What the Carnival Brings…

What the Carnival Brings…

I’ve never much liked roller coasters. I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. I have only ever been on one roller coaster, and peer pressure alone is what coerced me to ride and what pressured me to say I liked it. The reality is that I’ve never been on another. I don’t even like the ferris wheel. A few years ago, my husband and I took our kids to the local carnival, and my over-active imagination kept picturing my small children slipping through the guards and falling to the ground… Nope. Heights and carnival rides are not for me.

Then why is it that my life tends to resemble one? Perhaps not quite as cliché as the metaphor of a roller coaster, but I think my life could be compared to a carnival. The whirly-twirly rides which make me want to return my last meal; the crazy house with the shifty stairs, conversely-moving sidewalks, the mirrors which make me question who I know myself to be; the sugar-laced and grease-laden food which makes you roll your eyes in ecstasy but you know you will pay for later; the multitudes of people of all kinds; music of the concert in the arena or of the rides beckoning the crowds to give them a try; the sales pitches of the carnies, coercing passers-by to try their luck at the rigged game; screams of delight, cries of laughter, tears of toddlers hyped up on sugar and sunshine.

I’m not going to pretend to be prophetic; every person’s life goes through cycles of highs and lows. Perhaps I’ve just been taking stock of where I am currently standing, and the noisy carnival describes the turmoil and delight I am battling with.

I am standing dead center of the midway at the carnival, and it is early evening, just before the sun has gone down. The lights on the rides around me blink and wink in time to the music of the chaos around me. I stand still, unnoticed by the masses which pass by hand in hand or in tightly formed groups. The heat from the day begins to subside as an evening chill settles on the crowds, and the sounds which surround me drown out anything that makes sense. The tinny music from the fun house, the laughter of the teenagers who just passed me by, the clank of the mettle as gates are opened and shut, safety harnesses are buckled and clipped.

If I close my eyes, I can still see it, but the horizon seems to tip and roll. My brain won’t turn off, can’t just take in my surroundings one at a time. It is receiving everything at once, and it keeps me glued to my spot on the pavement. Just as I consider surrendering to the chaos which threatens to swallow me, I take a breath. I take a step. I smile.

I can do this. It’s just a roller coaster.

Catalyst of Change

Catalyst of Change

The times they are a’changin’… Thanks, Bob. Thanks so much for stating the obvious.

There are big changes coming for my family, and I find myself in a weird place. I am the catalyst for bringing this change about. Everyone was content until I paused to ask the questions; now everything has changed. And while I don’t regret being the catalyst for this change, I can’t say I’m not apprehensive and confused… even lost at what the future might hold for me.

That sounds so selfish. The reality is that I made this jump for my family. This move is the best thing for my husband, and it will be a great thing for my kids. While I know they will be leaving some things behind us when we move, I feel like I am the one giving up the most… walking away from a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Just. Walking. Away.

And I don’t have a job lined up. I have no idea where my family and I will live. I have no idea what this opportunity will turn out like. Yet, I feel like this is the right move for everyone in my family.

I walked into this profession in awe, hoping to glean some wisdom from the teachers who I believed to be the BEST teachers at THE elite school in our state. I created relationships out of nothing, I kept showing up, I observed and lent a hand and did what I could to make a place for myself in this community which I desperately wanted to be a part of. Observations turned into methods classes and more observations and more networking. That turned into student teaching and then into subbing. Long term subbing turned into a one-year contract. I just kept showing up, paying my dues, biding my time until they realized I was one of them and officially gave me keys to the building.

And they did.

I was a REAL teacher. I had my OWN classroom. I had NO idea what I was getting into… I had no idea I had been giving pieces of my heart away to students for a couple of years at that point. I had no idea that the real work was just beginning.

Every new teacher has their work cut out for them: learning the curriculum, learning names, figuring out your classroom procedures and practices, learning to meet the students where they are rather than where you expected them to be. Add on top of that figuring out how to work the copy machine, keeping track of wandering students with bathroom passes, and how to dodge the landmines of sour coworkers… Being a teacher, especially a brand new teacher, is hard work. On top of all the typical new teacher traumas, I also had to deal with being undercut by a sociopath and narcissist in addition to being consistently thrown under the bus by my own principal.

Those bad times are easy to remember and easy to let the bitter creep in and take root. Those were also times when I grew immensely. I learned who I was as a teacher, what my philosophy about students and education was, and how the rubber actually met the road in the classroom. I had amazing mentors and coaches, built lasting relationships with students, and began to realize what kind of teacher I wanted to be every day. I found my stride, and I found a home.

Now several years later, I stand in front of a classroom full of kids and know I am home. I wander around the room listening to their conversations and their learning, and I feel like a parent watching my own children navigate their surroundings successfully. When I look up from my work and see a student come in with a smile to just sit and hang out with me, I feel like I have made a difference. I have become a part of this community. I have this family that comes and goes with the ringing of the bell, and part of my identity is wrapped up in those smiling, and scowling, faces that walk through my door. By now I should have run out of pieces of my heart to give away, but I haven’t.

Now I look ahead. I have no idea what the future holds. I know my faith is leading me forward. For once, I am choosing my own children over the children I call mine between the ringing of the bells. It’s breathtaking. It’s heartbreaking. It’s time.

I just hope that my faith leads me to belonging in this new community, a classroom with a new set of faces, a new sense of home, regrown pieces of my heart.

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changing

            (Bob Dylan, 1963)

Knickknacks, Baggage, and Scars

Knickknacks, Baggage, and Scars

Lately I have been thinking about knickknacks—the mementoes we keep to remember specific times in our lives, important people, visited places. Like Tim O’Brien’s powerful novel, The Things They Carried, we all have items we carry with us on our journey.

Many of us keep these mementoes on our smartphones—notes, pictures, songs, or screenshots that we need to have with us day to day. Some of us carry other things—a worn photo, a poker chip, a small wooden cross. I’m betting that most of us have a place where we keep even more knickknacks—at home, in our classrooms, in our journals. I constantly joke to my students about how I am a hoarder for a number of reasons, but my reasons don’t make sense to anyone else. They don’t need to. These items appear to serve no purpose to other people, but their value to me is immeasurable. They make me smile and serve as reminders, protectors, trinkets, and tangible pieces of moments of my life.

Some knickknacks can’t be seen, yet they are felt and carried by us as surely as the tangible items in our pockets and purses. The power of the veiled baggage we carry pulls, weighs, and influences us in the decisions we make and the directions we take each day. Some of this baggage we don’t realize we are even carrying until something triggers an emotional reaction from us.

Which brings me to my point and away from my amateur philosophical lesson…

As most other teachers, my email inbox becomes inundated and overpowering if I don’t constantly check it and delete the garbage. Since I was away from my classroom for a few days this week, I made a point to check my email at least daily to make sure things were running relatively smoothly. One email caught my eye… and then another.

BAM! Then my emotional response hit, and I had to pause—step back—think about why I immediately became so pissed. I found myself questioning this person’s intentions and my expectations and own needs for validation. It became pretty clear that I was carrying some baggage that needed to be addressed.

The first four years of my teaching career were hard for a multitude of reasons. One reoccurring problem was the fact that I worked with a couple of people—one a supervisor and the other a colleague—who constantly took credit for other people’s work. I never noticed this to be the case until I was the one robbed of intellectual property.

I can remember the moment with exact clarity: I was sitting across the desk from my evaluator in his office, and we were having a talk about instruction and student achievement. He was trying to make a point with me about something I already agreed with, but he wasn’t satisfied with the level of admiration I was giving to his idea, so he said, Hang on. Let me show you what I’m talking about. He pulled a file up on his computer, turned the screen so I could see the content, and I was greeted with a presentation I had created.

I said nothing. Just finished the conversation and went about with my day. I’m sure I later mentioned it to my instructional coach who admitted she’d had the same experience multiple times.

I don’t know the details about how he received my work, but I have my suspicions. None of it matters, though. I hadn’t wanted accolades for the work I had produced; the only reason I had created the presentation in the first place was to help teachers to help students. For this reason, I never mentioned it to him and never made it an issue.

But it continued. Not just with me, but I saw many of my colleagues creating amazing tools for the classroom and our school community, and I saw the same people take credit for their ideas time after time. No one ever addressed it.

Let’s state the obvious: Most teachers are not in the business of education for accolades and awards. The best credit they get comes from the successes they witness from their students. The best awards are when students come back and visit well after graduation and tell their teachers how they made an impact on their lives. Those moments explain many of the knickknacks teachers carry on their hearts.

But some of those knickknacks look more like scars—baggage that forces us to hesitate, avoid taking risks, makes us consider taking the easy route to avoid making waves—these are debilitating and binding.

I can’t do anything about what’s happened in the past, but I can learn from my experiences. Flash forward to checking my email and my immediate irritation: someone has shared information which originated from me without my permission. Whether the intentions behind it were pure or malicious don’t matter. What matters is making my thinking visible and my intentions transparent.

The lesson? The first time you let a person get away with something, you have given them permission to do it again. And again. And again. Each time they get away with it, the conversation to rectify the issue seems more and more difficult. Just jump in. Get it over with. Make your intentions and expectations known, so there can be no questioning who you are.

Don’t let that baggage weigh you down. Learn from it… let it go… Don’t let the scars people have left on you define your actions in the future.

However, hang onto those knickknacks that make you smile. Even if they only make sense to you.

Eyes Open, Heart Forward

Eyes Open, Heart Forward

I have been in a funk lately. I have been questioning my core values and beliefs. This is an interesting thing because at the same time I am questioning myself, I have never felt more secure in who I am as a person.

There is one person who has prompted this funk, this step back into myself. It’s a funny and ironic thing that I’ve given this person so much power over my state of mind; this person doesn’t know their own mind, yet their actions have made me pause and stumble.

Someone lately told me they’ve never met a teacher who didn’t think they were pretty great. I don’t agree with that person; they are a good example of someone who went to school and hated it but never found out the struggle that goes on when the classroom empties and the teacher is left alone. As a teacher, I second-guess myself more than not. I always have questions in my head: How do I get better? How will I be better tomorrow? What can I do differently to connect with that student?

How do I view myself as a teacher? I make connections. I thrive off the connections I have with my students; their successes and struggles hit me also. The connections I make with my students transcend time and miles. This is true not because of what I taught them but because of how I made them feel while they were a part of my classroom. They return. They check in with me. They matter, and the work I do is validated.

How do I view myself as a mother? I look at my own children. On one day I feel like I might just get this mothering thing right… my children are thoughtful, respectful, funny, reflective. They think big thoughts. They love heart-forward. These are the days I feel validated as a mother. Of course, there are other days: days when I don’t know what to say to ease the tears, days when I just need an hour of time where I’m not being touched or spoken to, days when I feel like everything I say is wrong and is going to scar them for life. Those days teach me just as much as the others… those days keep me looking for what’s right, asking what lasting marks I am making in the memories of my children, wondering what type of adults they will be in this messed up world.

So, to the person who prompted this funk, thank you. Maybe it was time to pause, reflect, redirect, and renew. In time, perhaps you will see the damage you have caused; in time, perhaps you won’t. Either way, I thank you. Your actions have made me re-evaluate my motivations and my beliefs, and I can walk forward knowing I’m not perfect, but I believe I’ve never done you wrong. I’m still learning. I hope you will continue to learn with your eyes open.

This is Education

This is Education

A little girl sits at a round table with 3 other kids her age. Her attention is fixed on the task in front of her: a sheet of paper with letters and numbers, and she has been given a mission to make sense of the information in front of her. She bites her lower lip, thinks with her eyes raised to the ceiling, then looks back down at the paper and begins writing. Her excitement is real: She is going to finish first. Her confidence rises as she glances at her table mates and realizes, yes, she will finish first. She is winning at this game.

At the same table, a little boy with a freckles peppered across his nose erases marks from his paper again. The lead smears and fades with his eraser strokes, and he does his best to hide his frustration from the rest of the kids at the table. Barely looking up from his messy paper, he glances around to see his table mates ahead of where he is with their task. His heart falls into his stomach, and his worry grows. I don’t want anyone to think I’m stupid. Why is this so hard? I don’t get it. What am I supposed to be doing? He tries to appear busy and engaged, but the sheet of paper in front of him may as well be written in Japanese. He knows what the expectation is, but his fear keeps him from raising his hand and asking for help.

This is education? This is education.

For many reasons, education walks a thin line between what sounds good to stakeholders and what has been done for decades, even centuries. Many profess to have the best interests of students in mind, yet more and more students feel isolated from their peers and disconnected from their own interests and curiosity.

Flash forward: The same two students, years down the road, are now in high school:

The little girl is now a young woman: a junior with plans of grandeur at a university far away from home. She wants to be a veterinarian and understands that means many more years of school are ahead of her. Rather than being concerned with a date for the homecoming dance, she busies herself with preparation for the ACT or SAT, advanced course work, writing scholarships, researching universities, and the many activities she has outside the school day: volleyball, basketball, track, volunteering, church youth group. There are not many minutes during her day that are not accounted for and are even fewer that are not spent planning for her future. She learned a long time ago that school and success are about playing a game and competing to be the best. There is very little time for anything else.

The freckled little boy is now a young man who walks through the hallways with his eyes cast downward. He moves through the hallways like a ghost, hoping to be unnoticed and unbothered by his peers or any teachers who may notice him. He learned a long time ago how to stay off the radar. His dreams are also of life beyond the walls of his high school, but he feels the freedom each time he leaves the building and uses his hands to fix things. To him, high school is pointless, and there are few classes he feels are useful. Classes that teach him a skill equals independence: welding, autobody, wood shop, agribusiness… This is time well spent, but classes like algebra and English remind him of his own shortcomings. Those classes were like being force-fed gravel: The process is painful, tedious, with no chance of success. When he’s in these classes, the minutes crawl, and graduation feels far away and impossible to reach.

School failed this student long ago. He learned all those years ago in elementary school that he didn’t belong; he didn’t play the game, it took him longer, and he wasn’t good enough. Teachers huffed in exasperation when he asked a question for a third time. Eventually, he learned to stop asking questions, and he got by with the bare minimum in order to pass from grade to grade. The only time he felt successful was on his own: outdoors, with his machines, or working with his hands.

These are the students who are round pegs being forced into square holes. These are students whose daily lessons include getting by, dealing with the struggle, and feeling less than good enough. If these students ever reach graduation, they have become used to feeling like failures.

The young woman: She fits in school like a glove fits a hand. Long ago she learned that success meant guessing what the teacher wanted and delivering it in a nicely wrapped package; thinking originally is overrated and never earns her the grades she seeks. She has a bright future ahead of her, but she is naïve about what it will take once she reaches the steps of her university.

Believe it or not, we are also failing this student. When the grade becomes more important than the learning, when the learning is about competing with peers rather than oneself, we have failed.

Neither student will reach graduation prepared for life if their path continues.

Teachers know this reality. We see it every day, and each day it becomes more frustrating. Being in the classroom and seeing these struggles, being able to put names and faces to the stories… the helplessness we feel each day is authentic and pervasive. Yet we have so little control with what happens to the students outside our classrooms and too little say with what we are allowed to do within our classrooms.

What do teachers say? Here are a few thoughts from current educators (Thanks, guys):

Education is…

…a lie (or window dressing). It’s really not about what’s best for kids. It’s about what looks good on paper.

…test scores. Education is not really about people anymore. It’s just a number on a page—a kid’s ID, locker, ACT/AP/SRI score, a teacher’s number of students who passed or failed a class, test.

…not fun anymore. We better not laugh. We can no longer allow grade school kids to celebrate (multiple holidays) because that does not help improve test scores. All the kids have to look forward to is the drudgery work.

…preparing students to decide on their future avenue/direction in life. Education is not teaching them manners, responsibility, accountability, or behavior as they should have received this training at home from their parents.

…culturally relative, not ego or ethnocentric.

…priceless, not a commodity.

…a calling, not a business.

…everlasting, not static.

…we, not you and me.

…fun, not painful.

…dynamical, not prescribed.

…dreaming, not just doing.

…about the effort, not the grade.

…leading a team.

…focusing on the little things and doing them right consistently.

… listening and coaching.

…a profession of hardworking individuals who sell out for kids.

… no pushing hard on big objectives that overwhelm and stress teacher and students.

…telling and regurgitating.

… a field where those who have existed in the profession the longest are the only ones who are knowledgeable on content and pedagogy.

The truth in these responses is revealing and ranges from disturbing to empowering.

I don’t know the answer. Perhaps admitting we don’t know the answers is the first step to making education better. There are educators across the nation who make small differences every day. There are also children in every school and every town who succeed not because of what we do, but in spite of what we do.

…and that is what matters.

Management vs. Support: Different needs, different outcomes

Management vs. Support: Different needs, different outcomes

Micromanage: verb  mi·cro·man·age \ˌmī-krō-ˈma-nij\: to try to control or manage all the small parts of (something, such as an activity) in a way that is usually not wanted or that causes problems (Merriam-Webster.com)

The business of a school should be teaching and learning, and it is the business of every individual who walks into a school. Growth is the end goal, and growth is not achieved by management and compliance but instead by support and guidance. That idea may seem to be common sense, but it’s not much of a common practice when it comes to happenings in public schools.

Students are much like teachers: They want to be supported and valued, not talked down to and given rigid expectations for their behavior. Teachers who work to build relationships with students know the importance of understanding the idea of supporting their students in their needs as well as their challenges and successes. It would make sense that supervisors and evaluators of teachers would understand this as well.

Let’s look at it this way:

Teacher A stands at her classroom door and watches students walk in. No greetings are exchanged, and only exasperation ensues when a student asks to go to the restroom or a locker. Once class begins students are expected to sit quietly in neat rows and listen to the expert deliver content. There is pacing from the expert at the front of the room and very little interaction from those whose butts are in the seats. Students are given a task, asked to comply, and not prompted for feedback or any original thinking. When the bell rings, students grab their materials and practically run out of the room in relief.

Teacher B stands at her classroom door and greets students as they walk by in the hallway and as they walk into the room. Students mill around the room collecting materials and greeting peers until the bell rings when the teacher walks in and greets the entire room. Throughout class, students are encouraged to share their thinking with their peers and the teacher, and diverse thinking is celebrated and examined as a group. The room bustles with activity and conversation as tasks are completed. One student asks a question the teacher can’t answer, and a group conversation ensues as everyone works to make sense of a possible answer. Mid-conversation the bell rings, and students pack up their materials and visit with their peers while thanking their teacher as they walk out of the classroom.

Which room sounds more like a community of learners?

Building relationships is important in any business, but it is absolutely necessary in a profession that is driven by human connections like teaching. If we know students will experience more growth when there are positive relationships, why would we assume different for teachers?

Attention Administrator: Management is not support. Compliance does not equal success.

Since school has begun, too much of my teaching time has been dedicated to minutia. It is a necessary evil, but it takes energy away from my purpose as a teacher: to teach and interact with students! Part of the minutia has included a few emails and mandates that have made it clear on which side of the management-support line my principal and the other administrators in my district stand.

I know this isn’t a unique concern; teachers everywhere complain about the amount of extras heaped on. However, one critical piece is missing from the way teachers are asked to do things: professional consideration. In any other profession, consideration is given to those involved, and they are treated in an adult manner. That’s not always the case when it comes to teachers.

There are certain things teachers need in order to be successful—for instance, classroom supplies. Many teachers spend their own money on the consumables they use in their rooms, but occasionally some things are needed from the building “supply person.” As a new teacher, you learn quickly to make friends with the secretaries, the custodians, and the person who holds the key to the supply closet. For it to be a supporting environment, all these people, including the faculty, work together to help students and get needed resources to the teachers who are on the front lines…

When it’s about management, teachers are asked to jump through hoops to acquire simple supplies and are shamed for the number of copies they make for their students. Is it unreasonable to walk by the supply person and ask for white board makers or colored paper for a student project? Is it necessary to shame people in a school-wide email who may have forgotten to pick up their pile of copies from the office workroom?

Are teachers who are managed allowed room to maneuver? Room to misstep? Is this management effective? Or is it just patronizing?

Another example of management vs. support: Teachers must ask permission from an administrator to leave the building during their planning time and must swipe in and out of the building every time they arrive and leave, so time can be accounted for. As grown adults with professional degrees, is it necessary to track their movements during the day?

School safety is definitely a consideration in today’s world, so it’s not unreasonable to ask teachers to have credentials visible or to have modern building locks that track who is entering the building during all times of the day. It is also true that there is always a small handful of people who take advantage and abuse their responsibilities. These considerations shouldn’t overshadow the professional judgement and actions of people who have been entrusted to teach children.

Management also controls physical space around their employees while support enables people to make their spaces their own and use their unique capabilities to the advantage of the entire team.

Here are some examples of control issues around physical space that I have either experienced or been told about by colleagues:

  • being reprimanded by the bulletin board committee because a display wasn’t properly channeled through the bulletin board police before posting;
  • receiving a “suggestion” to take down alternative lighting in a classroom because it may be endangering students (This alternative lighting is mostly furnished from lamps and light strands rather than overhead florescent lights.);
  • the disappearance of comfy student seating in the name of being proactive about student fornication or mouse infestation (You can find the link to that triviality here.);
  • clearing out a previously welcoming space that had been used for the benefit of both teachers and students.

My point isn’t to bitch about the building where I work. It’s much bigger than that. The point is, if we trust teachers to grow students then why do we insist on compliance and acquiescence? If we know people—students and teachers alike—respond to encouragement and support, then when will we start giving individuals what they need?

Don’t we have more important things to talk about than lighting and bulletin boards?

 

 

Two schools: The kids are the easy part 

School has started, and the routine of another year has begun to settle into my house and my alarm clock. My own kids are tired from waking up at 6 a.m. to catch the bus, yet they are contradictorily happy to be back to their budding social lives.

For my own part, it’s been difficult easing back into the swing of things. I find myself starving mid-morning, ready for lunch when I still have an hour or more of class to teach. When I finally do get a quick meal, I slowly realize I can’t take the nap my body has become accustomed to. Last but certainly not least, my bladder is back in training to remember the bell schedule. After having two children, this can cause a bit of an emergency situation and a mad sprint down the hallway.

While this year has started much like the ones that have come before, something seems different this year… perhaps a bit “off.” I’ve been trying to pinpoint the cause of my perplexed state of mind.

The students are typical: eager to socialize again with their friends and flirt with potential significant others while grumbling about the impending learning which must happen to qualify as an actual school day.

In the hallways of my school roam students from a smattering of backgrounds. The seniors confidently stroll to class, not worried about the looming ding of the tardy bell: This group is beyond caring about being tardy, and they are doing what they must to either drag themselves through nine more months of school or cross their T’s and dot their I’s in order to get into that school of choice or branch of the military.

Freshmen are at the other end of the “cool” spectrum. Some are tiny and seem to shrink even smaller as an enlarged, sweaty football player passes in the hallway. These innocent newbies weave through the crowds, hoping to disappear and have no major interactions on the way to class. Other freshmen appear cocky and calm until approached by an upperclassman, where they will promptly remember that this is their first week in high school, and they don’t really want to be on anyone’s radar.

The juniors and sophomores find themselves in the true middle: not quite possessing the status of the established seniors but not anymore the underdog. These are the true middle children of the school family… trying to figure out where they fit.

All the students—weird kids with capes, lost and panicked freshmen, overly sensitive honors kids, half-asleep seniors dragging themselves to class, kids with stacks of binders and books—they are the easy part. Even the kid who did nothing in my class last year but who stopped by to say hi and how much he misses my class, or the graduate who I ran into at the grocery store who said she wishes she could go back to the easy days of high school: They all make it worth it.

These kids—all of these kids—are what bring me to these hallways each day and are what I look forward to, even on the tough days. Their humor and wit—even their sorrows and struggles—make my job worth the pains.

So what are the pains? Why does it feel so different this year?

A wise man once told me that there are two schools inside a school: the one with the students and their drama and the one with the faculty and their drama.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand what he meant. And I’ve had to take a step back to see it.

There will always be the minutia of the paperwork and hoops of beginning a new school year: professional development plans, evaluation plans with an administrator, preparation for open houses and parent contacts, club meetings, department meetings, PLC meetings, meetings for meetings…

Dealing with people brings its own set of hoops and work. For the first time, I am realizing the scope of the “second school” and the drama that comes along with it.

High schools are known as pits of gossip—nearly as dangerous as pits full of vipers—and we know how cruel kids can be. However, since I’ve paused to listen and observe, I have heard much more gossip and venomous bites coming from faculty than from the adolescents in the building. I’m not innocent. I have done my fair share of the “did-you-hears” and the “no-she-didn’ts.” This year I’m trying to change those old habits, and I wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be.

It’s one thing to keep your own thoughts, actions, and words positive: In fact, it’s positively exhausting! When you add Emotional Vampires into the mix—and things you can’t control—it’s beyond exhausting. It’s completely draining.

People smarter than me (there are many) say it takes 21 days to make or break a habit; I’m less than two weeks in, and I’m exhausted. But I’m all in. I may not have control over the pettiness of some of my coworkers or the fact that they claim to hate gossip and drama, yet they feed off the rumor mill. I do have control over my own actions, and I’m hoping to model something positive to my students and anyone else who may be watching… from either of the two schools which exist in our school.

Embattled or Empowered? Thoughts on Professional Development

Embattled or Empowered? Thoughts on Professional Development

The great aim of education is not knowledge but action. –Herbert Spencer

With the first days of school here for some and rapidly approaching for others, the end of summer is being marked with a transition into fall and a new school year. First day outfits, reacquainting with friends, jitters about schedules and logistics of buildings, lockers, and lunchrooms: These are the things most people relate to the beginning of a new school year. However, the approaching school year means something different for teachers: the dreaded and required district-wide professional development.

In my perfect world, teachers would be given a few days to get classrooms ready, plan the first few weeks of instruction, and meet with colleagues to goal set and discuss curriculum and assessments. Ah, the feeling of complete preparedness for the first days of school, wholly organized and equipped and ready to welcome jittery students and ease their fears…

Let’s bask a moment in that fantasy…

BAM! Reality hits and so does the dreaded, mandatory district-wide professional development day.

I love to learn. Most teachers do… Though we may tackle our pedagogy and philosophies differently, the love of learning is a common thread with most educators. When it comes to material we know to be valuable to our students and our goals, there is no more rapt and cooperative audience. Teachers will dive into material, take risks, and participate in the learning environment like greedy children. The energy in this room is intense and contagious. Big things happen in these spaces. Presenters dream of rooms like this and hope to even simply have moments of buy-in and flashes of inspiration from those participating.

On the flip side, there are other rooms of professional development that are completely different: saturated with frustration and steeped in obstinate professionals who wonder if their senior leadership team ever considers the professional needs of teachers, the expertise in the district’s classrooms, or the actual needs of the students.

In my short time as a teacher, I’ve been involved in the former so rarely that I wonder if it actually happened, and the latter is where I have found myself more often.

It all started optimistically from most: shuffling into the room, waves and greetings to friends, discussion of summer activities, and a palpable feeling of excitement for the new year… a fresh start with new possibilities.

Then the work began. Teachers around the room glanced at the handout: information that seemed oddly similar to many other professional developments brought to them by their district leadership team. As the presenter clicked through slides and explained procedures and expectations, the mood in the room shifted from one of excitement to one of submission and disappointment, even weariness.

Once again, senior leadership mandated a training that was redundant and unneeded and felt like an insult to the competent professionals in the room. Rather than completely participating, teachers found themselves trying to be professionally courteous to the unassuming speaker while using what time they could to be productive and actually accomplish something to prepare for the new year.

Our job is to meet student needs, one educator bemoaned, and this training doesn’t lend itself to that.

 Another agreed: It’s just more hoop-jumping, a complete waste of time and money and completely unproductive.

They keep shoving this down our throats, another griped. This is completely insulting.

An empty promise of plenty of collaboration time to make the training more applicable was delivered by the speaker: Instead, teachers sat passively and were talked at the majority of the day… From a company that boasts “best practices” and “research-based” methods, this felt oddly contradictory.

Here’s the thing: Teachers are already dedicated to the pursuit of life-long learning. Many of the teachers in the room had Masters degrees or higher, and nearly all teachers spend their own time developing professionally. To add to it, the topic for the day was something at least half of the teachers had been working closely with for several years. Why insult the intelligence of people who are entrusted to teach our children? Why waste their time when they could be doing something that would directly benefit kids?

Any district-mandated professional development seems to be a dangerous thing. Never will every teacher have buy-in, and not every person is dedicated to continued professional and personal growth. What may be needed in one building—or in one classroom—may be completely obsolete in another. If we know the needs of our students are diverse, why do we assume all of our teachers need the same things?

Visiting with some of my more seasoned colleagues was even more enlightening, or more discouraging, depending on your perception.

After nearly 25 years (of these trainings), only two were worthwhile when I could say I came away with something useful that would impact my classroom, one teacher reflected. Only one time were teachers allowed to make a choice for their professional development, and that was one of the good years.

Apparently, teachers know what they need, and teacher choice is a powerful thing. Why are we tying the hands of our teachers behind their backs rather than empowering them to be self-directed?

Why are things this way? I can venture a guess: I suspect there is one person who has a high position in the district (as well as a large ego), and this person has a vision of what school SHOULD be. While there is nothing wrong with that vision, it lacks realism. There is very little consideration given to the diversity of our student population and the needs of our community, and almost no consideration is given to teacher capabilities or needs.

I have to respectfully say, I’m very sorry, but not all of our students are round pegs that will fit into your version of “school.” What we are doing instead is neutering our teachers and enabling our students to perform at lower levels than they are capable of. While things like graduation rates and ACT scores are indeed important, there are more crucial things that our students need from us: lessons in life, perseverance, resilience, respect, integrity.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m guessing no one found any of these lessons in our latest mandated training.

Suppose the training went a tiny bit better, and maybe half of the teachers felt they took away at least one useful thing. Then the questions changes: Will I ever be able to DO anything with this information? Or will this be just another handout that I file under “Professional Development”? What will be the mandate next year?

Trainings and professional development opportunities can be powerful, but only if those people who will be implementing the new knowledge will be empowered and given the opportunity to act on it and attach it to something they already believe in.

One more comment I overheard: The fact that I am thinking about shitting in my own pants in order to get out of here… Doesn’t that speak volumes?

Yes, it does. If anyone is listening.

 

But you had the summer off!

But you had the summer off!

Ah, summer… lazy mornings, time with my own kids and fur babies, and a chance to get to do whatever I want—which is catch up on my life since I get SO behind during the school year. Sounds like a dream, right? As the new school year approaches, shouldn’t teachers feel rested, hopeful, and excited to begin anew? After all, we get three months out of the year to do whatever we want, right?

Not necessarily.

This is the first summer I’ve only had one week of an “official” professional development opportunity. It was great, and it got me thinking about how I may differently tackle my classes for the year. In years past, I have spent over a month of my “time off” in professional development—as I grow wiser, I understand the danger of burn-out and the need to recharge even more, so I’m more comfortable saying no. Now I try to direct my attention to development that will most benefit my kids and my practice.

Back to my week of PD… The week away was a nice break from my summer to-do list, but it’s not the only development I’ve done this summer. Like most teachers, I spend much summer time catching up on reading and writing—both for personal and professional reasons—and it never fails that something I think I’m doing for myself will apply to my students. BAM! Just like that my quiet summer reverie jolts me back to the reality of the classroom… but I’m a nerd, and I love my job. It’s only natural that my teacher brain doesn’t have an “off” button… Oh, if it did, how amazing would my time away from school be?

Back to the topic at hand… summer is nearly over. All over the nation, teachers are returning to their freshly cleaned, though perhaps disheveled classrooms, to push desks around, rearrange books, write and rewrite and rewrite lessons plans, and start the year with fingers crossed for bright-eyed students, supportive administrators, and powerful lessons both in and out of the classroom.

One of the beautiful things about teaching is the opportunity to begin fresh: a new day, a new student, a new lesson, a new school year. While it may be hard to go back to 5 a.m. alarms, piles of papers to grade, and grumbles from students about grammar exercises, most teachers I know are truly excited for the new beginning the year provides. The bounds are limitless.

Don’t get it twisted… it’s still hard to be going back.

First of all, my summer to-do list isn’t even half done. Carpets still need cleaned, closets reorganized, cabinets cleaned, and flowerbeds replanted; however, I’ve had opportunities this summer as well: Opportunities to reflect and relax, to adventure with my own children, and to center myself.

Secondly, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have anxiety about going back to school. The last few years have been much more difficult than I’d hoped. The facts remain: the kids continue to amaze me, and the adults in the building continue to make me shake my head. I don’t expect to walk in this year and have the toxicity of the last few years completely vanish, and I won’t pretend that every adult in the building has the best interests of students in mind over their own interests. However, I can proceed with a clear direction of where I am heading and a firm grasp on what my goal for the year is.

Yes, I had the summer off. No, you don’t need to remind me about how quickly it went. Just smile, say good luck, and be supportive.