Sunday, February 26, 2012


Let's get right to it: value-added modeling might be right for the corporate world (and not being a part of that environment, I'd wager a small bet that it's not such a perfect tool there, either), but it's most certainly not right for education. For those of you who are still wondering what exactly it is, here's the briefest possible explanation: it's the use of data (numbers), in our case, student standardized test scores, in order to determine (or help determine) a teacher's worth. Educational researchers (who aren't educators, by the way) analyze the data. Too many education reformers (who aren't educators, by the way) believe the results of the researchers' analysis can and should be used as evaluative tools.

Here's the real formula for determining a teacher's success, and even this probably won't cover it all:

      Teacher preparation program (4-year college, often with double major, or similar)
+    Love for and knowledge of content area
x    Patience
+    Knowledge of and love for children
-     Desire for affluence
+    Required professional development (CEUs and advanced degrees)
+    Collaboration with colleagues
+    Communication with parents
+    Motivation of the unmotivated
+    Nurture of the un-nurtured
+    Effect on the disaffected
x    Flexibility to swing with the pedagogical pendulum
+    Organizational and time management skills
x    Perseverance in the face of profession-bashing by media, politicians, and sometimes our friends
+    Time beyond the school day, week, year
+    Ability to reflect, learn, and grow
+    Enjoyment of the work
=    A decidedly immeasurable formula.

But with decent evaluation tools, which teachers should help create, and timely evaluations, for which administrators need and must use time to complete, teachers can and should be evaluated. If my performance is measured appropriately, by skilled and knowledgeable administrators, my capacity to improve will increase, and that's a very good thing.

But VAM? No thank you, ma'am.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

My Constellation of Stars

My favorite constellation is the Corona Borealis, a gorgeous crown that I wear on my right ankle, actually. Mostly I love the arc of this gathering of seven stars, but I also love the story behind its name. And lately, I've been thinking of some other stars, another constellation that surrounds me and gives me the same sense of comfort every time I think of it.

My other constellation is made up, of course (if you know me and metaphors), of people in my work. Sure, I could write about my own personal constellations (there are many stars, rest assured), but this blog is about teaching, and this constellation of which I write is comprised of the brightest with whom I interact on a daily basis, in my classroom, in my hallway, and in my school. And sure, I could write about my students, whom I value as creative, diligent, ambitious, and filled-to-the-brim with potential. But this blog is about inspiration, and these are the people who inspire me professionally.

My brightest star and I begin every school year by trading funny, upbeat greeting cards with encouraging words about how great it is to be back at work. Somewhere around January or February, those cards become tongue-in-cheek jaded reminders of the hard work we do and how we just might not make it to the end. By June, we exchange notes of gratitude for the year gone by and for each other. If I could only pick one colleague with whom to work, she would be it. She is the first I ask for advice about rubrics, expectations, and new assessment ideas. She is the first I complain to, the first I share news with, and the last I would question as to her judgment or decisions. Together we are superbly collaborative; in many ways, she is the academic yin to my yang.

My union yin I could not do without either, though. This star's brain works in tandem with mine and yet, often provides the opposing side, the other considerations, the whys to my why nots. To say I bounce ideas off of her is an understatement. What I really do is bounce them off her, bat them back at her, catch them, hold them, and then probably throw them back for another round of bouncing. It's a complex process, but with her input, I most definitely do a better job as a leader.

The special ed stars are, indeed, special. What a gift, to be able to work with the varied skill sets and abilities that present themselves in our classrooms and in the Learning Center. Yesterday, I sat with one at the beginning of the day and then at the end to hash out an assessment for a student based on several issues: the difficulty of the original assignment, the modifications I thought might work, the modifications she thought might work, the parents' needs, and of course, the student's needs. Whew.

Two stars are in the guidance suite way down at the other end of the building. One has been burning brightly for so many years in my constellation. She is my go-to for all things not academic. Calm in a crisis, and smart as hell. The other is a new addition, but one who gives me confidence in the next generation of education professionals. Great with students, great with parents, and defers to teachers about classroom issues. Brilliant.

And then there are all the rest. My administrator, who, as a curricular guide, is tops. The custodial staff, especially the morning guys, who care about the building, care about teachers, care about students, and care about education. The cafeteria worker who tells me all about her adventures with the local ARC program - this week it was a trip to the theater, where she saw a play. The ESP in my classroom whose foremost thought is how best to help a student demonstrate mastery and always balances student need with educational (and often, societal) expectations. My after-lunch mates, who make me laugh and make me smarter, frequently at the very same time. And frankly, everyone else, too: secretaries, teachers, paras, subs, staff members. I am grateful for their light always.

Perhaps, instead, my teaching world is a galaxy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ground Control

While the usual daily and weekly chaos is an amalgam of homework, correcting, extra help, tutoring, planning, prepping, intervening, finger-in-the-damming, and keeping up, this week's swirl is of a different nature. This week, I am Odysseus and my Charybdis consists of the educational-political state in my state, some panicky (but perhaps reasonably so) reactions to the Common Core State Standards, and several connected issues needing attention within my union. As as only a Homeric hero can, I am persevering and finding my way back home, to a place of peace and comfort. But it's been quite a journey.

My governor, my Democratic governor, my union-endorsed friend-to-education governor, turns out to be just the opposite. He's no friend now. The teachers in this state have an uphill battle against his so-called reforms; I'd rather call them mal-forms. Poor ideas, delivered poorly, with mal-intent. He says all teachers have to do to get tenure in this state is "show up for four years." I've tossed and turned at night over his words, over his plans, over my colleagues' discontent, over the future of my profession, over the outright hatred and misunderstanding shown by many in government and in the public toward educators and the work we do.

Bill Gates is on my list of worries, too. So is David Coleman. And even Nick Kristof, that Times reporter from war-torn countries whose work I've admired for years. Now Kristof is a self-proclaimed "education reformer." Coleman and Gates are behind (in front of?) the drive to implement the CCSS, which I'm struggling with on several levels. These are people white guys (remember the dominant domain) with no experience in the classroom who are espousing changes to the way things are done, it seems, for change's sake. I'm pretty darn confident that making change for change's sake won't change much, least of all the achievement gap. And at the local level, we're missing the conversation about what it is we're doing, when it is we're doing it, and why we're doing it.

And I've got to mobilize my membership. But like our own children, who become Mommy-deaf, and our students, who become teacher-deaf, I'm afraid my members have become union-deaf. So much has come down the political pike in the last few years, and so much negativity has been thrown at teachers, that we just want to close our doors and teach. Some of us will contact our legislators, but many (most?) of my colleagues are too beaten down to put up much of a fight. It's all they can do to do the job they chose because they love their content area and they love kids. There is something very wrong in education when those who guide our students are so maligned in the media and by our government; we are exhausted by the constant negative public sentiment. We are tuckered out. We are tired. We are spent.

I've given much thought to what I can do (and what I can't do) about all these problems. In the end, of course, it becomes about control: what I can control, what I choose to control, what I recognize as outside of my control, and how to react and respond to every situation. This week, I needed to spend my "home time" doing the equivalent of closing my door and teaching: I curled up in the fetal position and thought a lot. I also shared my concerns with my like-minded colleagues. Luckily for me, they took up the mantle and did some important work where I could not. And I wrote it all down, here and elsewhere. I've memorialized my frustrations and my worries, and in doing so, I've honored them, too. I've got some hard work ahead of me.

I have a strong and influential voice, and I must use it. To refrain from doing so would be a disservice to my colleagues. I will not devalue my beliefs by inaction. But I did need to break from the fray, to center myself, to reconnect with all that I know to be good and right, and to remember the way.

I've taken my protein pills and put my helmet on. I'm ready once again. Will it be an odyssey or an oddity?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Days Off

I have a day off today. Friends and family have asked what I'm going to do on my day off. As I write, it's 9:00 a.m., and I'm officially 1 hour and 45 minutes into my day off. And I've done nothing school-y yet, except check my email. That will change soon. I have a list.

Today I've got some correcting to do. Unlike my bestie, who had oodles of papers to grade this weekend and even posted a photo of the stack of Facebook, I got lucky this weekend. I only have quizzes and reader responses to assess. Only. Then I've got some reading homework to do. I've joined a regional book club on teaching English Language Learners, and we meet next week, so I need to do that reading and write a response for that. Sure, it's voluntary, but I'm participating for two reasons: 1) to better my understanding of ELLs and how they learn best, and 2) for formalizing my professional development. Gotta keep accruing those CEUs. Then I've got to write my syllabi for the next three weeks in my five classes. It'll be tricky because standardized testing begins in March and daily schedules are changed, classes are shortened and lengthened, and my classes will be meeting in other classrooms than mine. After that, I will set up my next round of parent video conferences, part of my professional goal for the year. After that, I need to write a bunch of emails and do some research for a project that the school counselor and I are collaborating on for the ninth-graders. After that, I will hopefully have time to work on my part of a conference workshop an out-of-district colleague and I are presenting at the end of March. Then hopefully I will get to work on a new assessment project for The Odyssey that I dreamed up last week.

After that, I might be able to do what a lot of other people do on days off: not-work-stuff.

Some people may never understand why teachers (and students) need breaks. They may argue that we are highly-paid for "having summers off." I don't want this to become a forum for debate, particularly. I've intentionally refrained from politicizing this blog. But days off are not that for us. Not during the school year, when weekends are extensions of weekdays. And so summer becomes the time when we can go correcting-free and daily-planning-free, at the very least. Of course, most of us also spend our summers long-term planning, taking classes and courses, attending workshops, writing curriculum, or completing professional reading. Some of us teach summer school, or work at summer camps, or run other summer programs. Some of us work full-time at second jobs. Some of us full-time parent our school-aged children.   All of us use the summer to think deeply about our work, to re-visit, review, and revise our lessons or methodologies, and to plan, plan, plan for next year.

So on this day off, my list is full. I think I'll squeeze in one more thing, though: think about summer. Check.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Teacher as Thief

It's true. We steal stuff. We take what belongs to others. We do it on the sly, we do it blatantly. Sometimes we announce it to others, sometimes even to the victim. Case in point: the other day, a colleague used the term "delayed gratification." "Oooh," I said, "I'm going to steal that for my next blog post." Done. Maybe a few of us ask. But most of us just steal.

Stealing used to be harder. Or, should I say, the goods were less accessible. They were abstract: ideas, methodologies, or lessons that our colleagues had already used or thought of, and if we were lucky, they existed in a material form, too. If we were lucky, there was a ditto.

With the advent of the internet, stealing became easier. It became a downright cakewalk. Need a lesson on  objective pronouns? Look it up. Need some help with classroom organization? Find it online. Need a good way to explain long division? Google it. And because what we teach and how we teach it is out there, for all to see and steal, our profession has changed.

The beauty of the teaching world being cracked open and on display online is this: no one is possessive about his ideas or lessons any longer. No one can claim her lessons as original, even, since there are probably some just like it in cyberspace. Three years ago, I created a unit loosely based on the Six Word Memoir project. It became a Six Word Summary project for our work with The Old Man and the Sea. Last year, my science colleagues organized a departmental field trip to my classroom during common planning time to see my students' work. They're now considering how to use the Six Word concept in their classes, and I've had several conversations with some of them as to how best implement the project in their work.

And so, we now encourage stealing in each other. We probably can't even call it stealing anymore. Now we should just call it sharing. I find that too boring, though, and I think my colleagues do, too. Aren't we boring enough already? Our vices are few, our morals are strong, our role modeling consistent. Let's still call it stealing. Makes us sound racy.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Delayed Gratification

In few professions besides education is the gratification for a job well done so delayed. Firefighters? They rescue and extinguish. Chefs? Their customers eat and praise. Project managers? The client and the boss are pleased. Truckers? Product is delivered. Pilots? Passengers delivered. Athletes? Race, game, match won (or at least done).

Teachers? Teeth pulling, hair pulling, pushing kids, pushing buttons. We grunt and groan through our jobs sometimes, coaxing and encouraging and suggesting. Then we watch and wait. And watch some more, and wait some more. Sure, we might see results on a unit assessment, or on an essay, or at the marking period's end. In a perfect world, these are the appropriate indicators of success, where benchmarks are measured and noted. But for so many of our students, and hence, so many of us, these moments are few and far between, and rarely are they recognized as highly meaningful.

I mean not to diminish results based on standards. They matter (and will soon matter even more). But for me, the true measures are not measurable. And while some are instant (the scribbled notes of appreciation on my board, the kid asking me if I was feeling better today), the best ones come later... sometimes much, much later.

Twenty years ago I watched a student graduate who'd come to school as a freshman completely disinterested in anything academic. Actually, he was disinterested in anything, period. Except maybe lacrosse. But even his fervent passion and extraordinary skills in that sport were no match for the malaise that governed his every day. Somewhere between that first year and his last, he grew to at least be responsive to the gifts of time, encouragement, knowledge, and compassion that his teachers and coaches shared so readily with him.

Today, I sat in the audience and listened to this same former student share his story with current students at his alma mater. I was a guest, and a surprise guest at that. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew that my pride would carry me through the experience. And while he spoke - of his struggles, of his growth, and of his deep appreciation for what we teachers had done for him - I knew this would become a moment that I would replay in my mind for a good long while. He was gracious and understanding, inclusive and grateful. He noted that he'd been a "handful" and then he thanked, by name, several of us who'd been there through it all. What a joy to hear it. What a joy.

Moments like today's carry us through the weeks and months we may go without a moment like today's. I have been lucky to have many such moments in my career - former students who write to say they've become teachers because I have inspired them, parents whose end-of-year appreciative comments and emails recognize my influence in their child's growth, administrators who praise my work in conversations and evaluations, colleagues who recognize the time and energy I dedicate to them as their union president.

This week I scored in every category. It was a very good week. And since it might have to suffice for a while, I'm going to relish it. I might even take Monday off.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Taking More Poetic License

Class Photograph, Miss Chick's School
Lancaster, Massachusetts

Perhaps they mean to stand side by side
In 1941. "Friends forever" one whispers
"...and ever" comes the unspoken reply, a rote
Lesson for two who will bear each other
Up through disease, five children
(The last two a party's legacy),
Two divorces, betrayal and booze,
Too many deaths. Perhaps they mean to
Stand together nearly sixty years later
In a kitchen too small to hold their lives
And whisper those words again.

L.A. Rice

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Teacher in the Grocery Aisle

I was probably eight years old when it happened to me. I was in Morey's IGA with my mother, in the condiments aisle. Partly because I was working toward a Girl Scout badge, partly because I was sort of a nerdy kid, and probably more because I was already showing some math deficiencies, my mother used to have me figure out the better deals on products based on cost per volume (or some such mathematical formula). So there I was, calculating the price of relish, when around the corner came a lady pushing a cart and smiling at me from a distance. She looked very familiar. I thought maybe I knew her. Maybe she was one of my friends' moms, or one of my mom's friends. Maybe she went to my church. Maybe she worked at the hairdresser, where I got my not-so-cute pixie cut. Maybe she worked at my doctor's office, where I sat three times a week as I waited to see if I had a reaction to my allergy shot. Maybe she was a lunch lady. Yeah, I knew her from school probably. Maybe she was a secretary. A bus driver. A room mother. She wheeled closer, close enough for me to finally place her. Mrs. Hebert! My teacher! In a grocery store! Wait, Mrs. Hebert? My teacher? In a grocery store? I ran.

The sudden (it's always sudden) realization that teachers are human beings is a universal experience for kids. And the epiphany is neither a one-time deal nor reserved for just the elementary years. Over and over, again and again, we discover that our teachers are somehow, weirdly, normal. I saw my high school Spanish teacher smoking in his office once. Sure he was a neighbor, too, but that teacher-aura still existed... until I saw him in that cramped, smelly, cloudy space. And I can tell by their expressions that my students whom I see at the beach in the summer are startled and struggle deeply with the idea that I... swim. And dive! And eat picnic lunches! And drink beverages in bottles! And wear a bathing suit!! And have tattoos!!! Several students through the years have come into class after seeing me "out" (as if I've escaped from the zoo or something) and proclaimed their discovery to me and to their classmates: "I saw you at Stop & Shop." "I saw you driving on my road." "I saw you at my therapist's office." Uh, yeah, so you did.

I'd like to think it's a form of initial idolatry, balanced out by our human connectedness, sort of like when we used to see a television star who lived in town going to the grocery in her slippers (there she was, on-camera gorgeous and witty and so put together, but really, look, just like us). It's sort of flattering. And it's a good reason to be mindful of both perceptions: the first, that we are unique, and somehow special, and the second, that we are normal and human. We can be, and we should be, both extraordinary and ordinary. Clearly, it's what our students need us to be. And, more importantly, it's what we are.

Keeping Up with the Joneses, Teacher-Style

If you're around 40 years old, you probably sometimes feel that the world is swirling around you, neither fast nor slowly, but enough so that it's hard to keep up. If you're 55+, you might have already given up on that swirl, determined that you cannot learn the new stuff fast enough, uncomfortable with the pace of change. If you're in your 20s or 30s, you will, someday, feel the swirl. I guarantee it.

In the teaching world, the swirl contains everything our students, do, say, watch, listen to, read, participate in, eat, buy, wear, and feel passionately about. As younger teachers, we are close enough to the vortex, having just come out of it (or maybe not even yet), so that we can grasp what's there and ingest it ourselves. In our most veteran years, many of us see it all off in the distance, like a tornado barreling about, feeling that if it slams into us, we're doomed. We can't even come close to focusing on all that's there, never mind latching onto some of it. That's why those middle years are so critical, for it is then that we must muster up the courage to go there, into the swirl, and stay long enough to understand, and perhaps, to engage.

So what are the Joneses up to these days? They're tweeting. They're into parkour, they're reading The Hunger Games (on their Kindle Fires), they're listening to Nicki Minaj or Skrillex or something obscure, they're wearing Boobie bracelets (and they're suing school districts that say they can't). They're following Tavi. They don't use cash. They're drinking Starbucks and they're still eating their pizza with ranch. And as soon as I wrote all that, or before it even, it's already old. But hey, I'm old.

I do, however, try. And that's what's important here. If we are to keep up with our students' lives, both in and out of school, and understand what's in their heads and on their to-do or wish lists, we must face the swirl, step into that rush of newness, and try some of it out. I know that it sometimes feels uncomfortable when you first approach it, but there's no requirement for loving it, for taking it up, or even for getting it. We must, though, get that they get it. And that should be enough.

So, to those already testing the swirl's waters, bravo. Don't lose sight of what's on the horizon, even as your vision diminishes. To the rest of you, before it's too late, surf, Stumble, pin, or download. Or even better, ask a Jones kid what's new. Then check it out.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Real Maple Syrup

The farm was down the backroads of Maine and as my tiny car bumped along, I was getting a little nervous. Then from (literally) out of nowhere, a police cruiser came from the other direction. I pulled over onto the even-bumpier shoulder (read: ditch) to let him pass, and nervous became an understatement. Despite the cop's presence, I knew someone could dispose of a body out here and no one would ever know. But we were in pursuit of a year's supply of the best maple syrup I'd ever tasted, and I figured it was worth the risk; luckily, I have lived to tell the tale.

A student's success is just like that syrup. While we may not swing from telephone poles, or climb the exteriors of buildings, or dive for pearls, or mine coal, we take risks in our teaching lives that can be (dare I say?) equally as dangerous. We teachers know that we hold moments, careers, lifetimes in our hands every day, and the measures we take to protect and prepare and provide for our students can be risky. There's the pain we feel, more like a burn, when that faltering kid promises us he'll match our dedication to his academic success and then doesn't deliver, or worse, intentionally thwarts his progress. There's the anxious worry about the student who is turning inward and the subsequent angst when her parents are unresponsive to our concerns. There's the frustration of piles and piles of paperwork and lots and lots of hoops that may temporarily limit our ability to service a student adequately. And there are the sacrifices we make within our own families, sometimes to the chagrin of our parents, partners, or children, so that our students' lives are enriched. I've never heard a teacher say his job was easy. Never. But I've rarely seen a teacher give up, either.

Because the best of us don't leave it there. We forge onward, professionally and respectfully and hopefully, knowing our power, knowing the risks, and knowing our students' potential. We continue down the bumpy backroads because we know the sweetness of success. Always on the quest, we are eager, creative, determined, thoughtful, and courageous.

I wish I could bottle that.

Taking Poetic License

In Class
For Tom

Some days
you worry paper
into loose fabric,
your hands
soundless crickets,
your slender
in heated rhythm.

Other days
you spin over
one or two
into autumn
dry cattails
smooth palms.

I am distracted
to write you
into this poem,
to sit at my desk
hand over hand,
(listening but) hearing


L.A. Rice

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


In the twenty years I've been in education, nothing's been more consistent than change. I suspect that's been true all along; it was for my retired colleagues and it will be for those just entering the field. So, why then, are so many of us so frightened by change, when it surrounds us daily? Oh. Maybe that's why. It surrounds us daily.

I like to think that there are few jobs in which change happens as frequently and as systematically as in education. I'll admit it; I like that recognizing change, adjusting to change, and embracing change is not only good for us, but expected of us. I know I sometimes wear my own affinity for change like a badge: Look at me!! See the change swirling about? Watch me adapt!! And, sometimes, I know the change itself is like a midway sideshow at a sleazy circus, too: Step right up!! See the change swallow this teacher and his bookbag whole!! And let me issue the most important caveat right here: in educational philosophy, change simply for change's sake is not good. Not. Good. At. All. 

But when kids change, or when educational change follows cultural change, it's okay. It really is okay. It is normal, and right, and while you may not think it good, it is normal, and right. Texting is not the end of face-to-face communication (it's just called "having a face-to-face" now). Bumping and grinding is just the way teenagers dance (our "bumping" was once met with raised eyebrows, too). Ensuring that every kid has the chance to succeed is not an outlandish expectation (it's definitely right and good). These changes do not portend the end of civility, or the destruction of community, or the loss of everything that's come before. They are just changes. And like us, and our parents, and their parents before them, our kids will become functioning citizens of this earth: caring and compassionate, smart and skilled, determined and diligent. They will invent, sell, defend, educate, heal, build, support, design, entertain, and serve. Just like us. 

Ten years ago, after a particularly engaging classroom discussion, I wrote my philosophy about change on my blackboard (it really was a blackboard). In big, capital letters, I wrote, "LIFE IS CHANGE." Deep, right? I caught a lot of flak from my students that year, a collectively bright, yet somewhat jaded (post 9/11) group of juniors in my American Literature class. For them, the shine was already off the apple a bit, and I think they were convinced that they could remain just as they were and the world would, or perhaps should, remain just as it was. Ah, youth. Today, I'm confident that they've evolved as the world around them has, and I can only hope that they might embrace my philosophy with a little more faith and a little less playful derision than they displayed in 2002. 

Like the ubiquitous sh*t that happens, change happens, too. When it feels uncomfortable, it's time to ask ourselves why, time to broaden our understanding of ourselves and our world, time to get our heads around whatever is evolving - yes, for our students, but mostly, for ourselves. We may think it's the end of the world as we know it, but we can still feel fine. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Football for Teachers

1st and 10: How we feel at the beginning of each school year: ready to drive down the field.
Audible: Asking that child to stop talking and listen. To sit down and participate in the lesson. To stop doodling and get out her notebook.
Blitz: A snow day that cancels a field trip. A fire drill that interrupts an exam. Vomit. 
Controlling the clock: Controlling the clock. And are we ever good at it.
Double coverage: A parent and an administrator.
End zone: 3:00 pm. Or Friday. Or June. Or graduation.
Eye-black: What we see on Monday mornings after a weekend of prepping and correcting.
Fumble: When a lesson slips out of our hands.
Goal line: Where we get to if we're SMART.
Halftime show: The cafeteria.
Interception: When that assessment only demonstrates that our kids didn't get it this time.
Kickoff: District convocation. See the best speaker at a district convocation - ever - here
Live ball: A lesson in play.
Loose ball: A lesson that could fly or die.
Neutral zone: The four minutes between the bell signifying the start of school and the bell signifying the start of first period.
Offending team: The kid who passes gas.
Personal foul: Tripping over a backpack.
Playoffs: The last weeks of school.
Recovery: When we fumble the first time with a lesson and have to do it over a different way.
Scrambling: Winging it. Yeah, we have to do it sometimes (see Recovery).
Third and long: How we feel on standardized testing days.
Touchdown: Any lesson that works.
Wild Card: The tough kid who keeps you on your toes. When he makes it to the playoffs, you are ecstatic.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Remembering My Place

On the last day of my first year of teaching where I still teach now, my department chair asked me to meet with him. He was a kind, soft-spoken, well-respected scholar and leader. I had no trepidation going into the meeting; I figured he wanted to bring some closure to my first year at the school, give me some sage advice, that sort of thing. And while I cannot remember his approach, I'm sure it was gentle. All I can remember are his critical words, his implied admonition for the future.

"There are some members of this department who are intimidated by you. They are offended that you make so many suggestions; you come across like you know everything about teaching English." Well. I know I was floored by the accusation, but I have no recollection of a response. I do remember making a beeline to my best friend's classroom, where I found him in tears over a similar experience with his department chair, and we wept together. This is what teaching here was going to be like? Were we that bad? We had killed ourselves that year, working so diligently to make every moment a meaningful one for our students. And the last thought before summer vacation would not be one of confident victory, but rather one of bitter sadness.

I learned a valuable lesson that day, of course. And it wasn't the one my chair wanted me to learn. I didn't learn to keep my mouth shut. I didn't learn to defer to the veteran members of my department. I didn't learn to hide my talents as a teacher. I learned to never, never do that to another rookie. My belief that newly-inducted teachers were skilled professionals never waned. And for me, now, veteran status doesn't mean anything, except that I am a veteran. I have years, but others often have great ideas. I have experience in the classroom, but others often have life experiences that help them understand their students. I've taught lots of lessons, been around a while, but those coming with recent educational training often have insights that complement my experience.

I hope that, upon my retirement day (in the very faraway future), the rookie teachers with whom I have had the utmost pleasure to work will be able to say that I valued them from the very start. That while I shared with them my lessons, I also considered theirs. That when they spoke, I listened, and I heard. That I built them up, supported them, encouraged them. I didn't get that from my department when I was a new teacher here. Times have changed. I've made sure of that.

Friday, February 3, 2012

What's In a Name?

Turns out, sometimes, everything. Let me explain.

Many years ago, I chaperoned a non-school-sponsored trip to Spain. It was July, and my colleague and I had agreed to take twelve recent graduates on a trip that they, and we, would forever remember. We were a tight-knit group: 12 kids, 2 of their former teachers, 1 beautiful country. These students were primed to learn everything more they could about Spain, and as it turned out, Scott and I ended up learning way more about kids. With such a small group, and with the understanding that as educators, we would require the students to adhere to school rules despite their status as alums, we bonded in a way that teachers and students rarely get to experience. We spent our days touring and visiting cities - Madrid, Toledo, Granada, Cordoba, Malaga, and Sevilla - and our evenings chatting about our lives, the kids' futures, pretty much everything. We would have our dinner, perhaps catch a Flamenco show or walk through the cobbled street of a city, then return to our hotel and all hunker down in one of the shared hotel rooms where the kids talked about their hopes, their fears, their regrets, their dreams.

While both of us chaperones were ultra-organized even in the most relaxed of settings, I knew a lot of New Game-y, Girl Scout-y, team build-y kinds of exercises designed to bring people closer together. Whenever there was a lull in conversation, I turned to my mental reserve of icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities. One night, after a long day and nearing the end of the trip, we went round and round the group, finishing sentences such as, "I wish my parents knew..." and "One thing I wish I'd done in high school is..." and "My favorite school lunch was...." We oohed and aahed at our answers, nodded knowingly, and laughed uproariously, until what would become the last round of sentence completions.

"The thing that I will remember most about high school is..." elicited responses of sweet nostalgia, moments of achievement, and for one courageous student, an opportunity to share something that had negatively altered her high school experience and hurt her on a very deep and personal level. She sobbed as she began her turn, barely audible and barely able to complete the sentence. "The thing that I will remember most about high school is that people never pronounced my name correctly." Turns out, it wasn't "everyone" that goofed up her name; she clarified when and where it happened and which adults never bothered to learn the correct pronunciation. Through tears, she explained that logically, she knew that there were bigger, much bigger, way bigger hurts that high schoolers suffer, but for her, the pain over this issue was about the simplicity of the fix: she often corrected people when they mispronounced her name, but they never seemed to care enough to remember for the next time. Daily roll calls, periodic announcements over the loud speakers, and especially, the Academic Awards banquet all proved extraordinarily difficult for a girl whose only wish became hearing her name pronounced properly and for whom the wish was so rarely granted.

Later, Scott and I shared privately that we were each convinced that we were about to hear something we were not equipped to handle there, at that moment, in a faraway country, as teachers, at all. For both of us, the first internal response was, "That's it?!?" But as our student described the message she received every time she heard her name mispronounced, and as we chaperones debriefed later, we knew we'd had a lesson in compassion and consideration. It was a lesson that stuck, a gift that I return to every time I speak a child's name, last or first or both. Our names are who we are first and all we have in the end. They matter. We owe it to all our students to make sure we get theirs right.