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.


I’m back!

Hello blog-i-verse!

It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve recovered from pregnancy, labor, and the months of juggling an infant, a toddler, and life as a teacher.  It’s been exhausting and truly amazing.

I’m just going to skip over the whole I’ve-been-neglecting-this-blog-and-I-feel-guilty thing, and just get to it.  So here goes…

I’m back!


So it’s probably really late coming, but I had a baby in November and have since spent my days glued to a couch breastfeeding while birds build nests in my greasy hair.  I’d love to say I’m writing, but I barely have the brain capacity to turn on the television and stare at it blankly.  Please forgive my absence and I’ll see you when normalcy returns.  In the meantime, enjoy this awesome article from Ashlee Gad that a friend sent me to make me feel better.  It totally describes my world right now.  I’ve read it many times over already.


Learning about compassion in Poland

Teaching has provided me many opportunities–I pretty much have the best job ever–but one opportunity that I don’t think I ever really digested was going to Poland in 2005 to tour concentration camps with Holocaust survivors.  Last night, while digging through baby clothes in the basement, I came across my journal from that trip and felt inspired to write about it.  Here it is…

This place is a grave. This whole place is a grave. Yet, flowers, grass, and trees grow without the knowledge of what has happened here. Life must go on. Suffering exists, but life must go on. May, 25 2005.
I remember, for some reason, feeling like I was starving. And I felt guilty for feeling this way because of everything that I was learning and witnessing. We had scheduled meals provided for us and I even wrote in my journal, “I’m really beginning to enjoy Polish food.” But I couldn’t get eating out of my head. I sat on the bus with fellow teachers traveling from cemetery to monument to concentration camp and all I could think about was drinking a cold, frosty coke, which doesn’t exist in Poland. Europeans like their soda hot, I discovered. I looked around me and saw young and old teachers, Holocaust survivors, Holocaust experts and thought, do they wish they had a coke too?
But about three days into the trip as I scarfed down food at one of the scheduled buffet meals, I looked over to Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor traveling with us who lived in Kentucky for many years after the war, and who I was both in awe of and felt to be a kindred spirit. With a plate piled with food in front of me and plans already to help myself to seconds, I looked at Irving who sat quietly, almost religiously, sipping one small bowl of soup. I thought to myself, he knows truly what it means to starve and here I sit complaining while he sips silently and contentedly. Every time I thought of food, or coke, I’d picture Irving savoring each sip of his broth as if it were his last, and I’d try to remember to savor it more.

Me and Irving Roth

Me and Irving Roth

I walked in, not expecting to see it, so it startled me. It smelled like death. A pile of hair from the murdered corpses. May 26, 2005.
Fred Spiegel, another survivor with us in Poland, walked with us into the room piled with human hair, the stench of burning flesh and rotting hair hanging in the air, and he stood aghast at the sight of one long blonde braid on top of the pile, perfectly in view from where we stood. He told us, once he caught his breath (this was his first time back to the camp since the war), that the last time he saw his little sister was as he stood watching her blonde braid dance across her shoulders as she bounced away, unaware of her fate. I looked around at my fellow teachers, sensitive people with a desire to foster change in the world, and eyes were welling up with tears at the realization that this man felt true pain and hardship with which we could never understand or relate.
We attempted to understand Irving and Fred’s pain later when we sat for 12 minutes (the amount of time it took to die from the gas) in the gas chamber at Majdanek. I looked at the concrete walls and stared at the scratch marks on them where dying human beings sucked the last shred of air while desperately fighting for their lives. The scratches blurred through my wet eyes, dancing like a very sad and gray Van Gogh painting. Some of us cried softly, dripping privately in our anger and desperation and others of us left choking on our sobs. Some went to be alone, sitting and writing; others were hugging and talking through what they felt. I looked around at my colleagues’ and friends’ blotchy, somber faces and noticed, within walking distance, a house. A woman was on her balcony, hanging dull-colored clothes on a clothesline. Everything I felt from the images my imagination had created for me in the gas chamber disappeared as I thought, this woman hangs her clothes out to dry every day beside a massive human grave. My thoughts were interrupted when someone in my group decided to create a prayer circle. There was no pressure, just some people who quietly joined hands and before long everyone had joined hands in quiet prayer and contemplation. I looked around that circle and recognized that there were people with joined hands from all religions as well as atheists, but everyone came together for one purpose: to pay quiet tribute to those who were murdered.  I looked up to the balcony where the woman had been, her clothes flapping in the wind and wondered if she ever prayed for her neighbors whose graves were below my feet. I hoped that she did.

Gate to Auschwitz

Gate to Auschwitz

I keep telling myself that the war is over and this does not and will not ever happen again. But seeing all this makes my heart ache. I know inside that we’re closer than we could ever imagine. May 27, 2005.
Days later we went to a synagogue where a rabbi and Holocaust expert were to speak to us about both his experience and his knowledge of history. The rabbi was late and we became restless sitting in our cold hard pews waiting for him to show. Finally, as he became inexcusably late, a leader in our group called him on his cell phone to find out what delayed him. He was told, through exasperated breaths, that the rabbi had been harassed on his way to the synagogue. Two thugs confronted him on the street and began pushing him around, chanting Poland for the Poles! over and over again. Again, the teachers sat in silence when we heard this news. A hush fell over the synagogue. I suddenly felt hopeless. What am I doing here, I thought, one teacher can’t stop hatred and violence, no matter how much history I learn. The rabbi finally arrived and his demeanor encouraged me; he was happy to be there and brushed off the act of cruelty as something that could be stopped if we just kept trying. He told us a story about a dog that saved a man’s life during the Holocaust. The man was a Jew who fled through the woods and found a barn belonging to a Gentile man who kept his dog inside it. The winter was brutal. The Jew shivered in the back of the barn, nearing death from starvation and hypothermia. The dog growled aggressively at the Jew in the beginning, but was in the habit of leaving half of his food when his master would feed him in the bowl for the Jew. The dog spread out his hay, sharing it with the man through the days and at night would lie close beside him, warming him with his body. The Jew said later that he suspected that the dog’s master knew he was there, yet pretended not to. He hadn’t enough compassion to let him into his house, but enough to allow him to sleep and eat in secret with his dog. The dog, however, shared lovingly and completely. As this rabbi spoke, his hair messed from the ordeal he had just undergone and glistening with a tint of sweat, I looked in wonder. Here stood a man before me who faced hatred and violence with hope and patience telling a story about a compassionate animal who saved the life of a man when no one else was brave enough to do it. I thought, if a dog can have compassion, surely any human being can, if they let themselves. And I wondered could I ever be as brave as the rabbi had been that day?

“Delicate Geniuses” and Hired Hands

The all-knowing George Costanza

The all-knowing George Costanza

Today I thought about the fact that teachers are held to a standard, criticized openly about the meeting (or lack thereof) of these standards, and often let go when they don’t perform accordingly.  Yet others in the service industry avoid such incessant ridicule, even though their performance affects the lives and well-being of the public as well.  I know I’m probably opening a can of worms here, but I’m talking about doctors.

One of my best friends is a nurse, my husband is a physical therapist, and I have several friends who are doctors, so I hope I don’t offend by going there–but I gotta.  Yesterday I went to the gastroenterologist for my first annual check up after being diagnosed with Celiac.  I’d heard rumors about one particular doctor in the practice–four separate people told me to avoid him, including a doctor in my OB’s office.  So I rescheduled with a woman in the practice who came highly recommended, and I really looked forward to speaking with a woman about my concerns, especially since I’m pregnant.

Now before I go on, I will address some biases.  I went into this appointment expecting to be told that I didn’t really have Celiac disease and it was all a big misunderstanding.  Or, at the very least, that I could go on a gluten binge for a while before being tested again to be sure.  My husband told me I was creating a fantasy that would ultimately disappoint me, and he was right, but I pretended not to hear him when he brought it up.  So, to continue…

Here I sat waiting for my awesome female state of the art doctor to come in, and I am instead greeted by a brusque, agitated middle-aged man–the very man I had been told to avoid.  The first thing he said to me was, “Are you pregnant?  I can’t do anything for you right now.”

I’m not kidding.

Let me address this point now:  Let’s say that on the first day of school, I happened to notice that one of my students has a broken hand, lacks school supplies, or–gasp!–has a learning disability, and rather than work with him or her in the best way I can to provide the best education that I can, I say, “There’s nothing I can do for you right now.”  I would not be employed for long.  Or I might be on the news or someone’s blog as an example of why our public schools are failing.

I explained to him that I really just wanted to be educated on my disease–that no one had really walked me through the ins and outs of it before.  To which he replied, “Well when it comes to the diet, patients really know more about that part than I do.”  I told this to my husband, and although he was appalled by the doctor’s bedside manner overall, he explained that this was pretty typical, even understandable–many doctors diagnose, but know little about the path to recovery.


So, to extend this analogy, pretend that I hand back an essay marked all to hell with red ink, but include no directions or feedback on how to fix the mistakes.  I’m pretty sure that one of the major current criticisms of teachers is their lack of improvement regarding moving kids to the next level after the students have been assessed.  Yet it is considered normal and acceptable for a doctor to tell me what’s wrong with me and not be able to tell me how to get healthy.

Finally, this “delicate genius” told me that I really just needed a good nutritionist, and after I explained to him that I saw a highly recommended one who simply handed me a bunch of packets she had printed from the internet, he continued to harp on the importance of working with a qualified nutritionist.  Fine.  I believe him.  But I don’t often get the luxury as an educator of pawning my students’ problems off on other professionals.  In fact, it is often my sole responsibility to see that they get all that they need for the hour that they’re with me–mentally, emotionally, and physically.  The icing on the cake though was when, after becoming frustrated (and even a little hormone-induced hysterical), I said, “You know I really just want to know details…like would it be the end of the world if I had a beer every now and then?”  And he replied, “They have gluten-free beer!  You know, I really don’t often hear patients complain about the gluten-free diet.  Most are pretty happy on it.”

I wanted to slap him.

But I didn’t slap him.  Instead, he ordered some blood work, and I cried as soon as the nurse entered the room.  She whispered conspiratorially to me that many people felt that way after seeing him.  So let’s recap:  Four people, including another doctor, talked me out of seeing him.  His own nursing staff disliked him.  Many patients left his office in tears.  Yet, he still has a job–a well-paid one at that.

Meanwhile, politicians and well meaning members of the general public, discuss the pros and cons of teacher tenure, the importance of balanced teacher evaluation systems, and whether or not teacher pay, retirement, and school budgets can be sliced ever more slightly off the top.  How is it that a doctor can be terrible at his job and the worst that befalls him is…well, I’m not sure.  No one is debating the security of his job, whether he deserves to be paid, or how to best evaluate his performance.  And if they are talking about it, it’s not public in the same way as teacher reform.

Don’t get me wrong, the way I feel about some of these topics would probably surprise you.  I see the importance of cultivating quality educators, keeping them, and challenging them.  But I do get frustrated with the double standard, and I get really tired of being treated like a misbehaving hired hand while others in public service are treated like infallible gods.  We all owe it to those we serve to give the best care we can, and should be held accountable if we don’t.

Photo courtesy of Google Images.