In this podcast, Monte Syrie joins us to talk about building relationships with our students. Monte operates a daily educational reflective blog at letschangeeducation.com, serves as an adjunct professor of education at Eastern Washington University, and is a high school English teacher and department chair at Cheney High School in Cheney, Washington.
Monte is an English teacher and department chair at Cheney High School in Cheney, Washington.
Chris McNutt: Hello, welcome back to Things Fall Apart here from the Human Restoration Project. I'm Chris, usually I'll be joined by Michael. Michael is currently expecting his first child as well as has a broken ankle so he's sending this one out. But I'll try to make things work here on my own. Today we're going to be talking about student relationships. Obviously we all feel like it's very important that we have relationships with our kids as teachers. I don't think anyone disagrees with that. However, why is it that someone wouldn't think that way? And is there a difference between how we view teacher-student relationships through this idea of rapport versus what an authentic relationship is? I'm kind of curious to kind of explore more about what makes an authentic learning environment and is the only way to have this true relationship building to be through progressive education. So do we need to shift away from standards? Do we need to shift away from content being key in order to ensure that our children effectively learn? Because how can you have real relationships without transparency and without doing what's best for kids? Is it actually possible to build an authentic relationship in a place where you are no longer really in control of the systemic issues that are going on? In other words, are we just being very effective prison guards as in we're building a relationship with our inmates so that they feel valued and they listen to us and we have kind of a little trusting relationship? Or are we really empowering people so that it's no longer a prison at all? And honestly, is that even possible? So today, this topic is all going to be about relationships and how we build them. Today, we're joined by Monte Syrie, a proponent of student relationships who operates a daily educational reflective blog at letschangeeducation.com. He serves as an adjunct professor of education at Eastern Washington University and is a high school English teacher and department chair at Cheney High School in Cheney, Washington. Thank you so much for joining me today, Monte.
Monte Syrie: Yeah, Chris, I'm really excited to be here. You know, I was thrilled when you guys contacted me and so I'm honored and grateful to be here with you today.
CM: Thank you so much. I love this topic and I think we can make a big foray into kind of thinking more about this topic beyond just saying relationships are important, which because obviously they are. The main reason why we contacted you initially is we started reading this blog that you have. It's very interesting to us. So you have a blog that's entitled Project 180, an endless quest for better, which is at let's change education dot com, where you've tracked various topics in education and your life over basically the last, I think it's now one hundred and fifty one days out of one hundred and eighty. What were your inspirations for starting this blog and what was kind of your overall goal?
MS: Yeah, so a little bit of the back story. It kind of started off as a challenge or a dare from one of my students. We two years ago, we were doing an independent learning project. And as we were getting going, Megan Lavin, one of my kids at the time, said, well, of course, you're going to do one, too, right? And we had to pursue something of interest, something that we kind of put off or never really pursued, something that was outside the realm of school. And I'd always wanted to start a blog. And so I decided to think that my independent learning project and that's kind of where let's change education came from, didn't really have the idea in mind for 180 until I kind of got going. And the more I got going and the more I blogged, the more I found myself writing about the things, the conventional and traditional things in education that kind of bothered me. And so I found myself writing about those a lot. And as the year went on, I decided the next year I was going to blog every day. And that's kind of where the first initial idea of 180 came, because out here in Washington, we have 180 school days. And so I just decided I was in writing a blog every single day. But of course, I also wanted to make sure that I was writing about something that was important, I thought, in terms of changing education. So with that, my initial goals were to challenge convention and tradition and the status quo. And, you know, I'm unsettled and I find this quiet in the way things are. And the longer I've been at this, you know, 22 years now, the more I am convinced that we embrace the status quo, not for its wisdom, but its comfort. So in a sense, I'm always looking to make myself or take myself out of the conventional kind of safety zone and take myself away from the status quo. And so I try to turn things upside down. And that's kind of where my other thought for 180 came, is to flip something upside down 180 degrees. And I decided I was going to put education upside down. But I can't just, you know, put it on its back, leave it there. So I approach my learning 180 degrees at a time. I imagine myself stuck in a circle, rolling along on my journey, kind of chasing better. That's the idea of endless quest to chase better. And that is where my mantra do reflect, do better came from. And the cycle never ends. You know, Chris, it can't. I just keep chasing better as I learn, as I fail, as I succeed. It's kind of my perpetual path. And I think those of us who were willing to kind of brave beyond, if you will, don't always have the answers, of course, it's that we're seeking the answers because we're unsettled with what has been present practice. And so that's kind of, you know, my journey. And, you know, what do I hope to accomplish? Silly as it sounds, I want to change the world, man. That may be a bit much, but, you know, let me qualify that a little bit. I want to change worlds, you know, and I cannot change the world, but I do believe that I can better kids' worlds by changing their educational experience in my classroom. I really believe that. And so I, you know, I'll keep on keeping on, you know, 180 degrees at a time and just chasing better. And, and this is my second full year of actually doing 180. So, um, you know, and I plan to do it again next year. Um, it's just really kind of become a habit for me. And, um, I'm still not settled with where education is. And once we get there, which will probably be never, I'll stop. So I'll probably do it now for the rest of my career. Yeah, for sure. I honestly love that, that dreamer aspect. I think that's something that you and I probably agree very heavily on. Well, I mean, the world would be so, so much better of a place that people just didn't fall in line and just went with whatever it was out there and just kind of got depressed and kind of in like their own, like little zone and they just kind of went with the flow because that's just the way it is. And they just kind of stopped. If everyone wanted to change the world, the world would change. It's, it's, it's pretty obvious. Um, I also love what you said too, about that idea. I don't necessarily know what's wrong or sorry. I don't necessarily know what's right, but I do know what's wrong. It's not necessarily that we all have all the right answers. Of course we don't, but if we know if something isn't correct, then why are we not working to change it? It seems very contradictory. So out of curiosity, when you first started teaching, has this been like a gradual change for you to kind of start attacking or not attacking, but necessarily being reflective on traditional education or is this something that you've kind of always been for? And now you're just starting to reach out more so to the web world, if you will. Yeah. You know, uh, to be honest, Chris, I, I found myself kind of challenging the status quo, you know, from, from the very first day. Um, you know, and I, and I have dabbled here and dabbled there along the way. And, um, you know, when Megan kind of challenged me to, to kind of, if you will, take my vision out into the world, uh, through my voice with my blog, um, it, it kind of, you know, emboldened me a little bit. And, um, as I found it, that I was speaking the language of some others out there, uh, I realized that I'm not alone in this and I found hope and strength in that. So, um, and I, and I continue to find more even, you know, crossing paths with you guys and all the folks that I have. It's, it's, it's been a fantastic journey and I'm so glad I did it. And I'm, I'm so bummed. I waited so long to do it. It seems like the message that you're sending out is something that many, many people can benefit from, which is part of the reason why we want to make sure that we could share it. So I'm curious then also, do you get any pushback or this can be positive or negative, I guess. Could you get any positive feedback from your students that I'm sure have discovered your blog? Cause I'm sure they found you on Twitter or whatever, or maybe I don't know. Uh, and also how does maybe your peers or administration respond to the fact that you have this blog or do they even care? Uh, you know, they, they don't seem to care. And, and, and initially Chris, when I, when I first started it two years ago, I wanted them to care more. Um, I made, I made a pretty bold move with, with grading. And, um, part of it was like, I wanted to come to the table and talk about grading. Um, and so I, I made a pretty bold move. Um, I gave all my kids an A for the year, no matter what. Um, and, uh, a lot of people found that crazy, but no one really wanted to engage me in, um, in a conversation about it, because I think it would have called attention to their own grading practices, you know, and, and I don't want to go too far down that road, but, but, you know, I think, you know, as well as I do, there's, there's no manual out there that they hand to us when we enter the room that says here, this is how this is the best and most effective and fair way to grade kids, we're just making this step up as we go along. And so I thought, you know what, to get folks' attention, I'm really going to make it up. And I'm going to give every single kid an A, and I am going to focus on learning this year. I'm going to take grades completely off the table, um, and I'm going to write about it for an entire year. And that's really where Project 180 got started and it was the best experience I've ever had. Um, you know, and, and I got a lot out of my kids and, uh, I invited my, uh, administration in, they knew what I was doing, the superintendent, I had, uh, school board members, kids in class, and it was fantastic. But, but I'll be honest, Chris, I was hoping for a little more pushback so we could have a serious come to the table conversation about grading practices. Yeah, it's, it's very interesting to me. It seems like the more you push against the state or the more that you push against these outdated practices, as you just said, the more people actually seem to enjoy what you're doing and don't question the fact that what you're doing is exactly the opposite of what they're telling you to do. Right. Michael and I all the time, we're in Ohio, so we have the Ohio Department of Education come out and see what we're doing. Like, man, this is all fantastic. It's like, you guys realize this is the complete opposite of every single thing that you're laying out for us to do. Um, and it sounds a lot like what you're doing in your own classroom. It's like this idea, like let's just throw out all grades. So the superintendent can come and say, look at how great everything is. It's just, it's, it's, it's so bizarre. It is, it really is. Yeah. Uh, so Monty, one thing I really want to focus on, uh, even though I, I would love to talk to you about the grade aspect of it too, a topic that we always want to talk about is developing relationships with our students. I don't think there is an educator alive who's a good educator who does not believe that relationships are the most important thing in education. It's, it's bar none the most important thing. And all the different practices that we take place in our classroom feed into that relationship outside of obviously like just talking to your kids. So the question I have for you is not necessarily why relationships are important because I think most people, especially those that would be listening to this podcast would know that relationships are important. So the question I have is why would someone not think that they're important and then kind of expand on that. A lot of times I feel like in teacher training programs or whenever I read a book about education, they talk a lot about building rapport. They talk about building rapport with your students. And for some reason that I feel like that's disconnected from just the idea of building a relationship. And I don't know if that's because they still want to have this, this power, like this power differential where it's, well, I'm the teacher, they're the students, so it's not really a relationship. We're not really friends. It's just rapport. But the same as I also wonder if rapport doesn't also lend itself to like a tips and tricks style of this is not to disparage you as people that do this, because I have no problem with this, but it's like, I give my kids high fives every single day when they walk into the room, because I want them to have a positive learning experience. There's nothing wrong with that. And I'm perfectly cool with that. But the same as that time, I, I wonder if there aren't teachers out there that are constantly thinking, I don't know if you play a computer games, I'll make a video game reference here, but in the Sims, they have this thing. You like give like a high five to someone, you get relationship points with them. And part of the game is you want to build up your relationship points very high. So that you're friends with each other. It's not necessarily that I care about being friends with them. It's more just, you want to get your points up so that you, they feel like they're your friend. I don't know if that, that line of thought makes much sense. Yeah. You know, Chris, I love this question. And I have, as I add a long, messy answer to it. And I think it's dealing with specifically what you were just talking about. And so here we go. I, with you don't think it's a teacher's thing that relationships are important. I think most, if you said, Hey are relationships with your kids important in your classroom, they would say yes. And I, and I think they would even go further to say that they have them with their students. But I don't see the relationships or universal emphasis in the classroom. I don't see that they're an intentional focus, but I believe they have to be I think relationships, real relationships have to be intentional. I don't think they're accidental. I don't think they're a Sims game where you rack up points by giving kids high fives, not that there's anything wrong with giving kids high fives. I believe in that. I'm more of a fist pump guy, but there's more to it than just that. So I think then we teachers claim that relationships are important. Or when we have teachers who claim that they're important, we have kind of have a case of talking versus walking. And to be frank, I think we have too many teachers who talk and too few who walk, especially as the year gets on. I think we have a lot of what I call icebreaker teachers out there. One to make relationships a priority for the first few days of the year. Utilizing bright icebreaker activities, et cetera, but they soon move on. And what was a priority seems to kind of become an afterthought. And the ice, if you will, returns. And I think there's a reason for that. And I think it stems from the terminology that we use and you kind of touched on this a little bit. Student teacher, division, not connection, artificial, not real. And I believe that's part of the problem. Real or imagined, you know, we, we teachers and students exist in the divide. And I think it's an unnecessary divide. Of course there is some natural necessity in the divide. I mean, I think there has to be some separation. There has to be some boundaries. I'm not suggesting that we don't need a degree of division. After all, we all, we are the adults in the room. We are the adults in the room. We are the adults in the room. I am simply suggesting that the divide does not have to be as wide as we make it. We have been cast into roles. I think, I think teachers and students, and there are perceptions that have typecasted us, and as such, we think we have to be a certain way. And I think that's so important. We think we have to be a certain way. And again, it's kind of going back to this is how it's always been done. This is what I'm comfortable with. This is convention. This is tradition. This is status quo. And so we've kind of fallen into line, I believe. And I think that's part of the problem. And while those perceptions present the ways in kind of various slides from strict to moderate to lenient, at least as a broad stroke, I think there's a settled middle, if you will, that becomes the default, which creates a scripted source that when played out presents kind of a transactional experience between teachers and students. And I think for the most part, sadly, we accept that. It's how it's always been done. And thus it has kind of become the basic formula for our existence in the classroom. You know, teachers teach and students, students. But in that separateness, it's created a dynamic that divides and there's no shared ownership or responsibility. I think teachers stick to the script afraid or unwilling to deviate from that, which is accepted. And it's not that much different for our students as they have become conditioned to accept and endure. And I really do think endurance, some cases are roles and show goes on and on and on. You know, and we add that opportune times and try to make our lakes less frozen, if you will, but I think we fall back into routines and we have to make sure that we make transactions and not connections again, especially as the year goes on and we become stressed out about state testing and other things. You know, it's, it, we fall back to that rut, that routine and that default. But I think we have to make connections and I think we can make connections. I think we can deviate from the script. And I think it can be as simple as reframing our interpretations of those roles. If we can imagine our roles, not as teacher and student, but simply as people join in an opportunity to experience life and learning and to be able to change the story, and if the story changes, I think so to our roles, you know, our experience then is not centered on the artificial transactions that are so presently pervasive in school. Rather it is centered on the struggle and triumph of growth, you know, human growth growing together as humans. And isn't that what it's about? I mean, isn't that what connects us? You know, we're all growing as a human. I struggle and succeed every single day. I probably struggle more than succeed if I'm honest. As students, as humans, my kids struggle and succeed every day. And so why do I have to pretend that because I have the word teacher on my dressing room door, that I am really any different than they who have students on theirs, I am no different. So I no longer pretend I no longer play that role. We are not in separate rooms. We are in one room, one beautiful, complex, messy, connected room where the human story goes on every single day. And ultimately we're just connected. And I think that if we can get beyond that traditional, you know, And I think that if we can get beyond that traditional student-teacher relationship and just think, you know, we're human sharing space and sharing life, I think we can make a difference. Yeah, you're speaking to my heartstrings. I love that emphatic response. You're hitting the nail on the head on every single point for me. I got it. I love your verbiage as well. As you just said, as teachers move into the classroom, they spend, if you're amazing at your job, maybe three days, because how could you possibly go away from teaching all of that content that you need to teach for the test if you spend three days doing icebreaker activities? But that will never address those things again. What it makes me think of is a very common teaching practice is passing out note cards to all your kids where they write down like, what do you want to be when you grow up? What's like your favorite song? Rather than that being used for a way to really get to know your students, typically that is just a day one activity to learn what their names are. Well, that person likes this band, so I'm going to remember their name a little bit easier. It doesn't actually serve any teaching purpose outside of that notion. And kids know that, too. Like kids know that this teacher is going to be like this. They're this kind of teacher. In many ways, they are just pretending to like me or they're pretending to get on my side because they want me to learn the content at the end of the day. And kind of I think what you're alluding to, it's going to build into another one of these questions, is building relationships isn't necessarily just about being friendly with kids and getting to know them better. That's assumed. But a lot of it is standing up for your kids and empathizing with the situation that they're in and making sure that your classroom is one that values them as human beings and is not just a classroom that knows that they are human beings, but the same time they have to get the coursework done. And as a result, the relationships will naturally be lost in a classroom where the learning is just robotic. It's no longer human. The idea of memorizing a bunch of outdated information or being gauged and competing against others based off of scores or to just walk into a room, realistically, against your will, you have to be there and be forced to eat your peas and carrots, so to speak, someone who is just some dude or just some gal, whoever, you know, they don't really know who you are. You're just in the building. It's not like they had any choice in most of this matter. It becomes very difficult to build an authentic relationship there when you can't empathize and actually change something about it. Well, no. And I think once kids realize that we're genuinely empathizing with them, you know, I'm not just breaking the ice, you know, in the first few days of the year, we move from a place of compliance to commitment. You know, the kids see that, hey, we're there for them. You know, and I think, like you said, we'll kind of get into this answer a little later on, but, you know, that empathy piece is absolutely huge. Hey there, we hope you're enjoying the podcast. The Human Restoration Project stays alive because of generous donations by our patrons. Take a second and check out our website at humanrestorationproject.org for more podcasts, our blog, and all sorts of free resources that we've designed for educators. And if you love what we do, consider supporting us on Patreon. For as little as one dollar a month, Patreon supporters receive goodies from being listed in the credits of our resources to early access to what we do. Thanks in advance. The reason why Michael and I started the Human Restoration Project is literally what you're talking about right now. It's on the nose. Well, one, we like sci-fi, but two, Human Restoration Project is the idea of restoring humanity. It's the idea of literally bringing humans back into education. So we're looking at students, teachers, parents, administration, the community. It doesn't really matter who it is. As people, we're not data, we're not robots, we're not industrial tools, which is sadly how the people that really invented this style of education thought of people back in the late 1800s. They wanted assembly line workers. They didn't really care at all about who these people were. So what steps do you think would need to be taken then if we're going to move towards an education that's more human, what would we need to do? Yeah, you ended that question with, you know, at least what you wrote here to me, you know, what steps do you believe that school should take to embrace humanity and education? Embrace humanity and education. I love that. I love that ideal. And I think we can make it a reality. And I have a thought for that. Bear with me here. If the quality of our lives is determined by how we feel, feelings then govern the lives we live, but we do not live life alone. Our lives bring us into contact with others. And others affect how we feel. They hold that power, but others have feelings, too. And we hold that power. We all then have power. We we have power in people's lives. We impact the quality of their lives. So we should consider other's feelings. When we consider other's feelings, we create empathy. Empathy connects. Connections create humanity. If we aren't connected, we are without humanity. We are lost. And when we are lost, we are nowhere. But I think we can get unlost. I've already spoken of the divide that happens when we fail to make connections. So then how do we succeed in making connections in each other? We have to connect with each other. And I know this may sound Pollyannish. I get that. But the connection rests in what makes us more human than anything. Feelings. Here's how I do it in my classroom. I begin with a simple question. How do I want students to feel in my classroom? I am in control of that. I cannot always control outside factors, but I can't control how people feel in my room. I have that autonomy. I have that power. That power. Isn't that crazy? I have the power to build. I have the power to destroy. I can make a day. I can ruin a day. And that's scary. That responsibility to me is terrifying. And so from that place, I consider carefully how I want to use that power, how I want to make students feel in my classroom. Here's my list of six that I present to my kids. In my room, I want you to feel empowered, connected, valued, respected, challenged and supported. These are my standards. I choose them. I consider them and I do my best to honor them. Every decision I make from how I interact with my kids to how I instruct to how I assess starts from here. And to hold myself to account, I ask my kids how I'm doing. I make it public. I make it personal. If I want a kid to feel supported and she tells me that she does not feel supported, I take that personally. And so I ask and the kids tell. And when I have found that I had not lived up to my standards, I do my best to do better. And that, I believe, is the starting point for embracing humanity and education. Yeah, that empathy thesis is so key. I'm going to take a cynical approach here for a second. I don't disagree with anything that you're saying, but I'm curious about how you would respond to someone that would say this, because I've been told this before by, sadly, fellow teachers. What about someone that comes up to you and says, yeah, but they are just kids, so they don't really know what they need. You have to tell them what they need. And they need a lot of the stuff that you're going to give them. So, I mean, at the end of the day, shouldn't you just kind of be in charge? That kind of response, you know, and I've had similar instances where people have done that, you know, and kind of on top of that, I've had the, you know, how are you preparing them for the real world? Right. Which which drives me absolutely bonkers, you know, because I think the kids' world feel pretty real to them already. But anyway, you know, I would ask them, I think, Chris, in this particular context, you know, I would ask them, well, how do you want kids to feel in your room? And I think it would be interesting to see what their list was and then it would be interesting to kind of hear from them then how they go about making those things happen for their kids, you know, you know. And I think it would be interesting for them to kind of the teacher in particular to look and see where they're centered and what they're really looking for in their kids. I think for some of those teachers, the ones who really do own that idea of we have to teach the kids and we have to prepare them for the real world would have a difficult time coming up with the list. I'm not saying it's impossible, but I think the difference between them, if we can categorize them as them and us, if you will, though I don't necessarily like that dichotomy, but it exists, I think, is that we think hard and long about the decisions we make in our classrooms with our kids. We don't take it necessarily just straight from the state standards. We don't necessarily take it from our textbook, you know, we take it from our interactions with our kids. I can't teach a kid until I know a kid is what I would suggest to those people. And I work really hard to get to know my kids. Oh, I can deliver content. Anybody can deliver content, you know. And of course, there are degrees of doing that more expert, you know, with greater expertise or not. But I think it takes a great teacher, if you will, to connect with kids and meet them where they are and to take them where they want to go. And that doesn't always happen with that teacher who believes that they have to. You know, I think we could think about kids in a couple of ways. You know, if we think that they're empty, empty canvases to be filled, you know, that's one way. But I like to think of them as works to be appreciated. And I want to learn those works and add to those works, not just fill those works. And I feel like on the other side of that, sometimes those teachers feel it's their responsibility, their job to fill that blank canvas. And, you know, I may have thought that once upon a time in my career, but I don't think that any longer, you know, I just think kids are someone that are people to be appreciated and learn from and learn with, you know, so I don't know if I really answered your question, but, you know, I don't know, those people, those people are always interesting to me who kind of push and persist to put kids in their place, if you will. Yeah, I found my to be to be completely opposite to that, especially in the last, you know, the last 10 years of my career. The point that you brought up about that idea of what would we ask an educator who thinks like that, what would they want their students to be reminds me of Alfie Cone opens up a lot of his parenting talks with this idea of he asked the entire audience what it is they want their children or anyone's children to be when they grow up and they raise their hands. They typically say, like, well, they want them to be happy. I want them to get married, have kids like a bunch of like traditional stuff like that, or I want them to travel the world, whatever they want to live it to their aspirations, and then he brings up the fact that in school we actually don't empathize any of those things. I find it very odd that whenever you look at a vision statement to a school vision statements, I have not yet to find one that says just make kids happy. There is nothing. It's always preparing them for the future, which is it's like almost like a trigger word for me. I hate I hate that phrase. Preparing them for the real world's one, preparing them for the future is another one. First off, if we were going to prepare kids for the real world, we wouldn't be doing half the things that we're doing in school right now. The idea this might be I don't know, I cannot go back and forth in this in my head, but sometimes I think to myself, I teach history and government. Michael teaches English. We talk a lot about why do we even have kids writing academic papers if they're not going into academia? Shouldn't we be teaching them how to write a blog or how to post on Twitter? Because in the real world, that is actually something that you do with writing. Most people don't go on to write five page paragraph essays. One part of that is the idea that we aren't really preparing kids for the real world to begin with. So the idea that they're not going to be successful in the real world because we're not teaching the standards that we have right now doesn't make any sense. It doesn't equate to that. The second part, though, of that that that bothers me a lot is if we're going to prepare kids for the future, then we're definitely not doing that with our current standards. First off, you have no idea what the future holds. So there's absolutely no way that you could give someone a set of standards that is content based that could prepare someone for the future. Right now, we're trying to go for this like coding initiative, like teach everyone coding, which it's great if you want to teach kids to learn how to code, I'm fine with it. But to say that that's going to prepare them for the future to me is incredibly outdated because by the time those kids graduate, first off, the majority of people don't actually code. Most people use code that other people already write. So it's a very actual small field in the greater scheme of technology. But if you're going to prepare kids for the future, we would have to be predicting like people that can mess with AI algorithms, that can work with things of that nature. And we can't really predict that. So instead, a step that we could take in order to be really future prepared would be teaching kids basic skills that they need in order to tackle these objectives, like how do you work with others to overcome a problem or how you how do you fail well is a huge one. How can you be faced with adversity? How can you get to a point where you no longer feel like you can do something or you you bomb something and it's not the end of the world? That's completely normal to be like that. I can't tell you how many times I've been in my classroom where a kid has not succeeded at something. I've been like, yeah, OK, let's let's keep going. It's all good. And they're just confused by that. Oh, yeah. A parent is definitely confused by that. Oh, yeah. That notion of we're preparing kids for the future or even we're preparing them for real life is not present in sadly the majority of classrooms. And I think that the I don't want to say average teacher because I don't like to make overbroad generalizations, but I can say with my experience of working with teachers, I would say the majority of them don't seem to understand yet that content is not more important than just learning like the content. Your classroom area is not more important than relationships and learning of soft skills and realistically, you could cut down your content to twenty five percent of it is right now and just make it thematic and still get the same outcome content wise in terms of in terms of remembering it. Well, still building all these other really important things that we should have. I agree with that whole hard thing. Here's a good question to kind of branch off of that, which would be how do we balance between the fact that, yes, we believe that skills, relationships, empathy, all these things are obviously way more important than content. However, that being said, the state does care about content. At the end of the day, quote unquote, there is a standardized test that measures, sadly, our performance, at least according to them, and a lot of times state funding is attached to those standardized tests. If you don't do well on those, the community might not respect you as much. There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of spreading these ideas, let alone to teachers, but to parents in the community, right, parents often brag about like their school has excellence with distinction or whatever banner hangs up in the gym about how great they are at having kids attend school and do well on tests. So I'm going to refer to a blog that you wrote. It was a poem, actually. So you wrote this poem on shame and you talked about how you felt shame because you couldn't really stand up against the standardized testing system, because in your view and in mine as well, the standardized testing system measures to mean students. So do you think there's a way that you can reconcile having positive relationships with students while still practicing traditional methods that have proven negative consequences for them? So, I mean, like giving out grades, you've already said you give out all A's, so we can kind of, I guess, scratch that one off. But there's also things like standardized testing, zero tolerance policies. I don't know what your school has in terms of those. But there's just these different policies that exist that are kind of hard to get away with just as a teacher. If you're an administrative position, you can do a little bit more. But I'm just curious about your thoughts on that. Yeah, boy, this is a hard question, but I have some thoughts for sure. You know, that morning's post kind of where I wrote the poem kind of found me to have a tough place where I was having my own troubles with reconciling what goes on in the classroom and what goes on without, you know, and there are things without that I cannot or have not learned to fully control. You know, and the one line that really mattered to me most there from the poem, the one short stanza, but was but then why, Cy, why weren't you brave? Why didn't you from this us save? And for me, a little bit, I felt like I was, you know, selling my kids out and selling myself out a little bit. And I think that that's why I was having such a hard time that morning, you know, because I go all year long telling the kids, like, they matter. We hope you're enjoying our learning in this classroom. The Human Restoration Project stays alive because of generous donations by our patrons. And then they take a second to check out our website, Human Restoration Project dot org for more podcasts, our blog, and all sorts of free resources that we've designed for educators. And if you love what we do, consider supporting us on Patreon. For as little as one dollar a month, Patreon supporters receive goodies for being listed in the credits of our resources to early access to what we do, things in advance. Stop short of saying that. But I would argue that it's terribly difficult to subscribe to the traditions and conventions of Ed, especially those that carry negative consequences. Grading comes to mind and have real relationships, which I think extends beyond positive. You know, I think a lot of teachers think they have positive relationships with their kids, and that's great, but I sometimes feel like positive is the absence of negative in that regard. And for me, that's just not enough, if that makes sense. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think then where things get complicated is when teachers and students meet at the crossroads of possible and impossible. In my experience, for most things, it comes down to the choice of the teacher. For example, many teachers do not allow kids to retake assessments, take late work, etc., claiming it's not possible, it's not fair, and the list goes on. But I think differently. I think it is most certainly possible. I think we can make those decisions in our classrooms. I think we have to make those decisions in our classrooms in spite of what's on the outside. You know, if learning and growth are paramount, I can think of no reason not to give kids another go. And you know, why wouldn't we? It's a part of learning. And when we, out of one side of our mouths, tell kids to embrace failure and mistakes, you know, when you're talking about this earlier, maybe think of this and have growth mindset and that the struggle is real. And then on the other side of our mouths, we tell them, sorry, you get one shot. I think that that creates distrust and trust is a must for relationships. You know, and I think, you know, in a sense, that kind of encapsulates all the things that are outside my classroom that I can't control, where it creates this this this conflict, if you will. And I think sometimes within that conflict, it's hard to reconcile things, but I still argue that as classroom teachers, you know, we have a great deal of autonomy. And I think we can, you know, for lack of a better way to say it, kind of go rogue in our classrooms and do the things that matters, you know, despite some of the pressures from the outside. You know, this this in Washington state, at least, you know, this movement started 15 or 16 years ago. And I get to see the black helicopters kind of swoop in and go to school. And again, it's happening differently in different states. But, you know, part of me, I was thinking about this earlier to say part of me just wants like an entire class, like the entire sophomore class to say, you know, we're not taking the test this year, you know, and to see what the see what the state and the school would really do. I mean, they're really not going to graduate that many kids. No, I don't know. I think short of that, Chris, some kind of revolution. I just think we're going to be having this conversation about how do we reconcile this? But I think as teachers, if you try to say that you can't make kids centered decisions in your classroom because of the things that are on the outside, I don't think you're telling the whole story to kids. And I think that presents itself eventually. And I think that affects the relationships, you know, that we have with our kiddos, you know, the whole growth mindset thing drives me crazy. I mean, I think it's a wonderful idea. And I work out with my kids. But, you know, you teach high school, you teach high school, right? Yes. Yep. Yes. And so does Michael. And so, you know, by the time the kids get to us, they have fixed mindsets. You know, I'm sure Michael has the, you know, kids hate reading or kids hate writing, and I don't know exactly where they would fall with you. But they learned that they didn't enter school hating reading. Right. And they learned that and they got that fixed mindset. And so it's really hard for us to help them move beyond that by the time they get to us. But I think we can do it. And I think we have to do it by making things possible. You know, it's a choice and I believe in possibility and I choose possibility. And I think in my experience, it makes all the difference. And as far as the standardized testing goes, and I even wrote it in the poem, let's just do our best to spite them. And, you know, my kids are already off to a good start. I'm getting scores back and they've done well. And, you know, but again, that kind of goes back to my if I win, I lose. If I lose, I win situation that I wrote about on Friday, you know, and I don't know, the whole thing just drives me absolutely, absolutely bonkers. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. So we actually I wrote something. I think this is the last week, maybe a couple of weeks ago, and it was basically this idea about teaching to get fired, this idea that you shouldn't sacrifice your principles that you know are correct just because you want to be safe in your employment. Depending on where you're teaching, some schools are not going to be OK with you even just not teaching the worksheets that they give you for that day. I mean, there are schools around here in Columbus that have not only standardized content, but standardized material, as in you're expected to go in that day, teach that exact lesson and hand it out to everyone and just do it. And that's what you do every single day. And that school that is kind of famous or infamous for that around here also has the highest state test scores in the state of Ohio. For them, that feels like a major accomplishment. And it's almost prestigious, actually, for teachers to go there. However, obviously, we're not seeing those kids to go on do great, amazing things. Obviously, some of them do, but I don't think they're correlated. I don't know that the question I have for you, I guess this is twofold. One would be, do you think that teachers should be seeking out employment opportunities that kind of embrace them as progressive educators? Or do you think it's enough or if it's a good strategy to try to stay where they're at and kind of help students as much as they can basically make more of a change if they were to kind of form a tribe, if you will, or would they make more of a change just trying to do their best with what they're given? Well, I think that's a great question. Of course, I would want to be surrounded about surrounded by like minded progressive educators, but I think if I'm honest, I would rather be in a place where I'm causing a disruption, if you will, to the status quo. I feel like I just think, Chris, we can make more of a difference here. I'm afraid that we'd go off and we just create our own little island. And I worry about all those kids who would be unable to visit our islands, if you will, and what they would be what they would be left to. And so while that is appealing to me, I feel like it's kind of my calling to be that one who's kind of fighting against the status quo. And it's really interesting that you said something about teaching to not get fired or whatever you wrote about here just recently. I've been thinking about that a lot. I've got twenty two years of stellar recommendations, evaluations. And I think about these moments as I move ahead and as I do more risky, revolutionary things, it's like, I don't think they're going to fire me. And I'm not going to look to get fired. But you said something resonating with these like we have to be true to our principles. And, you know, I've taught 10th grade out here for for for 15 years since I've been back here at Cheney. And I in 10th grade is where the kids have to pass the state assessment. And I just began to wonder, like, do they really want me to be the guy who's teaching the majority of the kids? I mean, we've always had great test scores, but I just don't believe in it anymore. You know, I used to try to sell it when I was younger and didn't know better. And I and I kind of just latched on to this idea that it's our kids reality. And so I'm going to help them with that reality as best I can. But I no longer want it to be the reality. You know, I want to fight against that, you know, and that's, again, kind of put me in that hard place where I reconcile that and, you know, I don't know, it'll be interesting to see to see where we go. And if I stay at 10th grade, I'm just not sure that the district, you know, because, you know, you know, as well as I do, our scores get published in the paper. You know, in Washington, they go on our school report card. You know, they're at the center of our professional learning community work. I mean, yes, we look to multiple majors, but, you know, as well as I do at the end of the day, the data that's going to matter most is the state testing data, you know, and I feel like I should be able to challenge that with the data that I have collected from my classroom. You know, when and if a kid finds himself in a position where maybe he didn't pass the state assessment. But yet in my classroom, I have have deemed that his work is is is worthy of meeting standard and moving on, you know, but I don't think we get that opportunity and I think we pay a lot of lip service to all these multiple majors. But at the end of the day, he gets funneled down to the to the state assessment, you know, which I think is unfortunate. Yeah, it's also, you know, I'm going to stay and disrupt the public school. I think that that would be the path I would choose, though I would love to be around like minded progressives. So I think so. I mean, I teach American history for half of the year. We're semester based and I probably reach on a good year. Fifty percent of the content, the other 50 percent pretty well. And our students actually perform, not that I care, but they do perform better on the standardized test and we're not taking in the best and brightest kids. We're taking in anyone who wants to come. So I don't even know. And actually, there's research that shows this doubling down on preparing for these standardized tests doesn't actually even increase necessarily their learning capability to do these state tests, because logical reasoning or whatever skill is being assessed by these standardized tests is something that's more about just being able to read and write very well. And a lot of that comes down not necessarily to what the school is doing, but it comes down to I guess more to your zip code. It's down to what resources you had available to you when you were younger. It comes down to do you have a supportive household at home? Do you have enough money to get by? Like, are you stressed out about other things? Yeah, there's so many other things that that kind of build into this. And conversely, if you're a student that is very well off, a lot of times those are the students that are pressured to get higher grades and actually don't critically think as much. There's a reason why a lot of business owners tend to be from the lower to middle class, because those are the people that tend to have the kind of the perfect balance between structure and unstructured. Right. Right. So let's move on to a different question. This is something that that relates, but I'm really curious about this one because I have a lot of stories. Do you ever find that other staff at your school or if you don't want to trash talk your peers, maybe a conference you've been to, wherever you've been, that people have kind of distanced themselves from you or labeled you because of how you believe about student relationships or progressive education? So something that I hear a lot is, oh, you're the easy teacher or the weird teacher. You're like the really out there, quote unquote, creative teacher. So therefore, you know, maybe students tend to hang out in your room. Maybe they want to be in there at lunch. Maybe you're the one that's the first one that they say something's wrong. And like you talk to the guidance counselor and people are like, yeah, that guy talking to his kids so much, that kind of thing. Do you ever find yourself in that situation? Like, are you ever painted as like the like the weird guy, if you will? Every day for 22 years. All right. Oh, well, you know, it's a sticky question. Yeah, I have been that guy and that guy. And I suspect, you know, Chris, I'll be that guy always, you know. And for me, it's like I've run the full gamut, I think, from, you know, annoyance to people feeling like that to, you know, suspecting on some level that maybe it's professional jealousy or, you know, whatever. I don't know. I mean, who knows where those folks are always coming from. But, you know, at the end of the day, I believe in what I'm doing and so much so that I have a literally an open door policy, you know, I never teach with my door closed. I have nothing to hide. And yet a lot of these teachers who criticize me tend to be the ones who close their door. And I'm not saying that every teacher who closes his door is hiding something. But man, I'm an open book. And, you know, I invite parents to my class. I invite other teachers to my class. I just want somebody to come, you know, sit in a desk in my room for a day, for a week. And, you know, before you decide whether I'm the easy teacher, before you, you know, unfairly come up with a reason for why the kids like me. There's a reason like me. I work really hard to get to know them and to establish relationships with them. And what I have with them is real. And, you know, what's interesting about that, I don't have exclusive rights to that every teacher can do that, you know, and so I've always found it funny that those who those who criticize my having a relationship with kids, I mean, they can do the exact same stuff, you know, and have those relationships and those connections with their kids, but for some reason they choose not to. And, you know, I'm not sure why. And I kind of where I kind of where being the weird guy, the the, you know, the the guy who's always kind of pushing the edges is a little bit of a badge of honor, you know, if if if people were saying, well, he's fallen in line and he's conforming and he's doing things as I do, that's just not who I am, you know, I wouldn't feel like I was being true to myself. So when I hear, you know, and the kids talk to me, you know, they tell me what the teachers say about me and and and in our class and stuff, but, you know, if they weren't saying something, then I'd be worried. So I embrace it. I kind of got to the point where I embrace it. You know, it's like, thank you, you know, and I don't think we need to turn it into it. And I know you're not suggesting this, but like you even said, like, how can we change this into more of a positive behavior? And I just think we have to we have to work with each other, you know, and I think there's something to be gained from those of us who are out here on the edge, you know, and I think it's unfortunate that more people aren't aren't drawn or aren't drawn to that. I think it's really bad. So I feel personally like it's usually one the major thing that I see more so than not is that it's teachers that went into education not to educate, but because they really like their content. And there's definitely something to be said about someone who's very passionate about their subject and they inspire other people to do that subject, et cetera. However, I hesitate saying this, but I sometimes feel like teachers that are incredibly passionate about their subject area are more about themselves and less about their students. And I'm at the center of the room. I'm very amazing at math. Look at all these crazy things I can teach. I want to inspire you to follow me, which is a great talent to have. But at the same time, is that something that we necessarily need for high school or just something that we need for a college professor where you're choosing to take that class and that's something you want to learn more about? And I'm not I that's not a disparage against like I know that someone's like red light teach like a pirate. That is a major theme of that book. It's all about passion and dedication that sometimes I feel like teachers that focus so much on delivering their content very well, miss the fact that it's really not about the content. I've said it before, like we've said it before, like at least like five times during this discussion. Content doesn't come first. Content is something that comes later on once a student actually trusts you and you're expected to have a student trust you to actually deliver them real information in a very short period of time, relative to the grand scheme of their lives. So this idea that we're going to inspire someone to become a great reader or writer seems like it's not going to hit as many students if we're just super passionate about writing as if as much as if we were to just talk to all of them, get to know them, be very friendly, teach empathetically towards them so that we understand where they're coming from. We try to integrate then writing and reading, for example, into their lives and show it how they can help them. And they'll probably be more inspired that way, I would assume. Absolutely. I mean, it's all about more just what's the best way to possibly educate people, not what is the content that I'm obsessed with. And typically to me, the question to ask is, why did you become a teacher? And you give them the choice between content or education. Any teacher that says content, sadly, might have chosen the wrong field. And I don't like to tell people, like, you can't do something because that would be very authoritative and beyond my pay grade nor my place, however. That being said, someone who is purely focused on content and education, I don't feel like will ever be happy. They may as well just become a professor. And then we could we could even get into the fact that possibly professors need to change the way that they're teaching as well to people that are in their classrooms and higher ed. But that's higher ed is a whole other beast. I don't even want to get close to close to that world, because that's a that's a that's a giant one. We got a five hour podcast just on that. So for for time purposes, let's build right into this one, because it might be a long one, depending on where we're at. So the final question I'm about to ask is a question we've asked every single guest, I think, unless we missed one. What is one step that you think that teachers, administrators or a school in general could feasibly take tomorrow? So obviously, get rid of standardized testing would be an unfeasible suggestion. Right. Something that really like everyone or one person could do to feasibly improve tomorrow the lives of their students. I have to, Chris, and there's something literally that I think anyone can do tomorrow. So for all I think we I think they should ask how they want people to feel in their classroom, in their building or in their district. I think they should make a list and I think they should start basing their decisions from there. You know, if you think back to my my list that I gave you for what I share with my kids, you know, it would really be no different for a school, perhaps to say I want kids in the school to feel empowered and want them to feel connected, valued, respected, challenged and supported and imagine, you know, I'm not a big fan of mission statements either, but imagine if that was your touchstone, if that was your your standard that you set for yourself, as I do in my classroom. You know, and so now when you're having a discussion with the kid, maybe about misbehavior, you know, and we're all in agreement that in this building here we want kids, we want people to feel respected, that's that's where you begin that conversation. You know, and so I just think there's there's no there's nothing magic there. It's just about asking the question about how you want kids to feel. I mean, I think it could go beyond that. I think go to community, to town, to city, to state. I just think that it's just a way for us to connect on a human level and I think anybody and everybody can do it. And then for teachers, you know, and I thought maybe we talked about this earlier, but we didn't. So I do something that's called smiles and frowns. I begin every period every day with it and we take five minutes and we go around the room and we share a smile and or frown. Kids always have the right to pass, of course. But, you know, I've done it now for one hundred forty three days. I will I will continue to do it. And for me, it's been the very best instructional, maybe classroom decision I have ever made. You know, we'll learn what we've learned, a lot of things this year. But I think the most important thing we've learned is each other. My kids love it. You know, they they hold me accountable. Even when I have a sub in the room, they do it on their own because it's a way that we we connect. And so I just think it's a great way for any teacher to start a period. And I'm never not going to do it. I'm going to do it for the rest of my career. So could you elaborate more on what that is? Yeah, so we just call it smiles and crowns up on my board, I put today I want you to feel connected and I put smiles and crowns next to that. And so we just go around the room and each kid shares, so a kid might say, you know, I aced the math test today or I scored a goal in soccer last night or my dog passed away last evening, you know, and so they're just sharing something from their lives that either has made them smile or happier than a positive or maybe a frown, something that's made them sad, something that's bummed them out, you know, a frown. They just failed the math test, the period before and or I failed the science test and everything that he told us was that he taught us wasn't on the test. I mean, you know, those situations. And it just gives me and the kids an opportunity to learn and know each other. And I think that that's our basis for our relationships and it takes five minutes, you know, I think about all the other silly things that we do in our classrooms. Yeah, I'm taking a thousand minutes of instructional time away this year, but I have no regrets. And I think it has has made for the very best year I've had in twenty two years. I mean, I know my kids, man. I love my kids. That's incredible. And one for me, too, like when I was talking earlier about walking and talking and I don't want to be an icebreaker teacher. If I'm going to say relationships are important, then I have to make them important. I have to make them a priority. And I do that every single day, no matter what. Even if it's a test day, we still take those first five minutes and we touch we connect, you know, we touch base. I love that idea. That kind of structural piece is something that any place could build upon, which is having emotional structure for students, not necessarily regimented academics, it's just having an actual plan in place to connect socially with kids beyond just talking to them, because, you know, sometimes, you know, you might not one kid might not talk as much. You know, there's there's always, you know, the quieter kids and stuff like that, and that kind of opens up a way to make that a little more uniform to everyone. I like. Yeah. You know, and again, I think it's really important that we allow kids to pass because, again, this needs to come from a place of commitment, not compliance. And so, you know, I have some kids who pass every single time, but they listen attentively of all the other kids share. And so it's really about us are learning each other as a community. I mean, it's pretty dang cool. You have a classroom full of kids clapping because Elijah has he's he's a gay young man in my sixth grade class clapping because he has his first date. I mean, that's pretty dang cool. That's awesome. Yeah. I mean, what better way to teach tolerance or just to teach empathy or even honestly like like teach like normalizing failure, any of your any of your soft skills, because even though those kids might pass every single time, you know, for a fact that they are relating to many of the things that are being said, whether that be positive or negative. And it's helping them kind of cope with either good feelings or bad feelings. And there is no literally not one standard that says anything about emotional intelligence amongst our kids. Even now, I think most people would say those are the most important things. And I think that's what most parents would want for their children as well. I mean, that's why would they not absolutely. That's the case. Well, yeah, you know, and I think about my own kids and I just want my kids. I want my own personal kids, my children. I want them to be happy at school. That's what I want first and foremost. I want them to be happy, you know, and I want them to feel like they belong. I want them to feel like they connect. They're connected. You know, the content stuff will come. And I just we teach kids and you know that. I just you know, the content is secondary. I mean, we teach kids with content. We don't teach content to kids. I think we have to reframe. I think the the easiest way to understand that is that go to any kindergarten, first grade classroom. Yeah. And talk to the kids about, you know, what they're learning and the kids are into it. You'll never get more clarifying questions or just random interest questions from a group of kids when you say, does anyone have any questions? They all raise their hands because they're going nuts because they're they're actually learning and they want to be there and they're having fun and people naturally want to learn. In my opinion, schooling kills that love, sadly. And the reason why, especially as a high school, as a high school instructors, we run into an issue where it's kind of like they're at the end of the machine, they're they're they're kind of winding down. It's kind of our goal to try to reverse that track. Yeah. You know, and it's it's hard, you know, because they don't trust anymore. They played the game for too long. And so even even we who are progressive, we try new things out. You know, it takes a long time for the kids to kind of give us that trust that, you know, you know, the year I gave my kids days, they were like, what really? And it took them a long time to get there because they've been so conditioned for so many years, but, you know, I don't know, small steps. We'll make it happen here someday. 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