Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

Published by Vickie Gill on 05 Feb 2011

Why, why, why?

I often annoy teachers by asserting that the main business of teachers is sales and performance art. It still startles me to talk with a frustrated teacher and discover that he/she does not have an answer to the most basic question a student will ask: “Why do we have to learn this stuff?” Often in discussing what is or isn’t working in someone’s classroom, I ask, “So, what is the point–why should your students put in the effort to master the skills you are presenting?”

In my Introduction to Teaching class, I keep pressing my students to explain their choices. Sometimes I sound like a two-year-old–why, why, why? If you think about it, that’s how the human brain works, “Why is the sky blue?”–toddlers come up with that on their own; it’s natural that our students will ask. Why should kids learn how to write, read, memorize facts, compute, create, sing, act, speak another language? The answer we teachers give is all important and sets the tone for the class. The students will run it through their crap detectors and either buy into our curriculum or mentally check out.

I’m convinced our response to this question and our ability to sell our answer is at the root of most discipline problems, student engagement and progress, and overall job satisfaction.

When we’re brainstorming with our colleagues, seeking authentic answers, our eyes should shine with passion and we should be swept away with the thrill of the possibilities. And that’s what we sell.

Published by Vickie Gill on 05 Dec 2010

Unleash the Baby Boomers

I’ve been spending a great deal of my time reading Jonathan Kozol and trying to rethink public education (I highly recommend the website Rethinking Schools). It comes down to money and control–how can we give our kids the best education possible as cheaply as possible, and how can we evaluate the effectiveness of the methods we use?

I’m going to skip right over the irony of “best” and “cheaply” being in the same part of the sentence, and instead focus on solutions.

I’m a Baby Boomer. We’re often portrayed as the giant lump moving through the anaconda of our social system. We’ve always attracted attention; we’ve been used as barometers and guinea pigs; we’ve protested wrongs and demanded rights; we’ve gotten things done and we’re retiring in droves.

We need to tap in to that power. My Introduction to Teaching students have been working with kids in the elementary school next door. I’ve let them go in on their own, observe, make decisions, get frustrated. As a student teacher, I was thrown in front of a class the first week of school with no preparation, and I still say that was the best experience I could have had. Lately, I’ve been dropping in to help my students with their students, and I find myself obsessed with a couple of children who are struggling at a very young age. My students need the practice, but I’m dying to help.

There are kids like this in every elementary school in every town in our country. What if the Baby Boomers would donate just one hour a day to work with a child who needs some extra attention and encouragement to get on track? In order to balance the budget, many districts have increased the class sizes in primary and elementary classrooms to a 30:1 ratio of students to teacher. I am in awe of anyone who can manage a group of fifteen first graders, much less double that size–these teachers are truly supermen and women. But they can always use help. And Baby Boomers are known for their desire to help.

Theoretically, I will retire in the next year or two, and I plan to walk to the nearest school and offer to work with a child who is behind. “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” -Rabindranath Tagore, philosopher, author, songwriter, painter, educator, composer, Nobel laureate (1861-1941).

Published by Vickie Gill on 16 Oct 2010

Waiting for Superman

These are tough times for education, especially in California where the state is about bankrupt.  It drives me crazy because the schools will be hit with budget cuts again and they’re about as close to bare bones as it can get.  As is always true when finances get tight, people start feeling insecure and try to find a scapegoat–we need to establish blame because unfocused anger is just too scary.

Fear is prevalent throughout our country–neighbors turn against neighbors, colleagues against colleagues; life-long friends on different edges of the political spectrum dare not talk about the upcoming elections for fear of saying something that will end the relationship.  Everybody has a frustration, everybody has a solution, everybody is a little bit right and more than a little wrong.  Especially when it comes to national or world politics, we cannot possibly know the facts first hand.  We rely on the news to research and summarize the truth, then give it to us straight.  That is not happening right now.  Everything has a spin.

The LA Times ran a series of articles in September to expose teachers in the Los Angeles school district who were not improving their students’ test scores satisfactorily.  It’s believed that a young teacher who worked for years in one of the poorest schools with some of the most challenging students killed himself when his name was listed in an article as “less effective” based on standardized test scores–madness.  My students and I have spent a great deal of time talking about the difficulty of evaluating effective teachers.  They were all for publishing test scores until they wrote all of the qualities that they felt made an effective teacher on our white board and noticed that not one of the 38 qualities listed had anything to do with curriculum or test scores.  All of the adjectives they listed had to do with traits like patience, motivation, intelligence, a sense of humor, an interesting personality–qualities that will get you a job in any business.  To attract the best, we have to treat teachers like valued employees and make sure our schools reflect our pride in this business of educating our country’s children.

I was looking at a photo the other day taken in 1926 of a group of school children sitting on a lawn with handmade crowns on their heads, obviously getting ready for a festival or celebration of some kind.  Their faces are so open, so hopeful, so trusting–I see these same faces every day in our classrooms.  We don’t want to let these kids down.  We don’t need Superman to rescue us–our schools are filled with remarkable adults who do extraordinary work every day.  We need to take care of them.  Let’s restore the sanity, treat other people’s children like we would like our children to be treated, and embrace some good old common sense.  We can do this.

Published by Vickie Gill on 23 Sep 2010

The Joy of Teaching

Last week, my Introduction to Teaching students had a chance to visit the elementary school classrooms where they’ll be helping out a couple of days a week for the rest of the school year.  I asked them to just sit and observe master teachers at work and to notice the physical lay-out of the classroom.  I told these future teachers that they can diffuse 80% of their discipline problems through careful planning before the children ever enter the room.  They made sketches of the various desk arrangements they observed on the white board in our classroom, and they discussed their favorite room designs.  Mostly my students and I have been in awe at how well the first through fifth grade teachers handle 30+ students in one classroom.  It is truly mind-boggling.

Yesterday I talked to my students about finding their passion for the subject(s) they’ll teach.  Several of them had a difficult time putting into words what they loved about math, science, literature, art, writing, etc., but our conversation was filled with earnest laughter and emotion.  I told them that it’s easy to get buried under the pressure of standardized tests and textbook outlines and state standards, but at the end of the day, their students should clearly see this passion.  Like parenthood, teaching is too difficult a job to do well unless it is filled with joy.

Published by Vickie Gill on 30 Aug 2010

Introduction to Teaching

I’ve been trying to retire for 3 years now, but my school district’s leaders, in particular Dr. Kenneth Parker, keep finding tasks for me to do that I just can’t resist.  The idea of starting a school from scratch was irresistible, and I’m happy to say the charter high school is up and running–wonderful teachers, wonderful students doing good work.  You couldn’t ask for more, well, except for a site that looks like a high school, but we’re working on that.

What snagged me this year was Ken’s request that I facilitate an Introduction to Teaching class for 11th graders.  I’ve been able to design the curriculum, using my common sense and experience to create a seminar for studying the Art of Teaching that includes real-life experiences so the students can apply what is learned.  This excites me to no end.  And it gets even better.  I have seven high school juniors who have chosen to take this class because they would like to become teachers some day.

From the first day, the class has come alive for me–the students and I are exploring research, current trends, and best practices to try to visualize education at its best.  How lucky are we?

Published by Vickie Gill on 31 Jul 2010


I’ve just returned from a remarkable trip to Singapore.  The director of Trainix Corporation read one of my books and contacted me two years ago.  He wanted me to fly to Singapore to conduct two, 8-hour workshops for teachers and school personnel.  When he wrote to me in 2008, I just shook my head and politely refused.  Why in the world would he want to fly me across the world to offer “one-time-only” presentations?  Why would I travel so far to do that when there are opportunities much closer to home?

But Paul Lim, their Business Director, is patient and persistent.  When he contacted me again in 2009, it sounded more like a call to adventure than a crazy idea, so I accepted.  Instinct won out over reason, and even though I tend to think carefully before I make a decision, I’ve learned that I can over-think, taking so much time to weigh the pros and cons that I miss my chance.

When it got down to the hard work of planning the trip and the workshops, I briefly regretted signing the contract; but a more powerful voice was telling me, “If not now, when?”– I am so glad I went.

We built in a week on the beaches of the South China Sea in Indonesia so I could adjust to the time change–a brilliant move.  By the time we returned to Singpore, I was rested, but still filled with the same worry that dominated my thinking as I prepared for the presentations.  My inservices are usually about Classroom Management–how to get those kids to settle down and go along with your program.  But the international students I’ve had the privilege to know over the past 30 years are almost without exception polite, dutiful, and driven–especially the Asian students.  I was sure that I would get up to talk about common discipline problems and how to deal with them, and the Singaporean teachers would smile, nod politely, but walk away thinking “what a waste of time.”  I can’t stand to waste people’s time.

But within 15 minutes of the first workshop, I realized that these teachers were dealing with many of the challenges that we face every day in our classrooms in American.  As they described some difficult students, I breathed a sigh of relief–kids are kids all over the world.  People are people all over the world.  We have have much in common, and after you peel away some cultural differences, we’re just talking about human nature.

So I spent two days sharing with intelligent, sincere, thoughtful educators who care enough about their students to take the day to listen to an American teacher tell what she knows.  It was an exhilarating experience, and I walked away with a renewed sense of conviction.  We can solve these problems that plague countries all over the world.  Peel away the fanaticism, greed, and lust for power and what you’ll find are people who pretty much want the same things:  a safe place to raise their families, meaningful work that pays enough to provide for their families, and a sense of respect for their culture.

And we teachers are in a perfect position to do that.  I don’t care what subject you teach, if you are not incorporating the Big Picture — the answer to “why should I learn this?” — you’re wasting time.  Every skill our students practice should go far, far beyond passing a test or building the perfect college résumé.   Our students should leave our classes with a clear picture of how these skills will prepare them to create safe communities to raise families, develop meaningful work, and embrace cultural diversity worldwide.  We can do this.

In my 61st year, I flew to Singapore.  I’m so glad I did.

Published by Vickie Gill on 27 Jun 2010


I’ve been preparing to travel to Singapore in a couple of weeks to present two days of workshops.  The company offered this opportunity to me last year, but I couldn’t imagine why they’d want to fly me across the world to speak to Asian teachers who work with Asian students–my “shtick” is so American.  One of the sessions is about dealing with the kind of overt behavior problems that most teachers face every day in American classrooms.  The Asian students I’ve worked with in the past came to a boarding school from Taiwan or Korea or Japan, and I can remember only one of them who was rude to a teacher or caused a disruption in the classroom.  But I also remember hours of counseling international students who felt overwhelmed by the pressure to excel–without exception–in all of their classes to the point that they had nervous breakdowns or even resorted to cheating.  I also believe that underneath our cultural biases, most human beings have far more in common than what we see on the surface.  People are people, kids are kids.  So, I said yes to this adventure.

But I couldn’t find the hook–whenever I prepare a new unit or transitional lesson for my classes, I wait for the click–an idea that makes all of the pieces fit.  Well, I found one for the workshops thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.  The idea behind Blink is that often our gut reactions–or what Gladwell calls our “adaptive unconscious”–are as accurate as or more accurate than well thought-out decisions where we examine all of the facts and carefully weigh the pros and cons.  That’s exactly what I was trying to get at when I wrote about student archetypes in The Ten Students You’ll Meet in Your Classroom.  Teachers need to develop instincts about how to deal with behavior problems that erupt in the classroom because the wrong move can extend a five-second interaction into a five-minute argument that will do permanent damage to the atmosphere of the class.

In making his case, Gladwell cites a number of studies that support the validity of trusting our instincts; however, in the second half of his book he cautions us to examine preconceptions and misconceptions that can cloud our judgment.  For many, many years I’ve done presentations on Transactional Analysis with both students and teachers to help them see why a simple verbal exchange can morph into an argument in a “blink”–there are trigger points embedded in our subconscious based on past experiences that can cause us to take offense or become frightened by a random comment from a casual acquaintance.  Like the kid who says, “No” when the teacher asks him to sit down.  An experienced teacher with strong instincts can get the boy to sit without disrupting the lesson.  A less perceptive teacher will take the “no” at face value and turn the interaction into a power play that will trigger past reactions to authority in both the teacher and the student.

It all just clicked, so I’m dusting off my passport and thinking about the beaches in Indonesia.  Thank you, Malcolm Gladwell.

Published by Vickie Gill on 14 Mar 2010

Youth and Wisdom

“She craves youth because it defines who she is.” 

I read that somewhere a few months ago and remember thinking how sad that would be.  I work with youth every day.  What if our development stopped there?   

What “she” craves is physical beauty/strength and the sense of endless possibilities.  I love the naiveté, the innocence, the blind courage of my students, but those same qualities add a sense of urgency to the lessons I teach.  I encourage them to trust in their “dreams and be the prisoner of nothing,” to embrace the unfamiliar and to expand the borders of their world.  I want them to take off on their own heroes’ journeys with a sense of wonder and a thirst for adventure, but I don’t want to be Jean Brodie, sending them out to encounter dangers for which they are not prepared.    So when I choose books for us to read and discuss, I search for stories that are inspiring, yet have a cautionary tone–stories about people who, as Nietzsche cautions, gazed into the abyss but averted their eyes before the abyss gazed back. 

Right now we’re reading This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff’s memoir.  I’ve taught this book for the last ten years and it’s rare I find a student who is not hooked by this true story of a boy trapped for years under the control of an abusive stepfather.  The students are united in their hatred of Dwight, but ultimately they come to understand what true power looks like, and how facing and owning up to your worst fears can set you free.  The kids see that Tobias was a victim in danger of morphing into the man he hated.  My students close the book a little less innocent, a little less naive without having to bear the scars.

I want to teach my students to enjoy the power of youth but to crave wisdom, because in truth, that is what defines us.

Published by Vickie Gill on 19 Nov 2009

Handle With Care

                Against all odds, the high school I’ve been working with is not only up and running, it is establishing itself as a unique and desirable place for students to prepare for their futures.  They opened the enrollment period last week for the 2010-11 school year, and almost one third of the available spaces are filled already.

                This hasn’t been an easy journey, especially for the staff.  As we are asked to do more with less, plans change and visions are altered while we brace ourselves for further cuts to our bare-bones budget.  The pressure is on, and as always, the stress can produce frustration, short tempers, and blame.  But I’ve also seen resilience, flashes of brilliance, and well-placed humor.  The hard-core professionals among us vent with close friends and trusted colleagues who will help us find solutions and keep our perspective.  The best are able to hide their exhaustion, disappointment, and negativity from the students.  I’ve been criticized for saying that people who work in schools cannot afford the luxury of a bad day.  Teaching is very similar to sales and performance art—the show must go on and the customer is easy to lose.  We are constant role models; our students may forget what we taught them about, let’s say, cell division or a comma splice, but they’ll long remember how we handled ourselves on the job.

                Conducting ourselves as professionals has a far greater importance than mere job security; we need to be mindful of the powerful impact that we have on our students as they develop their impressions of appropriate adult behavior.  A few years ago I read a description of a multimedia presentation titled uBung, written by Josse de Pauw.  The audience faces a large movie screen that covers the entire back wall of the stage.  On it runs a film of a group of adults at a party—laughing, joking, flirting, drinking, and later on, fighting.  Standing in front of the screen on stage is a group of ten-year-olds who mimic the adults’ actions in an eerily realistic manner.  In Flemish, uBung means “practice,” and de Pauw is making the point that children are observers of the adult world—watching, mimicking, and learning.  This is the joy and the burden of the teacher.  Many of us will be remembered as some of the most influential people in our students’ lives, and attention must be paid to what we do and what we say.

Published by Vickie Gill on 20 Sep 2009


I had the oddest experience the other day.  I was walking from my office to my next class and passed the open door of a fourth grade classroom.  I saw a room full of children busily engaged in a task and their teacher leaning over a student’s desk offering words of encouragement.  As I hurried to meet my students, I was filled with a sense of love for this woman who was a stranger to me–my heart actually “swelled” like it used to when I would check on my sleeping children.

I have spent most of my life in schools–for me it was like one of those bad romantic comedies where two people start out hating each other, then the relationship turns into the love of their lives.  As a kid, I hated school; as a teacher, it morphed into a 30-year love affair.  Throughout my career, I have known teachers who I admire and tried to emulate, but other than a few close friends, it hasn’t felt like love–until the other day.

This has been the toughest opening of a school year I can remember.  The budget crisis has forced everyone working in schools and universities across the country to do more for less.  The tension over who would be retained and who would be let go has divided colleagues, and caused resentment and guilt to seep into faculty meetings and lunchtime conversations.  Yesterday I read in a newspaper that the federal government was awarding a local law enforcement agency a million dollar grant to work with men and women on probation.  Of course it’s important to help these people transition into a productive lifestyle, but why don’t we realize that shortchanging the schools will always result in an increase in the needs of those who cannot find their way?

I can imagine many educators have been ready to throw it in and find a less stressful way to make a living that allows for little things like regular bathroom breaks and more than 20-minutes to eat lunch.  We are held responsible for the test scores of children we didn’t raise, and in most cases, instruct for only a year.  School districts are forced to grab as much ADA money as possible just to pay the bills, so kindergarten classes have increased from 20 to 30 5-year-olds, and high school classes jam 40 teenagers in a room, forcing teachers to spend more time on crowd control than academic instruction.

But there’s that teacher who has managed to engage her students as she takes the time to patiently help a child who doesn’t understand.  I am filled with love for the experienced teachers who stay and for the brand new teachers who have taken on this wonderful, difficult work.  I walked to my classroom inspired and ready to give my best–one more time.

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