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.

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.