Friday, May 3, 2019

on playing the testing game.

The irony of proctoring a state test is that you’re basically forced to meditate for hours on end, in a high pressure,  high stakes and (educationally speaking) high risk environment. Ohmmmmm.

Dead silence fills the room of a year’s worth of teaching and learning, riding on one test.  So many smart phones locked in supply closets leaving us with nothing but our random thoughts and memories of the days when kids could read analog clocks.  

We barely have human interaction without fear of looking at a child the wrong way- so we just stare at the air.  This is where, every year, the opportunist in me attempts to take advantage of clearing my head while proctoring,  but every year, I’m defeated by the stress.

Testing makes kids cry, kids pee themselves and kids vomit over the pressure and all we can do is offer breathing techniques and state-approved pep talks.

Even the chillout teacher in me can’t shake the weight of it all.  You want your students to relax, but you need them to take it seriously.  One test. One week. One score.

So year after year, why do I still care so much about an accountability system I despise and mistrust? Because I want my students to look good and feel good.  I want to be trusted as an educator. I want my school to have educational freedom.  

This is why I play the testing game.  

Educators are obviously tuned in to the gap between what their students actually know and how they perform on the big test.  The scores often misrepresent our kids, our school and our teacher effectiveness.  

Students don’t apply what they’ve learned to real-world scenarios or create or argue or innovate on these tests.  It’s just thirteen tests for endless hours of multiple choice and a few creatively suffocating essay prompts.

I support accountability for student growth.  Standardized assessments are not all bad.

Why, though, do these high stakes tests provide such misrepresentation of a child’s academic abilities?  

Just imagine how much our teaching would change if we knew our students would be assessed differently?  An oral debate section on the state test? A graphic design embedded persuasive pitch on the ELA portion?  An architectural challenge on the math portion? NASA-based scenarios on the science state test?

Come on Common Core, where’s the real college and career readiness in how we assess?  
And who takes three hour exams seven days in a row in college anyway?

Regardless of our feelings, though, we have to care about the state test.  Until our flawed system changes, our students and our schools depend on us to prepare students to do their best.  

The question becomes, how do we play the game while making strides towards a fairer accountability system for student growth?

We can:

Never treat a student like they are a test score, be conscious of how test scores play into our relationship with each individual child.

Play the game for a few weeks out of the year, but no more.  Test prep isn’t sticky.

Create or advocate for alternative assessments. Start small, start big, either way, start the conversation.

Prioritize the arts, STEM, and application of real-world skills in our daily instruction.   

As a parent, I need for state tests to change.  As a teacher I feel like I can do something about it...  

Power to the teacher!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

on taking the wheel.

Like many charter school leaders, life threw me into administration at the ripe ol’ age of twenty-six.  Ten years ago, the turn-around model was all the rage and the soon to be released Waiting for Superman was about to change the charter narrative forever.  

Naive myself, I remember hearing fellow inexperienced administrators half-bragging about all that they expected of their teachers.  Coming from a family of school leaders myself, I did not recognize this type of teacher trash talking at Christmas dinners.

While once road tripping to a professional development down rain-ridden I-80, real talk started to spatter.  

“No, my teachers hate me.  I require four-page lesson plans for ELA alone,” back-seat chatter and chuckles breathed on my neck.  

“Well, if she’s gonna send a kid out of class, she needs to write a referral.  These teachers need to document ev-er-y-thing,” the other principal proudly noted.    

Freshly plucked from just four years as a classroom teacher, now, amidst my inner eye-rolls,  I could understand why this type of power produced “results.” Of course the teachers complied-it’s their job on the line.  And whether or not these non-negotiables were legit, it didn’t matter. You ask, you shall receive.

Furthermore, in the charter world, you can get fired for much less than questioning your boss.  This at-will employment system, designed to reflect “the business world” can interfere with a school’s ability to build a tight-knit community and culture of teacher sustainability, which in turn, affects student learning.   

Because charters often employ new leadership and new teachers to open schools with students from a mishmash of other “failing schools,” chaos ensues.

And the last thing anyone’s thinking about is teacher happiness, let alone teacher retention. It’s all about survival and test scores for the first five years.

That PD road trip scared me more than anything. Didn't they get it?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the lists of reasons why teachers leave the profession. Besides the obvious emotional toll it takes, there’s also the ever-so time consuming paperwork load.  

There’s no “slow day” in teaching-we can’t exactly type report card comments while teaching a child how to read.  Or complete data analysis plans while monitoring recess, right?

As a school leader, you can slowly become a bit removed from your teaching days, and sometimes just need to be professionally reminded of what the teacher facing experience is like. That means we teachers have to advocate for ourselves.

Paperwork might not bring on sweat, tears and bouts of defeat, but it does steal time. What kind of paperwork is stealing your time?

Lesson plans, for example, shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to complete.  If this is where all of your time goes, then draft a lesson plan template, request a meeting with your boss, and advocate to simplify it.

It’s likely, your freshly simplified and actionable version of an otherwise time consuming document, provides both leadership and teaching staff more time to do the important stuff. Like...lead…and ...teach.

As the saying goes, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Administrators eventually learn that you must read and comment on the paperwork you require, so if anything, you’ll be helping them out, right?

You can’t leave teaching without trying to change the things that make you want to leave. Even if it means starting with the little stuff.

 Systematically, I often feel helpless, but on a school level, power to make change is possible. And honestly, if the world insists on calling us superheroes, then shouldn't we be treated that way?

Superman requires plenty of the sun's nourishment not only for his physical strength, but also for his exquisite brain power. Stay nourished teachers!

Power to the teacher!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

on wanting to go to work.

I’m working on giving myself more credit. Four consecutive years of either growing a human inside your body or constantly nourishing them with your own milk-filled breasts, changes a person.  

With family first, career comes second and all that’s left for me are gracious moments, sprinkled in sporadically, offering me a chance to kick back and sip wine, read my book or drink a hot cup of coffee with my husband.  

Escaping the Mardi Gras madness this year, we found ourselves, kids in tow,  in Southern Florida sprawled on the white sandy beach, beside hummus and lettuce wraps and La croix- all the fancy stuff.  

“Ugh, I just wanted to lay out,” I sighed.  

“Babe, you have two kids, you can’t just lay out," my husband said so matter-of-factly.  

Zara’s bitty fingers were now dragging my hair through the fancy hummus.  Her toothless smile brought me back to reality.

Everyone’s situation is different, but for Michael and me, we’re in the thick of it right now.  Miles away from our hometowns and minutes away from peeing our pants because she’s...wait...she’s yeah...I think she’s alllllmost asleep.

So here I am, making a mental list of all of the things I’m doing right as a mom, as a wife, a friend, a daughter, a sister and a teacher.  

Mom or not, teachers, we do a lot of things right.  We just don’t do enough for ourselves.

Teachers are givers, especially of time, but we have to TURN IT OFF at some point in the day.  I have no choice with a toddler, a baby and a musician husband, but I wish I would’ve learned how to do this years ago.  

Eliminating all of the TPT shopping, grading in front of the TV, and the late night lesson planning can be life changing.  Setting boundaries with parents, administrators with and coworkers about not responding to work-related emails and texts after 5pm is somewhat liberating.  

Aaaand, going on Pinterest searching anchor charts counts, teachers.  Yeah, in an indirect way, it’s your career, so it’s for you, I guess. But it’s work stuff, and the gray area can get out of hand.

Mental math means that’s 12 minutes times 5 nights, which is one whole hour a week you could take back for yourself. Maybe you could plan and cook a Pinteresty meal from scratch.

Being in the thick of it at home, I’m working on stealing moments in my teacher work day for myself. My colleague and I converted my classroom into a coffee shop (well, an itty bitty little space next to the sink, but still) and enjoy herbal tea and french pressed coffee in the comfort of our French Quarter classroom. 

Prep time is sacred (after I pump milk of course) and students know that’s teacher “meeting time,” and know never ever ever to disturb us.

Whether we dedicate time for ourselves, our loved ones or something else, we are in control.   Yes, I say this while typing one handed in the dark on my birthday with an almost- back-to- sleep baby girl on my chest. Half past midnight with makeup on since 6am, content, though, as these moments with baby Z are fleeting.  

The truth is, if we don’t find ways to turn off the teacher mode, that role becomes our only role, and the resentment builds until it debilitates us and we leave the profession.  Or on a smaller scale, we resent students when they don’t pass out with excitement from our intensely planned project or do backflips of gratitude when we spend a whole weekend grading their essays.  

Maybe not in the first few years, but life eventually forces us to choose between being the all consuming teacher we think is required for the job, and the fully committed educator who has a life beyond teaching.  

Growing up, I dreamt of becoming professional dancer, more specifically, touring with Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul.  Though, grown-ups chimed in with, yeah, sweetie, once a hobby becomes work, you lose the passion.  It’s just not the same once you get paid for it.

I love teaching.  I get paid for it, and yet, it’s still a passion.  It is though, something I do, it does not define me or control me. It sometimes makes me cry and makes me question a whole lot, or want bail on this broken system, but it’s mine to embrace.

It's mine to love and hate. 

It’s our life’s work.

Teaching is harrrrrd.  It takes strength and self-discipline, and on some days, like little Peggy Ann McKay, we just don’t want to go to school.  I think, though, if we create boundaries between our professional life and our personal life, teaching might feel a little less like a commitment and a little more like a passion.  

Power to the teacher!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

on finding ourselves.

My grandmother was a badass.  She paved the way for the women in my family and many more to come.  A 1960’s Detroit school teacher with places to go and people to teach.  Steady as she goes.  

By the 1980’s she ran a school of her own, a no-nonsense principal with a purpose, with her feet up on her desk and a cigarette in her hand, she was a badass on a mission to ed-u-cate.

If my grandmother were here today, she would likely read my blog and thank heaven for being retired.

Despite the challenges we teachers face today, somehow I know Grandma Ann would’ve maneuvered her way into modern-day badass.  She was obviously more than that, but she sure as hell was sure of herself and her educational values.

A teacher’s teacher identity is ever-evolving, and in the start of our own careers, feels pretty much like a blank slate.

You envision what kind of teacher you want to be, maybe mirroring Mrs. Brandenburg Brown’s maternal warmth, or Freedom Writers’ Ms. G’s deep dedication or Stand and Deliver’s Mr. Escalante’s tough love.  

Welcoming your first real teaching job,  you begin to realize no one cares about what kind of teacher you want to be.

Your coach firmly encourages you follow the Pintersty color-coded behavior ladder and pretty much transfers all of his/her personally tried and true best practices on to you. Your principal firmly encourages you to sit in and observe a coworker who you could  “learn a lot from.”

Your students throw pencils during your ever-so “teach like a champion” embedded math lessons you spent triple the time planning than actually executing. On Friday evenings, your significant other shakes you awake in ten minute increments as you snore on the couch, reminding you that this was “supposed to be a date night.”  

You ask yourself..Wait, didn’t I go to college so I could make my own decisions in life? Maybe I could be a yoga teacher and travel and blog or something...take a gap year as a twenty-three year old.  Maybe I should choose a profession that actually pays.

Overtime you grow. You take more risks, gain experience-based opinions on what works for kids, perhaps even try on a few different schools or grades for size all while defining then refining then redefining your teaching style.

You wake up one day and realize being confident in your teaching self is ev-er-y-thing.

Come to think of it, you now regret buying into the aphorism of fake it till you make it. The wasted days of trying to be someone you’re not, are lost forever...floating in a watered down cup of past realities and superficial spring evals.  

Security in our teacher identity allows for us to just be. Emotional energy is preserved, time commitments are intentional and our daily flow feels ever more fluid than days past.  

Of course we reflect constantly and embrace new ideas and innovative research (we are teachers aren’t we), but we become less wishwashy and more inclined to say no when we’re secure in our values and know who we are.   

For me, I’ve mastered the nod and smile while happily going to battle against things that don’t actually benefit my students. This kind of confident flow saves so much energy in an otherwise demanding day-to-day.   

To be completely transparent, reminding myself of my teacher identity is what keeps me grounded in dark times.  It’s like a moral compass, guiding me to make tough decisions about my students or shrug off teacher-blaming comments that could otherwise derail me for a week.  

It’s not our jobs to advertise our teacher identity or shout it from the desktops at staff meetings, but once others get what kind of a teacher we are-the universe feels a bit more aligned.

All of this to say that I want to be a badass educator like my grandmother.

Teachers should be respected for their own badass identities and supported so that they can inspire students to develop into their own badass selves one day.  

The first step, though is knowing ourselves…

Power to the teacher!  

Sunday, January 20, 2019

on gratification.

My husband and I met on Frenchmen Street.  Locals and tourists know this better-than-Bourbon block of music bars and late-night hangs as a place to see and be seen in New Orleans.

Making eyes at each other from a distance, I wore a red dress, he wore a microphone, and a night mixed with instant chemistry and my over-the-top game of hard-to-get, later led to baby, marriage, baby and life as we know it.  

Cliché as the fan meets musician story may be, there was something about his voice that moved me that night.  His performances have that kind of effect on people, the type of impact that changes you forever or momentarily brings you somewhere far far away.

Like many musicians, his originality, talent and artistry have the power to transcend.

And just like musicians, teachers are artists.  We create something from nothing and share our gifts with the youth of America in hopes it will ignite and fuel hopes, dreams and eventually the tools to do whatever makes them happy in life.

This means, (obviously) that the teacher matters.  The teacher’s values, experiences, natural gifts, interests and levels of emotional intelligence impact the classroom, likely much greater than professional training, alma-maters and content knowledge. Again, we know this.

All that we give our students is based on who we are.  Our own artistry in motion. So how do we know if we’re doing a good job?

Who the hell knows.  There are subtle cues but nothing enough to make us know we’re effective or impacting lives.  There’s no instant gratification to help us push through when the going gets tough. No backstage gratitude for the performance.  No commission bonuses. No 30% tip for service.

I’ll shamelessly confess that after fifteen years, I still need consistent positive reinforcement of my teaching craft.   I mean, I think I’m doing an alright job, but I’m definitely not confident that I’m what the fancy rubrics call “effective.”  Yes, I might get decent ratings on formal observations or my kids might shine on state tests from time to time, but am I actually doing a good job?  Not sure.  

Teachers need fuel for the fire.  We need gratification and acknowledgement like any other, and just because we are “superheroes” and work a “thankless job,” as the narrative goes,  it makes it all the more apparent that our tired butts need some authentic compliments every so often.

I think novice teachers would agree that informal walk-thru feedback is always sandwiched with some smiley-faced comment about what’s going right, in your hot mess of a classroom.  Even though sometimes superficial, as newbies, we hang on to any scent of validation that makes us not search more than twice a week.

Years later, when you’ve finally got your groove and can stop obsessing over classroom management and can start refining curriculum and gradually start to blend in...your own self-talk becomes the loudest voice in the classroom...and you wonder if you are actually “making a difference.”  

School leaders and coaches have opportunities to recognize the difference we are making  and gain major respect for it, in the process.  A handwritten note, an email or some sort of personal interaction that shows us, “hey girl, I see you.  I see what you do. I see what you created. I see your happy kids. And it’s pretty amazing.”

Beyond leadership, there’s nothing like recognition from an esteemed coworker. Colleagues asking other colleagues to watch them in action is pretty powerful.

Furthermore, it makes me think of how I treat my students.  Do I really see them?  Do I pause a lesson to praise an original thought, or do I hustle though because the online timer says four minutes and we still have four pages to get through?  

Playing Silent Ball has become a sacred time in my class over the years.  More recently, over a game of not-so-silent-silent ball, one of my students shared that the night before, he had a nightmare that all New Orleanians were suddenly under Puritan Law (circa 17th century)-there were public beheadings and a whole lot of madness.  

My initial reaction was, wow.  My teaching worked.  I was pretty proud that my social studies lesson on religious persecution was so moving that it haunted my kids at night.  Is that bad?

In a school community, we want gratification.  No, we’re not needy, we are human. We want to see the fruits of our labor, even if it’s just a slice of the apple peel.  A little nutrients to jumpstart our artistic flow.

It took me a long time to become self-aware and somewhat confident as an educator.  Still, it matters that others see those same strengths in me. Or at least acknowledge the things that matter to me most…

My now husband saw me that one night on Frenchmen Street.  Do you see me?  Yeah, I see you girl…

Power to the Teacher!

Sunday, November 25, 2018

on becoming a lifer.

Five spoonfuls of nutella was my dinner last Wednesday.  Target runs are now strategically planned events and I recently went eight months without a haircut.  I bribe my two year old with ice cream so that she stays quiet during my five month old’s nap. This is my life.

Mushy brain makes blog posts that don’t make sense.  And since sleep is most sacred in our household, personal reflection and educator epiphanies have either been suckled out in the form of breast milk, or traded in for a cozy state of fog.  

This brief blogging hiatus, though, has provided clarity on teacher sustainability more than ever before.     

How many “lifer” teachers or school-based educators do you know?  I have more former educator friends than I do current ones and once I hit 30, colleagues viewed me as the experienced one.  

In addition, having kids is an obvious game changer, especially when both parent and teacher roles directly impact the human experience.  

Working in a charter world, I get that burnout is high and lifers are pretty much nonexistent. Traditional public school teachers ask the same question, though.  Can I really do this forever? Will I become that cranky old educator that actually says what we’re all thinking at a staff meeting? Naww- hell no. We want to be wiser one day, not cynical.  

I love teaching.  If these recent months of comfortable chaos have taught me anything, it’s that we have to uphold our own code of conduct to maintain our love of the profession.
So this is my latest (and unapologetic) teacher code of conduct:
  1. Teach content and projects that  excite you.  Standards-based teaching and learning is only fair to students, but with that comes freedom to create learning experiences and share knowledge that interests you.  Yeah, you, the teacher, the one the kids trust to educate them with the important stuff in life.  If you love it, the kids will love it.  And if you love it and the kids love it, you can look forward to work each day.  
  2. Keep weekends and break time free and clear of school work. Our salary reflects the thirteen weeks of vacation time, so why not utilize it for what it’s designed for...whatever you want it to be.  Committing to this essential rule is the hardest part.  But stick to it.
  3. Accept that you won’t be teacher of the year- every year of your career.  There are seasons that allow us to dive deep into the sea of knowledge and Teacher-Tron mode, and seasons where we just can’t.  For me, I had a solid six years of throwing myself at the mercy of the classroom. Students, staff and school events had a hold on me that just wouldn’t let go-until I had to slowly peel myself away, Expo-marker-coated finger by finger.  Trying to be the best and letting the teacher guilt run you, just might eventually kill you.  Or at least kill your love for it all.
  4. Lean on colleagues and let them lean on you.  In just one look, teachers can read each other’s minds.  We are united through and through, and building relationships with fellow coworkers creates cultures of trust and interdependence when it’s needed most.  For me, time is the best gift from a friend. With a squishy faced toddler and a scrumptious little baby waiting for me at home sweet home, it’s no surprise that I bolt for the nearest dismissal door at 3:45 daily.  My co-teacher watches over my class if I’m running late from yet another timely baby poop explosion. Volunteering for additional teacher roles is non-existent, and knowing my teacher friends pull overtime for my time-sensitive breast-pumping schedule is something I have to swallow.  This isn’t my time to give time, but doing my best to support colleagues emotionally or however I can allows for me to be happy in this circus show that is my life these days.
  5. Find something you love in every kid.  Why does the wild child always have perfect attendance? Maybe it’s one child’s taste in sneakers, or another’s talent for sharpening pencils without shedding shavings on the floor.  Perhaps one’s a talented storyteller. Drawing out the best in your students is a gift, but recognizing what makes them special is necessary. I think if we look forward to seeing our students every day (or at least most days) we are more likely to stay in the game for awhile.  
  6. Remember they are your students-not your children.  Yes, we love our students as if they were our own, but they, in fact, are not our own.  Parents need to take responsibility too, and if the parents are absent, then our love and support should be met with care from grandmothers, uncles, pastors and dance coaches.  We are not superheroes and have the right to a life of our own.
  7. Educate yourself-Popping over on our preps to observe colleagues, joining free virtual PD’s or applying for funding to attend national professional development seminars can keep us innovative and inspired to keep things spicy.  
  8. Find a school that has a curriculum framework. Curriculum framework with freedom is the key.  (Refer back to reason number one above). Ain’t nobody got time to reinvent the wheel, or effectively write a standards aligned curriculum, but we DO want our freedom to teach engaging content in innovative settings.
  9. Ignore the test prep mania..  Test prep is a snooze-fest for everyone.  I’ve taught and lead in schools that breathe the word, “data” into every conversation.  Good test scores mean dollars, so understandably, the obsession is real. But since drill and kill methods and teaching to the test don’t actually work, there’s no point in falling prey to the insanity.  Real-world skills practice can be sticky enough to take kids through any testing scenario in life. Your self worth is not determined by your data.
  10. Make your kids feel good about themselves. Make them want to go to school.    If not, then why are we doing this?

Creating your own teacher code of conduct can prevent potential burnout and the chance of either going crazy, hating your job or quitting this one-of-a-kind, magical profession.  

Setting boundaries has allowed me to be more creative in planning, inspirational with instruction and, though away from my own family each day.  I’m truly happy to be with my students each day.

Fifteen years in the game and who knows if I’ll be a lifer...but I sure would like to try.

 Power to the teacher!