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.

The Pudding


thailand picture

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.

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.

The Power of Just Shutting Up

I have spent the last two days not speaking to my creative writing class.

I’m not giving them the silent treatment; they just don’t really need me.  You would think that this would make me feel bad.  After all, if they don’t need me, then what exactly am I being paid to do?  But what has happened in room 411 these past two days is exactly what teachers should be paid to do.

I have now taught a creative writing course for a total of five years–two, many years ago, and three cumulative years now at my current school.  I have dreamed of recreating what I experienced a lifetime ago in workshop classes I took in college–the camaraderie that comes with baring one’s soul with strangers.  But after all this time, I had resigned myself to accepting something reminiscent of that world I left–the world that has become little particles of me that I carry around on my fingertips and in my hair.  Because once you have experienced what is possible in a creative writing workshop, you can’t deny its awesome power to transform everyone who walks away from it.

But I finally accepted that high school kids just can’t get there.  They’re too self-conscious, too anxious, too immature.  I thought I could just expose them to the amazing world of their own imaginations–the world they lost touch with somewhere around the time they started school–and that would be enough until they found their own voice and their own love of the written word then had a cathartic experience on some lucky poetry professor’s watch somewhere down the line.

I cannot believe how wrong I was.

I gave my students an experimental assignment–no real direction, no explicit instructions, no standards, no rubric.  I simply told them to take a song they loved and create something inspired by it.  That’s it.  I wanted to see what would happen if I just gave them the space to create, so I gave them three days to work on it.  Some of them cranked something out quickly and worked on math homework on the last day.  Some listened to music on their headphones the whole time and never wrote a word during class time.  Some sought feedback for their ideas from me and from their peers.  Some wrote, scratched it out, started over, wrote again.  Someone else might have entered my room and at first glance, thought it was a complete waste of academic time.  It did not look the way we as educators have come to believe rigor should look.

In fact, just last week a colleague pointed out that, “no offense, Ashley, but if we took away these electives, you could have another English class and all of our class numbers would be lower.”  She has a point, really.  Many of our core classes are overcrowded, and it is truly hard to reach each and every one of those 31 minds and hearts and bodies sitting in our classrooms every day.  I don’t fault her for her opinion; it’s the opinion of most people who know a thing or two about education, and even of those who know absolutely nothing about it at all.

But here is what I saw these past two days:

I saw kids come into our room, happily put cellphones away, and start sharing and responding to each others’ work without any direction from me whatsoever.  I actually had to interrupt them to take attendance.  I don’t think they even knew I was in the room.

I saw each and every student in our room show up with a piece of writing that they had spent time crafting.  No one forgot it at home.  No one had excuses about why it was incomplete.  No one asked how many points it was worth.

I saw a room full of teenagers raising their hands to comment thoughtfully on the work of their peers.  They weren’t raising their hands for me to call on them; they raised their hands to be called on by each other.

I saw one hundred percent engagement.  Every person in our room shared; every person in our room responded.  I didn’t require it.  I didn’t even ask them to do it.  They just did it because they cared about the work being done.  And they cared about work of their community, not just their own.

I saw students who had taken every AP class in the book, students who could and might go on to Ivy League colleges interact respectfully and intelligently with kids who had never set foot in an advanced class of any kind–kids who had failed classes, been labeled as “lazy”, heard every label in the book as a reason for why they just didn’t get it.  I, nor could anyone else, tell the difference between these students.  And neither could they.  Or if they could, they certainly didn’t care one way or another about it.  They respected each other as intellectual equals.

And, truly, the most amazing thing I saw was kids sharing traumatic experiences, feelings of waiting, feelings of not being good enough, feelings of distance, heartache, funny stories, imagined worlds, and images so clear and so perfectly placed that in the span of 48 hours, I lay with them in hospital beds, felt bored with them in high school classrooms, fought battles with them, desperately tried to put the pieces back together of a broken heart with them.  There was no mumbled laughter.  No awkward silences.  No one slunk out at the end of class embarrassed, hurt, or ashamed.  In fact, they bellowed, “no!!!” at the bell that ended our hour together.

So in response to the world who peeks into a classroom like the one I got the good luck to inhabit and believes it should be replaced with a core class, or more rigor, or more standards, or more assessments, or all the mores that are plopped onto kids and teachers and schools these days, I would like to politely disagree.  Instead, I would like to offer you a seat in our circle because I wish that every student and every teacher got to do every day what I got to do these last two:  Just shut up for a little while, and let kids show you what they are capable of.

Why every writer should hang out with kids

patched face

Image found on Google Images.

My freshmen are writing short stories right now–flash fiction, actually, which has been quite an interesting challenge for them.  But what has been the best part of teaching them how to do this, is hearing their ideas.

Man, they can come up with ideas that make me what to kick myself for not thinking of them first!  This is why it hit me today that every writer should find a writing group of kids.  It would be pretty easy even if you weren’t a teacher–just pull up at a park and offer pizza to the ones you find there.  It would be a great session until the police showed up.

Yesterday a student told me that she wanted to write a story about a girl at school who kills other girls and wears their skin (we read a lot of Poe, don’t judge).  Her original idea was that this Carrie-like outcast would one by one pick off the popular group of girls, but they wouldn’t know what was happening although the outcast would be showing up to school in these skin clothes. I knew that would be a lot to deal with in 500 words, let alone suspending disbelief long enough to make it work. But we starting talking about building to tension peaks before the ultimate climax, and we came up with the idea that the outcast comes to school with strange bandages every day, meanwhile the girls in the popular girl group are having attendance problems. Ultimately the climax is that the final girl is left at school and the outcast pulls off the bandages to reveal that the girl’s friends’ skin has been slowly added to the face/body of the outcast.

The student got a mischievous grin at the end of this conference and my skin crawled. It was a great idea for a story and we both walked away knowing it. I couldn’t wait to see what she did with it, but I found my fingers itching to write it myself. This phenomenon happened conference after conference. They had unbelievable ideas that just needed a bit of tweaking, questioning, or guidance. Ideas that could turn into stories that Stephen King himself would be pissed he missed.

I guess the muse speaks louder to kids. All of my “experience” that I’m using to help them is nothing without that raw idea that they sit down so jazzed to tell me about. I miss those raw ideas. I don’t get them as much as I used to, but like I’ve said before, I’m grateful that I get to hang out with young writers long enough to find them where I can. I can only hope the muse whispers loud enough while I sit beside them, and every writer should be lucky enough to do the same.

Why are so many teachers on antidepressants?

FPX57439A few years ago I flew Korean Air on a flight from Honolulu to Bangkok with a group of teachers from all over the country.  To date, Korean Air has been hands-down my best flight experience, but that’s neither here nor there.  What was most memorable about this flight is how it compared to a subsequent flight that I took coming home.

On the way to Thailand, one of the flight attendants came on over the loudspeaker and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of educators who have devoted their lives to teaching young people.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  This announcement was a welcome surprise, as I had never before experienced such open gratitude for what I do for a living from strangers.

While in Thailand, we were treated like royalty.  Literally.  Children threw flowers down at our feet and hung leis about our necks as we entered schools.  People greeted us with smiles and even small gifts in boardrooms, meeting halls, and auditoriums.  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.

It was an interesting experience to be treated with such respect, especially because upon return to my classroom at my old school, I was called a “motherf-ing b*tch” by a student on my first day back.  But before that even, on our American Airlines flight home, sitting amidst soldiers returning from deployment, a flight attendant came on the loudspeaker and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, flying with us today is a group of brave soldiers.  Please join me in a round of applause to thank them for their service.”  An odd coincidence, but true nonetheless.

I don’t begrudge those soldiers their applause.  And I clapped with everyone else, as I have time and time again on flights, in assemblies, and the line at the post office.  But these moments have led me to note that who we applaud represents what we value as a society.

Fast forward three years later to a copy room in a great school with highly qualified educators running classrooms of intelligent, hard-working kids.  A few days ago at this school, I had a conversation with two strong teachers about what type of antidepressants they were currently or had been on in the past.  I realized that I had had this conversation in the good schools and the bad ones, with the kids who wanted to learn and had every resource to do so, and with the kids who hated learning because they had never been given resources or opportunities to love it.  And everywhere you look, in “good” schools and “bad”, teachers are being prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety or self-medicating in surprising numbers.

I think if the general public knew how much being a teacher takes from a person who works as a teacher, it might stop advocating taking so much and give a little more applause.  I’ve known teachers who drink six to seven beers or half to full bottles of wine each night, and teachers who’ve had to take leave of absences in order to check into rehab.  I’ve sat among teachers as we each discuss all the types of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications we’ve gone through in order to find one that works, so that we don’t feel like screaming at the end of the day.  I’ve been on the verge of those screams myself and found myself wondering if something from a bottle were the best answer for me too.

I’m not saying that teachers are addicts.  I have found myself in each of the aforementioned situations and have fortunately never struggled with addiction in my life.  But what I am implying is that a lack of respect for teachers embedded in our culture pushes good educators to doubt themselves.  And this self-doubt promotes overwork in order to achieve approval and “success” in all its forms, and the overwork leads to lack of sleep, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment, and any number of stresses that can cause a person to break down emotionally.

My previous school had a 90% free and reduced lunch population, was audited for many years by the state, experienced excessive teacher turnover, and was eventually closed down.  I worked with many talented educators while I was there (many of whom I consider war buddies to this day), and I felt my heart go out to hundreds of students.  But I also worked with some people who couldn’t take it because of some (and eventually most) of the students who ran completely wild with no consequences to any actions.  One of those colleagues found herself in the news and facing a suspension for throwing a chair at a student.  To be fair, I will admit that the teacher did have some questionable mental faculties at the time, but I found myself feeling sorry for her knowing full well the abuse she endured for months from that student before the incident.  But when she finally lost her cool, she was the enemy.  And everyone in town, even fellow teachers, were ready to burn her at the stake for it.  I’m not excusing her actions, but I am suggesting that the more we hear  and talk about these “horrible” teachers, the more we create them.

A friend of mine just began her teaching career as a kindergarten teacher at a pretty needy school.  My advice to her before her first day, and to all new teachers I meet, is to find something far from the realm of teaching to help you get through it.  My first year of teaching I started a jewelry business and sold jewelry at craft fairs.  At the time, it just felt like a hobby–a way to sit in front of the television at night (after not getting home until 8pm and then eating microwave popcorn for dinner) and let my thoughts go while twisting wire with tiny pliers.  But in hindsight, I see that it was much more than that.  It was an escape, a release, a way to be normal in a day filled with unbelievable abnormalities–a much healthier antidepressant.  And the funny thing is that I got more validation from making jewelry–customers complimenting the earrings at a show, coworkers sending emails with orders–than I ever did from teaching that year.

The value our culture places on educators does not compare to the value educators place on their own role.  Teachers feel the world atop their shoulders, and the world refuses to admit the support it receives there.  This dynamic leads to teachers who work hard for validation that rarely comes, like the kid who works hard for a B only to be questioned by a parent as to why it wasn’t an A.  I’m not advocating for flowers thrown at our feet on our way to work, but until our society changes the way it views teachers, we will continue to have teachers who suffer in secret until they make the news for finally losing their cool.

Image taken from Google Images.