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


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.