Teaching courageously

Please note:  This post was originally published on 19 December 2013 (due to a hosting glitch, it has been republished on 22 December 2014).

 

I have just come home from 2 days teaching in a school in Victoria, and as it was a challenging experience, I wanted to share.

By Andres Rojas (Own work utilizando ésta imagen) [Public domain or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For those who are unaware, I’m a consultant and trainer with Pukunui – but only til mid-January next year.  After almost three years of working with Pukunui, my desire to spend more time with my family is leading me into a new role with a new organisation (more on that in the new year).  I mention this because I suspect knowing this was my last training session with Pukunui may have given me a little more confidence to have a go at some of the ideas discussed here.

Prior to journeying out to the school, I sent the person who arranged the training my overview for the two days.  We had discussed on the phone what their requirements are, how the staff are finding Moodle and where the pain points might be.  Based on that discussion, I drafted the Training outline (reproduced here without the identifying details).

I flew down the day before, got settled into the hotel, and proceeded to build up a course space I could use to demonstrate ideas to the staff.  The first activity I asked them to do was a Question and Answer forum in Moodle (both so I could demonstrate a forum, and discuss some good practice around it, and so I could get a sense of where they were at).  I then built a series of checklist label items, as demonstrated in the video here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlTKQjt0YrI

Next morning, I headed up to the school, found my way to the right people and the right room, and set myself up as staff gradually came in.  Almost all the teaching staff for the school were there for the training, and for the first session, a few of the admin members joined in to get a sense of what the new site looked like, and how it would impact them.

At this point, its worth noting that I have been on both “sides” of training.  I’ve been in classrooms with a presenter at the front as they suddenly realise they have strong political currents running in the room.  I’m aware of what can happen when the year is coming to an end and you arrange for all your staff to be in the same space and those currents are just that little bit stronger as patience is just that little more frayed.

In the forum, I asked staff to briefly describe one of the things they love about class room teaching, and one of the things they find challenging.  The intention was to amplify what they love using Moodle, and hopefully resolve some of the challenges.

And there is a well-known road littered with such intentions…

 

Hell’s Gate By YSander (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The morning session devolved into something of a venting session, with criticism of the technology in general, the lack of internet connectivity in rural areas, the lack of student motivation to engage, the loss of classroom time to maintaining devices and software to a point where they could be used – and more.

While there was one person who was particularly vocal, the issues raised were, I felt, legitimate.  They needed to be acknowledged, and heard.  While I must admit it was tempting to say something along the lines of “Well, that’s not a Moodle issue really.” – it would not have helped.  And these were issues that impacted both how the staff could use Moodle, and how willing they were to do so in the first place.

I asked the room how many folks could relate to the issues mentioned.  There were quiet nods and murmurs.  I then asked if anyone had stories to share on how they were tackling some of the issues mentioned.  Bless the person who was willing to share their story.  They proposed a way to work around some of the issues, and summarised with a very well-grounded yet positive acknowledgement of the situation.  I concluded with noting the issues, suggesting they may need to take some time to address them more fully, but re-focussing on the task at hand.

We discussed the forum activity, and the dissatisfied air lingered for awhile.  While many of the staff had enjoyed the exercise, enough had run into the usual technical issues with it to be disgruntled.  I often use this activity to demonstrate Moodle’s strength and weaknesses – while you can have students engaging quite well, the instructions need to be clear, and mine had be deliberately somewhat ambiguous.  The question was clear, but the technicalities of how to answer it were not – a common enough mistake for folks new to Moodle to make, which can cause difficulty and frustration for students.

We moved on to looking at labels and making the front page of the course more visually appealing.  Terminology was a challenge for some, with confusion over the differences between label, topic section, and “banners” (which were images that had been added to the topic section and/or the labels in the courses inconsistently).  Getting comfortable with bringing images in, understanding how to change the layout, and issues with displaying youtube slowed us down a bit.  As we approached morning tea, I encouraged the group to tick off the items they felt comfortable doing.  I let them know I could identify who had and had not ticked the items off, but that I wasn’t going to name anyone.  Instead, I would use it as a way to gauge what we needed to focus on in the next section.

We broke for morning tea.  I waited for the room to empty, then looked at the report.  Only a handful had ticked any of the outcomes for the morning, and many had not ticked any at all.  My main intention had been to get staff enthusiastic about what was possible with Moodle, but so far, the experience had felt negative.

I had a choice to make.  At this point I could try and get back on track with the training program.  Or, I could focus on the objectives that most folks were not yet comfortable with, and give them the time and space to practice and build a solid foundation.

I opted for the latter, resisting the urge to just push on with the training as planned.  We came back from morning tea, and I offered them a choice.  For those who were confident with using labels, pages and HTML blocks, they could proceed to trying out building a lesson.  For those who were struggling with getting the front page of the course to look good, I would walk through adding a label and an image at the front, and help those who needed it after the demonstration.  This took us up to lunch, and worked reasonably well.  The atmosphere in the room started sounding a little more positive as folks got solutions to issues that had been bugging them.  A recurrent issue became annoying though, so as we went to lunch, I had a quick discussion with the IT Manager.

The Manager had some questions that needed addressing anyway, and I left with homework for the evening.

Coming back from lunch, I addressed the recurrent issue with the class as a whole.  Links to images were breaking once a label or topic section had been updated and saved – even though the images had displayed fine before, and even if those same images were not changed, if the label was saved, the image would break.

For those who’ve upgraded through 1.9 into the 2 series of Moodle, this may sound familiar.  There’s a Moodle forum post about it here: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=204614

In short, its a known issue when upgrading a Moodle.  While there is an admin tool that can help, it can also do a lot of damage if you’re not careful.  The IT Manager had already advised me over the break, each teacher would need to fix their own links.  I delivered the bad news, acknowledging it was part of the upgrade process.  Many were concerned this would happen again at the next upgrade, so what was the point?  We discussed file management, linking to files instead of uploading them, and trying to keep your Moodle skinny.  While unhappy, they were willing enough to move on with other areas.

We spent the rest of the afternoon working through setting up question bank, setting up a quiz, and adding questions to it.  Dense work for an afternoon.  One staff member kindly pulled me up as we went to afternoon tea.  Staff were unaccustomed to working through to 4pm – they were already flagging at 2.30pm.  Would I consider finishing early?  I concurred, but was acutely aware that those who had organised the training had specified it needed to run til 4pm.  As a consultant, I’m mindful that someone in an organisation may have had to campaign very hard to get funding for a training session.  It is costly to pay for the travel and accommodation expenses of a consultant – but I strive to make sure its always worth it.  With the afternoon heat beating on the small verandah outside the class, I pondered how to make sure everyone got what they needed.

Once they came back in, I proposed a compromise.  Those who had reached saturation point, and really couldn’t focus on Moodle anymore, were welcome to call it a day.  Those who had issues they wanted help with, could stay back and get one-on-one time with me to work through until we found a solution.  I reminded them of the following day’s start time, and that I had to leave early to get back to the airport on time, and let those who needed to go, do so.

About a third of the class made a polite but quick exit.  The other two thirds stayed with me for nearly an hour and a half (petering down to about a third in the last half hour), writing their names up on the board when they had a problem they wanted help with, and waiting for a turn.  Most of them waited productively too, working on other aspects of building their course until I could come and discuss the problem points with them.

Some had issues with what we’d covered that morning – others were exploring new frontiers and needed help navigating the first steps.  As the last few wrapped up their queries, they were kind enough to share feedback on the day, which I found was surprisingly positive.

I left at 4.45pm and went hunting for celebratory chocolate and dinner before returning to the hotel.

In the quiet of my room, I went through the forum posts more thoroughly.  And as I read, I picked up a theme, one that I have seen and heard before, but I suspect never with quite so much clarity and empathy.

I had asked what they loved about teaching in the classroom, and they told me – overwhelmingly, with different examples and subtle changes in wording – building a relationship with our students.  Watching them learn and celebrating their achievements with them.  Connecting to them.

 

We humans need connections to each other.  I sometimes forget this – I grew up a distance ed kid, and continued the trend as an adult, and there are very few folks to whom I feel really connected (hey, I have depression – isolation is where I live!).  I learned to connect with others through text more than most do.

These amazing teachers were trying so hard to share with each other that they valued above all else the connection they made in the physical classroom to their students – and the trend of online learning was threatening what they loved most.  Small wonder there was resentment, frustration and anxiety around the implementation of Moodle.  Yet there was also optimism, and hopefulness.  Maybe Moodle could help the students who were too shy to respond in class engage in the conversation more.  Maybe we could spend less time distributing resources if they were all in the one place, and we could search them.  Maybe… it wasn’t all bad.

I read and re-read the posts.  And then I set to work.

Firstly, I resolved the issue raised by the IT Manager.  It’s a cool solution, and there’ll be another post, and hopefully a video on it, a bit later on.  That took me til about 11pm to test, adjust and test again.

Then I set to work.  I created a Book resource, with a chapter for each of five tasks.  Each task started with a scenario – how would we do this with our students?  I then suggested between 3 and 5 activity or resource types in Moodle that could be used, with a hint to direct to the one I felt would probably be best.  There would be 10 minutes for them to search out documentation on each activity type on Moodle, and then the rest of the session to build an example to share back with the class.  I set up a Choice activity, where they could nominate which task they wanted to work on.  And then I gave the section a description in Moodle.

By 2am I wasn’t sure if what I had built was going to be any good or not.  I hid the entire section and resolved to decide in the morning.  I cursed myself for being so ridiculous – I had a training plan, I could just stick to it!  Now I’d be running on minimal sleep regardless of which option I used.

The alarm did its best to wake me up at 6am, and finally succeeded by 6.15.  I stumbled into the shower and let the hot spray wake me up some more.  Fortunately, the evening before I had stopped in and ordered a hot breakfast for the morning – it was going to be a long day.  Breakfast dutifully arrived (and was wonderful!) and I packed my bag.

I still couldn’t decide.  I anguished over how difficult these teachers, and indeed teachers everywhere, must find it when in similar situations.  A key difference in my role is our training is not audited by any external body.  Either the client gets what they need, or they don’t.  If they do, they generally will have us back again to help out as the new features in Moodle roll out, and they consolidate their skills and knowledge and want to stretch further.  If they don’t get what the expect from training, we have issues as a business.  Pukunui is fortunate in that many of our clients will tell us when the training didn’t meet expectations, and more so in that this very rarely happens!

Still, I had set the expectation with those who organised the training that I would stick to the training plan.  I’d already strayed a little, but not by much.  To run a full session on flipped learning with group work was a vast departure however, and I wasn’t sure if it would be well received.  I was fearful my participants would see it as a bridge too far, and simply leave.  At least with a chalk and talk program, it was traditional enough that they would expect to have to stay.

Its safer.  Its a well known way to be “taught”.  I had elements of students doing their own practice work as we went, but there was very little autonomy in that training outline.  With over 20 participants, I had been worried including more autonomous activity would result in chaos.  But as I walked down the verandah to that classroom, I could only think “How would I prefer to learn?”

Would I really prefer to learn by listening to someone up the front explain every click, or would I prefer to explore it for myself, and ask when I got stuck?

Well, when I put it like that, it was easy.  Obvious even.  Still scary though.  What if the client was unhappy with this approach?  What ramifications would that have for me, for Pukunui?  Well, as I’m leaving, Pukunui could always say this renegade consultant is no longer here!    We’ll send you a better one, promise

And so I was a little braver this time around, because I had my mental safety nets and escape plans.

I opened the morning with the Principal and the person who had arranged the training in the room.  I took a deep breath, and then gave this class of teachers a chance to choose.

“I do have a training plan for today folks.  We could stick to it if you’d prefer.  Or, we can try something different…”

I explained I’d read the forum in more detail, and prepared a group session. That I created five different scenarios that I hoped would resonate with their contexts, and if they didn’t – no harm.  We’d go back to the training plan.

I walked them through accessing the book resource for their instructions, and choosing their task.  Within minutes they were switching tables and arranging themselves into groups, checking out activities and talking with each other.  I set a timer for 10 minutes, and walked around the groups, troubleshooting and nudging.  With 10 minutes gone, I let them all know they needed to move on to developing their chosen activity.

It has to be one of the absolute best experiences I have had as a trainer.  For roughly 90 minutes, every group stayed on task, questioning, testing, and investigating.  Experimenting with how it could work for their specific circumstances.  Not every group decided on using the chosen activity beyond the exercise – but this was deemed valuable too.  They’d had a chance to check if it would do what they wanted, and now they could check something else.

I brought them back together at the end of the session, and asked each group to share their experiences.  What had they tried, and why?  What worked?  What didn’t?  Why?

Each group tried something different.  In 90 minutes, I could have focussed on one activity and stepped through it bit by bit.  Instead, we’d stepped through 5 activities, with brief explorations of a further 3.  They owned the process – and explained it back to their colleagues.

I broke up for morning tea, and finished the review with them when they came back.  I drew out a few of the common complaints and happier points with each activity they’d covered, and then moved on with the training program.

We used some of what one group member had built to move into the next activity, and I gave space for developing their own rubrics and marking guides with assignment (an activity that is getting big enough to have a full day of training spent on it!).

The rest of the afternoon tracked pretty much to the training program, but with a much different feel.  We ended the day earlier than expected, with folks sharing ideas, concerns and plans for moving forward.  I ended the day by telling them all this is my last training session in my role with Pukunui, shared some choccies to celebrate and thanked them greatly for an amazing experience.

Both the Principal and the person who had arranged the training approached me at the end with highly positive feedback – they are looking forward to having more training with us in the near future.  I kinda wish I could go back and do more with them – they were a great group of educators, and reminded me of the challenges faced.  Challenges they are facing with courage, and compassion for their students.

 

 

As I sit in Pukunui Sydney on my last day for the year (I’ll be back briefly next year), I consider this to be one of the best experiences I’ve had.  It does make me question why I’m leaving.  And I’m reminded (even more so as I was training at a school) that I’m leaving so I can be there more for my daughter.  Much as I love visiting new folks, and showing how amazing Moodle can be, seeing their real challenges and sharing stories from the Moodle community – the travel takes its toll on family life.  So my thanks to the wonderful folks I’ve trained in my time at Pukunui, and the amazing colleagues I’ve worked with based in Sydney, Perth, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.  I’ve no doubt I’ll miss you all very much.  I hope to be back from time to time, and I’ll still be part of that amazing community that has grown around Moodle.

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