Just Start: Get on the Track of Improvement

By settling for safety, we miss out on certain growth and learning.

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

“Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

At the outset of the new year, AJ Juliani issued a challenge to the education world: blog — or engage in blogging activities — for thirty days.

His call was a welcome one. Research has long been telling us that our students learn best when they are given the time, tools, and opportunity to reflect thoughtfully on their own learning journeys. In Leaders of Their Own Learning, Ron Berger calls this sort of metacognitive activity “writing to learn.”

The same principle applies for educators.

Writing to Learn and Learning to Write

The more we speak, write, tweet, vlog, and publish about our learning and professional practice, the more we will learn, grow, and develop as educators. And as we make our own learning visible, others benefit and grow as well.

John Hattie talks about the power of collective efficacy. Stephen Covey calls it win-win. Simply put, we’re better together.

Our professional growth isn’t just about reading and listening to the established voices in education. It’s also about sharing and contributing our own experiences.

So, as passionate educators, why don’t we participate in the global conversation more than we do?

It’s Not Really About Time

The typical response says we don’t have enough time in the week. But for most, that’s not actually the case. As Laura Vanderkam demonstrates convincingly in 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, most of us actually do have the time.

When you get right down to it, most of us aren’t hitting ‘Publish’ for one reason: fear.

We fear embarrassment. Rejection. Crickets.

We assume that our voice doesn’t matter. That no one will pay attention. Or worse yet, that we’ll be exposed as an imposter.

As Elizabeth Gilbert points out, most of us don’t publish creatively because the outcome is uncertain. There’s just no guarantee of success — whatever success means.

So we take the safe option.

The Power of Practice

But people who aren’t publishing are overlooking an absolute guarantee: improvement.

That’s right, I said it. When you create content consistently over time, your growth and improvement is guaranteed. You can’t help but get better.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that repetition is highly underrated. He tells story after story of individuals who simply put in the time on their craft to gradually become an expert in their space.

Marques Brownlee

Earlier this year, I listened to a podcast featuring YouTuber Marques Brownlee, a soft-spoken, thoughtful, and charismatic tech reviewer. He talked about how he began publishing YouTube videos back in high school simply because he loved the medium and enjoyed the process. As he describes it, his first 100 videos were viewed by audiences of around 100 people.

Today, Brownlee’s videos earn millions of views apiece. He has 7.7M subscribers.

It’s not all about growing an audience. That’s not really my point, although the size of his growing viewership does speak to the value of his work.

What I’m more interested in is those first 100 videos. Just think about the sort of headspace he was in to continue creating.

As he puts it, he created content simply because he enjoyed it. The views and reactions were secondary.

And because he stuck with it, he’s obviously eclipsed Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. He’s become a master at his craft.

The Teachers on Fire Podcast

In March of 2018, I realized a long-held dream by launching a podcast for educators, Teachers on Fire. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I had questions about everything from applications to equipment to guests.

It took a lot of work to get started, and it definitely wasn’t easy. My sound quality was awful at the beginning, and I made a ton of unfortunate mistakes that made the process even more painful.

The interview for my very first episode took forever to complete because the recording app I was using crashed at least six times. It was a frustrating first experience.

Almost a year later, I still don’t have it all figured out. But I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m improving my craft. I’m miles and miles from where I started, and my conversations with education leaders are inspiring listeners around the world.

Consistent Content Creation is a Direct Line to Improvement

I don’t consider myself a skilled artist. But I have zero doubt in my mind that if I set aside three hours a weekend to learn and practice pencil drawing for 52 weeks, I would be a much better artist by year’s end.

Absolutely no doubt in my mind.

I’m convinced that the same holds true for any kind of creative publishing. Once we embark on the commitment of regular creation, improvement isn’t a question. It’s an absolute certainty.

And as we hone our creative skills, our contributions to the world around us become more valuable.

This is what I want my stepsons to know. My students to know. And you, fellow educator, to know.

We can lament our lack of creative skills. Or we can take action.

Just start.

My #OneWord2019: Create

This will be a year for new content. New learning. New relationships.

@MisterCavey on Instagram

It was in the final weeks of December that I started to see the #OneWord and #OneWord2019 hashtags pop up on Twitter.

I was unimpressed at first, but as some of my favorite edustars (like Rose Pillay) started to reflect on their #OneWord2019, I decided to take a closer look.

It looks like the One Word idea has been around for a while. Although you’ll find One Word resources all over the web, the philosophy behind the movement seems best developed in a book called One Word That Will Change Your Life by Jon Gordon and Dan Britton.

Without reading the book, my take on #OneWord is simple. Choose a word that best frames your hopes, goals, and expectations for the year ahead. Choose a word that anchors you, clarifies your mission, and reminds you of your purpose. Choose a word that you can use to connect your growth and learning as the year unfolds.

It took me most of the last week of December, but I finally found my own #OneWord2019.

CREATE.

I want to see creation unfold in three dimensions this year.

1. Create new content.

In the last two years I’ve become a committed content creator, a journey that would take a different post to fully describe and unpack. But in general, create > consume has become a mantra that I preach and model consistently.

Of course my biggest step along these lines in 2018 was to begin the Teachers on Fire podcast. The show was and continues to be the realization of a personal dream, and I can’t begin to explain all the ways I’ve grown and learned as a direct result of my work there. When educators around the globe share their appreciation for the podcast, it’s a tremendous encouragement. It gives my work meaning and reinforces my commitment to it.

I also started writing more in 2018, but that’s an area where I’d really like to turn up the heat in 2019. In 2018, I wrote about 30 posts in total. Today, my goal is to publish two blog posts per week: one personal and one professional.

There are many reasons behind this push for greater consistency, another important concept deserving of its own post. But for now, this is what I’m committing to. Two posts per week.

I have one more piece of content in mind here that I hesitate to put on the record, but maybe the power of public accountability will be the boost I need to make it happen consistently. YouTube. I’d like to start creating content there on a weekly basis as well. Stay tuned!

One more thing. It’s also a goal of mine to complete my Master’s thesis this year. That’s another form of content — not the kind that will be visible to most, but a pretty important byproduct of two years of academic study.

2. Create new learning.

I want to give my students new learning experiences this year. In particular, I want them to create, design, revise, and create products they have never created before.

I want to create the sorts of learning experiences that will challenge them, require critical thinking, and demand new sets of skills. That’s the kind of teaching that I get excited about.

In my own life, one way to for me to experience new learning is to read more books than ever before. According to my Goodreads account, I finished 10 books in 2018. In 2019, my goal is 15.

I know I can hit 15 books simply by reading my Kindle before bed every night. I generally try to read 5% of a book (or books) in my account before lights out. Doing that will push me through the equivalent of a full book every 20 days this year. So that’s the plan.

As I mentioned, my MEdL thesis studies will require more academic and field research in the areas of podcasting and professional development. That’s not only new content — it’s new learning, as well. That’s learning to look forward to.

In general, I want to improve my attitude toward learning this year. That means adopting a stronger growth mindset, taking more risks, learning new skills, and stretching myself into uncomfortable spaces in order to experience personal and professional growth.

3. Create new relationships.

One of the unexpected side benefits of starting the Teachers on Fire podcast last year was the formation of so many new friendships with other educators. It’s an amazing feeling to receive support and encouragement from principals in California, teachers in the UK, and authors in Wisconsin. It’s a PLN at its best.

In the fall of 2018 I also took a teaching position at a new school, and in many ways this community is still new to me. I’ve already built meaningful friendships here, but there’s plenty of room for deeper connection. New relationships are waiting to be formed, deeper roots to be planted.

On a personal and completely different note, my wife and I would also love to have a baby this year! We’ve been trying for some time now, and I back and forth between going all in on hope and expectant prayer versus the pragmatism of emotional management. But there you have it — I’d also love to (pro)create a little Cavey this year. That one is in God’s hands.

My #OneWord2019: Create

I can’t wait to create: new content, new learning, and new relationships. 2019 is going to be an amazing year, and I look forward to learning from you along the way.

Why don’t you join me. And CREATE.

@TimCavey on Instagram

by Tim Cavey, MS Teacher in Surrey, BC, Canada and host of the Teachers on Fire podcast.

Staying Hungry

Before I’m an educator, I’m a learner.

Photo credit: James Barker

“The best teachers I know are the ones that still see themselves as works in progress and are continually looking for new ways to improve. They are learners. They are students of their profession and calling.”

— Jarod Bormann in Professionally Driven: Empower Every Educator To Redefine PD

At 40 years old, I’m now in my 18th year of teaching at my fourth school. With memories of being the “young guy” on campus still fresh in my memory, I now wear the label of veteran.

Of course, those years of experience offer confidence and insight. 17 years removed from rookie, I have a clearer sense of my professional strengths and weaknesses.

I know a whole lot more about classroom management and student behavior. I have a firmer understanding of what optimal conditions for learning look like. My thinking around assessment and learning has evolved astronomically. I’m better at setting personal boundaries and establishing self-care practices that allow me to be better in the classroom.

But I’m keenly aware that I still have a long, LONG way to go and a whole lot more to learn.

And I love that.

There might have been a time early in my career when I envisioned the master teacher as an educator who had basically arrived. This was the teacher who held her students’ attention with hypnotic powers. Who oozed the sort of charisma that inspired incredible heights of work, creativity, and achievement. Whose timeless classroom management systems had been tweaked to a state of permanent perfection. Who drew from a bottomless well of instructional resources to locate a solution for every possible challenge. Who personally knew every inch of their content area and whose expertise was legendary.

Who never made a mistake, never failed, who never felt embarrassed or frustrated.

Today, there might be some aspects of confidence and mastery in that vision that I still strive for. But I also recognize that most of that picture of “arrival” is mere mythology.

I now see that year-over-year consistency leads to stagnancy, that comfort breeds complacency.

As I continue to grow as a professional, as I learn from my PLN, as I read Mindset by Carol Dweck or Professionally Driven by Jarod Bormann, I’m constantly reminded that we’re all — ALL OF US — on a continuous journey of growing, stretching, and learning.

Even the best among us fail, miss the mark, pick ourselves up and continue to learn.

Especially the best among us.

I took a new teaching position this year, and in some ways, a new position means going back to square one. Hitting reset.

It’s a chance to ignore my old assumptions and beliefs, to reimagine every moment, every class, every course, every subject. To critique my own practice. To push the limits of what is possible for every one of my learners.

I want to push myself into uncomfortable spaces and take bigger risks.

Because I haven’t made it. And because “making it” isn’t the goal, anyway.

“If you haven’t failed in the classroom lately, you aren’t pushing the envelope far enough. ‘Safe’ lessons are a recipe for mediocrity at best.”

— Dave Burgess in Teach Like a Pirate

I’m a student of my profession.
I’m a lifelong learner.
And the appetite for growth is real.

So I’m getting after it.
I’m seeking to stretch, risk, grow, and learn.

I’m staying hungry this year.

Good Teachers Take Risks

“Successful teachers endure the vulnerability of being a learner and take risks to provide the most effective instruction to their students.”  —  @torreytrust

Photo by @AlexRadelich

I was doing some research this summer and came across an article written by Dr. Torrey Trust titled Professional Learning Networks Designed for Teacher Learning.

The headline seemed simple enough. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the power of solid PLNs (even though there’s still an absurdly high number of teachers who aren’t connected anywhere outside their own school, but that’s a post for another time).

But then, near the end of the article, came the quote. Here it is again:

“Successful teachers endure the vulnerability of being a learner and take risks to provide the most effective instruction to their students.”

Yes and YES.

Think about what we want to see in our learners. Curiosity. Hunger for improvement. Grit in the face of difficulty. Tolerance for ambiguity. Imaginative design. Creative innovation. Problem-solving. Growth mindset.

Too often, though, teachers don’t do the hard work of modeling this for our students. We settle for staying sane. Running a tight ship. Checking all the boxes. Getting the job done.

And we mean well. I mean, we’re all in this because we care about kids, right? But comfort creeps in. We fall in love with our pet systems. And the Mr. Cavey of 2019 starts to look, sound, and act an awful lot like the Mr. Cavey of 2018.

What we pride as consistency actually makes us grow stale. We stagnate.

Learning involves risk.

Is learning actually risky behavior? Of course it is. Whether it’s serving a volleyball, dancing the tango, or writing a blog post, the process of learning risks discomfort, fallibility, and public failure.

We’ve all seen (or been) people who make the choice for safety. People who absolutely refuse to play volleyball, step out on a dance floor, or publish their thoughts. People who refuse to try a new application, or travel somewhere unfamiliar, or ask their crush out on a date.

I’ve had students like that.

And I’ve been like that.

Safety. It’s a slow death.

This year, let’s commit to being vulnerable. Let’s commit to taking risks in front of our students. Let’s reject the safety of the known for the vulnerability of learning.

Because in the end, we can’t expect from our students what we aren’t prepared to do ourselves.

The Power of Authentic Writing

Some incredible things happened in my 8th grade English classroom today.

Photo Credit: Brad Neathery

I’ve been slowly making my way through Sparks in the Dark on my Kindle this year, and every time I return to this book I’m inspired to facilitate more authentic writing in my middle school classroom.

I mean, my students write every day. But how much of that writing is meaningful, passionate, or authentic? How much of it do they personally care about? I know I need to create more space for this kind of expression.

Last week, I asked my students to respond to lyrics from any song that held personal meaning or significance for them. Our learning target was “I can think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts.” Today, I asked for volunteers to share their pieces with the class.

Two boys accepted the challenge.

Boys. In 8th grade. In a gradeless classroom, with zero extrinsic motivation.

Sometimes we need to rethink our beliefs around middle school boys. But that’s a thought for another post. I digress.

One of the boys read a reflection about Natural, by Imagine Dragons. The other read a reflection on a song called Reluctant Heroesby Hiroyuki Sawano.

These boys spoke passionately about the human experience: the hardships we face, the expectations we bear, our families and the relationships that matter most.

And get this. As he read a closing paragraph about his family, one reader broke down into tears. If that wasn’t enough, both boys quietly sang all or most of their selected songs.

Their unfiltered emotions were on full display. They were powerfully vulnerable. Their classmates gave each of them standing ovations. I could have cried myself.

I mourn all the moments like these that I’ve missed in my 17 years of teaching, but today’s experience only deepens my resolve to do more authentic writing in the years ahead.

Because this was awesome.

“When you teach someone how to read or how to express themselves using the written word, you change a life. You introduce them to magical worlds, teach them how to access the voice within, and empower them to affect that same change in the lives of others.” – from Sparks in the Dark: Lessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder (@TeacherManTrav) & Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd)


*This story contains affiliate links.