had to do with Advisory and kids having someone in their corner who they can always count on and go to in a time of need. This idea of the importance of relationships is such a powerful one. George Couros puts it best when he says that “the three most important words in education are: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without them, we have nothing,” (2015). A huge aha for me was the process of “being a student” that was described as an educator who was asked to shadow two students in her new school. One take away from the experience was “You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long,”(Couros, 2015). This broke my heart, but it sounds so true. As teachers we are rushing around, multitasking all day, trying the best we can to “do it all” but in the end, maybe “Less is More”. If a student goes away from a school day feeling like a burden rather than an opportunity, we have missed the most crucial element of our career. In order for any substantial and meaningful change to take place, “we have to make a connection to the heart before we can make a connection to the mind,”(Couros, 2015). Dogs are more in tuned with this notion than even humans I think. What other creature bounds with loving excitement because you spent 4.3 minutes away from them and shower you with love when you return from your long, dark sojourn to the bathroom? Dogs know the importance of love, caring and relationships through the wag in their tails and the swagger of their bodies whether you’ve been gone 5 minutes or 5 days. True love is natural to them. To them it’s always “We not me”as they are pack oriented and the pack sticks together and supports one another. Kaleb Rashad underscores what it means to be a good human being, a good teacher and a good leader when he says, “Love the hell out of people and meet them where they are,” (2016). Those are indeed words to live by. Giving people a chance to get from their point A to their point B can only be done with patience, love and support.
So What if….What if we lived, taught, trusted, loved, risked, worried less, adventured, connected and got messy in life, more like a dog? What if I had never taken a risk and tried my heart at something new? What if I got stuck in my old, safe and comfortable canine-less life. I would have missed out on the best teachers I possibly could have had. Not to mention the sweetest dog kisses I’m blessed to be showered with every day. Yes, I just said that. Sometimes all it takes to disrupt our status quo is to open up to the possibility of new experiences. By embracing change with an open heart and mind , we move forward.