Podcast: Reinvigorating Passion and Joy at the Heart of Teaching - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Reinvigorating Passion and Joy at the Heart of Teaching

Reinvigorating Passion and Joy at the Heart of Teaching

Jason McKenna explores five strategies that can assist teachers in focusing on the joy and passion in teaching: creating a not to do list, embracing periods of unproductivity, redefining success metrics, prioritizing dialogue over data, and protecting personal time diligently.
Podcast Transcript:
[00:00:00.810] – Steve [Intro]

Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding, and my curiosity is piqued whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.

[00:00:27.870] – Steve

Reinvigorating passion and joy at the heart of teaching. Joining our podcast today is Jason McKenna. I read an article that Jason had written, the title of which was, “Embracing the Teaching Marathon With Joy and Wellbeing.” The title caught my attention and as I read through the article, Jason shared strategies that I wanted to invite him onto the podcast to share with my listeners. Jason is an experienced educator and the author of, What STEM Can do For Your Classroom: Improving Student Problem Solving, Collaboration and Engagement, Grade K-6.” He specializes in curriculum development and global educational strategy, focusing on STEM integration and 21st century learning. His work involves engaging with educators and policymakers worldwide. Welcome, Jason.

[00:01:35.750] – Jason

Thank you very much for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.

[00:01:39.250] – Steve

For starters, as I was reading through your piece that you wrote, as you look back over your years of teaching, was there a particular point that you recognized a drop or a challenge to the joy and the passion that you were finding in teaching?

[00:01:57.590] – Jason

I don’t think it was a specific point. It was more of a gradual, I guess, decline, for lack of a better term for me. When I first got into teaching, I was very enthusiastic. I guess one could say that I was naive. I went into everything with all of my passion and everything that I had. And the reason I talk about the marathon was that I was burning myself out by going too fast. One of the examples I give with that all the time is I would have an idea for a lesson or I would have an idea for a teaching strategy and I would do it and it would go great.

[00:02:34.900] – Jason

It would be amazing.

[00:02:36.850] – Jason

But then I realized, oh, I have to do that 180 more times. So is it as good on the 100th time as it was on the second time? And is it sustainable? Is it scalable? Is this something I could see myself doing for 36 weeks in a particular classroom? And when you go through teacher preparation, whether that’s you’re an undergraduate or you get your master’s degree, or even when you get paired with a mentor, when you first get hired teaching, it was my experience at least that no one was really having these conversations with you in that how do you prepare yourself? Like here in the US, for example, to go from August to June, what does that look like? How do you actually recharge over the summer so when you come back that fall in August, you have that same enthusiasm that you had previously. That’s something I didn’t realize until much later in my teaching career and then when I did realize it, that’s when I also realized that a lot of that enthusiasm I had at the beginning was now gone.

[00:03:37.350] – Steve

You mentioned the emotional undercurrents that are fundamental to effective teaching, a need for students to feel seen and valued. How does that student need impact teachers?

[00:03:53.230] – Jason

Yeah, I think this is a fascinating topic that I will try not to spend the next 3 hours talking about. Maybe you can invite me back and we’ll follow up on this later. I was listening to a podcast – I’m not going to mention the names, but two very big thought leaders in education. Some of the things that they were talking about, and this is something that you hear a lot, where they say there’s not really been a lot new in education for the last 25 years or so. There’s not really a lot going on with that. And one of the people on the podcast talked about how a flip classroom is the same model as a book. So you give the students a book to read at home, that’s basically the same thing as a flipped classroom. Now, there’s a lot of truth to that, right? There’s a lot of truth to that. A lot of times we think that things are new in education, but they’re not. But my counterargument to that is in the last, let’s just say ten years, what we’ve learned about the impact of emotions on our students learning, I think has been very profound.

[00:04:54.110] – Jason

And one of my favorite cognitive scientists, one of my favorite authors, Daniel Willingham, he has this great quote that I use in my book. He says that “memory is the residue of thought,” which I think is 100% correct. You have to think about something in order to be able to remember it. However, I would add one thing to that, and I would say that we only think about those things to which we care about. So that gets to the quote that you mentioned at the beginning and how that’s actually effective. And I think the other part of this, I’m reading a fascinating book right now by David Galertner.

[00:05:27.430] – Jason

I hope I pronounced his last name correctly, but he’s a computer science professor at Yale. He’s been teaching computer science at Yale for the last 30 years. He’s a fascinating fellow. He wrote this book about 15 years ago called “The Tides of the Mind.” He talks about in that book that we have a very static view of the brain, but that’s false. If you think about it, your attitude and your emotions when you first wake up in the morning are very different at the end of the day. And basically, you move across this spectrum of thoughts and feelings and enthusiasm, like we were talking about before, during the course of your day and that’s impacted by a lot of different things. Those are things when we think about how our students learn, we oftentimes don’t take into consideration. How much are my students enthusiastic to learn this? Are my students engaged from a mental standpoint? Do they care about what they are doing emotionally? Are they able to accept the instruction I’m trying to give them? I think those are all very important things that we need to be able to think about to kind of lock in that long term learning that we’re all trying to have with our students.

[00:06:30.990] – Steve

I want to run a thought by you, and I may be simplifying things too much, so push back. But across my career, the big change for me in my study of education was reaching the realization that we were over focused on teaching and under focused on learning.

[00:06:55.270] – Jason

That’s a very profound point.

[00:06:56.780] – Jason

The analogy that I use all the time, this is not mine I stole this from Dylan William, but he talks about, the goal is for the patient to get better, not to prescribe the medicine.

[00:07:10.730] – Jason

So, okay, I prescribed you this medicine to help you with your heartburn or whatever it is.

[00:07:15.210] – Jason

It doesn’t work. Well, I prescribed you the medicine, so I’m done. Right?

[00:07:19.390] – Jason

But that’s not what teaching is about. Teaching is about outcomes, but unfortunately, we oftentimes just focus on the outputs. So I think you’re exactly right. I think changing that perspective that we have is very important.

[00:07:35.560] – Steve

And then that learning process is different for different learners.

[00:07:42.560] – Jason

And that’s why I 100% think that teaching done well is the most difficult job in the world. Because learners are different. Learners change during the course of the day, let alone from day to day and year to year. So being able to be on top of that and understand that is a very difficult thing, which is why I really think that teaching is as much of an art as it is a science. I think going back to your point earlier, really teaching or treating teachers more like artists as opposed to scientists, and teachers viewing themselves as artists as opposed to just scientists, I think is a very important distinction.

[00:08:23.150] – Steve

All it takes is an argument with my parent on the way, getting out of the car when they dropped me off at school, and now I’m walking into your classroom not the same student that you prepared the lesson for the night before.

[00:08:36.040] – Jason

100% correct.

[00:08:37.160] – Jason

Couldn’t agree with you more.

[00:08:38.950] – Steve

Well, in your article, you covered five strategies for focusing on joy and passion. I’d like to take them one at a time and just have you expand on them. So the first one was create a not to do list.

[00:08:54.330] – Jason

Not to do list.

[00:08:55.280] – Jason

I learned this from my former boss, Skip Smith. Not to do list. To do list – I understand a lot of people, my wife is one of them, they enjoy checking off items on a to do list that gives them a sense of joy and satisfaction. But the problem with to do list is when you get done with one, you make another one, make another one, make another one.

[00:09:15.620] – Jason

So a not to do list is a much better way to think about what you can do to protect your time and it really kind of leads into the next one that you’re going to mention right now.

[00:09:26.490] – Steve

Embrace periods of unproductivity.

[00:09:29.660] – Jason

This gets into the idea of teachers being an artist. Artists are very creative and a busy mind. A mind that is constantly thinking about the next thing to do is not one that’s conducive to being creative. So give yourself time to think, give yourself some time for space and some time for reflection and I think you will end up getting a lot more out of that time as opposed to checking off more items on a to do list.

[00:09:54.670] – Steve

It’s funny, you hit the word. As I was listening to you, I was planning to come back and say, sounds like reflection, and you put it out there. That is missing for way too many teachers.

[00:10:05.420] – Jason


[00:10:06.240] – Steve

And actually, in too many of our classrooms, it’s missing for kids.

[00:10:10.260] – Jason

You’re 100% correct.

[00:10:11.400] – Jason

Students need to have that same ability to sit and think and to really embrace that process.

[00:10:17.990] – Steve

And you had redefined success metrics.

[00:10:21.910] – Jason

Yeah. So what is success for you as a teacher? I think one of the biggest problems that we have in education today is, number one, we define success around test scores. Test scores are necessary, but they’re also insufficient for all the reasons that we were talking about before. If a student does well in your 10th grade chemistry class, but they hated the class and they never want to touch a chemistry book again, what does that actually mean? So redefining success metrics. So they’re not just about data, but they’re more about these things that we’re talking about right now. I think that’s really important. I think it’s also then important to make sure that your other stakeholders, your principals, your administration, your parents, everyone is on the same page with what it is that you’re trying to achieve in your classroom. So if you’re all on the same page, then you can all work together to achieve those things.

[00:11:14.230] – Steve

Prioritize dialog over data.

[00:11:17.550] – Jason

Yeah, that ties into what I was just talking about before. Listen, if data told the entire story, then Tom Brady would have been a number one draft pick, but he was not. Tom Brady went to the 6th round. The funny thing about that is everybody, they want to throw flowers at the New England Patriots for drafting them, but they passed up on him five times also.

[00:11:39.460] – Jason

So here you have the NFL, multi billion dollar industry, and they can’t figure out the right metrics to be able to predict who can come into their football team and lead them to success. This idea that we can just rest upon data to tell us how well our students are doing is a very faulty premise. And there’s a lot of research to show that if you want to know how well your students doing the classroom, the number one thing you can do is just ask them and have those conversations with your students.

[00:12:11.450] – Jason

I have another article on my blog that talks about conversation-based grading that goes into this in more detail. But I think emphasizing conversation over data is a great way to go. I use the NFL as an example, but I’m in the business world now. Business hasn’t figured this out either. What’s the best way to actually take a look at your employees and define metrics to help define success? We haven’t figured that out also in the business world. So to think that’s going to be able to translate to school, I think is a faulty premise.

[00:12:44.650] – Steve

The piece that I think I connect on with you there is, I’m always talking about the fact that what data generates are questions rather than answers. So then the question should be the piece that leads you to the dialog.

[00:13:03.050] – Jason

That’s 100% correct. And I think for teachers in schools, I think it’s important that we embrace nuance.

[00:13:12.110] – Jason

There is no one way. So I’m not here saying ignore data and just have conversations with your students. I’m saying you do all of that and you really kind of embrace the nuance. Take all that information and like you said, ask questions, ask provocative questions, try to examine things from different angles, do all those particular things to really paint a picture for yourself of what it is that you’re trying to achieve in your classroom. So it’s important to take all those things into consideration and not just rely upon the data.

[00:13:43.110] – Jason

I will make one more argument.

[00:13:44.460] – Jason

The reason why we do rely upon data so much is because it’s easy. It’s much easier to just kind of rely upon the data than to actually go through and spend the time having those conversations. And the reason why we want to do that again is because we’ve conditioned teachers to think that if I have a pile of papers checked or if I have this spreadsheet full of data, that means that I’m doing a good job. This goes back to our point of redefined success metrics. It’s not about how busy you are, it’s about how effective you are. So unfortunately, though, oftentimes teachers, we view ourselves as, I’ve gotten this amount of papers checked, I’ve covered this amount of topics in my classroom. I’ve done these things, so therefore I’ve done well. And that’s really short changing yourself, I believe.

[00:14:31.910] – Steve

I was coaching a teacher this morning and we were just having this conversation about visiting the classrooms where kids are that you had last year, because that’s the real test.

[00:14:45.960] – Jason

Yeah, that’s a great point.

[00:14:47.640] – Steve

I taught a fifth and 6th grade combination, so my kids who spent fifth grade with me also spent 6th grade with me, forever going back and scratching my head because I had a test put away from last year that says, you learned this.

[00:15:12.290] – Steve

That’s really how you find out how effective you were, is to spend some time next year in the classroom and see what happened. And the last one, protect your personal time diligently.

[00:15:26.890] – Jason

Yeah. The most effective people that I’ve met, when I say effective, I’m talking about very good teachers, I’m also talking about very effective ceos and leaders in business. With the job I have now, I have an opportunity to meet some more of those folks, government leaders, as I travel around the world, all of them are very protective of their schedule because they want to make sure that they have that time where they can reflect and they can think and they give themselves the space to really do the things that are necessary for them to be effective. We think oftentimes as teachers, I used to think when I was in the classroom that you’re just kind of beholden to all of this stuff.

[00:16:10.970] – Jason

You have to go to these meetings, you have to do all these things, and you’re really not in control of your schedule, but you are, you are in control of your schedule. You are in control of what you do. You are in control of how you manage your time. That’s the whole purpose of making a not to do list, is to help you really take control of your schedule. I think it’s very simple. Ask yourself if you’re teaching fifth grade, high school, whatever, what does a great day look like? And then plan your day to achieve that. And plan your schedule to actually achieve that. But number one, again, to our idea about redefined success metrics. Do you actually know what a great day for you looks like?

[00:16:52.450] – Jason

Do you actually have that vision in your mind? If you don’t, get that, spend some time thinking about that and then work towards actually achieving it.

[00:17:01.430] – Steve

Last question I want to touch on with your background and current issues that teachers are dealing with, how does the ever increasing presence of technology and now AI fit into the learning picture for students and teachers?

[00:17:19.210] – Jason

That’s a great question. I think the thing that teachers really need to reflect upon in terms of artificial intelligence, I’m here in Pittsburgh, and I grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Greg Bearer, who is a friend of mine, he just wrote a book not that long ago, him and his co-author, about Mr. Rogers and the lessons that you can take from that education. And Mr. Rogers would not be afraid of AI. Mr. Rogers would embrace AI. He would not be worried about AI at all, because Mr. Rogers focused on things like curiosity, he focused on wonder, that’s the title of the book I mentioned a moment ago, “While You Wonder, You’re Learning,” it’s a fantastic book. He focused on being inquisitive. He focused on asking questions, a lot of things that you just mentioned right now. He focused on a lot of those things that AI can’t do. And the reason why he was successful was because he was able to touch people emotionally. He was able to connect with people emotionally. And then through that process, you were able to learn a lot of really wonderful things by watching Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

[00:18:34.910] – Jason

At least I did when I was a student. And they’ve made movies about him. There’s a Fred Rogers center here in Pittsburgh. So obviously he had a very large impact. So I like to think about that in terms of AI. It’s not something that Fred Rogers would be afraid of, because Fred Rogers really epitomized those things that AI can’t do, and AI will never be able to do. So as a result of that, I think that’s a great perspective that teachers have when it comes to technology and the ever growing presence of technology in the classroom. If we’re having a lot of conversations around, “I’m worried about my students cheating with AI,” then really think about, well, what’s the incentive structure that you’ve created in your classroom that would cause students to cheat?

[00:19:18.220] – Jason

Why are they cheating?

[00:19:20.290] – Jason

Is that how you’re defining success? And as a result of it, that’s what they’re ended up doing? So that’s how I like to think about technology in the classroom. That’s how I like to think about technology and how to use it in the classroom.

[00:19:31.830] – Steve

Well, Jason, thank you so much. I’m wondering if you’d share with folks the best way that they can connect with you, read your blogs, kind of follow some of the work that you’re doing.

[00:19:41.630] – Jason

Absolutely. So you could feel free to connect with me with Twitter @MckennaJ72 is my twitter handle. You can obviously ping me on LinkedIn also, I’m active on LinkedIn. You can just do a search for me there. I do have a blog on Medium. You can search me there and find me, or you can go to my website and that will link you to all my information. That’s jmckenna.org. You can email me through my website, see all my information on there. So if any of this resonated with you, I would love to hear from you

[00:20:09.400] – Steve

We’ll be sure to put your website in the lead-in to the podcast, make it easier for folks to find you. Thanks so much.

[00:20:16.960] – Jason

Yeah, thank you. Have a wonderful day.

[00:20:20.370] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening in, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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