Woodstock Teacher, Matt McCormick, Opens Up His Classroom

Teaching can be a lonely profession. In many schools, teachers aren’t often observed by colleagues, and they rarely get feedback from fellow practitioners. When I work with teachers and educational leaders, they often lament the paucity of time to meet with colleagues, let alone observe each other. It’s true that time is a scarce resource, but this may belie the real obstacle: teachers can be afraid of judgement. Teaching is personal work, and it’s a real risk to open up your classroom, your instructional practices, your ego, to possible criticism.

There’s promising trend, however, promoted by educator, Robert Kaplinsky: #ObserveMe. Like many teachers, Kaplinsky noticed that teachers aren’t opening their classrooms for observation and feedback. “This needs to change. It starts with us leading by example and checking our insecurities and pride at the door,” Kaplinsky wrote in a 2016 blog post.

An Upper Valley teacher who has accepted the #ObserveMe call to action is Matt McCormick, a 7th grade humanities teacher at Woodstock Middle School in Woodstock, Vermont. Matt is blowing the doors to his classroom wide open for anyone to visit and observe. However, it's a symbiotic relationship: Matt wants feedback. So if you choose to participate, email him for good times to observe.

I was able to interview Matt to find out more about his practice. What motivates him to improve, and what surprises him about middle school-aged kids?

Q: Your instructional practices include a wide variety of participation strategies designed to promote 100% engagement in your room. First of all, why do you believe this approach is the right one for your students? Second, tell us about a student that has been a challenge for you, despite your deep bag of participation tricks, and tell us about a student (could be same student) who really benefitted from your approach.

A: To be honest, my journey to the engagement strategies I now use in my classroom began out of pure self-interest. When I first began teaching, the thing that worried me most was classroom management. It seemed inconceivable that a classroom of students would do what I would ask them to do. And it became pretty clear early on that a student who was engaged was a student who was managed. So I began looking for more and more ways to engage students. That allowed me to focus on what brought me to this profession in the first place: getting kids thinking about big ideas, helping students practice skills, and establishing relationships with students. That is so much more fun (for them and for me) than spending my time making sure kids are on task. In addition, the engagement strategies I use are aligned to what we know about the adolescent brain and how it learns. Students need time to think and talk about something they've learned. And if we expect all students to learn, then we need to give all students the opportunity to do this kind of processing. Finally, engagement is equity. We need to give all students an equal opportunity to learn. Strategies, like equity cards -- calling on students based upon randomly selected names, not raised hands -- helps make this happen.

For the first time this year, I had a student who simply did not respond to my engagement strategies. Like a lot of students who are disengaged, he hadn’t had a lot of success in school and coped by trying to melt into the background. I thought my engagement strategies would make this kind of melting pretty much impossible, and yet he did it! When I cold called on him, he refused to answer -- even at the end of the year. This, despite the fact that I told him I was going to call on him and give him time to discuss a question with a peer. He simply would not take the risk to be successful. At the other end of the spectrum, I have had students who are used to dominating a class, to having their ideas and opinions valued more than others. Equity is uncomfortable for them -- and their parents. They don't necessarily see the value in honoring all students' ideas. But for the vast majority of students, these strategies do work. I think of students who I see in the hallway during classes. I ask them what they are doing there, and they often say, "I was talking too much." Of course they were talking, they're adolescents! Engagement strategies recognize this and harness adolescents' desire to talk with their peers in the interest of learning. This is empowering and makes them feel invested in class.

Q: Because I’ve spoken with you about your teaching and curriculum design, I know that you’re a reflective teacher. Sometimes you’re even critical of yourself. What do you think motivates you to constantly improve? Why not just say “good enough?”

A: Frankly, I don't know what "good enough" means. Why? I don't exactly know. But it probably has something to do with my mother, who taught first and second grade for well over 30 years. She was passionate about her profession, about helping others learn and achieve. We often equate hard work with the pursuit of wealth, but she taught me that there is much more to work than money. So I want to be the best teacher I can be. I have been fortunate to have worked with and studied teachers who do amazing things with their students. My students deserve the best education possible, and I want to do everything I can to give it to them.

Q: What has most surprised you about teaching middle school age kids?

A: I student taught in a high school, and there seemed to be a perception at the time that middle school was kind of like the "minor leagues" of teaching. I remember when I landed my first teaching job, which was in a middle school, one teacher told me, "It's a good place to start." But, pedagogically speaking, middle school is far from the minor leagues. Helping students of this age take on big, interesting questions -- questions that adults around them are grappling with -- is no easy task. It requires all the creativity I have. I am never bored. But is it so rewarding. You often hear about how middle schoolers are "goofy". And that's true. But what surprised me was how serious they can be when given the chance. They love taking on big topics -- it means they're being treated like adults. And that is so empowering for them.

Q: Speaking of big questions, how do you plan to address what happened in Charlottesville this past summer?

A: I've been thinking a lot lately about helping students to identify the values that are involved in the issues of the day. It seems like an approach that is more conducive to fostering civil dialogue than simply asking students their opinions. Often times we have to make decisions based on competing values: safety vs. equality, community vs. individuality. Recognizing the values behind an opinion that differs from your own helps you see the humanity of the person you disagree with because it highlights what you have in common -- not what separates you. Who doesn't value equality? Who doesn't want their neighbor to be safe from harm? It's not a matter of having different values -- it's a matter of prioritizing them differently. This, I think, is the basis for civil discourse, which events like the ones happening around the country make clear is severely lacking in our society these days.

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You can follow Kristen on Twitter @UVEIDowney


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