When The Light Goes Out

Indulging the Melodramatic Nature Within Me

A few weeks ago, I spoke to a friend with whom I had not spoken in quite a while.  We spoke about all things life.  We spoke about his girl, his job, his recent job changes.  We spoke about my kid, my wife, and my job, too.  In the middle of us talking, he asked if I was still inspired to do the work I did.  I said yes, but I wondered why he would even ask.  I also wondered what the answer was.

A few days later, someone I saw at a conference mentioned that they loved my Twitter game (their words, not mine), but mentioned that I hadn’t written recently and that he wished I had.  I went back into my account and noticed that I had not written since February.  And while hiatuses were not uncommon for me, this one felt bigger; it felt like it happened because I hadn’t the inspiration to actually type.

It was not that I didn’t have something to say, I just didn’t feel like actually saying anything.  And that is abnormal for me.

Slightly alone, burning low

I felt a little like this coal.  I was still burning, but I felt darker than before and more lonely.  The embers were still there, but they were burning lower; their light was dying with every passing day.  Is this sentiment more than a little hyperbolic?  Yes.  But it is so for a reason.  I have never been someone who didn’t want to move forward and spark myself to newer, better things.  What I am, also, is someone who refuses to lose, and as such, I want to just reach out to any like me.  I needed my fire relit, and I am hoping to help you should you need that.

Don’t Listen to Wayne’s World

Many of us know these guys.  I remember watching the SNL episodes with my

family and dying of laughter.   Every time they bowed down and proclaimed they were not worthy, I would giggle like a small child.  No one said my sense of humor was advanced…

However, the lessons learned from Wayne and Garth here are twofold.  First, even when beaten down, tired, and ready to quit over the last few years, I survived when I found time to laugh.  Whether at myself, a stupid movie, or over a few beers with friends, that release was a godsend.

Also, the other lesson is to have a mantra.  You ARE worthy, and whatever you have to tell yourself, do it.  For me?  It took a long time to figure out.  But eventually I settled on this:

You will never be outworked or outpaced, even if no one sees it.

I strove to make that true and it kept me grounded.

Don’t Get Caught Up in the Blame Game

CLICK TO SEE BIGGER IMAGE

Fun fact.  I did.  I blamed a lot of people for my unhappiness.  I blamed my boss, I blamed a co-worker who I found to be disingenuous.  I blamed a peer that I felt was mean to me.

You know how many of those “sources of anguish” actually mattered?  Zero.  None.  Those things existed, and they were frustrating, but I let them extinguish my drive.  Some people can get past things like that.  I couldn’t.

But here is the big shift.  I CAN get past those.  I have spent the last two years focusing on helping to build a new school.  I barely took a vacation last summer.  I spent every spare moment thinking about work.  My entire professional life was geared towards something else, while not dedicating much to my professional growth.  That is a shift I will make, and it is one you, too, can make.  If you exert control over the things you should and can, your flame gets fanned by you.  That ownership is powerful.

#TribeLife

Simply put, you get to choose who you want by your side.  Lot’s of people say that they build their PLN or their tribe.  Those are fine.  I prefer these guys…

You see, dogs are awesome.  But beyond that, they are the perfect metaphor.  They are the first to put each other in their place and remind each other when the line has been crossed.  They are also the first to protect each other.  Furthermore, they also engage in play with each other.

As a metaphor, dogs work because in the case of putting each other in their place, your tribe needs to do the same.  Simply stated, when you act like an idiot, someone needs to call you an idiot.  That someone, however, needs to be the people who protect you…like dogs.  And the play part of the metaphor?  Well, who better than your tribe to bounce your hairbrained ideas off of to make the world a better place?

So whether it is a tribe, a herd, a murder (hehehe),  or a flock, find your people because, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “The strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”

Relight the Fire

Look, teaching is hard.  And if we aren’t careful, we burn out quickly.  And, to be honest, I wrote this because I felt like I had to.  This is a cathartic piece for me.  But after the last two years, I needed it.  It may be pedantic or uninspired or maybe even a bit wandering.  But I needed it.

And if I needed it,  maybe someone else may need it, too, and to be reminded as my friends have reminded me that we are more than, not less than.

I do not know what happens next.  I, at this moment, am unsure of where I am working next year.  But, frankly, I do not care.  Bring it on.

 

Coaching a Culture

Losing Authority, Gaining Perspective

I became one of them.  I am the guy who left the classroom to become a coach.  To this day, I find solace in the idea that I am there to support teachers, however, I no longer can be seen as an expert as I am no longer in the classroom.  I have influence, but no real authority; I am not an administrator, but I have lost the authority that comes from being a practitioner.

I could jump on my soapbox about how coaching is important.  I could reach for the nearest megaphone to remind everyone reading this that they are who they are as a result of some type of coaching, even if it was a negative experience.   As I have grown into my leadership role in and out of my school, I have seen more and more teachers, both experienced and not, resistant to the idea of coaching.  And in writing this, I am consistently using the wrong pronoun.  I keep saying “I,” rather we should be saying “we.” We all believe that our kids need coaching, so why would we be any different?  As such, let us all accept two assumptions:

  • The need for systemic, ongoing coaching is not isolated to any one building
  • This problem is not a professional problem, but a cultural problem

These problems are not mutually exclusive, but rather intricately connected.  While the work surrounding school culture continues to grow in momentum, not enough progress has been made, yet.  There are examples of places where it works.  Thomas Nelson High School in Nelson County Kentucky has created digital infrastructures to support the practice of teacher growth while protecting the teacher’s time and professionalism.  Teacher-Powered Schools has gained a national following because of the work they do around empowering teachers to grow and lead.

And while there are certainly more, they are not the norm, rather the exception.  What are the schools doing the work around coaching well actually doing?  Are they addressing instructional issues?  Systems issues?  Whatever the answer, changing a school’s culture takes everyone, and I believe coaching is the key to the change.  Let us offer one more assumption; in this context, “coach” is not defined as someone with the title of coach.  A coach, in this case, is anyone helping others grow, whatever that looks like.

So What, Now What…Three Ideas to Implement

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Silly)

Teachers are notoriously resistant to change.  In talking to three colleagues, they all stated the same need.  Find two or three things to focus on for a year, and monitor its success.  People become frustrated when things change day-to-day.  Consistency is the key to student success, and according to my colleagues, also key to the success of teachers.  Teacher leaders need to advocate for keeping changes to a minimum and celebrating the successes of the implemented systems and visions.

Make Initiative the Norm

Teachers are, for a myriad of reasons, often beaten down.  Their sense of self-fulfillment and self-direction become sacrificed as the onslaught of data talks, tests, and day-to-day bureaucracy take hold.  With the loss of personal fulfillment and self-direction comes an ugly outcome; teachers lose themselves and their passion.  They lose their sense of identity around their job.  They lose their voice.  They may be able to address the science of teaching, but they lose the ability to engage in the art of teaching.  Coaches and teacher-leaders need to build the next generation of teacher-leaders by helping them to reclaim their initiative.  When someone says, “we can’t do that,” the response should be a visceral “why not”.

Innovation and initiative are easy to stifle in a building, especially when the leaders of the building do not believe in the work.  The beautiful thing is, however, teacher-leaders can be innovative through grassroots work.  Subtle, little changes can make tremendous impacts.  Someone will value the work, and it is up to coaches to guide and encourage the work.  It is also imperative that those coaches and colleagues celebrate the achievements and impacts of that innovation.

No One Gets to Opt Out

This idea is the most important of three steps.  Everyone should receive coaching.  Top down, left to right, everyone needs coaching.  The time for coaching is a sacred time.  It should be professional, but collegial.  In short, even the principal can learn something from the classroom teacher.  This type of forced vulnerability can be difficult, but it also creates empathy and understanding.  Lastly, it gives teachers power.  Shared leadership emerges when everyone is given voice and authority.  Do you want to change a school’s culture?  Change how leadership is seen.  If people invest themselves through shared leadership, school culture improves.

In Short

Coaches can be no more than teachers who want to help.  They help others through formal or informal processes.  Every teacher-leader is a coach, and every teacher is capable of teacher-leadership.

As is written by Bill Mulford, the Director of Leadership for Learning Research Group for the University of Tasmania, student outcomes improve when teachers and those who support teachers have consistency, feel valued, and receive support.  From the same paper comes this graphic on page 16.  It shows that teacher recruitment, development, and retention increase when teachers feel valued, feel autonomous, see themselves as a leader, and see improvement in their capacity.

I have the title of coach, but I also have the self-given title of teacher-leader.  I see my role to help others grow, but I see my higher calling to be one of school culture.  My role is to improve my school culture by ensuring everyone is coached, empowered, and elevated.

My question of you is simple.  What coaching and culture experiences do you have that you can share to continue to grow the work?

Music Drives My Classroom and Yours

And I’m back!  I have taken a hiatus this summer to focus my energies on supporting the blogs of others in my district and beyond.  It has been rewarding to work with these brilliant minds, but now I am ready to return to my own thoughts.  As I thought about what I wanted to write, I began to think about what drives me in the education world.  For whatever reason, my mind shifted to what motivates me on a daily basis.  The answer is simple: music.

I’ve played music almost my whole life.  I was a drummer in several bands.  I played in my school’s marching, pep, and concert bands.  Music always has driven me.  When coupled with my natural introversion and empathetic nature, music’s lyrics have always played a special part in my life.  Life mimics art and vice versa.  I “see” lyrics all around me and connect to them on many, often strange, levels.  Last year at about this time, I wrote a blog piece called, The Untravelled road: The Teacher Leaders of Tomorrow.  In it, I focus on one song’s lyrics and how they matched who and what I was last year.  Now that I am back again to the summer with a new year about to start, I decided to make this a tradition and write another piece where lyrics take the stage.

MAKE SOME CHANGES, DAMMIT!

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” -The Who

Teachers have a unique challenge.  Every year, they must reflect and change to make sure they are better than they were in the year that has gone by.  Some embrace this more than others, yet I would argue all teachers go through some change every year.  If insanity is the repeating of the same actions while hoping for new results, then a teacher is forced to change in order to avoid that insanity.  There are enough moments in a teacher’s life that cause insanity, why would we want to cause our own?  In this spirit, I have spent a lot of time this summer thinking about how I could be a better instructional coach.  I have read Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness, The Heart of Coaching, Hacking Leadership, and The Innovator’s Mindset.  I have read countless articles and had honest, critical conversations about my past performance.  During one of those honest conversations, I was talking to a mentor, I was making excuse after excuse when she said to me, “Make some changes, dammit.”

Harsh?  Yes.  True?  Double yes.  

If I am asking my teachers to open their minds and change behaviors to better their instruction, why should I be different as a coach?  I embraced this challenge and am hopeful for a better year, and I am asking anyone who reads this to identify one change that they would like to make this year.  The school year is not here yet, so you have time.  Think of one thing you want to improve and then make some changes, dammit.

PLEASE COME HOME

“All because of you I believe in angels, not the kind with wings, no not the kind with halos.The kind that bring you home when home becomes a strange place.” -Rise Against

Ok, I have to admit, this song by Rise Against is kind of a love song.  However, after spending a year examining school and how to improve instruction through giving a home to students, this piece was particularly striking.  For almost every year of my teaching career, I was able to reach the kids who were “unreachable.”  They felt safe with me.  They had a home in my classroom.  After transferring to a new school, I lost that ability.  Like, a bubble in front of my three-year-old daughter gone.  I spent a long time figuring out why, and through many conversations with students, they lamented that the school felt foreign to them.  They didn’t feel home.  There was no connectedness.  I wasn’t making that space for them.

While I was far less than successful than I would have liked with students last year, I am optimistic this year.  I want my students to feel home.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I will have an angel’s wings.  But I do believe I can make a strange place feel more like home.  I just need to be more intentional.  Whether it is eating lunch with my students or implementing more inquiry based learning, it is doable.

Again, my challenge is yours.  Find at least one student with whom you can connect.  Make your space his or her safe space.  Bring a home where there might not be one anywhere else.

OPEN YOUR EYES, IMAGINE WHAT COULD BE

“A pall on truth and reason, it feels like hunting season, so avoid those lines of sight and we’ll set this right.” -Bad Religion

Inevitably, as the school year kicks in, there will be talk of data, testing, best practice, etc, etc.  However, should we care about these things?  I get it; those over us do care about these things, but by focusing on those things, we focus on everything except the kids. Yes, data, tests, and best practices are important to some level, but are they student centered?  I’d argue no.  Think about this:

  • If we focus on data, do we focus on the kids as kids or as numbers?
  • If we focus on tests, do we focus on true education?
  • If we focus on best practices, do we focus on breaking the mold and innovating for the sake of the kids instead of doing the “established norm?”

Bad Religion states that there is, at times, a hunting season for truth and reason.  And while one person’s truth may not be another, I think most teachers are in the same camp.  Our teacher hearts know that there is a place for tests and data and best practices.  However, our teacher hearts also know that we need to break boundaries.  Therefore, let’s be like Bad Religion; let’s avoid the wrong lines of sight and set things right.  I challenge you to challenge the status quo.  Do what is best for your kids every day.  The rest will sort itself out.

I realize that this piece is, as usual, reflective and personal.  However, I have tried to make my challenges yours.  Let’s support each other, and if we’re lucky, our silos will crumble, our voices will rise, and the rising tide will bring all of our students and teachers afloat.  Afterall, as was said by Corey Taylor of Stone Sour and Slipknot, “You don’t break ground by doing the same thing over and over.  That’s like standing in place.  You have to risk to gain it all.”

Nothing Scares a Teacher More Than Change: A Reflection on Being 1:1

I would like to introduce Lauren Richardson.  Lauren is a middle school Spanish teacher who works for the Mason City Schools in Mason, Ohio.  Lauren and I attended Miami University of Ohio for our undergraduate and I am a HUGE fan of her work.  Please read, enjoy, and most of all, SHARE! -Noah

by Lauren Richardson
@srarichardson
richardsonl@masonohioschools.com

Nothing scares a teacher more than change.  For me, this looked like our entire middle school going 1:1 with Chromebooks. I was nervous. I have always been what I consider tech-savvy and aware of trends in the educational technology world. What I was not confident in, however, was how I would manage 28 student devices in an 8th-grade Spanish classroom. To gather as much advice as I could on the 1:1 environment prior to implementation, I consulted Classroom Management in the Digital Age written by Heather Dowd and Patrick Green.

I was worried that I needed to have the Chromebooks out every class, not because the district said we had to, but because of the expectations, I had for myself. If I have Chromebooks in my classroom, I am going to use them daily, because that is what a tech-savvy teacher does, right? Wrong. You must first start with purpose. Do you need immediate data on student comprehension? Great use of the Chromebooks. Are you putting a worksheet into electronic form to save copies and to “use” technology? Stick with the copies. As a Spanish teacher, I found certain staples I would utilize in my classroom to use technology meaningfully (Quizlet, Quia, Flipgrid, YouTube). It is a no-brainer to give the students an opportunity to receive authentic exposure to language and culture on a Chromebook.

In short, the ability I now have to break down the classroom walls and give students access to an endless list of experts is invaluable. If you are transitioning to a 1:1 environment and are concerned about how much you have to use the device, don’t worry. One week you may use the device two days, another week you may use them every day. The quantity of time that students use the device is irrelevant. The quality of enhanced experiences the technology provides students is what matters. Think first about purpose.

Next came the question of managing 28 devices in one room. Classroom Management in the Digital Age offered some eye-opening thoughts on how to successfully manage all of the Chromebooks. First, if your lesson is engaging, you are incorporating student interests’ and giving students choice and opportunity to explore, management will be minimal. If students are engaged in the lesson, they will not find a need to go elsewhere for entertainment.

This challenged me as an educator even more than the past to create lessons that were exciting, relevant, and required higher order thinking skills. Sometimes, however, the lessons that seem best in our minds can fail and we need to call in the management reinforcements. Dowd and Green offered some quick sayings in order to gain student attention and minimize screen distractions. Here are some of my favorites for quick transitions while using devices:

  • “45 your screens.” (Students dip screens to a 45-degree angle)
  • “Descreen.”
  • “Tip the top.”
  • “Dock it.” (Students put their devices in the upper right-hand corner of their desk.)

Like most teachers, I try to be organized and to always have routines in my class. How would I signal to kids that we were using Chromebooks for the day? Would I teach them a routine at the beginning of the year when discussing rules? What would be the consequences for inappropriate use? In the end, the procedure of when to take out devices developed naturally.

At the beginning of the year, I simply asked students to be responsible and respectful in their use of their devices. I find a lot of “management” is avoided by having positive relationships with your students. If you show respect for them and your interest in making class engaging is evident, they will not want to show disrespect by playing games or surfing the internet. They will want to engage with you during your class period because you are making it an experience.  

Sometimes, I may not know the answer about a vocabulary word when WordReference.com does. It’s okay for my students to log on and look without asking my permission. Sometimes students want to know more of the “why” than I have time to explain. They might need a visual representation instead of the verbal explanation I am offering. Maybe they want to add the Spanish song I am playing to their Spotify playlist. I do not want my students to feel as though they need to ask permission every time they take out their computer.

Room 414 offers more than Spanish language and culture. I want my students to feel my support in exploring their curiosities. They need to know I trust them. Other educators I know have found success in implementing various procedures in device management such as a Slidedeck (Daily slide indicating agenda and whether students will need devices) or Whiteboard signs (Green side means Chromebooks used, Red side means no devices needed for the day) if classes need a bit more direction. Dowd and Green call these procedures “activators” as they allow teachers to get class started without giving explicit instructions.

The past year going 1:1 at our middle school was more enjoyable that I had imagined it would be. Once the school year began, I no longer worried about how much I was using the Chromebooks.  Instead, I focused on utilizing them as a tool to increase engagement and allow student choice in pacing and activities. Your students will not question how much you use the devices, and parents will not be disappointed if their child does not receive electronic homework daily.

You know what is best for your students; continue to trust that intuition. Keep teaching to ignite student passion for learning.  Be excited that each child has a portal to explore beyond the curriculum. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Dowd and Green say it best, “Having the right attitude is the single most important trait for navigating, processing and learning in a connected classroom.”

Now, get ready to create and experience a learning environment that you wish you had when you were a kid.  Do you have any tips for someone that is entering a 1:1 classroom?  Please share not only to me, but to your networks as well.  Together we are stronger.

 

The Moments That Change Us: Education and Mindset

Here is an ugly truth.  It is unlikely that you, or anyone else, will experience a formative moment every day.  If we are not careful, however, we can go whole days, weeks, or (GASP) months without a formative moment.  As someone who fancies himself a life-long learner, the prospect of going weeks, or even months, without an awe-inspiring moment seems preposterous.  Realistically, however, I know that it has happened as I have forgotten to be cognizant of the world around me.

As I previously stated about teacher self-care, teachers need to take the time to learn in the summer.  For me, that learning takes two thematic tracks: teacher mindfulness and instructional coaching. Clearly, there is a natural connection between the two.  The books I chose to read this summer, contain many formative tidbits. However, what I realized today is that I need to stop worrying about the formative.  I need to worry about the transformative.

Formative vs. Transformative

According to daretobewise.org, formative activities are those that, “…by themselves leave our perception of the world unchanged,” whereas transformative activities are those that, “…give birth to our inner potential and allow us to do more, think more, feel more – be more.”  I love this idea.

Think of it this way.  You are reading a book on mindfulness.  It is called Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness.  It has many great suggestions on how to implement and teach mindfulness.  Furthermore, it even has a step-by-step process for you. You read the book and you think to yourself, “That has some great ideas.  I should try one.” This book provided a formative moment as it added a layer to think about, but it did not fundamentally change you.  Then you read another book called, Hacking Leadership.  You read the book and suddenly a transformative moment happens.  Where you could have read the book, taken its (AMAZING) ideas, and moved on, you connect the dots. After reading the two books, your viewpoint fundamentally shifts and you have changed.

Welcome to my summer thus far.  I have gone from knowing I need to change to changing my mindset altogether.  The proof will be in the pudding come August, but a changing mindset is important to the transformation process.

Here is what I want to stress to you.  In the opening of this piece, I suggest that people may go for a long time without formative moments.  This is, possibly, still true.  However, I would like to add an addendum to my argument.  Every moment is formative if you pay enough attention it. Furthermore, the more mindful you are of each individual moment (I told you I have been reading), the more likely you are to find a transformative moment.

The Takeaway

I am reminded, once again, that education is the most human of professions.  It relies on intellect, emotion, problem-solving, and deep passion.  And yet, the things on which teachers most often focus are ultimately irrelevant to personal improvement or what’s best for students.  Test scores don’t ultimately matter.  Data walls and name-and-claims don’t ultimately matter.  Professional growth goals don’t matter.  Transforming into a professional who best serves students is what matters.  Aiding students in their pursuit to transform into something more is what matters.

As we get tired and as the year continues, it will be harder to be intentional in trying to move from formative moments to transformative moments.  However, remember this: our uniquely human profession exists in an extraordinary, rich world.  All things considered, we have an immense opportunity.  I ask that each of you become aware.  I ask that each of you slow down.  Lastly, I ask that we all be mindful of the small moments that influence us in order to truly transform.  Forget about the things that don’t matter and focus on those that do.  Most importantly, enjoy the ride and don’t forget to look up at the light bulb going off above your own head.  After all, isn’t it fun to see it above your students’ heads?  Remember to have fun with yours, too.

 

A Reflection on Deeper Learning

Words cannot express the awe I am in.  After attending the Jefferson County Public Schools Deeper Learning Symposium, I am left energized to go to work, as well as hopeful for the future of education.  The conversations, themes, and topics around deeper learning were not necessarily new, yet the major change I saw was how teachers received the conversations.  There was very little naysaying or disbelief, rather a desire to change the status quo because the status quo is becoming antiquated.

Before the Symposium, I researched what “deeper learning” actually meant.  According to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, deeper learning revolves around “deeper learning competencies, stronger assessment, high quality instructional materials, and an engagement in the research base around instructional practices.” Deeperlearning4all.org goes a bit further, stating that deeper learning prepares students to, “know and master core academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, and be self-directed and able to incorporate feedback.”

IMG_7638
Dr. Marty Polio

So, knowing all of this, why was the Deeper Learning Symposium so powerful? To me, the power in the three days rested in that people from all over the country spoke on deeper learning for not only students, but also, Dr. Marty Polio stated, teachers and those who support teachers.

Those Who Teach

Deeper learning is clearly a student-centered practice.  From using Google tools in the classroom, to incorporating project-based learning, the sessions offered provided insights into how to change instructional practices to personalize and deepen student learning. Session after session sparked ideas, shifts in mindsets, and growth in skills to allow teachers to provide students the opportunity to learn not only in a way that is personal to them, but also to learn in a way that prepares them for a future that today’s educational model does support.

It is imperative to note that teachers still have much work to do.  Whether it is further changing their own methodologies, the practices of fellow teachers, or the mindsets of the administrative staff around them, teachers will have to take the energy and motivation from the Symposium and work tirelessly through struggle, failure, and naysayers to do what is best for students.

Those Who Support Teachers

Clearly, classroom practitioners are the front line of engagement, but there are many allies who support the front line.  To me, this is where the Deeper Learning Symposium was truly innovative and empowering.  Teacher leaders, from both inside and outside the classroom, were encouraged to raise their voices in support of improving the pedagogy of the United States.

Outside of the sessions, teachers and organizations were cultivating interconnectedness between teachers and those that can support them.  As time went on through the Symposium, it was clear that those supports came in more than one form; there were those whose title was to support teacher-leaders, but there were also teacher-leaders stepping up to support their fellow teachers.  This community spirit will improve the professional practice of all involved.  Everyone, from coaches to teachers to administrators, is bettered through collaboration, critical feedback, productive struggle, and mutual mission and vision.  To me, the true power of deeper learning came in these moments.  Teachers internalized the need to change and found those who could support them in that endeavor.

So What Now?

Honestly, I am having trouble identifying the words to express the power of the Symposium.  The movement has begun.  That much is evident.  And while I am struggling to express the past, I have no issues with expressing the vision of the future.

All teachers, whether they attended the Deeper Learning Symposium or not, need to rethink their practices.

Whether it was changing, as Dr. Christopher Emdin suggests, mindsets, or changing what it means to be connected, we all need to improve every aspect of our practice to improve the outcomes and futures of the students we serve.  This is a whole child issue.  It is not a grades or tests issue.   So what can you do?  Research.  Read.

IMG_7893.JPGReach out.

JCPSForward is a good place to start.  They are an organization, of which I am a member, of teachers and support staff dedicated to connecting and empowering teachers in their search for better practices.  You can also join the JCPSForward Twitter chats by following the hashtag #JCPSChat.  The next one is Monday, June 19th at 8 PM.  If you don’t know how to engage in a Twitter chat, please reach out to me and I would be happy to support you in that practice.

Keep up the energy and the belief.  Keep up the spirit of the Deeper Learning Symposium (check out the hashtag #jcpsdl).  And, as always, move forward for our students because #ourstudentsdeserveit.

The Teacher Effect: A Reminder that Every Moment Matters

He was an easy kid to like.  He had a million dollar smile and the looks to match.  He was part Italian, part black, and had an intriguing androgyny.  He was destined to be a model. He was not the best student, but he never gave up.  Paul (name changed) embodied a worldliness and empathy that many adults seem to lack.

These characteristics didn’t exist in isolation.  I had seen many seniors blossom into little adults and fundamentally change who they had been up until that point.  Not Paul.  My wife had Paul in middle school and said he was the same way even back then. I worried about Paul last year, but he always seemed to find his way amongst the chaos.  His family life was less-than-desirable and he was poor.  He had some friends, but not many because he thought on a different plane than them.  He had a girlfriend to whom he was devoted, though she frequently did not return that devotion.  And yet, even on my worst days, Paul would step up and ask after me, my wife, and my daughter.

Struggle as he did, Paul still managed to triumphally walk across the stage at graduation; he plastered his award winning smile on his face as he threw his fist in the air.  Through the following year, he still kept in touch to let me know he was alive.  He wasn’t accomplishing his dreams, but as he said, he wasn’t doing so, yet. And the year marched on.

As my own, tumultuous year came to an end, I was excited to get back to center.  I had plenty of pleasure and professional reading to do.  I had conferences lined up.  I had daily workout and diet plans.  In short, I was going to engage in the self-care that all teachers need to do in the summers.  Then I got a message: “Hey.”

Paul was reaching out.  It had been a long time, so I was anxious to see what was going on.  I asked if he’d been well.  His response floored me.

“Not really.  I have been going through a lot and idk how you are going to take this, but I have a drug problem…almost any pill that will get me high, mostly Xanax.  I hate who I’ve become.”

For the next hour, I bounced between phone calls with him and The Healing Place.  He was not aware that I called The Healing Place, he simply thought I was dealing with my young daughter.  When I finally told him what I had done, he went silent.  The silence went on for much longer than I was comfortable.  Finally, he said, “I never expected this.  Thanks for not quitting on me even though I am not your student anymore.”  I reminded him that he will always be my student and I worked with him to make some next steps and contingency plans.  As of now, we are waiting to hear back on a bed for him. Audibly holding back tears, Paul simply said thank you and hung up the phone.

Though this happened a week ago, I have been restless.  I can’t shake my despair. But I am also reminded of a simple fact.

Every moment matters.

I knew that Paul liked me and continued to do so past graduation.  What I didn’t grasp last week was that he truly respected me.  It was I he reached out to for help. Not his girlfriend or parents.  And while I didn’t ask why that was the case, I suspect it is because I always pushed him and never gave up on him, even on his worst days.  He saw, and continues to see, me as someone who wouldn’t quit on him.

So this summer, amongst my pool visits and gym workouts, and amongst the quality time with my daughter and wife, I will be changing my professional focus.  I want to learn more about the warning signs of future “failure” in school-aged youth.  I know many of the academic indicators, but I would like to know more beyond that.  I plan on rereading A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne.  I also plan on reaching out to valued members of my professional learning network.

I am unsure what I will learn.  However, when we are in the classroom and are tired and exasperated, it is up to us to make sure the students know we care.  We may know it, but they need to see it. They need to see it because, let’s be honest, they’re watching.

I recognize this post is mostly reflective, and the lesson I relearned because of Paul is not a novel one.  All teachers know that our actions and relationships matter.  Sometimes, we just need someone to remind us.  I, unfortunately, had to be reminded by Paul.  And while the reminder was a painful one, I remain optimistic because Paul is a man with a brilliant future.  He simply hasn’t arrived, yet.

If you have any good resources, please leave them below in the comments or with the contact form.  I am counting on you, and I will pay it forward in kind with those around me.  There are too many Paul’s in the world.

 

Let’s Build the Joyous Culture Because #OurStudentsDeserveIt

Finally I get the chance to sit back in front of my computer.  The warm weather has broken for now.  The sun is out, and everyone in the house is asleep but me.  The breeze comes in through the windows and the air smells sweet.  And while I could be doing anything, all I can think about is school.  It has been an up and down ride for me as the school year began, but this week, it all started to come together.  Why?  Because this week, I actually got to teach kids.

Part of my job description this year is to work as an interventionist.  I take small groups of students through the day to catch them up while not falling behind on new content.  It is a differentiation opportunity/nightmare that delights/terrifies me.  And though there was a  myriad of emotions I felt as these students stepped through my door for the first time, one shone through.  Happiness.  Excitement.  Passion.  Okay, three emotions.  I loved being among (literally among them; I tend to sit on the floor) the kids as theme and characterization and conflict began to click together.  Light bulb moments.  I delighted in acknowledging their frustrations as things didn’t make sense and sitting down with them to help them sift through their confusion.  I was even gitty when my one period which is comprised of more than half of students with ADHD came through the door.  I love my resource role at my school, but I had forgotten how much I love being in the classroom.  Look at my student in the picture.  Before Friday, she had never annotated before (so she says).  Look at how much she had done, and it was all right!

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Student annotations.  She had never done this before.  Look at how much she did!

The purpose of this piece, though, is not to just share my joy this week.  What keeps me in front of my computer as opposed to outside on this beautiful day is that there are those around me at work who do not feel this joy every day.

Here’s the thing.  My school is a hard school, and the kids will often push even veterans to the edge.  As part of my responsibilities at the school, I am to support teachers and mentor them through their struggles.  I can walk into any classroom and identify ten celebrations and ten areas for improvement.  I can find systems problems in the blink of an eye, and I can think of way on way to differentiate a lesson.  I can give management advice and tip on how to give feedback.

What I cannot figure out is how to help these teachers I support find joy in the job as opposed to obligation to the job.  Mind you, it is not all of them, or even most of them.  But they exist.  They may not publicly say it, but you can see it.  If there isn’t joy in the struggles and successes, the students suffer because lessons become about compliance to the standards and not innovation or creativity.  Students suffer because the teachers cannot feign excitement for the most boring of lessons that we sometimes have to do.  I mean, I hate poetry, but I can be the most excited person in the room for some Robert Frost if I have to.

So what do we do?  We all know teachers like this.  They may come in smiling every day and say good morning as if nothing is wrong, but we know, even if they do not, that their identity is not teacher.  It is a professional with a clientele.  And the difference between the two may be subtle, but earth shattering.  How do we build an identity of passion, excitement, and innovative spirit in teachers who do not feel it, yet?

This is one of those gray areas.  It has nothing to do with policy, and a teacher can be successful on paper if there isn’t an inherent joy.  Yet, even without being about policy or success on paper, our kids deserve the best us every day.  And I want every one I work with to feel the passion and excitement I feel when I am with students.  So, world, hit me.  Our students deserve it, and I want to build the joyous culture.  How do we do it?

So It Begins: Let Us Grow Together

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Let me lay a truth on you.  No one cares about your resume.  Boom.  Mic drop.  That is a hard reality in the teaching profession.  After all, when we study the giants of our profession, their resumes are immense.  The heroes of education are venerated for a reason, but so often they speak in theories and ideas that the public finds hard to understand.  And, as public servants, do we not have a responsibility to make our work approachable?

In the United States, teachers are faced with a status quo that is totally and absolutely backwards.  We are told, whether implicitly or explicitly, that our greatness comes in the form of data, notes, interventions, and and and and and….You get the point.  Proving you are respectable in the teaching profession requires quantitative data.  Let me be clear, those things are important, but what they are not are student centered.  They masquerade as student centered, but they are not student centered.  Here is what is important–  by virtue of being a teacher, you ARE a teacher-leader, a respectable professional.  What many of us are not are teacher-leaders who understand who we are.  We often think we know our identity, but when we have critical, metacognitive moments, we find a cognitive dissonance between what we think we are and what society sees us as.

I would like to tell you a story.  After all, context is important.  Imagine if you will, a young teacher, straight out of school, comes in guns ablazing to his first job.  Theories are memorized, philosophies are studied, and he is going to change the world.  He enters a world where the mark of being good at his job means he gets a title.  Every day he strives for a title.  He works for recognition.  He wants to be known as the best.  Things.  Are.  Good.

Six years into his career, he gets a call from his principal.  This is it!  This young teacher is going to get that title!  And in only six years.  He is told a very different story.  He is being stripped of his Instructional Leadership Team position.  He is told to stop trying to be important.  He is told, in truth, to get back in line.  He is not that good.  He does not get a title.

That young teacher was me.

I was crushed.  Thankfully, my coworker Tracey picked me back up.  To this day, she is a model of whom I want to be.  She told me to find myself.  This, she said, was an opportunity to move forward.  You are good, she said.  It is time to become great.  But how was I going to do that?

For two years, I refocused.  I looked for how I could always do right by my kids.  I always strived for training, not titles.  Then I found the missing piece.  Identity.  I didn’t have one.  As writer Parker J. Palmer says, “Good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher…But by ‘identity’ and ‘integrity’ I do not mean only our noble features, or the good deeds we do, or the brave faces we wear to conceal our confusions and complexities. Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.”

At the beginning, my identity revolved around being someone I wasn’t.  Gregarious.  Extroverted.  Ambitious to a fault.  However, I am naturally quite introverted, a hard worker, and intuitive if I let myself be.  Once I found myself, I decided I needed to stop saying I needed a title.  I needed to own that guiding my students to excel would be enough.  That, I decided, would be my identity and legacy as a teacher.

Through this discovery, my students were the benefactors.  Every day, I spent spare moments jotting ideas, talking to master teachers, and researching ways that I could do better by students.  And in doing so, I discovered something profound.  Kids cared!  Students were engaged!  Achievement improved!  I have the data to support it, and in some future draft of this, I may include it.  The community of room 229 was inspiring.  I was inspired.  And here is the twist– while I was finding “identity” and “integrity,” so too were my students.  Students stopped asking, “Why are we doing this,” and instead stated, “Tell me more.”  My students started applying what we were doing to their lives.

When I focused on myself, attempting to be someone I wasn’t, I was failing my kids.  When I decided to play to my strengths and to embrace my basic skills, my days ceased to be about gaining notoriety.  They became about embracing my new identity so that my kids could truly thrive.  And just like that, I became a teacher-leader.  And while that is not an official title, it is the only title I need. We, the teachers and the students, have to understand that our personal voice can be the loudest voice in shifting the professional voice of teaching and true learning in America.

This is a start.  Teachers have powerful stories of utilizing who they are to help students, as paraphrased by William Anderson, become things that they cannot even imagine.  I want to share my stories of self-actualization that parallel the stories of my students.  But more importantly, in the spirit of not being extroverted, gregarious, and self-celebratory, I want to find the people who embody what Tracey Bennett was for me.  Inspiration.  Direction.  A butt-kicking.  I want to share their stories so they can, in turn, become the next teacher-leaders.  If I can share my nuggets, and shine a supernova-strength light on those who are truly amazing, we can collectively come out of the dark and show the world what true professionals we really are.  No one cares about your resumes.  They care about your stories.  It is not about who you say you are, but rather what you show yourself to be.

You are an agent for change, and that begins within your four walls.  Your identity is real, your story is valid, and the two can move mountains.