Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I Break for Birthdays (and Other Amazing Stuff)

Today, I pulled a Dove dark chocolate from the bag that the kid-who-has-trouble-coming-to-school-because-of-a-whole-host-of-reasons brought to me for my birthday, and the shiny sentiment inside the red foil wrapping was perfect for me, for all of us, for the concept of this blog, for teachers: "The more you praise and celebrate your life, the more there is in life to celebrate."

I took a week or so off from some of the "other" stuff I do. I wanted to mark the occasion of my fiftieth birthday with whatever extra time I could carve out for myself, and I was successful. But today I was reminded that the "praise and celebration" can't just be about me. That's why I started TeacherBites in the first place.

There's a platterful of blogs out there in which my esteemed (and light-years-brighter-than-me) colleagues delve into the edu-political landscape. Aside from the occasional poking of the snake or wee rant about the climate in my state and in this country, I've tried to stay away from arguing "our side." I believe in teachers' rights, I believe in educational reform based on reason, sensibility, and solid practice, but mostly, I just believe in teachers. I just do.

Teachers are amazing folks. We are sensitive, a trait that is sometimes mistaken for a weakness. I contend, though, that recognizing, embracing, and showing a weakness is truly a strength. Teachers care about our students' needs; that's why we spend our own money on classroom supplies, that's why we donate so freely on dress-down-for-charity Fridays, that's why we come early and stay late, that's why we chaperone, organize, advise, and confer, that's why we so often question ourselves and our practices. We care deeply, and thus, we feel hurt quickly and easily.

Sure, we can be worn down by Board decisions, administrative finger-pointing, misguided parents, surly students, and red tape. We are sensitive. But we cannot, and should not, criticize ourselves for that very quality that makes us so good at what we do. We cannot, and should not, apply more weight to the negative forces than we apply to the positive forces. We must, we always must, acknowledge our gifts, our talents, our strengths. It's a hard thing for us to do; we are way more comfortable shining that light on our students than on ourselves. But we deserve to stand in that light, too. And the more we allow ourselves to stand in that light, the brighter that light becomes. Praise and celebrate. Praise and celebrate!!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Beyond Mastery Kids

With so much emphasis on testing and test scores and how student and teacher performance can be (and should be, according to so many) measured by numbers, I just can't help thinking more and more about the students I've had whose successes cannot be assessed in any standardized way. That's not to say that I disagree with the idea theoretically; in theory, in ideal circumstances, we could sit every child down after they've each arrived at school safely, unthreatened and unharmed, after each has had a healthy breakfast, has slept full eight hours in a bed in a safe home, and hasn't suffered any psyche-damaging experiences at the hands of families or strangers, after each has been raised since birth without poverty or hunger or distress, after each, in theory, has had a childhood that puts him on a level playing field with every other child his age. We could then test each student in his first language, using culturally-appropriate prompts that he understands based on his knowledge and experience. I don't need to explain what does happen, instead.

Those tests, and perhaps even the common assessments we use within our grade levels, departments, schools, and districts, often miss the student that I call the "beyond mastery kid." (This is why, hopefully, we offer several kinds of common assessments, that measure several kinds of learning.) This student is atypical by nature, so that right there reduces the chances of a standardized assessment measuring her achievements accurately. But as we do as students, who remember our favorite teachers not for their prowess in academics or methodology, necessarily, we also remember our beyond mastery kids for so much more than their test scores.

We remember the kid who loved learning about his hometown and produced an oral history that is now housed at the local library. We remember the student who excelled on stage, in the band room, or in the art room who now returns periodically as an artist-in-residence or guest performer. We remember the child whose intense concern for others morphed into her involvement with Special Olympics. The kid who bred new species of fish. The kid who wired his bedroom for internet before internet was available. The kid who achieved in horseback riding, or marksmanship, or boatbuilding.

Like the immeasurable and unmeasurable successes that teachers have in the classroom, our students' beyond-the-test successes are valuable, meaningful, and incredibly valid. I wish we could measure them in some way. But the true measure is in the memory. We'll never forget our beyond mastery kids.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Our First Teachers

During the summer of 2006, which somehow has become a whole six years ago, I was fortunate to travel to Botswana for a Habitat for Humanity build. It was a vacation of a lifetime for me, and while I could not, even if I tried really, really hard, begin to list the ways in which it changed me, I did have several epiphanies there which have become more meaningful over time.

Recently, perhaps because I will be turning 50 next week, or perhaps because my infrequent telephone conversations with my faraway parents are often about health and aging, or perhaps because I have had to draw on those Botswana revelations in my work, I find myself going back more and more often to what I learned from my first teachers, my mother and my father. My recognition of the qualities I've acquired from them crystallized in Africa six years ago, where I had to apply them in isolation and in earnest. They are, of course, a deep part of me, but when they surface, they do so out of need, I believe, and I must once again recognize and honor them.

My mother gave me the gift of service. Mom was the consummate volunteer. When I was a child, I hated to go to events my mom organized or helped with. She was the first to arrive, the last to leave, and always, always, engaged in whatever activities were taking place. Which meant  I was, too. I didn't know what it was like to go to an event at its start time; I'd already been there for an hour. And I yearned to leave an event when it concluded, not after all the visitors had been chatted up, the chairs had been folded, the tables wiped down, the kitchen cleaned, the supplies put away, the floor swept and mopped, and the extra materials packed up and re-packed into the car. What I didn't appreciate then, and so appreciate now, is my mother's dedication to others and the enjoyment she derives from her service. She is the reason I am often the first to arrive at school and sometimes the last to leave. She is the reason I engage in so many extra-curricular activities, especially those that serve my colleagues. And she is the reason I will someday go back to Botswana or some other country on another Habi build.

My father taught me perseverance. Some of my favorite memories of him are of working up in the woods behind our house, cutting wood and hauling it back with the red Gravely tractor (on which he also taught me how to back up with a trailer when I was ten years old). Or of him working on the practically homemade pump and filter systems for the practically homemade pool that took up most of our backyard. Or of him under a car, or in his cellar workshop, some contraption in the vice, the coffee can of loose screws, bolts, and nuts spread out across the workbench as he searched for the right doohickey. In all these memories, Dad is focused, his face serious, his forehead frowning in concentration, his nose often running. When he asked me to work alongside him, if I didn't screw up, I loved to watch him work. He just stuck with the task at hand. No stopping because it was too cold or too hot. No time for fooling around. No giving up. I've had to draw on my own ability to persevere these past few weeks. And I know I will, because my dad taught me how to.

My parents could also relax like nobody's business. And as I head into a week of celebration for my fiftieth, I'm going to practice that, too. Or at least, I'm going to try to.

Cheers to our first teachers.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Teacher's Primer

From the New England Primer, circa 1690

Learn this. There will be a quiz later.
Be this. Oh, right. You already are.

Zany (c'mon, what did you think I would use here?)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Matters Most

Do this exercise with me:

Take a moment. Let yourself be present as you read this and consider the questions I am about to ask you.  Tune out the dryer tumbling the zippered fleeces. Ask someone else to hold the baby for a moment. Put down the correcting pen (or the screwdriver, or the accounting logs, or the newspaper).

Who was your favorite teacher?
What made that teacher your favorite?
What skills or qualities separated him or her from the rest?
If you could tell that teacher something today, what would it be?

Pause. Think. Celebrate. Then, find a way to act on the last question.

Steve McGrath was my favorite teacher. He taught history, but I have no idea what I learned in his classes that was academic in nature (I'm confident there was a lot, though). Rather, it was the time this man spent with me, during homeroom and before and after school, that I remember most. And frankly, I don't even remember a specific conversation I ever had with him. I just know I had them. Lots of them.

And from all those conversations, from which grew some shared jokes (which I sort of remember), this is what I do remember: he never rejected me. Not as a student. Not as a needy, nerdy kid. And not as human being. And not only did he never reject me, he valued me. In all those conversations (the genesis or content of which I cannot remember, darn it), I always felt smart. Always.

I know I wasn't the only kid to feel that way about Mr. McGrath. My best friend felt that way, too. Probably some other kids did, too. It's highly likely. And chances are pretty great that Mr. McGrath wasn't the only teacher to see my potential, to value my contributions, or to appreciate my quirky (sophomoric?) sense of humor. But that he took the time to show me, through long discussions and debates, by allowing me to keep my stuff in his classroom closet instead of in a locker, and with much encouragement and support, that I mattered and he believed in me - that's what separated him from all the others.

Several years ago, I ran into Mr. McGrath at a town meeting, where he and I both lived and I was teaching (he was retired after a long career at my high school and in other area districts, where he'd moved through the ranks into administration). We had the opportunity to chat, and after I caught him up on my life, and he reviewed his, I was able to thank him for the immeasurable gifts he gave me when I was a gawky teenager, which both make me a better teacher, and continue to give me strength when I need it. He was moved, I believe, but in his response, he focused right back on me: he said he was always confident that I would be successful because I was strong and smart.

And now I find myself reflecting back, not only on lengthy discussions in a high school classroom 35 years ago between teacher and student, but also on one brief conversation just about 15 years ago between professional colleagues. And I should call him up. Or send him an email. Because I need to tell him this: he showed me then (in 1977) and then he showed me again (in 1997) and I still feel now (in 2012) that I matter.

Thanks, Mr. McGrath.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Balancing Acts

This has been quite a week of highs and lows, starts and stops, rights and wrongs. These kinds of weeks (or months) are the hardest to adapt to, but sometimes also the most rewarding (at least that's what I keep telling myself). In this career, as perhaps in many others, keeping a balance is paramount to another goal, keeping perspective. It's necessary to not only understand, accept, and honor the reasons why things happen the way they do and their relationship to everything else occurring around us, but to work diligently to place them in balance with everything else, too.

If I had a dime for every time I thought this week, "This is why I love my job" after having thought "I just want to move to Maine and sell fleece pants at Reny's," I'd have quite a few dimes. I like best when the former follows the latter naturally, but I will readily admit, sometimes I must force my thinking into balance. When this happens, though, the balancing act seems awkwardly unbalanced; this was one of those weeks. It took an entire group of eager learners to balance the one cranky student from an earlier class. It took several supportive emails of appreciation for my union work to balance the one or two critical missives I received. It took a lunchtime of laughter and debate about the word "portmanteau" to balance the one run-in with an administrator. Looking forward, it's going to take something pretty remarkable to balance the grading odyssey on which I am to depart tomorrow morning.

Why such an unbalanced balancing? By our natures, we teachers are quick to take responsibility for the negatives and credit others for the positives. We give to others readily, but deny ourselves frequently. We strive to combat misguided and offensive criticism by working harder and harder and harder still. We tend to operate from a place of guilt, having adapted to, or even adopted, the repeated messages, explicit or implied, of our incompetence. In short, we're too nice (except to ourselves), too easy (except on ourselves), too accommodating (except toward ourselves).

Ultimately, though, I'm okay with it. I can say with honesty that I'm not sure I'd want it any other way; of course, I also don't think it could really ever be any other way. But I'll always strive for the balance, create it when I have to, and recognize its occasional unbalanced-ness. Because, like the indomitable Popeye, "I yam what I yam."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Testing, Testing

For teachers in my state, and many others, the real March Madness has begun. Now is the time of standardized testing, stressed-out students, altered schedules, classroom coverage, and get-a-good-night's-sleep-and-eat-a-healthy-breakfast admonitions, all in the name of meeting goal, and soon enough, also in the name of teacher evaluation.

My Governor, that unfriendly one whom I mentioned here, is making the rounds in town hall meetings to talk about his reform plan. His remarks about teachers thus far have been offensive (degrading the value of our work: "In today's system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.") and incorrect (defending his proposal that links evaluation and certification: "This is the evaluation system that the teachers' unions negotiated through a two-year process.").

Here is what the unions have negotiated, and what will most likely be used in this state. We may not like certain aspects of the plan, and we may not know just how the plan will be implemented, but the plan (or one similar to it) will be here to stay.

45% Multiple student learning indicators (half, 22.5%, comes from standardized test scores)
  5% Whole-school student learning indicators or student feedback
40% Observations of teacher performance and practice
10%  Peer or parent feedback

But it's not using test scores (student learning indicators), particularly, that irks me about evaluations, though I cannot get my head around the application of this concept to specials teachers, library media specialists, school counselors, social workers, psychologists... you get it. In fact, I'm pretty okay with using test scores as such a small part of the evaluation process. What bothers me is the assumption that everything that's come before, everything we use now, is broken or wrong. That we've not been evaluated fairly, or adequately, or frequently enough. That it's our fault, or the unions' fault, that those few teachers who are unsuccessful (you know, "bad teachers," like they're rotten fruit) somehow remain on the job.

In fact, it's not our fault, nor is it the unions'. Under our current evaluation policies and tenure laws, bad teachers can be, and are, let go. Released. Counseled out. Fired. This happens when administrators have the time, talent, and skills to observe and evaluate their teachers. More times then not, though, administrators drop the ball, or don't have time, or aren't willing (or don't know how) to engage in the intensive supervision that might be required when a teacher is struggling. I'm not sure how this will change with any new evaluation tool.

Does it matter? We will still be subject to evaluation. I don't know a teacher who doesn't welcome evaluation, who doesn't want to improve and grow as a professional. Evaluation, in whatever form it takes, is our "test," our skills-based assessment that is hopefully authentic and meaningful. We want to meet goal, to achieve, to go beyond mastery. We want to succeed.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Difficult Ones

We have difficult days, sometimes even difficult weeks, and hopefully few difficult months or years (though I know teachers who've had just that). We have difficult class or course assignments, the ones in which group chemistry might be off, or for which the prep work is overwhelming and yields little satisfaction. We have difficult students. For so many reasons, at varying times, and all, at some level, understandable. We want to help these kids. We want to help them learn, we want to help them heal, we want to help them grow. It is for them that we often stay after school (or go there early), revise our approach, revise our plans, revise our expectations, and collaborate, question, and keep on keepin' on.

And then there are the parents. Our first, and most important, partners in education. Our allies. Or not. And when they are not, the struggle can become more than difficult to bear. To me, difficulty with a parent feels like a betrayal. It feels like an outright exclamation of the parent's (or parents') lack of faith in my intelligence, experience, and concern: I DON'T BELIEVE YOU! YOU DON'T KNOW ANYTHING! YOU ARE WRONG! This distrust is the most uncomfortable. We can take it from kids (they are still learning, we say), we can take it from society at large (it's always been an uphill battle, we say), but when it comes from parents, it cuts too close to the bone. It's personal, and so difficult to get our heads around. Even more difficult to release.

But release it we must, as logic dictates. Often, we can explain the behaviors as "apple-tree," or a reflection of a parent's own educational experiences, or as a knee-jerk response to a misrepresented issue. That's where we can start to release the difficulty. I employ other tactics, too, and this week I had to use them all. First, I gave myself 24 hours to get over it. This is a strategy I use for almost every hurt I experience; it allows me the time to grieve, the freedom to move forward, and most importantly, perspective. Then, I chose five parents to contact with the good news that their children were achieving, or were showing improvement, or were helpful and pleasant. I didn't choose stars; their parents hear how great their kids are. I chose the middlers. I chose parents of kids who do what they are expected to do, the way they are expected to do it, when they are expected to do it. Simple. And soon enough I begin to feel better about my work, my students, and their parents. This week it took one more step to come around all the way. I treated myself, on a very personal level. Whether a special dinner (probably including some comfort food), a spa treatment, a walk in the woods or on the beach, a shopping spree, an intense workout, or time alone (or with a supportive pal), the gift-to-self is a sure-fire way to separate the professional struggle from the personal pain. For me, that hour plus (and my verbal acknowledgment of its purpose to those around me) is both reinvigorating and reaffirming.

I work hard, I know a lot, I have faith in my students and think always of their success. I teach with compassion and respect, I believe in equity and parity, and always I am grateful to be supported by parents who do understand what I do, how I do it, and why. There will be those who will not buy in, those difficult ones. That's okay. Even if they don't have faith in me, I do.