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.

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?

 

 

On the Same Team: Supporting, not Hazing, New Teachers

For the first time in several years, I’m starting to feel less like a new teacher. I don’t mean it’s getting boring—I don’t think that would be possible as a teacher since every day presents its own new unique challenges and amusements. (Part of the appeal of being a teacher for me was that I would never have the same day twice.) I mean that I feel like I’m finally figuring out how to carry the load, what to let go of, and how to not let the job consume me.

It feels strange. And it’s got me thinking about my first few years as a teacher, especially as this year I find myself watching so many new teachers learn to navigate our building and the landmines that are held within.

There are some truths to the stereotypical “new” teacher. When someone told me in college that my first year in my own classroom I would be in survival mode, I wanted to argue. Looking back, I can see the truth in that. Simply figuring out how to make copies, plan lessons for several preps, juggle grading, learn an electronic grade book, differentiate for classes of IEP and regular ed students, navigate collegial relationships… My first couple of years as a teacher in our school held all those stereotypes true. I didn’t find myself crying myself to sleep every night, so I felt successful. I’m thankful I had a strong support system at home in an understanding husband and forgiving kids.

This year as I watch the new teachers traverse the tricky landscape that is our high school building, I’ve heard some things I’ve never been privy to before: comments about the new guys earning their place.

Wait, what? Why do vetted, or tenured, teachers feel the need to haze, indoctrinate, and initiate new teachers? Why do new teachers (at least in our building) have to prove that they deserve to be there, working alongside the rest of us?

I like to think that our high school is a leader in our region; while I may not agree with many of the decisions of leadership and directions our school has taken over the last few years, I also understand that we’re lucky. We have great kids, supportive parents, and a budget that gives us more professional freedom than that of colleagues from around the nation. Because of these things, I can assume that the majority of teachers who are hired are the cream of the crop, that they have something special to offer.

These facts would allow me to draw the conclusion that the teachers we hire are qualified to take on anything our building can throw at them professionally… so, why? What purpose does it serve to indoctrinate and haze new teachers?

Now that I’m more comfortable in my role as teacher, I have a bit of time to look back and reflect on my own indoctrination and question the role it had on the teacher I am today. To be fair, I’m not sure my experience was typical. For a number of unusual reasons (namely one), I was more of a target than most new teachers because I was viewed as a threat rather than an asset.

Without getting into the dirty details, a part of me can understand the perceived threat a new teacher may bring to a teacher who has been counted as “a chosen one,” or one of the most popular teachers in the building. A new guy (or gal) comes in with energy, excitement, and fresh ideas, and the kids react accordingly and love this new teacher; maybe administrators have high hopes and place value on this new person. As a vetted teacher now, I can see how that might seem threatening, and I can see why my experience was atypical (hopefully) and why I was viewed as a threat.

That strange scenario aside, there were many aspects to my indoctrination that made my life as a new teacher more difficult than it had to be. The feeling of being under the microscope was pervasive and real, and I remember having a principal in my room at least once each day for the first two years of my career. I had been prepared to be observed frequently; I had also been prepared to have conversations that may be difficult but would ultimately help me to be a better teacher. While I went into most of these conversations with an open mind and willing-to-work attitude, I always left feeling not good enough… completely questioning my values and role as a teacher. In one instance, I was completely unprepared to hear I “served no purpose in the classroom,” but luckily I was able to hold myself together until I got to the bathroom before I lost it and sobbed.

In another instance, it was suggested that I take on the role of advisor for a struggling club. Because I wanted to focus on my teaching, I declined, but I was informed I would take the extra duty because I had received new desks for my classroom. Choice was an illusion in this instance, and I transferred that philosophy to many roles I was asked to assume. I was afraid to say no because I didn’t have tenure… I was naïve enough to think they could find a reason to get rid of me because I didn’t take on everything extra.

Meetings with colleagues were also a challenge and added to my frustration. Pats on the head, eye rolls, and professional dismissals were common place anytime I tried to contribute to the community as a whole. While I was expecting to be greeted like an equal and respected as a professional, my reality was much different.

These events early in my teaching career stunned me, and these are only some of the episodes that affected who I am as a teacher today. (I feel like some of my stories sound more like a fictional soap opera than an actual operating high school.) Taking a look at the collection of occurrences, I marvel at the fact that I didn’t quit and move on to something more rewarding, less stressful.

The work load alone—and the fact that my teaching program didn’t prepare me for the realities of the classroom—would have been enough of a challenge. In fact, we all know many new teachers crumble under those pressures and move on to other careers. Looking back, I’m thankful for the coaches and motivators I had in my life: instructional coaches, a few encouraging colleagues, one administrator who was a teammate rather than a dictator… Those people convinced me I could make it. They convinced me that even if I only had one positive interaction with one kid on one day, that interaction may mean the world to that one kid—those were the moments I needed to cling to as I navigated the terrain.

I understand now that my position is one of support for those new teachers, like the individuals in the building who pushed me through my dark times and doubts. No, I don’t have a problem with a new teacher being assigned an honors or upper level class, as long as they are the most qualified teacher for the job and will work to benefit the students. Isn’t that supposed to be the point anyway?

It doesn’t have to be the way it is now. Just because this is the way it’s been done for years doesn’t make it right.

What if instead of hazing and initiating new teachers, we see each person for the individuality and value they bring to the team as a whole? What if instead of throwing them to the wolves, we supported our new teachers and held them up through the choppy waters of their first few years as an educator? Why must the newbies be beat up and drug through the mud, hazed and indoctrinated to understand “their place?” Maybe this new person isn’t a threat. Maybe this new person has just what the kids (and we) need to be better.

And isn’t that the point?

A problem in education seems to be teachers who feel entitled because they’ve served their time. Yes, time matters. Those teachers who have been around and lived through changes in education have valuable experiences that need to be shared with all. At the same time, that knowledge shouldn’t be valued over the fresh perspectives brought by people new to the field or new to a building. On the flip side, the new teachers need to learn to listen—as do the more experienced teachers. We all have contributions to be made to this complicated, difficult field.

At the end of the day, we are all on the same team and are working toward the same goal. Perhaps instead of falling into old habits and complaining about what another colleague has (or doesn’t have), we can hold each other up and wade through the muck and mire.

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.

 

Old Buffalo and the Cost of Things

 

They can be found in any school building: the “old buffalo” who have been there for years and know how to navigate the system. These buffalo keep their heads down: They know how to be left alone, have made it clear to many that they will not be pushed around and railroaded, and more often than not choose to stay out of the limelight and keep to themselves… not for any other reason than to avoid the drama which pervades most school buildings.

Don’t mistake these buffalo for other teachers who have been around for years; buffalo keep their head down unless given a reason to charge and defend—they are always aware of what is best for the herd, both students and colleagues. Other teachers who have been around for a few years may feel entitled and superior, so they are the opposite of the buffalo: Like a squeaky wagon wheel, they whine and push to get their way and tend to charge into a situation to make changes for their own benefit, with no clear indication of care for anyone else.

As a new teacher, I had the task of picking out the old buffalo and staying away from the squeaky wheels. Several years into teaching, now I believe I have finally figured out who the actual buffalo are and who the squeaky wheels are—those masquerading as buffalo but are actually rogue strays who are only out for themselves.

One of my buffalo left at the end of last year, and she gave me some advice: Seek out the old buffalo in the building and stay close to them. They are the ones who matter. These buffalo have seen leadership change, teachers come and go, and the educational pendulum swing back and forth. They know how to affect change and when to let things go… valuable lessons for someone like me who tends to be reactionary.

These old buffalo know how to survive, but at what cost? What is the cost for teachers, in any building, to affect change and do what’s right, especially when met with contrary forces, like obstinate leadership.

Here are some costs I’ve noted over the last few years:

  • Substance abuse problems: While I am a fan (and a regular) of happy hour, why is that such a common place to be able to “vent” frustrations and gain some perspective from like-minded friends? Are there no other venues that may offer some release? Perhaps an occasional happy hour is nothing to be frowned upon, but where do you draw the line? Is a daily happy hour on your own at home—with a fresh bottle of wine, frosty mug of beer, or stiffly mixed drink—any different? How many of us cope with our work stresses and frustrations from the classroom by having a drink or two… or more?
  • Health problems: To my knowledge, no firm link can be found between a person’s work environment and their overall health. There are certainly studies out there that document the health issues of a variety of professions, and we all know stress causes health problems. However, over the last few years the instances of major health problems among my co-workers (and even some students), such as cancer, tumors, diabetes, depression, anxiety, etc., have seemed to be significantly higher than in any other profession I’ve had experience with. How much is our working environment affecting our health?
  • Relationship problems: Maybe a spouse or significant other doesn’t understand the amount of time spent on grading, planning, etc. Maybe each time they turn the corner at the grocery store with you, they are confronted with another co-worker or students, and they feel that there is nowhere they can just BE with you without you being a teacher or surrogate parent. Maybe your children are tired of you always spending your time and energy benefiting other people’s kids… Whatever the issue may be, loved ones will often have a hard time sharing your attention and love with who they perceive to be complete strangers.

Teaching is a stressful occupation—many are—but there are very few other professions (nurses come to mind) that demand giving so much of yourself away to other people.

Let me get to the point and the question that’s been vexing me for a while: What will be my cost? How much will be enough?

I find myself in this predicament—it’s been growing for a couple of years now. I honestly believe all (or at least most) educators go into education for noble reasons: for the students, to change the world, to make an impact, to change something. Then these bright-eyed new teachers meet THE SYSTEM. The system is designed to reward complacency and conformism and shuns things that are different and innovative; while this is happening, the system is claiming to reward innovation and creativity. These bright-eyed educators hit their first wall—or their first several—and they are shaken but not deterred. I can change this, they think. I can make this better. So they dig in and keep trying…

The cycle progresses, and with each defeat these bright-eyed educators lose a little more of their vigor, lose a little more of their hopefulness and resolve, lose a little more of themselves. Eventually they close their doors and do what’s best for kids in the only medium they have some control over: their own teaching. The fact remains that even their own teaching is not safe, and at this point in their careers, these once starry-eyed educators have to make a choice: to stay or to leave.

To stay means to continue to fight or to conform; the questions will continue to come: Are they looking for a way to get rid of me? Why does it feel like I have a target on my back? Why don’t they see what is best for kids? Is it worth the fight to keep going? What are the consequences of just shutting my door and doing my own thing? Am I still being effective for my students?

Why did I begin teaching in the first place?

To leave means walking away from a labor of love and the possibility of defeat; questions will continue to come: Am I doing the right thing? Does this mean I’m a quitter? Can I still make a difference? Who will take care of these kids? How do we even begin to make education what it should be? Is there such a thing as equality for kids? For teachers?

I don’t know the answers, but I know the questions… I’ve been asking myself for a while, and the question that continues to plague me is what is the cost?

What is the cost? When do we walk away from something we care deeply about, from something that could make all the difference in the world? When did leadership stop caring about supporting teachers? Weren’t they teachers at one point also? When will this community see the writing on the wall for what’s happening to the good teachers, the great teachers?

What will the cost be for me? For my family? When will enough be enough?

It was suggested to me recently that leadership would like to see me move on… that I should have left with all of my friends. I’m not sure what to say to that, but I know I’m not ready to leave yet. I still have some fight left in me. I will leave on my terms.

Maybe I’ll never make it to be an old buffalo… maybe I will… Figuring out the happy medium between shutting my door to do my own thing and staying out in the hallway to be visible to my students is where I find myself today. One thing I know is that I refuse to be a squeaky wheel, determined to whine and push my way through rough patches to get exactly what I want with no regard for the larger community I am a part of.

Like the old buffalo, I just want to protect and be a part of the herd.

It’s not your couch

I feel ridiculous even writing this, but I’ve come to learn that my workplace and some of the people I work with are ridiculous. The silliness of my workplace seems based in unreality because so many of the happenings are just that: ridiculous. The goings-on over the last few years fuel many of the stories I feel compelled to write. I can see the dramatic episodes playing out in my mind… like a bad soap opera.

Amazing that these petty happenings are what take up precious teaching focus and energy in our schools. Case and point:

My couch was removed from my classroom without my knowledge, and I’m fairly certain that its current residence is at the county dump.

Let me set this up: I had just purchased this lovely loveseat from a friend who is moving on from our school. It’s been in the school for a couple of years and has brought many moments of comfort and relaxation to those who have sat on her cushions. Naturally, since my friend was moving on, I thought I could bring some of those relaxing moments into my classroom and provide them for my students—an inviting reading space they could enjoy during quiet moments.

During the last week of school I rearranged my classroom—taking out my own desk and cutting down on the amount of space I needed as a teacher—in order to create this space of comfort for my kids. They were so excited! As the kids shuffled in and out during passing periods, they showed their delight by testing out the couch and asking why we couldn’t have it sooner.

Ms… this is sick! Why didn’t you have this in here all year?! Then the students realized they most likely would not have me as their teacher next year, and their delight turned a bit to disdain. Wait… why do next year’s kids get this? I wanted this! This is awesome, and now I don’t even get to chill! Of course, I extended the offer that they could come see me anytime next year as I wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was the couch.

Fast forward to a few days ago: I headed to the school to do a little work; yes, teachers work during the summer even when they don’t have to… actually, we work 7 days a week, 365, but that’s a different blog.

I hadn’t even reached the door of my classroom by the time I had a couple sweet-natured custodian ladies explaining to me that my couch had been removed by order of the principal. Apparently, he wanted all the couches removed from the building, so the custodians took care of it. Naturally, I was irritated, but my chagrin wasn’t directed at the custodians who were just following orders, so I headed down to the main office. Of course, principals get much-needed time off also during the summer, so the principal wasn’t around for me to talk to. That was fine as I knew I could turn to the well-oiled machine that was the office ladies. Without them, our school wouldn’t function. At this point, I was told my couch had been removed and placed on the dock where a truck hauled it off: Two. Weeks. Ago.

Wait, what?

On what planet is it okay to take something that doesn’t belong to you and send it off to the dump?

The story has since continued to evolve. The reasons behind the removal? I was told all the couches from the building were removed, but I was given different reasons from different people; it’s important to note here that all the people said the order was from the principal and so was the varied reasoning:

  • Having couches in classrooms makes it hard for the custodians to clean the rooms.
    • Really? I have always been told to put away things that would get in their way: my piles of paperwork or books, knick-knacks, etc. I had all these things put away and made sure things were situated in my classroom to make it easy on the summer cleaning crew. Like the well-oiled machine that is the office staff, I understand how important the custodial staff is to making my life easy, and I wouldn’t do anything to make their job any harder.
  • Mice will make nests in couches.
    • Hmmm… being raised in a rural area and an old drafty house, I know a thing or two about mice, and they will make nests wherever they darn well want to: desk drawers, closets, boxes… all of which can be found in any school.
  • Students will… ahem… fornicate on couches.
    • … I’m not sure what to say here. I wasn’t the best kid in high school, but I’m not sure I would have thought to have sex in a classroom during a school day—or anytime for that matter. Yes, students can be squirrely and make bad decisions, but I can’t rationalize students fornicating on a seating area that can be seen from the hallway in one of the busiest areas of our large school. Let’s suspend my disbelief for a moment and pretend that this is a rational reason: how about when I’m not in my classroom monitoring appropriate behavior, I close and lock the door… oh, wait, I already do that.

All the reasons aside, I can see the thinking in removing large personal furniture from classrooms. I don’t agree with the thinking behind it because I firmly believe classrooms need to be designed to be safe places for students to grow and think and learn, and teachers’ abilities to make connections with students are easier done in environments where students feel comfortable. Ok, let’s not be petty and just agree with the decision of the principal; after all, everyone’s couches were removed, right?

Wrong.

Out of at least four couches I know of in the building, mine included, the couch in my classroom was the only one removed and disposed of. After multiple emails asking my principal to locate my couch so I could bring it home, I was metaphorically “patted on the head” and told to step in line and drop it. This came after a blatant lie that he didn’t know I had a couch in my room and didn’t know it had been removed at all.

The lesson? This is stupid and so petty, and I’m bothered that I’ve spent any energy on it—energy that could be better spent enjoying the sunshine with my own kids. Summer vacation is meant to recover from the stresses of the school year, not begin dreading the inevitable interactions of difficult people.

My original point is how ridiculous this situation is to begin with. Perhaps we need to go back to the teachings of kindergarten: be nice, respect yourself and others, and don’t take things that don’t belong to you.

There are schools and teachers and students across the nation who have real problems, who may be fighting to have books and enough desks and could care less about my couch. I’d rather direct energy in their direction, but the principle of the matter seems to be one I can’t let go of.

If we can’t treat each other with professionalism and respect, how can we be expected to teach our students how to be respectful and make the right choices?

Is this type of unnecessary, silly drama what I have to look forward to this year? Am I being targeted by my principal? I have spent the first several years of my teaching career at this school fighting for survival, fighting for respect, fighting for what’s right for kids, and fighting against people who have no integrity and only have their own interests in mind. I am hopeful I can start this next year fresh—focus on my students learning and learning to be a better teacher myself—but after the last few days of trying to explain logic to the leader of my building, I’m afraid that may not happen. I’m afraid I’m not done fighting yet.

Here we are one month into the summer break, and I already have a target on my back for the next school year. Here we go again…