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I wake up in a mad rush.  I’ve overslept.  I never oversleep on a work day.  What’s happening?  I rush to school in a distracted tornado of coffee and papers.  When I arrive I can’t remember anyone’s name, or even what I was planning to teach today.  This is crazy.  I’m standing in front of the class blubbering and stalling for time, wondering where all my copies are, pouring sweat, and frantically trying to remember the day’s intended learning outcomes.  What is going on here?  This disoriented state persists for a few agonizingly slow minutes.  Then I wake up again.  Three AM on the clock.  It must be late August.

There are unmistakable feelings of excitement and dread at the beginning of the school year, and they can be directly tracked by the frequency of my school-related dreams.  I never dream about school in the middle of the school year, but the dreams always return in the last few days of a break: forgotten lesson plans, missing papers, terrible observations.  It hits every time like clockwork.

It’s that time of year again.  The time when teachers go through their New Year’s Resolution ritual, making all sorts of goals for the upcoming term.  This list can get very long and that makes sense.  We all want to do a better job each time we enter the school-year cycle, and this is the right time to do it: new students, new classes, newly refreshed, and if other teachers are anything like I am, they have a substantial list of resolutions to help direct the upcoming year.

The most common goals I hear are: grading faster, delivering better feedback, creating better work/life balance, making students better readers, and improving the depth of student engagement.  Attached to those broad targets are the myriad of small items that make up the daily work of a teacher such as refining the late-work policy, improving pacing, predicting difficult lessons, establishing routines, getting to know students, and the like.  These lists often border on the endless.

The sheer volume of topics that a teacher can tackle leads quickly to over-committing to making things better.  Teachers are often optimists, and they’re usually willing to take on a huge number of tasks in the name of student improvement.  This is rarely ideal though.  Over-commitment leads to too many obligations and instead of getting everything done, nothing gets accomplished and the over-committed teacher has trouble deciding what to work on and easily slides back into their comfort zone.  My suggestion is to pick a couple areas of focus and do them well.  By narrowing your selections you help ensure that you can actually achieve your goals.

Along this line it’s worth taking the time to lay out how you want to achieve these targets in a concrete, specific way.  Want to really get to know your students right away?  Fantastic.  Pick that as an area and take immediate action by conducting a student survey in the first couple of days and making a commitment to knowing everyone’s name by the end of the first week.  Students react very strongly when teachers care about them as a person in addition to their academic success.

The most important part of starting the year off strong is to be selective with your goals.  By all means you should set ambitious goals, goals that force you to stretch and grow as a professional, however, it is important that those goals are also achievable.  Too often in education we set impossibly high standards and are forced to settle for less than success.  By setting high standards that are also still attainable you begin creating a repeatable positive feedback system.  You will feel good when you accomplish your goals, and that will encourage you to keep setting goals as opposed to the disheartening feeling of having to continually pick yourself up when you fall short of too-lofty aims.

Pick two targets and structure your approach in the following manner:

  1. Write your intended goal in clear, specific language.  (I will know all of my students as students and the context they bring to the classroom.)
  2. Create specific, time-bound, criteria by which you can measure your progress.  (I will know all their names by the end of the first week.  I will know at least one of their interests by the end of the second week.)
  3. Ensure that your goal is actually achievable and realistic.  (Is this something that you actually have control over?)
  4. Now share your goals with someone that you trust so that they can help hold you accountable.  (Want to really provide incentive?  Tell them you’ll pay them $20 each time you don’t meet your goal.)
  5. Once you achieve your initial goals, set new ones and repeat the process.

In the spirit of transparency and accountability I will demonstrate with one of my own goals:

  1. I will create positive working relationships with the novice teachers on my caseload and normalize my presence in their classrooms.
  2. To this end: I will meet face to face with each teacher on my caseload in the first two weeks.  By the end of the third week of school I will observe all of my teachers while they are teaching.
  3. This is well within my control.  It requires that I effectively schedule all of my teachers, and develop trust with the teachers new to my caseload.
  4. I am telling my blog readers, and I will be telling the other members of my mentor team.

Teachers are regularly encouraged to do it all or take on more than is manageable.  You need to remember that it is ok to say no, limit your scope, and focus on doing an excellent job within that area of focus.  This will allow you to give serious thought to what you are working on, and will allow you to go through the process thoroughly.  Once you achieve your specific goals, you can then set new goals that help continue your growth.  Growth is a continual process, and only by staying committed to a trajectory of improvement will we achieve the levels of success that we want.

I heard a story today and I think it’s worth sharing.  Here’s my attempt at retelling it:

Quick Background before we begin:  The original teller is an accomplished swimmer, works as a lifeguard, and teaches swim lessons at a local pool.  He’s a thoughtful and kind 16 years old.  He can  be a bit distracted at times and he is incredibly curious.  We’ll call him Andy today.

Andy was having a rough day.  He’s been having a few rough days lately, but this one was special.

The other day at the pool there’d been a “fecal incident” with one of the younger kids, so they had to push up the chlorine level in the pool to a ph value somewhere near 13 in order to prevent people from getting sick.  The chemicals made his eyes so red that when he got home his mom accused him of being high.  Add to that his children’s year-old swimming class in which every single student seemed out to get him by complaining, trying to swim away, and generally not listening to him.  (A multi-hour block with six 8-10 year-olds in a swimming pool would probably get to anyone even on a good day.)  Beyond all this work related difficulty Andy has been having some issues in his personal life that are just plain frustrating.

With all of that working in concert against him Andy finished his swimming class frustrated, tired, and generally just feeling down to the point where he just zoned out in the locker room lost in his own head.  In walks Paul.  Paul is a disabled kid (somewhere around 12 years old.  Maybe he’s autistic, maybe he has downs syndrome.  Andy isn’t quite sure) and he’s pretty regularly around the pool.  Andy knows him, but doesn’t usually have much to say to Paul.

“Hi Andy.  Do you like Angry Birds?”

“What?  Oh, hi Paul.  Umm… I guess so…”  Andy pretty deep in his own head and tried to ignore Paul, but Paul wouldn’t have it.

They talked about Angry Birds for a bit.  Maybe a minute or two, but no more than five minutes.  Paul was clearly pretty excited about the game and happy to have someone to talk to.  Andy was kind of half talking and half still in his own head.

Andy interrupted with, “Hey Paul? … Are you happy?”  Now Andy meant: is Paul happy in general.  Is he a happy person?  Andy wasn’t quite sure if Paul understood the nuance, or if Paul thought Andy was asking if he was happy in that moment.

Regardless of Paul’s interpretation he immediately and emphatically answered: “of course!  You’re awesome Andy!” and then Paul left as inexplicably as he’d entered.

I asked Andy what he thought about the interaction and he broke into a huge grin.  He said that Paul’s affirmation of Andy’s awesomeness turned his day around and he started to feel better.  He was happy that he didn’t just blow Paul off, which would have been pretty easy to do.

I then asked him if he thought he had any impact on Paul.  He didn’t really think so.  He’d just talked about Angry Birds for a second.  It’s not like he’d gone out of his way.

That’s when I told him the story of Renata, and how a simple note I’d written had a larger impact on her life than I’d expected.  Andy didn’t think much of it at first, but Paul really meant it when he told Andy he was awesome.  Having worked with many people with a range of developmental disabilities, I can tell you that most of the time people don’t take a moment and talk about Angry Birds.  I would conjecture that most of the time, people hear Paul say something unexpected and either ignore him, blow him off, or (hopefully not, but I try to be realistic) tease him for it.

Andy did a very simple thing.  He treated Paul like a regular human being and took his question at face value.  Two minutes talking about Angry Birds was all the effort required.  That’s all it took to brighten the days of two people.  It made me think of how I treat the more socially awkward students I have.  The students who, at the wrong time, say unexpected things.

Do I blow them off when they say these things, or do I take the time to honor their ideas and treat them like a human being?  I’d like to think that I honor them more often than I blow them off, I don’t have any evidence.  Moving forward I will be more mindful and I will choose to honor them more frequently.

The next time someone asks you if like Angry Birds take a moment and have that conversation.  You have the time.  Even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable at first, someone might think you’re awesome for doing it.

I just had an experience that I’d forgotten I could have.  I thought I was above this kind of thing.  My ego just barreled through and knocked me out cold.  Then it did a little dance over my body.

Since reading Mindset I’ve been operating under the basic premises therein that a growth mindset allows you to improve while a fixed mindset acts as a roadblock to your improvement.  I’ve been all about it, telling everyone to read the book, having my students read sections.  I’m Carol Dweck’s biggest cheerleader.  Her premise is not difficult to grasp, but as I’m discovering, it can be a difficult concept to adopt as part of your life on a daily basis.

As part of developing my own growth mindset I signed up for a math class through EdX.  I wanted to model lifelong learning for my students, and it’s a subject I could use a refresher on.  The class is a statistics course through UC Berkeley.  The basic format is do some reading, watch a lecture, some practice problems, and then do a problem set.  It just started and I was feeling  (over)confident that this would be a simple brush-up and a good way to remind myself of the stats classes I took in high school and as an undergrad.  The first problem set and lecture proved to be pretty straightforward, introducing types of variables, basics about percentiles, and how to arrange data so that it makes some sense.  I skimmed the reading, skipped parts of the video lecture, and did fine on the first problem set.  Ding!  Round one goes to the fixed mindset approach.

With my hubris firmly in place I figured why not get a jump on the next assignment, check the sample problems, and jump straight into the problem set.  The second problem set checked my ego.  Hard.  Did I go back to the reading and lecture before moving through the rest of the problem set?  Nope.  I just told myself “that was the first question, you’ve got this, just keep going.  You’ll be fine.”

By the time I got 70% of the way through the problem set (with limited success, thank you instant online feedback) it hit me: “I’m rationalizing my lack of understanding.”  I’m telling myself this class doesn’t matter.  Telling myself there’s no grade attached.  I’m not a statistician.  I don’t really need this.  I can just stop if I don’t like it.  I’ll go do something I care about like reading a book.  All of my emotional baggage related to math classes came back at me like a sucker punch to the throat.  My heart rate and breathing were elevated and I had to stand up and walk away from the computer in order to calm down.  Round two:  technical knockout due to forfeit.

Damn.  Talk about a fixed mindset in action.  Even ten minutes after putting the problem set on hold I was telling myself it was because I didn’t care; that’s why I didn’t do well, not that I didn’t know the math.  I was actively preserving my ego.

I could stop.  It would be easy to stop.  Easy to go back to fighting the fights that are inside my comfort zone.  There is no grade here and I’ve made no financial commitment.  This statistics course it not attached to a degree.  If I give up though I give up on myself.

This experience puts me back on the same footing as my students.  They experience this regularly with their classes and it serves as a healthy reminder to me to be understanding of their reluctance, frustration, and the difficulties they encounter.  I’ve read books like Outliers and Mindset.  I’ve adopted the theory and I still get blindsided by my ego and the ease of a fixed mindset.  My students haven’t read these pieces and so modeling and teaching a growth mindset is even more important.  I need to be able to provide support and context when they are unable to do it for themselves.

Well:  Time for a rematch.  I’m ready to get back in the ring and get the KO on my Greatest Obstacle.  I need to (and will) go back to the reading and the lecture.  I will finish that second problem set, and for the third problem set I’ll come from a place of humility and do the process from the proper state of mind.  The ability to go back and fix problems is what sets the growth mindset apart from the fixed mindset, the willingness to pick yourself back up and try again.  Watch out ego:  I’m coming to get you.

Today marked the end of my first Wendler 5/3/1 cycle.  4 weeks working on 4 different lifts: back squats, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.

The main idea is that (following the programming) you perform each lift at a specific percentage of your max for a specified number of reps.  One cycle lasts for 16 workouts and takes about a month to complete.  The entire goal here is pure strength without worrying about anything else.  (Other work you do is on your own, and is not covered by the 5/3/1 system.  I do a lot of other fitness work.)

There’s no magic here.  Jim Wendler isn’t saying that you’ll add 100lbs to your squat in five months.  He’s saying you can do that in about a year.  As long as you stick with it and continue to put in the hard work you should see results.  In an interview with T-Nation Wendler had the following to say about the program: ” the reason I came up with 5/3/1 was that I wanted a program that eliminated stupid thoughts from my head and just let me go into the weight room and get shit done.”

I will pause here to say that I already had a solid lifting and strength base before starting.  Until January of this year I’d worked with a trainer  doing strength and conditioning work so my form is pretty good, I have strong body awareness, and I’ve had solid experience observing how to properly program workouts around a strength session.  If you are less familiar with things working with a coach is invaluable (even if it’s just a more experienced friend) and Wendler’s book has recommendations for assistance work and how to do the lifts properly.

So far it’s been doing just that for me.  I don’t get excited about programming strength work.  I’m far more interested in putting my energy into circuit training, skills work, and metabolic conditioning workouts.  I like getting strength results and I have strength goals, but the process doesn’t interest me.  5/3/1 has been perfect for that so far because it allows me to just get some heavy lifting in without agonizing over which lifts, for how many reps, at what percentage.

Beyond the simplicity I really like that at the end of each workout the last set is essentially listed as max reps.  So in the first week the workout would be:

5 reps at 65%
5 reps at 75%
5+ reps at 85%

That little + at the end of the third set is the real winner.  That’s when you push yourself to go beyond what’s comfortable and find out what you can really lift.  In the third week the last set is 1+ reps at 95%.  That’s 95% of your single rep max lift.  I was seriously excited when I busted out 9 bench press reps at 160lbs a couple weeks ago.  The last set of the workout is where you hit your goals and where you find your new max.  It’s not about increasing your single rep max, though that will happen, but it’s about increasing your overall strength which includes reps and weight.

Tomorrow marks the first day of the second round.  I’m adding 10 pounds to the training weight for squats and deadlifts, and 5 pounds to bench and overhead press.  That’s the standard.  (Wendler has a big focus on keeping ego in check when it comes to adding weight.)  So, in theory I should hit my deadlift goal of 340lbs (~2x bodyweight) somewhere in July as long as I stick with the system.

For now I’m sticking to the four main lifts, but the theory can be easily applied to any lifts.  The Olympic lifts come to mind first since I want to improve my snatch, clean, and overhead squat.  I can definitely see a cycle in the future where I sub out the overhead press for a clean and jerk for example.  Weighted dips or weighted pull-ups could make an appearance as well.  The four main lifts are primary because they have significant carryover benefit to other lifts, but they are not exhaustive.

There are lifting programs that advertise faster results, but I really appreciate the ability to just turn my brain off and just lift.  Strength is a goal, but not my primary goal so I’m very satisfied with steady progress.

 

Finals is a time for pushing oneself.  Taking everything you’ve learned in a course and going into put up or shut up mode.  My world history students had a 2 hour block of time to write two essays.  Many of them said it’s the longest single period of sustained work they’ve ever done, and while challenging, they felt that they had all the knowledge and skills necessary to complete it.  That’s the sign of a good final exam to me.  A significant challenge, yet still accessible to the vast majority of the class.

As a teacher I try to do my best modeling best practices for my colleagues and students.  If I ask my students to put in their best work at all times I’d better be doing the same to show them that hard work is a lifestyle, not something that is only true while you’re in school.  I push myself to be the best teacher, husband, athlete, friend, and cook that I know how to be.

In this spirit I’m taking the responsibility of promptly scoring my students final exams extremely seriously.  Not so seriously that I sacrifice everything else in my life, but seriously enough that when it’s work time I work with minimal breaks and reduced distractions.  No Facebook open while I’m grading.  No grading in front of the TV.  Turn the phone to silent for a while.  Modeling the behaviors I ask of my students even if they never know about it.

Finals were Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of this week and I’m proud to say that I’m already halfway finished with scoring them.  All the other extraneous late work, rewrites, and skill checks are taken care of, so it’s just two classes worth of essays left between me and finalized grades for first semester.  I’m pushing myself to maintain my high standards and have all my grades finalized by the end of the day Saturday.

Today’s workout is a good example too.  Before today I’d never truly failed a squat.  Today I had complete muscle failure trying to squat 260 pounds. I had to drop the weight.  I’d never failed because I told myself that to do heavy squats I need a spotter, or I need to work up to it for fear of injury.  Well, that’s why there are the adjustable rails on the squat rack.  They catch your weight.  Today’s “failed” squat at 260 pounds gives me more confidence to push myself than my successful (PR) squat at 255.  I know that when I push myself next time I can really do it.  Worst case I have to sit down and drop the weight.  The fear is gone.  I broke my own mental barrier.

To continue pushing myself I’m doing my own “Fitness Final”.  On Saturday I’m tackling the “filthy fifty” a workout I thought I needed to work up to, and wait to try until I “got a little better.”  The workout is 10 different exercises at 50 reps each.  I might not finish on Saturday.  I might fail, but I know that I can push myself as hard as I need to, then come back to the workout and beat my time.

Workout for 1 Feb:

Rings skills.  Ring support position, pull-ups, push-ups, dips, L-sits to inverted hang to inverted pike.

Back Squats:
1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1
225, 235, 245, 250, 255 (PR by 30#!), 260 (fail)

Matadoors

I’m going to get back on this horse.  If nothing else this can be a way to keep track of workouts, and provide some external accountability.  For January (read: manuary #2) I’ve been posting most of my workouts and other (somewhat) manly feats through Facebook.  The simple act of posting the workouts in a public way has caused me to think more deliberately about what exercises I’m doing, mixing up muscle groups, and enjoying the public recognition of my PRs.

I’m still going to use this blog for writing about education, and other thoughts, but I want to explicitly add the exercise component.  Today was a rest day.  First posted WOD will be tomorrow.

For now here are some Current PRs and Goals:

Deadlift:  295 | 340 (2x bodyweight)
Back Squat: 225 | 300
Bench Press: ?? | 225
Push-ups: 52 unbroken | 100
Pull-ups: ?? | 50 unbroken
Doubleunders: 22 (unbroken) | 50
Ring Muscle-ups: ?? | 10 (unbroken)
HSPU: 5 | 15
Ring Dips: 5 | 30
5k: 25min | 18min