Teachers have the real power

I stood in the henna tattoo line with my 4-year-old at a local festival listening to the high school girls behind me debate the merits of getting a zodiac symbol or a Chinese character. I chuckled to myself as I eavesdropped, having become very wise to teenage psychology over the past decade as a middle and high school teacher. Then something amazing happened.

One of the girls’ teachers walked by holding hands with her boyfriend. She screeched, “Here comes my teacher!” I couldn’t help but turn to look myself, and I watched as the teacher smiled kindly and waved, and the girl turned back to her friend to gossip.

“Isn’t she pretty?”

“That’s my social studies teacher.”

“She just got engaged. She told us all about it.”

Then she pulled out her cellphone and called a friend, who was presumably also at the festival. “Hey, if you see a tall woman with red hair holding hands with a tall guy, that’s my teacher.”

I waited for the inevitable discussion about the teacher’s private life. But what I really wanted to hear is what all teachers want to hear, I just love her class. She has taught me so much.

Yet neither topic arose, to my surprise. The entire time we were in line – it was a long line – the girl kept bringing the teacher up in conversation. She wondered where she was, she kept thinking she saw her coming back toward her, and she wondered if her other friends had also spotted her.

This was a fascinating experience for me to be a fly on the wall as students discussed their teachers in a social setting. We all wonder what impact we have on students when we’re not around. The fact that the student never brought up the teacher’s work in the classroom led me to a surprising conclusion: The influence teachers have in the classroom is mostly about who we are, rather than what we do.

Teachers are larger than life to students — and good, bad or ugly — they are fascinated by us. We are the face of education for them and their entire attitudes about school lay in our hands.

Now, as I end my tenure as Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year, I realize that even in 10 years of teaching, I never really understood my influence as an educator. But having worked with people at the Kentucky Department of Education, state legislators, national education organizations and even a conversation or two with Secretary of Education John King, I have a very clear understanding now that, as my dear friend and colleague Brad Clark of Hope Street Group often says, “There is a big difference between leadership as positional power and leadership as influence.”

As teachers, we can often feel as if we are not masters of our own or our students’ fates. Yet, the teenage girls I overheard at the festival didn’t discuss the teacher’s lessons or the policies the teacher was required to implement. They talked about her. They admired her as a person, and to them, she was so influential that they were willing to start a lookout chain just to spot her. She was literally like a celebrity to them.

And she probably had no idea that it was happening.

Here’s probably what happened next: She prepared her lesson plans later that weekend, maybe caught up on some grading. She went to school on Monday, saw those same students who probably smiled and said hello. She taught her lessons, gave some encouragement and even some reprimands. She went home after school and worried about those words of encouragement, the reprimands, the implementation of the lessons she so thoughtfully constructed and the products the students had turned in that week. She worried whether they got it, whether she was effective, whether she mattered.

Then she went to a meeting and someone gave her a task to do, a hoop to jump through, another worry to add to her list. At some point in the week, she felt overwhelmed, stressed and tired. Maybe she even wondered if she had any positive impact at all, never once knowing the influence she wielded over those students at the festival. Never once recognizing that she was the person with the true power, the one who stood in front of kids every day and was the face of education for them.

Having been blessed with the opportunity this past year to get a 30,000-foot view of education, I now see what that teacher can’t see. I see that if every teacher woke up to the awesome influence he or she bears on the educational system at large, there would be a drastic overhaul in how the system operates. Someone said to me recently, “It’s really easy to get caught up in the hierarchy of education,” and I agree. But if we change the way we view the system, it becomes less of a hierarchy and more of community.

For example, while listening to Secretary King speak at a conference in Washington, D.C., he said something that contradicted my own experiences in my classroom. Before this year, I would have made a snarky comment to my colleagues, maybe sent a text complaining about it and moved on feeling just a little bit more frustrated with the educational system.

But I recognized that I was the teacher in the classroom – the topic of which he spoke –while he was not. So after the speech, when he made his rounds speaking to the educators in the audience, I told him what I thought. I told him stories from my classroom and how the policies he discussed impacted my students. He listened, asked questions and gave me his email address to follow up with him on the topic later.

I realized then that he might think twice when speaking on the issue next time. He might take the time to ask other teachers in similar situations what they thought about the issue. I viewed him as a member of the education community, rather than someone at the top of the chain who wouldn’t appreciate my expertise. And most importantly, I recognized that I was the expert and I took the time to tell him as much.

What would happen if every teacher changed his or her perspective on the system and took the time to talk to those at the top? I think all of our educational leaders at every level would have no choice but to think twice and ask a teacher first.

So my time is ending and someone else will soon have the view from where I stand, but it’s hard to close your eyes again once they’ve been opened. My mission now is to open up the eyes of my colleagues, because teachers are the rock stars to the kids. It’s time for policymakers to hear the music.

 

*This piece originally appeared in Kentucky Teacher on October 18, 2016.

 

 

 

Start a teaching revolution

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A colleague recently shared with me a Ted Talk circulating the internet of a lone man dancing like a lunatic at an outdoor music festival.  After a while, another person joins him—called a first follower—and then another, and another, until eventually, a huge crowd of people—a movement—are dancing like maniacs in the center of a field.  This video has been repurposed to demonstrate leadership techniques, explaining how it takes one seemingly crazy person brave enough to look like a fool to start a full blown movement. But the key to getting from the crazy person to the movement are the followers who join along the way.

Many teachers I know have a keen knack for being willing to look like a fool and surround themselves with people who don’t mind joining their dance. With the new Every Student Succeeds Act, as states are given more power and jurisdiction over their own accountability systems, I believe it is imperative that we find these dancing fool teachers and let them lead the way.

One of the greatest compliments a former  principal gave me was, “Lamb, you will probably someday burn down this school, but we’ll help you sweep up the ashes.” He wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He actually thought I might burn down the school because in an old moldy building, sparks flew from the sockets in my classroom while students plugged in ten different CD players to work on music videos for a project-based unit on song analysis.

Meanwhile, I faced challengers who disagreed with my methods. I did not blindly follow a mandated curriculum that required rigid alignment with a fifteen year old reading textbook containing outdated articles about Ricky Martin that started at a 5th grade reading level and ended at a 7th. My students were 7th graders. It was demeaning and demoralizing for them to read this text. I refused to teach from it. I was told that I must teach from the textbook. It was proven to bring up test scores, they said.

I was willing to get into serious trouble—school burning and all—for that cause because it meant that my students would get a better education. Luckily, I gathered a few followers, my principal included, who kept me from doing any real damage to the building, but who definitely fought alongside me to challenge the curriculum. I had the trust, respect, and support of my colleagues and administration, which allowed me the opportunity to teach my students as human beings, rather than as bodies in a seat.

I’ve fought this battle from the very beginning of my career until the present moment. I refuse to allow top-down decrees, which are divorced from the realities of classroom practice and student needs, to prevent students from receiving a true education. I have often felt lonely because of this pursuit, but just as the lone dancer in the Ted Talk eventually gathers followers, without fail, I have too. People always come around. And there are teachers across the country dancing away and gathering followers every minute of every day. They need our support.

A teacher does not work in a vacuum. We should be held accountable to those who are most immediately impacted by our work:  our students, their parents, and our colleagues, and we should hold them accountable for allowing us to do our best work as well.  I have taught in schools where teachers, students, parents, and administrators were not held accountable to one another for support and motivation, and that formula does not often bring success.

Test scores mean very little when it comes to showing teachers, students, and the school community how to grow. I know that I am responsible for my students’ futures, not just their test scores, and for my colleagues’ experience with my students the next period or next school year, and to my students’ parents who send their children to me every day hoping for them to be educated and not just standardized—and they are all accountable to me as well.  I truly believe that the system for accountability should be a community effort. Change may begin with one dancer, but only followers can make it a movement. And those followers must be our community at large, looking to teachers to lead that movement.

I also believe that our current system for accountability is based on assumptions that teaching is a black and white endeavor. It may be easy to see the lone dancing fool and assume that she is just a fool, rather than a leader. But starting a movement is complicated, just as teaching and learning is complicated. A couple of multiple choice tests at the end of the school year cannot possibly provide clear insight into a student’s knowledge or a teacher’s effectiveness. The classroom and school culture, the level of critical thinking and creativity, the amount of parent involvement and teacher support, the diversity in a school or given classroom, and many other factors influence a student’s achievement and a teacher’s success, and therefore should also be utilized in student and teacher accountability systems.

Students deserve more than cookie-cutter schools, and teachers deserve the opportunity to look like dancing fools in order to do what’s right for their kids. We are starting a revolution, one teacher at a time.

 

Public Schools Should Not Be Burnt Bridges

Most people who know me well know that I can be a bit of a hothead. If you see my hands start to fly and my accent get just a little thicker, you can pretty much bet I’m on a straight path to “telling it like it is.” As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve learned to channel that–ahem–passion, for the greater good.

Yet my tendency to “tell it like it is” has burnt some bridges along the way that still haunt me. A decade ago, I invited a prominent Kentucky writer to speak to my class. As do most, this writer requested an honorarium. Being a first year teacher, I had no experience with using school funds, so after asking our school bookkeeper what to do, I filled out a form with the writer’s address and the amount to be paid, and fixed my attention toward preparing my students for the writer’s visit.

But apparently there was a miscommunication. The writer expected the check upon arrival, and I had made arrangements to mail it. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say “unpleasant” words were exchanged that day and over email in the days that followed. We were both angry, and neither of us held back. I promptly placed this writer on my burn list, deciding that it didn’t really matter. This writer would never be worth my time again.

Unfortunately, this writer is highly involved in education, and I am highly involved in the writing world. Each time our paths have crossed, I have felt my skin crawl. I just wanted to avoid it, but I couldn’t shake this problem.

One day, a student who wanted to pursue a writing career and had the talent to do it, asked me to send an email for a great opportunity in the state. I gladly agreed until I recognized the name on the bottom of the program flyer. It was the writer I had spent so many years loathing, who surely felt the same way about me. If the writer received an email from me, the message would have been worthless.

Because cultivating future writers and helping them find opportunities for growth is what I do–and love to do–for a living, this realization helped me recognize that my bad behavior meant lost opportunities for my students.

It was easy to burn a bridge when I thought it would never impact me, but shameful to recognize how doing so impacted those around my students.

The truth, for me, was unavoidable. My shame led to understanding the truth that because we live in communities, our actions impact others in ways we may not imagine. So it is time that our communities recognize a truth that they might not want to hear: If you are not actively working to support our public schools, whether your children attend them or not, then you also may be negatively impacting schools and students.

Public education belongs to everyone and everyone is responsible for it. This means that some will manipulate it for their own agendas. It means it will always be under the microscope. It means that people will try to systematize it, no matter how clear it is that there is no one size fits all solution for developing the minds and hearts of our future citizens.

It also means that although members of our community may think they are walking away from it, they can’t. Even if they home school their children or send them to private schools, one day their children will interact and work with other people who have been educated in public schools. And so much of our daily life is directly impacted by societal issues — the traffic jam due to ineffective infrastructure, the insurance claim that can’t be processed due to inefficiency, the colleague whose work ethic is questionable but gets a raise anyway, or the fear felt when walking to a car alone in the dark.

The bottom line is even if you think it’s not your problem, the majority of people in our culture are educated in public schools, so the public school system essentially determines the quality of life for us all. You can either choose to lay claim to the responsibility we have for our schools, or you can pretend to wash your hands of it. Just as I thought the writer was a passing thought in my life and my student had to pay for it, so too will our future generations have to pay for the washing of hands that happens when our community thinks the challenges in our schools are not theirs.

So then what can you do?

The next time you drive past the school closest to your house, whether your children attend it or not, look at the marquee out front and pay attention to what’s going on there. Show up to the game on Friday. Send a good luck note to the academic team heading to regionals. Call the sponsor of the running club and thank her for giving her time to improve the lives of kids.

Click on any education article when you browse the news online. Read it from beginning to end. If it a positive article celebrating something happening in a school near you, share it. If it is a negative article decrying the laziness of the teachers or administrators, think before you send it. Send an email to the writer or the school and ask for details first. Be conscious and inquisitive when it comes to the news surrounding our public schools. You may have the best of intentions when sharing any story–both positive and negative–but recognize that often the negative stories are the ones that stick, even if they’re false. We should be careful of relying on a few sound bites from the media or the naysayer at the cocktail party to tell the entire story of our schools and the children within it.

Don’t be that naysayer at the cocktail party. If you don’t understand something about education–the budgets, tenure for teachers, cyber bullying policies, curriculum or standards, ask first before participating in conversations about them. Ask a teacher, a principal, another parent who is well informed.

Again, you may have the best of intentions. You probably are genuinely concerned, but know that your words are powerful. Anyone who has ever played the game of Telephone knows what happens to words eventually. They will mutate and take on a life of their own. Sharing sound bites may seem harmless, but the person on the end of that phone may hold power or have influence and may make decisions based solely on that one piece of misguided information.

And if you do have kids in public schools, recognize that being a parent of a public school child means being a partner in education, not a customer.

You live in your community. The kids in every part of it–every single school–are your kids. You can’t just shake your head in disapproval of the schools around you when you see numbers or rankings. We can’t continue to write off the problems in our schools as someone else’s concern, and we certainly can’t wait around for someone else to fix them.

Because burnt bridges may come back to haunt us.

Speak Up or Be Spoken For

On the last day of school during my first year of teaching, I plopped down in my desk chair—dog-tired, heart-weary, and exhilarated—and turned on some music my students had downloaded at some point or another. The Ying Yang Twins’, “Dangerous” hummed from my speakers, and I started to nod my head and pop my shoulders like my students had so desperately tried to teach me to do (I never did get it right). And then I it turned up, blasting the beat as loud as I could. It just felt right.

It took a couple of minutes, but before I knew it, my posse of fellow new teachers—the people who had sustained me over many happy hours that year—came into my room one by one and joined me. It didn’t take long before the few lingering kids left in the building walked by with wide eyes wondering what had gotten into their teachers who were now engrossed in a full on dance party in my classroom. Song after song played, and I would like to think that I did some adequate shoulder popping that day.

That tired moment by myself spontaneously erupted into a dance party with my colleagues and illuminated for me a natural instinct teachers have always had—to work in packs, not alone.

Flash forward to the end of a recent trip to San Antonio for the Council of Chief State Schools State Teacher of the Year conference. A local high school steel drum band played “Smells like Teen Spirit” while 56 State Teachers of the Year jumped up and down in a massive mosh pit. When the song ended, we chanted Encore! Encore! until the teenage band soothed us with their rendition of “Uptown Funk”. I was taken back in time to that first last day of school all over again. Ten years later, titles and honors in tow, the need to dance through our work with my friends is stronger than ever.

What else is there to conclude other than that we need each other to thrive? We need our posse, our kindred spirits, to dance with us; otherwise, we’re just shoulder popping all alone.

Here’s the deal: there can no more be a teacher of the year than there can be a favorite breath of air. Each one is as joyful and necessary as the last. There is absolutely no difference between the teachers dancing at the conference than the teachers dancing ten years ago in my classroom and the other teachers who gather and dance in classrooms all over the country. We’ve all got work to do, and we all need to work together to do it. It should not be just one teacher who gets the mic; every single educator’s voice should be amplified.

Several times during the conference former Teachers of the Year asked us, “What changed for you when you were named a Teacher of the Year?” And many of us kept answering, Absolutely nothing. The only difference now is that suddenly people care what we say. Just like that wide eyed student who walked past my classroom ten years ago, people suddenly see us and think, “Oh, that’s what goes on in there.”

I’m no different now than I was seconds before the moment I was named Kentucky Teacher of the Year. I still stay up late at night thinking about plans and projects and what else I can cross of my never-ending list. I still fall frustratingly short, and I still feel many incredible highs. It’s still just me. The same me I was that first year and every year since. And I just wonder how many other teachers out there are dancing away and no one bothers to look? How much unharnessed talent is ignored because they don’t have a title to match the sweat on their brow?

I recently wrote about honoring other teachers, but I realize now that it’s not just about saying thanks, it’s about losing out. Until we tap into the talent of our educators, our education system will never reach its full potential.

Change in education is a definite, and currently, with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and many states creating new education initiatives, major change is imminent. If we don’t hand a microphone to those talented educators, we could be faced with decisions made by the wrong voices.

Teachers have an instinct to dance—and work—side by side. It’s time that, title or not, every teacher finds a place to huddle—a classroom, a dance floor, a public forum, or on a clean white page—and work together to speak as one voice.

Because if we don’t speak for ourselves, someone else will surely do it for us.

We All Crave the Mystery Box

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At 2:30 in the morning a few months ago, I woke up in vomit. My husband had brought our crying baby into our room sometime around 1:00 (unbeknownst to me), and at 2:30 we figured out why she was so unhappy.  When, after cleaned and placed fast asleep back in her own bed, she woke up around 6:30 doused in sour pasta, it was time for Mama to call in sick.

After the anxiety of planning for a substitute subsided, I happily cozied up on the couch with my girl, who was so miserable, and yet, so sweet.  It felt like the best part of maternity leave all over again, and I fell right back in the swing of wearing my husband’s sweatpants and eating gluten free biscuits over a sleeping baby in my lap.  I clicked around the tv and settled on an old standby–“Let’s Make a Deal”.

Wayne Brady just makes me feel so at peace with the world.

But I soon found myself with building anxiety again. Oh, the drama of daytime television! These people always go for the empty box or the closed curtain or the unopened envelope.  Just take the two grand and make a clean getaway, people!

But they don’t. And in so many ways, we don’t either. We all pretend to want the safe landing, the guarantee that we’ll walk away with a crisp hundred dollar bill, but deep down we crave the gamble that behind door number one is a brand new car.

We do this not because we want the money or because we’re greedy. We do it because we want an adventure.

We all come screaming into this world not knowing anything about the arms that will catch us. Doesn’t it seem by design then for human beings to naturally want to leap into the darkness, only to be caught by something unknown–and wonderful–in the end?

Wayne Brady wrapped it up. Some contestants lost, some won. But I looked down at my rosy-cheeked, sweat-crowned baby who kept me up all night, who kept me home from work, who surprises me all the time, and recognized that when we have the courage to go for door number one–for the uncertainty and mystery and adventure–what we find behind it will drive us to more opened doors and more great adventures in the end.

 

 

The Pudding

 

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Me and my amazing colleagues in Thailand.

In 2011, I had the privilege of traveling to Thailand and Vietnam on a Fulbright Scholarship. On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have teachers on board our flight today.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  This announcement was a welcome surprise because I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do.

While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty.  Literally.  Children threw flowers at our feet and hung leis around our necks as we entered schools.  People greeted us with wide smiles and small gifts everywhere we went.  We experienced life as a teacher in a culture that values educators above most other professions.  In fact, professors and teachers in Thailand are given their own special honorific separate from the rest of the population: Ajahn.

That moment on the plane to Thailand and the trip that followed gave me pause for many reasons, but a thought keeps running through my mind since: Who we applaud represents what we value as a society.

In her memoir, Yes, Please, Amy Poehler refers to the applause and the validation that comes with it as “the pudding”—the ultimate prize in one’s career. For her, an actor, this means a fancy award presented by beautiful, famous people after walking a red carpet. For us teachers, “the pudding” is a dish we rarely get to taste. Poehler writes, “To be…valued for your work is a whole lot better than being ignored. Nothing is worse than being ignored.” Yet, being ignored is a step up for most teachers, who are often the scapegoat for every problem in education. Feeling valued is a rare, but pleasant, surprise for most of us.

Our public schools are full of phenomenal teachers who arrive early, stay late, sponsor every club, and cheer at every sporting event because they care so much for their kids. Yet, many leave faculty meetings with lists of more things to do and a pervasive understanding that it still isn’t enough. If Amy Poehler doesn’t get “the pudding”, she still gets to go home and be a famous celebrity whose morning trip to the grocery store is worthy of front page news. Even without awards, people still validate the work that Poehler does. She gets a red carpet. She gets praise. She gets pats on the back at every turn. People show her they care about how she has chosen to contribute to the world. But for teachers, our day to day effort–exhausting, sometimes debilitating, sometimes heartbreaking effort–goes mostly ignored.

There is no red carpet for reminding an unmotivated student for the hundredth time that school is important. There is no golden statue for being the center of the world for one hundred other human beings all day long—for going nonstop from dawn to dusk so that we forget to eat or go to the bathroom. There is no applause when we walk out of the building into a dark, empty parking lot, then go home to eat microwave popcorn for dinner while grading papers. It is for these reasons, and many others, that teachers face greater burnout that most other professions. Our culture as a whole does not often validate our work.

It’s not all so dark, though. Our students applaud us. If we’re lucky, parents and administrators do too. But, most importantly, teachers applaud each other. I’ve been pretty lucky in my career to have had a particular knack for surrounding myself with those who are much better educators than me, who provide unending support and encouragement. Because of these countless people, I’ve been especially lucky of late to taste the ultimate “pudding” in our profession—Teacher of the Year. Even though this award has been such an honor to receive, I recognize that there are forty thousand great teachers in Kentucky, each and every one of them going home with sore feet, scratchy throats, and aching backs carrying the load of educating the next generation of Kentuckians. Why have we come to a point when once in a blue moon a teacher—a single teacher—is recognized among the thousands? There should be more ways of applauding every deserving teacher every day, not just one, once a year.

I don’t know what those ways are, but as I approach a sabbatical in the spring, I will make it part of my work to speak with educators across the state about ways to validate and celebrate our craft. I think a good start would be to take the time to celebrate and recognize those teachers we know who inspire us. So many of those moments in Thailand when I felt valued were small, simple moments of recognition.  The truth is, we may not live in a culture that openly values and actively applauds teachers, but if we take the time to applaud each other, it may not be the ultimate prize, but it could be a start. There are no red carpets or flowers thrown at our feet, but what we do matters to the lives of the people around us, and there should be a real way for honoring each other.

Failing in order to Excel

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“When we give ourselves permission to fail, we, at the same time, give ourselves permission to excel.”- Eloise Ristad

Picture this: It’s Friday night. Your biological children have finally (finally!) gone to sleep. You curl up on the couch in your sweatpants, clutching a glass of wine and a mound of cookies, and prepare to binge-watch Netflix while grading a pile of quizzes you gave to your school children that week.

One of two things is going to happen. One, all of your students will perform beautifully on the assessment, you fly through them in an hour tops, and that glass of wine happily turns into a bottle while Walter White’s downfall comes to full fruition on your screen.

Or two, all of your students clearly stuffed their ears with wax and wore blindfolds all week while you apparently taught yourself how to (fill in content skill here), and that mound of cookies becomes two boxes while Walter White tempts you with some viable options for leaving the profession because you are clearly terrible at teaching. Either way, you wake up Saturday morning with a bloated stomach, a pounding headache, and the illusion that your students either absolutely “get it” or have miserably failed. No wonder Monday mornings come as such a shock.

I have found myself in the previous situation more times than I would like to admit. If I think my students get it and we move on, I am shocked and frustrated weeks down the road when I ask them to complete the same task in a different way and they look at me like I have three heads. If I think they don’t get it at all, and I spend the next two weeks banging them over the head with it, they resent me and I get really, really bored.

Recently, after beginning a unit on the power of storytelling created by myself, my teaching partner, and my colleagues in the Next Generation Instructional Design cohort, I slipped into sweatpants and curled up with the stack of pre-assessments we created on analyzing a text for narrative techniques using Alice Walker’s “The Flowers”. I felt pretty good about those assessments. After reviewing them, I came to the conclusion that most of my students understood what the narrative techniques were and were fairly proficient at explaining how an author might use them. I generally received answers like this:

  • Term: Details/description, Explanation: It describes the location and the feel of the area where she is walking. It also shows what she thinks and feels about the environment.
  • Term: Point of view, Explanation: Third person singular point of view of the protagonist, allowing the audience to know what she’s thinking but not from her own point of view.
  • Term: Foreshadowing, Explanation: This paragraph illustrates a bit of a foreboding feeling contrasted with the whimsical air of the previous ones.

For the most part, many of the answers from all of my students resembled the ones above. These answers seemed to prove that my students knew what the terms meant and had a working knowledge of how the techniques might function in a text. Granted, it was a pre-assessment, but I thought, “Hey, they get it! We can skip all of that early foundational stuff and get right to it.”

But I happened to be ahead of my collaborating partner at this point in the unit, so I decided to slow down just a bit and let the students get outside in the fresh air and do something creative. So on Monday morning, I asked them to work in groups and use their cellphones to create a “pop up video” film of the story we read. The assignment required them to use their body language, tone of voice, and annotations in the form of pop ups on the screen to illustrate the author’s use of narrative techniques in the story. We had a pleasant day outside. I wandered around from group to group as they took their films very seriously, filming near the brush and creek behind the school building to create the correct mood and scenery for the story. I felt awesome—my kids got it, and we got a nice day outside for them to create.

Until I started watching the videos. As I watched film after film I realized that they had absolutely no idea what the techniques were and why an author would use them. How could I have been so wrong? The paper assessment had told such a different story.

I felt so defeated. We would have to start from the beginning. I would have to drill them with academic vocabulary. We would need to read at least three more stories before we could even start the official unit, just to focus on basic literary analysis. I was not looking forward to it.

But then it occurred to me: They have been learning these terms since sixth grade at least, and they probably learned them year after year in exactly the same way–the basic, rote learning style that I was gearing up to launch. The way all of us teachers feel like we have to teach in order to make anything stick. But they clearly knew how to provide a term, give a generic explanation, and pass a quiz. They knew that because they had done it for most of their academic career, and they may not know the answer, but they do know how to “do school”.

But what they had probably never done, was recreate a story and “annotate” it in live action form. When I gave them control of telling the story in the way they had read it, I learned so much more about what they actually understood.

There is a pivotal scene near the end of the story when the main character steps on a skull and discovers a frayed noose lying beside it. This scene is essential to understanding the story, and many of the students told me that they didn’t even realize what had happened until they made the films. And although many of the annotations were completely wrong, with explanations that made little to no sense, it obviously wasn’t that they didn’t know the terms or couldn’t explain them. It was simply that few people had ever asked them to bring those terms to life.

When the complexity of the task changed, their understanding of the story and the narrative techniques needed to deepen.

And although I was frustrated when I first watched the videos, my frustration virtually disappeared when I started laughing at their silliness, or gaped in awe at the length with which these students went to create a beautiful film. If I had noticed these issues from the pre-assessment while sitting on my couch at home, I would have only seen one picture—my students’ failures. But because I gave them an opportunity to create, I noticed much more than the fact that they didn’t get it. I saw their strengths too.

I saw the power of letting students take control of how they learn, and of how they fail. And I felt like less of a failure for it.

 

In Response to a Teacher’s Resignation

schoolIf you haven’t been under a rock in the last week and a half, you have probably read this letter from a teacher in Florida who quit her job and shared her letter of resignation publicly. If you’re not familiar, Abcnews.com paraphrases Wendy Bradshaw’s letter in which “she described in detail how her disappointment with her state’s public school system’s current curriculum has overpowered her love for teaching.”

Thousands of Americans, many of them teachers, have shared, commented, and favorited Wendy Bradshaw’s letter in respect and admiration for her courage.  I, however, find the public excitement for this letter a bit disturbing.

Like many other teachers, I see how detrimental an obsession with tests, results, data, and increasing standardization can be for kids.  Bradshaw writes how she is tired of watching young children cry from the pressure, of watching them misbehave as a means of coping.  As a high school and former middle school teacher, I see this pressure creating and exacerbating anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and apathy in my students.  And I’ve seen my share of overburdened students cry too.

In a ten year career, watching what this standardization has done to my students, my colleagues, and the system itself has made me so angry and so deeply sad that I have found myself in many heated exchanges over it.  If you want to see my hands start flying, my voice raise an octave, and my Kentucky accent get just a little thicker, bring up standardized testing in schools. I’ve written plenty of my own resignation letters in my head myself.

And like Bradshaw, I am also a mother.  She writes, “I remember cradling [my daughter] in the hospital bed on our first night together and thinking, ‘In five years you will be in kindergarten and will go to school with me.’ That thought should have brought me joy, but instead it brought dread.” I know exactly how she feels.  I fear that my daughters’ natural curiosity, playfulness, and creative spirit will be squashed the minute they step into a public school. I carry that worry every single day.

But here is where I fundamentally disagree with Wendy Bradshaw:  She implies that the system is hopeless, that it’s better to walk away, that anyone who chooses to stay is a victim of the system.  I think this attitude is anything but courageous.

Bradshaw writes, “[the system] bars teachers from differentiating instruction meaningfully, which threatens disciplinary action if they decide their students need a five minute break from a difficult concept, or to extend a lesson which is exceptionally engaging.”  I don’t know anything about teaching in Florida schools or Bradshaw’s specific experience, and I know from my own experience how bad it can be to teach in a school with a toxic culture, but in Kentucky, these actions–extending engaging lessons, being patient with forming conceptual understanding– are considered best practice.

Any teacher who claims the system bars her from differentiating instruction, knowing her students well enough to know when they need to rest briefly after rigorous work, or prevents her from extending an engaging lesson, is only allowing the system to make her a victim.

Teachers are not victims of the system; teachers are the catalysts for change within the system.

I’ve felt the pressure of standardization for a decade, and I’ve fought back with project based learning, hands-on learning opportunities, and discussions about meaningful ideas that my students care about.  I’ve been questioned about these practices, and I’ve presented reflective, research-based responses to any jury I’ve had to face.  And most skeptics shut right up when you show you know your stuff.

I’m not saying fighting this fight has been easy.  Teaching is the hardest job in the world.  I’ve wanted to quit many times.  I have taught in school environments that sucked the life out of me, making me feel so defeated and worthless that it was hard to pull myself out of bed in the morning.  But I got back up, and I went to work, just like millions of other teachers in America do every day.

I don’t know what Bradshaw’s exact experience was like, but just like every other teacher’s has been, I’m sure it was tough.  I’m sure she did feel like a victim sometimes.  I’m sure it did seem hopeless sometimes.  I’ve been there.

Abcnews.com reduced Bradshaw’s letter to her disappointment with the system overpowering her love of teaching.  If this is in fact the case for her, it is time for her to go.  There is no room in our system for teachers who do not love to teach, no matter how talented they may be.

I don’t know a single teacher who doesn’t also share frustration and disappointment in the system; I remember having these fired-up discussions even while in my teacher induction program.  We all get frustrated with the system.  We know it is flawed.  But we refuse to lose hope in why we teach.

Here is the beauty and beast that is public education:  It belongs to everyone and everyone is responsible for it.  This means that some will manipulate it for their own agendas.  It means it will always be under the microscope.  It means that people will try to systematize it, no matter how clear it is that there is no one size fits all solution for developing the minds and hearts of our future citizens.

It also means that although Wendy Bradshaw may think she is walking away from it, she can’t.  Even if she home schools her daughter or sends her to private schools, one day her daughter will interact and work with other people who have been educated in public schools.  And so much of our daily life is directly impacted by societal issues–the traffic jam due to ineffective infrastructure, the insurance claim that can’t be processed due to inefficiency, the colleague whose work ethic is questionable but gets a raise anyway, or the fear felt when walking to a car alone in the dark.

The bottom line is even if you think it’s not your problem anymore, the majority of people in our culture are educated in public schools, so the public school system essentially determines the quality of life for us all.  You can either choose to lay claim to the responsibility we have for our schools, or you can pretend to wash your hands of it.

I don’t fault Bradshaw for quitting her job.  It is difficult to be a good teacher and it is really difficult to be a good mother, but we should not cheer on the attitude that walking away is the same as standing up.  Standing up calls for hope and courage, which are both necessary for real change.

Why We Need to Rethink Teacher Leadership

There is a surprising fact about educators that most people won’t admit:  We’re all control freaks.

I’ve had a theory for a while now that most teachers want complete control of the world around us.  We’re bossy, but we don’t like being bossed around.  It’s how we ended up standing in front of a room full of students telling them where to sit and where exactly to write their names.

Of course, I’m generalizing (and being a bit facetious), but there is some truth to it.  And if you look really closely at trends, you can clearly see a pattern of the attempt to control in almost every aspect of education.  Lately, I’ve noticed this desperate desire to control in one of the hot topics of the day–teacher leadership.

olympic gold medal winner for 100m freestyle, goldfish leagueJust like every other awesome initiative in education that starts out so promising and flops face-first, I worry that the teacher leadership movement will rise quickly to the top and spiral downward just as fast as it rose.  Many will attest to the fact that so many teachers are being raised up:  People are finally listening to us!  Teachers are taking on “leadership roles” in schools, districts, and state education departments across the country, and decisions are being made with teachers behind the wheel.  But I would have to politely disagree.  What is actually happening is that the term, “teacher leadership” is being distorted to mean one very narrow definition of teacher leadership, rather than embracing all the potential of that idea.

My current school is full of teacher leaders, and I haven’t always been the type to attempt to join them.  We are a successful school, with high test scores–state and AP alike, but we have room for growth when it comes to attending to the needs of struggling or unmotivated students.  So I proposed a course that focused on engagement, project based learning, and thematic units to reach these students.  I made this proposal amid controversy about the correct approach.

I made sure my voice was heard.  I’ve taught in schools where traditional remediation strategies smacked us in the face.  I felt in my gut that it was wrong then, but I was naive and self-silenced.  Ten years in, this time, I wasn’t going to watch it happen again.  After being a little loud and very persistent (see, I told you we are control freaks), the class proposal was approved.  I went about developing the class, excited to help my school in its endeavor to reach all students.  I was thrilled to see a teacher leadership grant opportunity soon after the course approval, and I spent weeks putting together a grant proposal.  When I submitted it, I received this email in response:

I don’t even know where to start with this.  This was supposed to be a grant for teacher leadership, not course development.

I didn’t know how to respond myself because what could be a more clear example of teacher leadership than a teacher proposing and developing a new approach to learning?  Shouldn’t that be the very definition of teacher leadership?

But this grant committee deemed this an unworthy example of teacher leadership.  I didn’t even get a rejection notice.  When I followed up months later and asked about it, I was told to check the website for winners.  And what were the best examples of teacher leadership?  Each one of the winners were taking on hybrid teaching roles.  I don’t bemoan those winners their grants, but the lesson I learned is that in order to be a teacher leader, we have to be willing to give up teaching, even if only part of the time.  With this new narrow view of teacher leadership, possible ways of leading from the classroom are forgotten, and hybrid roles are believed to be the best answer for everyone in every situation.  I think this thinking limits many great teachers from seeking opportunities to lead because they don’t want to leave the classroom, but it is just these kinds of teachers whose voices should be heard.

In my opinion, a teacher leader is someone who refuses to let herself, her school, her students, her colleagues, and the education system as a whole stagnate.  With that definition in mind, here are some things I’ve learned from real teacher leaders I know–teacher leaders who I try to emulate every day.

Real teacher leaders don’t ask for permission.

I’m making a lot of generalizations about teachers, but here’s another one:  Teachers want to please.  We want to do what’s right, and we want to be praised for doing it.  I spent my whole career with this mentality, and it led me to standing in front of many closed doors.  Last year, though, I entered the school year feeling alone and frustrated because I felt like no one understood my way of thinking. I told myself if it didn’t get better, I would leave.

But it got better.

In fact, it was the best year of my career because I took the advice of some colleagues who I admire for their no-nonsense attitudes.  They told me to stop asking for permission to do what I felt was right.  And I did.  The next thing I knew, I didn’t feel alone anymore because I had opened myself up to my colleagues who wanted to share ideas, and I had many open doors through which to walk.

Real teacher leaders keep knocking on closed doors.

Eventually those doors opened for me, but not without sore knuckles along the way. There was a time when I would have resigned myself to accept “that’s just not the way it’s done” and “well, the powers that be will disagree”.  But I have learned that a closed door is just an opportunity.

Another thing I’ve learned about closed doors is that sometimes they’re not closed for the reasons we think.  There have been many times, in three different schools now, when I had an idea that I wanted to share with an administrator, but held on to it for way too long until it was too late.  I thought the administrators were too busy.  Or it wasn’t that great of an idea.  Or they wouldn’t support me.  In reality, I’ve discovered that most administrators want to support teachers, they just try to think of logical (and logistical) ways to make big ideas a reality.  Sometimes an initial lack of response might just be their way of thinking through your idea or request.

And one last thing about closed doors:  Real teacher leaders don’t worry about people who might question their attempts to open them.  In every school I’ve taught, the theory is that teachers who spend too much time in the office are brown-nosers or opportunists.  I think this is a terrible myth to perpetuate.  Yes, those teachers do exist, and we’ve all known them, but what the myth does is prevent good teachers with good ideas from sharing them because they worry about the impression it will give.  So what if people think you’re opportunistic?  Shouldn’t teacher leaders be scouting for opportunities all the time anyway?

Real teacher leaders get over feeling like they’re bragging.

And in the same vein of feeling too ambitious, is the feeling that teachers who lead and show off that leadership are braggarts.  There is a tacit code in schools that teachers should be humble and self-sacrificing.  I do think that good teacher leaders do carry a strong sense of humility, but I also think it’s important to recognize what we do well and not be afraid to voice our strengths.  I have learned to happily accept that I am a big picture person, and details are not my strong suit.  I don’t feel embarrassed talking about a creative lesson idea I had because in the same breath, I will talk about how a lesson flopped because I didn’t plan the details well.

In his book, Teach Like a Pirate, Dave Burgess says that we all want (or should want) to be great.  We want to be great at this awesome task called teacher, so what’s wrong with being open about what makes us great?

Real teacher leaders understand that leading is often lonely.

There will be moments when someone will cut you off mid-sentence and make you feel like you’re not in the room.  There will be times when you have a great idea and can see it through to its awesome end in your mind, but someone rejects it before you have the chance to explain.  And there will be times when you’re walking into work wondering what the heck you’re doing and what gives you the right to think you can teach this way.  I’ve been there.  I’m still there.  But what I see good teacher leaders doing is embracing that loneliness.  They understand that feeling like that just means that when they’re interrupted, they speak up again.  When they’re rejected, they submit again.  When they question themselves, they find someone who believes in them.

Real teacher leaders embrace vulnerability.

Feeling lonely is vulnerable, and to embrace loneliness means to also embrace that vulnerability.  I am a firm believer that being more open and genuine brings luck, opportunities, and true friends.  I used to feel like I needed to pretend I knew all the answers.  I thought that if I questioned a lesson or worried about my own ability openly, or even internally, I would lose the respect of my administration, colleagues, and students.  I would stumble through a lesson that wasn’t working and see it to the end because I didn’t want to admit I’d planned a dud.  I wouldn’t voice opinions in faculty meetings because I thought it might expose me as a fraud who didn’t really know what she was talking about.  But as soon as I learned that kids perk up when a teacher says she’s wrong and that teachers respect other teachers who think and question and voice those thoughts and questions openly, I started doing it all the time.  I can’t remember the last time I pretended at work–I’m open and honest and all the better for it.

Real teacher leaders surround themselves with diverse perspectives.

I’m a dreamer.  I like far-fetched ideas, and I sometimes feel physically ill when a really practical person swoops in and shoots down those dreams with one question–how exactly will that work?  I used to just get mad at those people.  I would walk around harboring resentment, feeling yet again like they just don’t get it.  And then I would doubt myself.  It was a cycle that prevented me from engaging in honest collaborative relationships with my colleagues and embracing the power that comes from multiple perspectives.  Until I finally decided to try and answer that question.  It turns out, half the time I have no idea how those crazy ideas will work, but that practical person does.  When I finally let her walk me through it, suddenly that crazy idea was a reality that worked really well for both of our classrooms.  I stopped harboring resentment for people who just didn’t get me, and started making them my partners.  What I’ve walked away with is lifelong friendships and a stronger craft.  Real teacher leaders know this already and cultivate it openly.

The truth is that the art of teaching is often out of our control.  We want to control it so badly with titles and roles and promotions and plans, but we never will be able to find a formula that solves all the problems.  But if there’s anything close to a formula, it is in the hands of the lone teacher–the one loud enough, bold enough, strong enough, and willing enough to embrace the role of a true teacher leader.  Someone who wants to lead from within, not seek an identity from without.

Farm School: How a teacher got schooled on the farm

If you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with 20 fifteen-year-olds. 

Yet, this is exactly how I spent my Friday, and I could not have asked for a better day.

I handpicked these particular students to be in a class I’ve designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something else–something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer them. I wanted to give them an opportunity for learning in a new way.

I call the course Connect because my sole goal is to reconnect these kids with learning. I want them to become true learners. I want them to be curious.

As you can imagine, the process of designing and teaching this class has been an interesting experiment, not without its ups and downs–and we’ve only been in school for six weeks. I have hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project will be just the ticket and it will fail miserably. I have picked myself up again with small moments that make me glad to be a teacher–a perfectly worded sentence in their writing, 100% engagement, even if it’s only for ten minutes. These kids are tough nuts to crack.

But I was the one about to crack last Friday. We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they probably were more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally. So much so, that on the morning of the field trip, I said to my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”

So I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm. It was the worst day for it, too. The previous day was a glorious fall day–warm, breezy, and sunny–and here we were in the cold, damp, gray morning which definitely didn’t help my attitude. I tried to “fake it til I made it” with the kids, but I really just wanted to hover by the space heater by my desk and toss them a few worksheets to make a point.

But the kids were the ones who made the point.

When we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub black mold off of these huge pumpkins that were piled into giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I just prayed for a storm to come, so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there, but the kids hopped off the bus like they were retirees trying to get a spot on The Price is Right. They got right to work like old pros. They were so happy. Watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk, and I went around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold and hauling giant pumpkins around a deadened patch of land, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.

It hit me then:  These kids are not lazy.

They are a lot of things–unmotivated, frustrated, bored–at school, but out there in the cold, wet morning, they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I made them a promise of a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform in school the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.

Spreading pumpkins around the patch

Spreading pumpkins around the patch

As Americans, and especially as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. But more and more people are beginning to recognize that school is not structured in the way that most of our brains work. I became a teacher–I am the definition of an academic–and school wasn’t always great even for me. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposite.

However, I am a teacher, and therefore, I believe inherently that there is nothing in the world more valuable than learning. I also believe that public education has the power to transform a person and a society. But I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.

But here is the bottom line:  I want success and a passion for lifelong learning for every kid who walks into my classroom. And of those twenty kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a vet to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try that hairstyle that she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign the shoddy contract sent to him because he knows to read carefully, and he knows not only what the words say, but what they really mean for him and his business. I want to see them translate the motivation they had for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to a motivation for living the best life they can. And that sometimes means working within the confines we’ve been given–navigating the system as it stands. I have to teach them how to walk that line.

We ended our day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we only felt a mist as we paced through the woods together.

A fresh start

A fresh start

I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:  “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is fifteen, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then. I needed to remind myself that teaching anyone is an experiment, and learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, where the rain finally poured down on us, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.