Season 2, Episode 2: Monte Syrie
Chris McNutt 0:09
Hello, welcome back to Things Fall Apart here from the Human Restoration Project. I'm Chris. Usually I'll be joined by Michael. Michael's currently expecting his first child as well has a broken ankle...so he's sitting 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 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 curious to explore more about what makes an authentic learning environment. And is the only the way to have this true relationship building to be through progressive education? 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 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 as a high school English teacher and department chair at Cheney High School and Cheney, Washington. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Monte Syrie 2:28
Yeah, Chris, I'm really excited to be here. I was thrilled when you guys contacted me. And so I'm honored, honored and grateful to be here with you today.
Chris McNutt 2:36
Thank you so much. I love this topic. And I think we can make a big foray into thinking more about this topic beyond just saying relationships are important, which because obviously they are the main reason why we contacted you initially, as we started reading this blog that you have, it's very interesting to us. So you have a blog, it's entitled Project 180: An Endless Quest for Better, which is at LetsChangeEducation.com. Where you've tracked various topics and education and your life over basically the last, I think it's now 151 days out of 180. What were your inspirations for starting this blog, and what was your overall goal?
Monte Syrie 3:12
Yeah, so a little bit of the backstory, it started off as a challenge and a dare. One of my students, two years ago, we were doing an independent learning project. And as we were getting going, Megan [Lab?], and one of my kids at the time said, well, sigh of course, you're going to do one too, right? And we had to pursue something of interest, something that we 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 make that my independent learning project. And that's where LetsChangeEducation.com came from, I didn't really have the idea in mind for 180 until I kind of got going. And the more I got going in, the more I blog, 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. That's where the first initial idea of 180 came, because out here in Washington, we have 180 school days. So I decided I commit to 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 in the status quo. And I'm unsettled, and I find this quiet in the way things are. The longer I've been at this, 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.
So I try to turn things upside down. And that's where my other thought for 180 came is to flip something upside down 180 degrees. I decided I was going to put education upside down. But I can't just flip it on its back and leave it there. So I approached my learning 180 degrees at a time, I imagined myself stuck in a circle, rolling along on my journey chasing better, that's the idea of endless quest to chase better. That is where my mantra "do, reflect, do better" came from, and the cycle never ends. Chris, it can't - I just keep chasing better. As I learned, as I fail, as I succeed. It's my perpetual path. And I think those of us who were willing to 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. That's my journey.
What do I hope to accomplish? Silly as it sounds, I want to change the world, man. That may be a bit much, but let me qualify that a little bit. I want to change worlds 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'll keep on keeping on, 180 degrees at a time and just chasing better. This is my second full year of actually doing 180. So, when I plan to do it again next year, it's just really become a habit for me. 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.
Chris McNutt 6:31
Yeah, for sure. I honestly love that that dreamer aspect. I think that's something that you and I probably agree very heavily on. I mean, the world would be so much better of a place if people just didn't fall in line and just went with whatever was out there, and then just got depressed and in their own little zone. They just went with the flow, because that's just the way it is. And they just stopped. If everyone wanted to change the world, the world would change. It's, it's pretty.
Monte Syrie 6:56
Chris McNutt 6:57
I also love what you said too about that idea of "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 something isn't correct, then why are we not working to change? It seems very contradictory. So out of curiosity, when you first started teaching has this been a gradual change for you being reflective on traditional education? Or is this something that you've always been for, and now you're just starting to reach out more so to the web world, if you will?
Monte Syrie 7:35
Yeah. To be honest, Chris, I found myself challenging the status quo from from the very first day. I have dabbled here and dabbled there along the way. And Megan challenged me to take my vision out into the world, through my voice with my blog, it emboldened me a little bit. I found that I was speaking the language of some others out there, I realized that I'm not alone in this. And I found hope and strengh in that. I continue to find more - even crossing paths with you guys and all the folks that I have. It's been a fantastic journey. I'm so glad I did. And I'm so bummed I waited so long to do it.
Chris McNutt 8:18
It seems like the message that you're sending out is something that many people can benefit from, which is part of the reason why we want to make sure that we can share it. So I'm curious, then also, do you get any pushback? Or this can be positive or negative, I guess, but do you get any positive feedback from your students that I'm sure have discovered your blog? I'm sure they've found you on Twitter or whatever? And also, how do your peers or administration respond to the fact that you have this blog, or do they even care?
Monte Syrie 8:50
You know, they don't seem to care. And initially, Chris, when I first started it two years ago, I wanted them to care more, I made a pretty bold move with grading. Part of it was I wanted to come to the table and talk about grading. And so I made a pretty bold move, I gave all my kids an A for the year no matter what. And a lot of people found that crazy, but no one really wanted to engage me in a conversation about it, because I think it would have called attention to their own grading practices. And I don't want to go too far down that road. But I think you know as well as I do, 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 folk's attention, I'm really going to make it up. 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. And I'm going to write about it for an entire year. That's really where Project 180 got started. And it was the best experience I've ever had. I got a lot out of my kids. I invited my administration and they knew what I was doing - the superintendent - I had school board members' kids in class, and it was fantastic. 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.
Chris McNutt 10:12
Yeah, 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 they don't question the fact that what you're doing is exactly the opposite of what they're telling you to do.
Monte Syrie 10:30
Chris McNutt 10:30
Michael and I all the time, we're in Ohio, we have the Ohio Department of Education come out and see what we're doing. And they're like, "man, this is all fantastic." You guys realize this is the complete opposite of every single thing that you're laying out for us to do. And it sounds a lot like what you're doing in your own classroom. It's this idea, "let's just throw out all grades" so the superintendent can come and say, "look at how great everything is." It's so bizarre.
Monte Syrie 10:55
It is. It really is.
Chris McNutt 10:57
Monte, the one thing I really want to focus on, even though I want 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 bar none the most important thing. And all the different practices that take place in our classroom feed into that relationship, outside of, obviously, 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 will be listening to this podcast, would know that relationships are important. The question I have is, why would someone not think that they're important? And then to expand on that, a lot of times, I feel in teacher training programs, or whenever I read a book about education, they talk a lot about building rapport. And for some reason, I feel that's disconnected from just the idea of building around relationship. And I don't know if that's because they still want to have this power, 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 thing is, I also wonder if rapport doesn't also lend itself to a tips and tricks style - this is not to disparage with people that do this, because I have no problem with this - but it's "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 at the same exact time I wonder if there aren't teachers out there that are constantly thinking... I don't know if you play computer games, I'm going to make a video game reference here... But in The Sims, you 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.
Monte Syrie 13:02
Yeah, Chris, I love this question. I have a long messy answer to it. I think it's dealing with with specifically what you were just talking about. So here we go. I, with you, don't think it's the teachers think 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 think they would even go further to say that they have them with their students. But I don't see the relationships are universal emphasis in the classroom, I don't see that very 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 there's 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. There's more to it than just that.
I think then we teachers claim that relationships are important. Or when we have teachers who claim they're important, we have advocates of talking versus watching. 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 who make relationships a priority for the first few days of the year, utilizing bright icebreaker activities, etc. But they soon move on. What was a priority seems to become an afterthought. And the ice will return. I think there's a reason for that. I think it stems from the terminology that we use. You kind of touched on this a little bit: student teacher relationships, student teacher division, not connection, artificial, not real. I believe that's part of the problem - real or imagined - we teachers and students exist in the divide. 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 are 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, teachers and students. There are perceptions that are typecast at us. And as such, we think we have to be a certain way. I think that's so important, we think we have to be a certain way. It's 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 fallen into line, I believe. 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 script of sorts that when played out presents kind of a transactional experience between teachers and students.
I think for the most part, sadly, we accept that. It's how it's always been done and it's become the basic formula for our existence in the classroom. Teachers teach and students student, but in that separateness we've 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. It's not that much different for our students as they have become conditioned to accept a mentor. And I really do think in some cases, their roles, and the show goes on and on and on. We add the opportune times and try to make our legs less frozen, if you will. But I think we fall back into routines, and we make transactions and connections. Again, especially as the year goes on, and we become stressed out about state testing, and other things.
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 who join in an opportunity to experience life and learning, then we change the story. As the story changes, I think so do our roles. 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, the human growth growing as humans. And isn't that what it's about? I mean, isn't that what connects us? We're all growing.
As a human I struggle and succeed every single day. And probably struggle more than succeed if I'm honest. As students, as humans, my kids struggle and succeed every day. 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. 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 with a human story goes on every single day. And ultimately, we're just connected. And I think that if we can get beyond that traditional student teacher relationship and just think we're humans sharing space and sharing life, I think we can make a difference.
Chris McNutt 17:45
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 love your verbiage as well, 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 then we'll 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 gonna remember their name a little easier." It doesn't actually serve any teaching purpose outside of that notion. And kids know that too. 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 be on my side, because they want me to learn the content at the end of the day.
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 the situation that they're in, and making sure that your classroom is one that values them as human beings. And it's not just a classroom that knows that they are human beings, but the same time they "have" to get the coursework done. 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 engaged and competing against others based off of scores or to just walk into a room, but realistically against your will, you have to be there and be forced to eat your your "peas and carrots", so to speak.
Monte Syrie 19:49
Chris McNutt 19:50
Someone who is just some dude or just some gal, whoever, they don't really know who you are, you're just in the building. It's not like they've had any chance choice in most of this matter, and it becomes very difficult to build an authentic relationship there when you can't empathize and actually change something about it.
Monte Syrie 20:10
Well, no and I think once kids realize that we're genuinely empathizing with them, we're not just breaking the ice. You know, in the first few days of the year, we moved from a place of compliance to commitment. The kids see that, "hey, we're there for them." And I think like you said, we'll get into this answer a little later on. But that empathy piece is absolutely huge.
Chris McNutt 20:38
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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, 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 that in late 1800s, they wanted assembly line workers, they didn't really care at all about who these people were. 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 will we need to do?
Monte Syrie 21:58
Yeah, you ended that question with, at least what you what you wrote here to me, "what steps do you believe that school should take to embrace humanity and education?" "Embrace humanity and education", I love that ideal. And I think we can make it a reality. I have a thought for that. Bear with me here. If the quality of our lives is determined by how we feel feelings and 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. We hold that power. We all then have power. We all have power in people's lives, we impact the quality of their lives. So we should consider others' feelings.
When we consider others' 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. I think we can get "un-lost." I've already spoken of the divide that happens when we fail to make connections. So then how do we succeed in making connections with each other? We have to connect with each other. And I know this may sound Pollyannish, I get that. But the connections and 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 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 you, how I assess starts from here, and to hold myself to account I asked my kids home 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 asked and the kids tell. 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.
Chris McNutt 24:21
Yeah, that empathy piece 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. They need you 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 be in charge?" That kind of response.
Monte Syrie 24:53
I've had similar instances where people have done that, and on top of that, I've had the, "how are you preparing this for the real world?" Right? Which, which drives me absolutely bonkers. Because I think the kids his world feel pretty real to them already. I would ask them, I think, Chris, in this particular context, "Well, how do you want kids to feel in your room? I think it would be interesting to see what their list was, and then it would be interesting to hear from them. Then how they go about making those things happen for their kids. I think it would be interesting for them - 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 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, if 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, 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. I can deliver content, anybody can deliver content. Of course, there are degrees of doing that 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. That doesn't always happen with that teacher who believes that they have to...We could think about kids in a couple of ways. If we think that they're empty canvases that have to be filled. 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.
I feel like on the other side of that sometimes those teachers feel it's their responsibility, their job to fill that debt, that blank canvas. I thought that once upon a time in my career, but I don't think that any longer. I just think kids are people to be appreciated and learn from and learn with, so I don't know if I really answered your question. But I don't know, those people are always interesting to me, who push and persist to put kids in their place. I might consider to be completely opposite to that, especially in the last 10 years of my career,
Chris McNutt 27:41
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 Kohn opens up a lot of his parenting talks with this idea. He asked the entire audience what it is they want for their children or anyone's children when they grow up. And they raise their hands and say, "well, they want them to be happy, I want them to get married, have kids" - a bunch of traditional stuff like that. Or, "I want them to travel the world" or whatever, they want no limit to their aspirations. And then he brings up the fact that in school, we actually don't empathize any of those things.
I find that very odd that whenever you look at a vision statement in a school...vision statements, I have not yet to find one that says just "make kids happy." There's nothing. It's always "preparing them for the future", which is almost a trigger word for me. I hate that phrase. If "preparing them for the real world" is one, "preparing them for the future" is another one. First off, if you're gonna prepare kids for the real world, we wouldn't be doing half the things that we're doing in school right now. The idea of this might be, I kind of go back and forth in this in my head, but sometimes I think, I teach history and government, Michael teaches English, we talked 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 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 those standards that we have right now doesn't make any sense. The sad part of 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 coding initiative, teach everyone coding, which is great. If you want to teach kids how 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 kids graduate...
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, okay, let's keep going. It's all good." And they're just confused by that. Or a parent, a parent is definitely confused by that. 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. I think that the, I don't want to say average teacher, because I don't like to make over broad 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. The content, your classroom area, is not more important than relationships and learning of soft skills. And realistically, you could cut down your content at 25% of it is what it is right now and make it thematic, and still get the same outcome content wise in terms of remembering it, while still building all these other really important things that we should have.
First off, the majority of people don't actually code. Most people use code that other people already write. So it's actually a small field, in the greater scheme of technology. But kids in the future, we have to be predicting, like, people that can mess with AI algorithms... things of that nature. And we can't really predict that. Instead, stuff 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 do you fail well? That's a huge one. How can you recover when faced with adversity? How can you get to a point where you no longer feel like you can do something or you bomb something, and it's not the end of the world? That it is completely normal to be like that.
Monte Syrie 30:50
Agree with that wholeheartedly.
Chris McNutt 30:53
Here's a good question that branches 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, 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 may not respect you as much. There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of spreading these ideas, let alone for the teachers but the parents and the community. Parents often brag about their school has a "excellence with distinction" or whatever banner hung up in the gym - about how great they are at having kids attend school and do well on tests.
Monte Syrie 32:48
Chris McNutt 32:49
I'm gonna refer to a blog that you wrote, it was a poem, actually. 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, demeans 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? I mean, giving out grades, you've already said you give out all A's, so we can, I guess, scratch that one off. But there's also things like standardized testing, right, or tolerance policies, I don't know what what your school has in terms of those. There's just these different policies that exist, that are kind of hard to get away with just as a teacher. If you're in an administrative position, you can do a little bit more, but I'm just curious what your thoughts are on that?
Monte Syrie 33:48
Yeah, boy, this is a hard question. But I have some thoughts for sure. You know, that morning post found me to a place where I was having my own troubles and reconciling what goes on in the classroom. And there are things that I cannot or have not learned to fully control. The one line that really mattered to me most there from the poem, the one short stanza, "Then why, Sy? Why weren't you brave? Why didn't you from us, save?" I felt like I was selling my kids out and filling myself out a little bit. I think that's why I was having such a hard time that morning, you know, cause I go all year long telling the kids they matter.
<crosstalk, an audio error, sorry!>
Monte Syrie 34:55
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. I think a lot of teachers think they have positive relationships with kids, 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.
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 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. If learning and growth are paramount, I can think of no reason not to get kids and others go,"why wouldn't we? It's a part of learning." And when we out of one side of our mouth, tell kids to embrace failure and mistakes...you're talking about this earlier, it made me 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 mistrust, and trust is a must for relationships.
In a sense, that kind of encapsulates all the things that are outside my classroom that I can't control, where it creates this conflict. Sometimes within that conflict, it's hard to reconcile things, that I still argue that as classroom teachers, we have a great deal of autonomy, I think we can, for lack of a better way to say it, "go rogue" in our classrooms and do the things that matter. Despite some of the pressures from the outside, in Washington State, at least, this movement started 15 or 16 years ago, and I have yet to see the black helicopters swoop in and go to school. And again things happen differently in different states.
The whole growth mindset thing drives me crazy. I mean, I think it's wonderful.You teach high school, you teach high school, right?
But, I was saying about this earlier today, part of me just wants an entire class, like the entire sophomore class, just to say, "we're not taking the test this year." To see what see what the state of the school really do. I mean, they're really not going to graduate that many kids? No, 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 kid-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 that presented itself eventually. That affects the relationships that we have with our kiddos.
Yes, and so does Michael. By the time that kids get to us, they have fixed mindsets, I'm sure Michael has them, kids hate reading or kids hate writing. And I don't know exactly where they always learned that. They didn't enter school hating reading and writing, 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 and I think we have to do it by making things possible. 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, I even wrote it the poem, let's just do our best despite them. My kids are already off to a good start, I'm getting scores back and they've done well. 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. I don't know, the whole thing just drives me absolutely. Absolutely bonkers.
Chris McNutt 37:48
Yes, yep. I'm curious what your thoughts on this. I wrote something last week, 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 employment. Depending on where you're teaching, some schools are not going to be okay with you even 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 out to everyone. Just do it. And that's what you do every single day. That school that is kind of famous or infamous for that around here..and it also has the highest state test scores in the state of Ohio.
Monte Syrie 39:35
Chris McNutt 39:35
For them, that feels like a major accomplishment, and it's almost prestigious, actually, for teachers to go there. However, we're not seeing those kids that go on do great, amazing things. Obviously, some of them do. But I don't think they're correlated.
Monte Syrie 39:51
I don't either.
Chris McNutt 39:53
The question - I guess this is twofold. One would be, do you think that teachers should be seeking out employment opportunities that embraces them as progressive educators? Or do you think it's enough or if it's a good strategy to try and stay where they're at? To help students as much as they can - can they 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?
Monte Syrie 40:26
Well, I think that's a great question. I would want to be 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. What they would be left to...
And so while that is appealing to me, I I feel like it's my calling to be that one who's kind of fighting against the status quo. And, it's really interesting that you, you said something about, like teaching to not get fired, I've been thinking about that a lot. You know, I've got 22 years of stellar recommend, evaluations and, 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 gonna fire me, and I'm not gonna look to get fired. But you said something that resonated - we have to be true to our principles.
I've taught 10th grade out here for 15 years since I've been back here at Cheney. 10th grade is where the kids have to pass the state assessment. 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. I used to try to sell it when I was younger and didn't know better. 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. I want to fight against that. Again, kind of putting me in that hard place where I reconcile that. I don't know, it'll be interesting to see where we go. And if I stay at 10th grade, I'm just not sure that the district, because you know as well as I do our scores get published in the paper in Washington. They go on our school's report card, they're at the center of our professional learning community work. Yes, we look to multiple measures, but at the end of the day, the data that's going to matter most is the state testing data. And I feel like I should be able to challenge that with the data that I have collected from my classroom.
When I have a kid who finds himself in a position where maybe he didn't pass a state assessment, but yet in my classroom, I have deemed that his work is, is is worthy of meeting standard and moving on, I don't think we get that opportunity. And I think we pay a lot of lip service to all these multiple measures at the end of the day... he gets funneled down to the state assessment, which I think is unfortunate. I'm gonna stay in disrupting the public school I think. That would be the path I would choose, though I would love to be around like minded progressives.
Chris McNutt 43:28
I teach American history for half of the year, we're semester based. And I probably reach on a good year 50% of the content. The other 50% pretty well. And yeah, our students are actually performed. 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 the standardized test doesn't actually even increase necessarily, their learning capability to do the 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.
Monte Syrie 44:13
Chris McNutt 44:14
And a lot of that comes down, not necessarily to what the school is doing, but it comes down to your zip code, it's down to what resources you have 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? 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 doing very well, oftentimes, 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 unstructure.
Monte Syrie 44:58
Chris McNutt 44:59
So let's move onto 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 distanced themselves from you or labeled you, because of how you believe about student relationships or progressive education. Something that I hear a lot is, "oh, you're the the easy teacher", or the "weird teacher", you're like, "the really out there, 'creative teacher.'" So therefore, maybe students tend to hang out in your room, maybe they want to be in there at lunch. Maybe you're the first one that they say something's wrong to, and you talked to the guidance counselor, and people are like, "Why are you talking to the kids so much?" Do you ever find yourself in that situation? Like, are you ever painted as like the weird guy?
Monte Syrie 45:56
Every day for 22 years. 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.
I've run the full gamut, I think from annoyance to people feeling like that to suspecting on some level, that maybe it's professional jealousy. I don't know. Who knows where those folks are always coming from? But, 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. 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 doors is hiding something, but man, I'm an open book. I invite parents to my class, I invite other teachers to my class, I just want somebody to come, sit in a desk in my room for a day, for a week.
Before you decide whether I'm the easy teacher, before you unfairly come up with a reason for why the kids like me. There's a reason kids 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. What's interesting about that is I don't have exclusive rights to that. Every teacher can do that 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 and have those relationships and those connections with their kids, but for some reason, they choose not to. I'm not sure why.
I wear being the weird guy, the guy who's always pushing the edges, as a badge of honor. If people were saying, well, he's falling in line, and he's conforming, and he's doing things as I do, that's just not who I am. I wouldn't be being true to myself. The kids talk to me, they tell me, what the teachers say about me, in our class and stuff. Iif they weren't saying something I'd be worried. I embrace it, I've kind of gotten to the point where I embrace it. And I don't think we need to turn it into - I know, you're not suggesting this - but how can we change this into more of a positive behavior - we have to work with each other, and I think there's something to be gained from those of us who are out here on the edge. I think it's unfortunate that more people aren't drawn to that, I think.
Chris McNutt 48:46
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 people to do that subject, etc. 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. As in 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 exact time, is that something that we necessarily need for high schoolers or something that we need for a college professor where you're choosing to take that class and it's something you want to learn more about? And that's not to disparage against like, I know that someone's like read Teach Like a Pirate. That is a major theme of that book. It's all about passion and dedication. 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 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 students actually trust 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 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.
Monte Syrie 50:39
Chris McNutt 50:40
It's all about 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 you can't do something because that would be very authoritative and beyond my pay-grade, nor my place. However, someone who is purely focused on content in education, I don't feel like well, they'll be happy. They may as well just become a professor. And then we could get into the fact that possibly professors need to change the way they're teaching as well to people that are in their classrooms in higher ed. But that's higher as a whole other beast. That's a giant, we could have a five hour podcast just on that. So for time purposes, let's just build right into this one, ...a question we've asked every single guest, 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 tests would be an unfeasible suggestion. [This is] something that really everyone or one person could do to feasibly improve tomorrow, the lives of their students.
Monte Syrie 52:11
I have two. And there's something literally that I think anyone can do tomorrow. So for all, I think we 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. If you think back to my my list that I gave you for what I share with my kids, it would really be no different for a school, perhaps to say I want kids in the school to feel empowered, I want them to feel connected, valued, respected, challenged, and supported. 'm not a big fan of mission statements either. But imagine if that was your touchstone, if that was your standard that you set for yourself, as I do in my classroom, and so now, when you're having a discussion with the kid, maybe about misbehavior, 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.
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 - to community, to town, to city, to state, I just think that it's a way for us to connect on a human level. And I think anybody and everybody can do it. For teachers, 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, I've done it now for 143 days, I will continue to do it. For me, it's been the very best instructional classroom decision I have ever made. 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. 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 can 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.
Chris McNutt 54:25
So could you elaborate more on what what that is?
Monte Syrie 54:29
Yeah, so we just call it smiles and frowns. Up on my board I put today I want you to feel connected. And I put smiles and frowns next to that. And so we just go around the room and each kid shares. So a kid might say, I aced the math test today, or I scored a goal in soccer last night, or my dog passed away last evening. And so they're just sharing something from their lives that either has made them smile or happier or a positive, or maybe a frown - something that's that's made them sad, something that's bummed them out, no problem. They just failed the math test the period before or I failed the science test. And everything 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, I think about all the other silly things that we do in our classrooms. Yeah, I'm taking 1000 minutes of instructional time away this year. But I have no regrets. It has has made for the very best year I've had in 22 years. I mean, I know my kids, man, I love my kids. That's incredible, you know, and one for me to like when I was talking earlier about walking and talking, and I don't want to be an ice breaker 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.
Chris McNutt 56:00
That kind of structural piece is something that any place could build upon, which is having an 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, a kid might not talk as much. There's always the quieter kids and stuff like that. And that opens up a way to make that a little more uniform t o everyone.
Monte Syrie 56:30
I think it's really important that we allow kids to pass. To come from a place of commitment, not compliance. And so, I have some kids who pass every single time, but they listen attentively to all the other kids sharing. So it's really about us learning each other as a community. I mean, it's pretty dang cool. And you have a classroom full of kids clapping because Eliza, 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.
Chris McNutt 56:58
That's awesome. Yeah. I mean, what better way to teach tolerance? Or just to teach empathy or even teach normalizing failure? 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 cope with either good feelings or bad feelings. And there is, though, literally not one standard that says anything about emotional intelligence amongst our kids. 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, why would they not?
Monte Syrie 57:39
Yeah, and I think about my own kid, now, 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, the the the content stuff will come and we teach kids. The content is secondary. I mean, we teach kids with content, we don't teach content to kids, I think we have to reframe.
Chris McNutt 58:10
I think the the easiest way to understand that is that go to any kindergarten, first grade classroom. And talk to the kids about 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 actually learning and they want to be there and they're having fun. People naturally want to learn. In my opinion, schooling kills that love sadly. And the reason why, especially as a high school instructor, we run into an issue where it's like they're at the end of the machine, they're there, they're kind of winding down. It's our goal to try to reverse that track.
Monte Syrie 58:53
Yeah, you know, and it's art. It's hard, because they don't trust anymore. They've played the game for too long. So even even we who are progressive, we try new things out, it takes a long time for the kids to give us that trust. The year I gave my all my kids A's, it took them a long time to get there. Because they've been so conditioned for so many years. But you know, I love small steps will make it happen here someday.
Chris McNutt 59:28
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai