Tagged: education

Learning on the Job: Reflections on Being a Faculty Associate at Simon Fraser University

I have recently completed a two-year contract as faculty associate at Simon Fraser University. Working in Professional Programs, I was responsible for teaching and supervising pre-service teachers in K – 12 classrooms. I worked in schools from Surrey to Chilliwack and everywhere in between. It was an amazing opportunity to connect with and talk to teachers in various districts and in diverse communities. Through these experiences I have learned a lot about education and even more about me. The FA experience is described as an experience “rich in human drama – full of conflicts, dilemmas, successes, and failures, all lived intensely in a short time” (Beynon, Grout & Wideen, 2004, pg. 18). Truer words might not be written!

I can honestly say I have never worked harder or felt more rewarded than I did working as a faculty associate.  I couldn’t have imagined the personal and professional growth I would experience as a result of the job. I was given new perspectives to look from, new ideas to reflect on and new people to learn with, and from. All of my colleagues came with an amazing breadth and depth of knowledge about teaching and learning, and my students came with a thirst for new learnings and new understandings about teaching and learning. It was a place where the lines between being a teacher and being a learner were significantly blurred. I often feel I took from the experience more than I put in!

Ultimately, it was a transformative experience, both personally and professionally. I am now left looking to reintegrate into the Surrey School District and take what I have learned over the past number of years to serve the students I will teach in September. The next adventure on this journey awaits!

Below are some musings / reflections on some the things I’ve learned working as a faculty associate. Enjoy!

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals who can go it alone.” Margaret Wheatley (2009)

The key thing I take away from the FA experience is the importance of relationships; all relationships. As Margaret Wheatley says, relationships are all there is; after experiencing two years as faculty associate I am convinced she couldn’t be more correct. The relationships started with my module partners, then to the coordinators, to other faculty associates and then continued out to my students, their school associates and the principals in the schools; each relationship requiring a different approach, a different type of nurturing. All of these relationships provided me with feedback about how I was performing my roll as a faculty associate as I experienced seemingly hundreds of interactions a day! As expected not every interaction worked out as I might have wanted, but all of them allowed me to learn more about me and how I can best interact with those I am working with. I’ve learned a lot about people and how different contexts and conditions can change the way we interact with one another. But ultimately I’ve learned that working together we’re better than going at it alone.

“As non-Aboriginal educators, we have come to acknowledge and appreciate that Aboriginal education is for all learners – of all ages… We need to build curiosity about our history as well as increasing our knowledge of Indigenous principles of learning, which we can incorporate into our inquiry work.” (Halbert and Kaser, 2013)

I started as a faculty associate in the same year the TRB mandated a required course or course equivalent in Aboriginal Education and Canada’s colonial history. Working with Dr. Susan Dion I was challenged to examine my relationship with First Nations People and how I, as a settler, have benefited from Canada’s colonial relationship with Aboriginal Peoples. What this marked for me was the beginning of an odyssey that allowed me to explore my relationship with, and assumptions of, First Nations People, and begin the work of critically examining where my perspective came from. In working with K’aui Kellipio and others in the SFU community I allowed myself to be vulnerable as I reflected on my story and how it connects to the stories of Aboriginal People. I see there is much work still to be done and will continue to be an ally as our school and classroom communities continue to take up this important work.

Learning From vs. Learning About

In her text, Susan Dion also makes the distinction between ‘learning from’ Aboriginal people versus ‘learning about’ Aboriginal people. From my experience in public schools I was taught about historical Aboriginal people and learned nothing of the more recent history of Residential Schools and the more recent post-colonial history of Canada. I learned ‘about’ Aboriginal people. This past year I had members of our module read novels written by Aboriginal authors with the stipulation that students’ purpose for reading was to ‘learn from’ aboriginal people. In one reflection a student of mine wrote:

“As I began my novel, “As Long as The Rivers Flow”, I began hearing and feeling rather than looking. As soon as I was emotionally invested in the story I decided to just read the novel and see what came up for me. I was simply reading, nothing more and nothing less. To my surprise I heard the story and felt the pain of the heroine in my novel. Although, the story is much the same as others I have read, I stopped looking for something new and began listening to the characters I was meeting throughout the novel.”

“In law, it is commonplace for historical agreements to impose a burden on upon succeeding generations. As a result, the successors of those who signed the original agreements face many dilemmas. In the past, the Canadian government has pretended that treaties belong to some obscure prehistory” (Battiste and Barman, 1995, pg. 255).

This idea of being burdened by the history of our country is one that I acknowledge and work to address in my context and my practice. I acknowledge the land that I work on and that I have benefitted from the historic relationship our government has had with Aboriginal people. I will continue to work alongside those working towards reconciliation. For I know that it is not my responsibility to right the historical wrongs, but rather work with others towards a better future.

“I was with it down there; I just couldn’t see it.” (Goldsworthy, 2001)

Finally, I want to end with a metaphor that really highlights my beliefs about learning. The following is a passage out of a paper I wrote in December of 2013. I was inspired by the artist Andy Goldsworthy to see reconstruction as a way to understand things that didn’t go as expected. It speaks to the notion of learning from one’s mistakes.

Failure, reiteration, recursion are all fundamentally important to the work as they are to my research and my discovery of self. Ultimately through failure and setbacks one can come to understand themselves. Goldsworthy states, “For the moment when something collapses it is intensely disappointing… each time, though, I got to know the stone a little more. It got higher each time. So it grew in proportion to my understanding of the stone… and that is one of the things my art is trying to do. I obviously don’t understand it well enough… yet.”There is hope in these words. Through a continuing reconstruction of self through a variety of experiences with our medium and ourselves, we can come to understand ourselves, our motivations. And he states, “the real work is the change” (Goldsworthy, 2001). I have experienced the change.

Thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope to cross paths with you in the future.




We Are the Books We Read

As part of my Graduate Studies I was asked: What brought me to teaching? What subjects / grade levels chose you? What were / are your ideals.  Here is my response.

I can’t pin point a moment in time when I knew I wanted to be a teacher.  Rather it was a series of events and collaborations that brought me to who I am as an educator today.  After completing my Bachelor’s degree I followed a friend to a small city in Taiwan and taught English to children who were seemingly as foreign to me as I was to them.  Although this was my first paid teaching job I didn’t “find” myself as a teacher as a result.  What I discovered was a sense of freedom that a young man in his early 20s must feel as he arrives in a foreign country on the other side of the world with no return ticket booked.  At this point in my life I was still discovering who I was and wasn’t consciously reflecting on my self as a teacher.

I always thought that with a degree in History it would be the subject that “chose” me.  I came home from Taiwan, and after I finished my Education degree, I once again booked a one-way ticket to the other side of the world and taught Geography and Religious Studies at Goff’s School in Cheshunt, a town north of London.  Teaching in the U.K. was an important event in my career.  When I left the school my Head of Faculty commented that I went to the U.K. thinking I would educate the children of Britain, but in fact, it was the children of Britain that educated me.  No truer words have been spoken.

Again I moved home and was hired by the Surrey School District.  I spent the first few years teaching Social Studies and Physical Education at two different secondary schools.  Not quite there but I was getting closer to the Social Studies / History teacher I thought I was going to be.  But in one of those years I made a connection with teachers who believed in the primacy of literacy as foundational to learning in all subject areas which had a profound impact on who I am as an educator to this day.  I was introduced to proficient readers research and research on formative assessment (funnily enough the first Pro-D I ever attended was in the U.K. and Dylan Wiliam was the presenter).  Looking back, these were the times that started to define my ideals of what was possible for me as an educator.  It became clear to me that my job as a teacher was to help students make meaning of the many different texts they encounter day to day in all aspects of their lives.

By chance, the next year I was placed at a school and was fortunate to teach a class of students in grade 8 who had been identified as struggling readers and writers.  I was responsible for helping these 11 boys and 4 girls learn how to make sense of what they read, represent their thinking in purposeful and organized ways and how to interact with each other in meaningful ways.   Teaching this class had its challenges but it played an important role in shaping my ideals and beliefs about teaching. When teaching a class like this I couldn’t rely on marks to motivate students.  I couldn’t rely on saying, “read and take notes.”  I couldn’t get students to learn faster with the threat of “because it’s on the test.”  Having experienced little past success.  They entered the class believing there was little they could do to improve their reading and writing abilities.  I had to teach them strategies to “un-thaw” the meaning in the words frozen on the pages.  I had to give them hours and hours to practice without any penalty.  I had to teach them to organize their thinking and create logical, coherent pieces of writing.  In our last unit, to prove to them that they were becoming skillful readers together we read and responded to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  With scaffolding and support they made meaning of the play and were captivated by it, as many are.  It proved to me that with a strategic and responsive approach I could have a substantial impact on moving students forward in their learning, especially one’s who struggle the most.  They left believing that with continued practice and reflection they could be successful readers and writers.  I taught them in grade 8.  They graduate next month and I can only hope our year together had as profound an impact on them as it did on me.  I might never know, but not knowing comes with being a teacher.

To conclude, I believe that we are the books we read.  The books we read have the power to change us.  We learn about our past but also ourselves as we engage with the ideas, the characters and experiences that emerge from the words of others.  I believe books give us different perspectives, help us make personal connections and engage in thinking and learning from the words of others.  I want my students to believe this about books.  I grew up a reader.  I was interested in the written word, and from a young age, read for pleasure.  It was a way to go to Treasure Island, walk through the Hundred Acre Wood, and solve mysteries with the Hardy Boys.  In later years I found authors that would impact my thinking and worldview.  I go back to them often: Orwell, Atwood, Vonnegut, Huxley, Rushdie and Bradbury to name a few.  At present as a grad student at SFU I have added other authors, some fictional and others academic, and will continue to seek out ideas that challenge my assumptions, my thoughts and my beliefs, as an educator and more importantly as a person.  And I believe my job, as teacher, is to help my students do the same.

Where Do I Start?: Assessment for Learning vs. Grading Practices

“If students don’t know where they are going, it is unlikely they will arrive.” – Shirley Clark

Often teachers ask me, “Where do I start?”  Five years ago I would have said you have to start by ending the use of a zero for work not seen and stop the practice of reducing marks for work that is turned in late.  It is still my opinion that these practices are in need of being revisited by those who haven’t already done so.  However, because these practices are still prevalent in schools today I now hesitate to start the conversation here because it is often where the conversation will also end.  Without a viable alternative to these practices, many teachers who use zeroes and late marks for whatever reason will balk at the suggestion they reconsider their use.

In my current role as a teacher of new teachers I have opportunities to revisit the debate about assessment.  I help my students (new teachers) grapple with assessing the work their students produce and their School Associates’ expectations of what assessment data is being collected and how a final percent is arrived at.  Some student teachers are given more license to explore and experiment with formative assessment and descriptive feedback.  Others are expected to generate a certain number of marks in a set amount of time.  Assessment practices still vary significantly from classroom to classroom, as does the ways teachers “calculate” percentages.

Bottom line, I don’t believe assessment, or assessment for learning (AFL) = marks and percentages.

Assessment for Learning, as far as I understand and have read, has nothing to do with how a teacher generates a number to “represent” a learning activity or a body of learning activities.  Eventually a teacher needs to report a mark, level or percentage for distribution to the public.  I have written about an alternative path to generating a percentage here.  If you can agree with the notion that there isn’t a direct link between “assessment” practices and the “calculation” of a percentage, then consider this:

Preventing teachers from using zeros and late marks isn’t going to change the “assessment” practices of the teacher.  It’s the old, tell me not to do something and I’ll do it…”  But, change the “assessment” practices of the teacher and I believe you’ll end that teacher’s use of zeroes and late marks.

Assessment is about learning; assessment for learning.  It is about being clear with one’s learning intentions, clear about what it looks like when the learning has been achieved and clear in the use of descriptive feedback (words, not numbers) to help students grow.   I believe that if we start the conversation by asking teachers to focus on the learning by being clear with learning intentions and the success criteria there is much more of a chance that teachers will have to revisit zeros and late marks.  By understanding that the letter grade’s only purpose is to represent what a student has learned, then erroneous use of zeros and late marks has to be questioned by teachers.

Ultimately, if teachers require students to complete the work (which negates the need for a zero) and the completed work shows they have met the success criteria, then I bet a teacher would be hard pressed to take late marks off of a student who needed a bit more time.  We want students to be successful.  We want them to not only meet, but exceed their potential.  Assessment; assessment for learning will support us in helping all students achieve their own success.

I’m interested in where you think we start the conversation.