Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Importance of Parents

Parents are getting a lot of play in recent news and current sentiment around education reform. More and more, the parents' role in their children's educations is being debated, lamented, or suggested. Not so much praised, though. There isn't much celebration of parental involvement, and that's probably because there's so little of the right kind, and too much of the wrong kind.

A few years ago, growing media criticism of helicopter parents turned a bright spotlight on those parents whose extraordinarily protective and preventative behaviors, experts and laypeople alike thought, were detrimental to kids. For forever, teachers have worried about the other kids, too: those whose parents, let's say, are stealth drones. We don't see them. We don't hear from them. They're invisible. And while the helicopters are over-involved and over-participatory while over-doing it, the stealth drones are there, we know, but absent, and can be just as dangerous. I couldn't pick either as better than the other. Neither is any good.

This is true, too, for another type of parent. Let's call them the bombers. The one who, years ago, upon seeing my Halloween costume (I was dressed as a student who sported a rather unique style: tank-top, overalls, fleece vest, hair in a ponytail on top of her head, chewed up pen cap in mouth), told me that I "did [his daughter] better than she did." Or the one who sneered at parent conferences that I would soon see how less interesting this one was than his other brothers, whom I'd also had as students. Or the one who accosted a colleague in the grocery to complain about her child's poor academic performance, his choice of after-school sport, and even, his weight. These parents worry us just as much...maybe even more. Hovering is bad. Disengaging is bad. But I firmly believe that dogging your child is really, really bad.

Maybe that's because of our roles in these parenting scenarios. With helicopters, we are often on the receiving end of criticism. We defend ourselves, our practices, our colleagues. With stealth drones, when our attempts at engagement are rebuffed, we either redouble our efforts or eventually submit to a sad truth we know all too frequently. But with bombers, we get our backs up on behalf of our students. We counter the bomber's accusations with our advocacy. We defend those defenseless kids. We praise, we support, we suggest, we praise some more.

We believe in the power and potential of every one of our students, every day. We want our students' parents to feel the same way. Our kids deserve that, from all of us.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

It's Never About the Money

Two recent events, one national news (the Chicago teachers' strike) and one a local issue, have got me thinking about money. Besides my normal personal financial worries, I don't usually think about money on a professional level. In some ways, because I believe in fairness, parity, and solidarity, I've felt rather forced into thinking about salaries and benefits and other moneyish things these past few weeks. And I am both bothered and sad.

That's because, in this profession (in nearly every profession, right?), we're not in it for the money. We don't stay in it for the money. Some of us leave it under the pretense of (lack of) money, but most of us are here despite the money. Granted, I work in the state with the highest teachers' average salaries. Still, those salaries don't come close to matching the salaries or potential salaries for other professions with similar degree requirements. So when education critics complain about our high salaries, or when the focus of a walkout turns to what Chicago teachers make, or when anyone questions the teachers' (or in my case, my local union's) motives for demanding a fair deal, two things happen to me: I get my back up, and I get down.

The best way to combat these feelings (for I can only control how I feel; I certainly cannot control anyone else's emotions) is to make a list of why we are here, and what does motivate us:

  • The kids. The ones who struggle and the ones who soar. The ones with the newest technological devices and the ones who come to school in too-tight sneaks and dirty hair. The ones who pay close attention, the ones who can't pay attention, and the ones who refuse to pay attention.  The ones who appreciate us now, and the ones who will only appreciate us later. The athletes, the artists, the talkers, the thinkers. Those on the edges and those firmly grounded in the center. Those with baggage and those who think baggage is what you take on a vacation to Cancun. First, foremost, and always, it's about the kids. 
  • The collegiality. Our work wouldn't be nearly as meaningful if we didn't, or couldn't, share it with our peers. We, veterans and rookies, learn from each other about classroom management, websites and apps, supplemental texts and new studies, and the kids. Again, and again, it's about the kids.
  • The discipline. Not discipline as in self- or how-to, but the subject area that intrigues us and powers our own interests and ambition. Scientists in the lab. Language Arts teachers reading. PE teachers moving in new ways. Library Media Specialists researching. Social workers guiding families to success. And the great thing about our jobs is that we get to do all this, share all this for, with, and because of, the kids. There they are again. Even our chosen areas of study, in the end it's about the kids.
Many of us started our paths to teaching long before college, when we were just young kids setting up classrooms in our basements and quizzing our unsuspecting friends on grammar and math skills. Some of us discovered a love for a subject in high school and decided to parlay that into a teaching career, perhaps because we had a teacher who saw our potential and told us so. Still others came to the profession after unfulfilling first ones elsewhere. Regardless of our myriad journeys to classroom, though, hardly any of us were thinking about how much money we could make. And those very few who did, I'd wager, no longer work among us, or shouldn't. In this profession, if you're not in for the kids, you're not in it. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What Was I Afraid Of?

This Saturday morning, as I woke up thinking of a new student I have who struggles with a medical condition that requires some monitoring, my mind immediately went from how I can best help in the classroom, to how good it is to be informed firsthand, to how I now practically expect parents to tell me this stuff, to how grateful I am for email, to how I once was utterly and completely opposed to emailing with parents. While the topics jumped about, so did my emotions upon the final revelation. I was at once a bit embarrassed, then extraordinarily proud of my evolution.

That word, evolution, got a lot of play this year, as some powerful political and religious and civil rights leaders moved their positions on marriage equality. Critics pointed to the election year or social pressures as motivating factors in the changes, but for me, the bottom line was not how or why change occurred, but that it occurred. And I can apply that same philosophy to my own evolution(s), too: it's more important that I change and grow over time, not why I do or how it happens.

Interestingly, though, I realized that for me (and perhaps for many, many others), evolution almost always comes in fits and starts. I deny, refuse, oppose. I worry, fret, and rant. I slowly, slowly consider a theoretical application of the change. I research. I might even refute the validity of the evolution once more. Then, voila: I open the throttle and floor it. I guess you could say I'm a zero-to-sixty kind of evolutionist.

A short list reveals the recent educational changes I've at first debunked, poo-pooed, or just outright sworn I'd never support...and then gotten on the bandwagon about; besides the emailing (it's my preferred method of parental communication now), there's our district's BYOD policy (so far, so good this year), and flipping the classroom (a colleague is trying it this year and I'm a wee bit envious). And when it comes to my life outside of school, well, let's just say Evolution is my middle name (I'm thinking of the waistlines of jeans, child-rearing, and vegetarianism, just to name a very few areas in which I've evolved through the years).

I'm also thinking this morning of a dear friend who, having suffered a devastating loss this summer, is evolving by way of both a sloughing off and a realignment. By honoring her strength and self-preservation, I am also recognizing my own need for continual evolution and moving always forward. Whether educationally or personally, change is not only good, it is necessary. And sometimes, it's just plain fun.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Happy to Be in School Again

Teaching teachers is a most difficult job, and very few people are good at it. Very few. Most people who end up training educators have been, at one time or another, in a classroom, so the rest of us expect that those who choose to work in this part of the industry know what it takes to be good. It shouldn't be rocket science.

Just as we recognize the bad ones - and there are a lot - we recognize the good ones, too. There's nothing like the feeling of being praised by teachers, and I've been lucky to experience that on the receiving end. There's also nothing like the feeling of sitting through a training that's done well; we leave feeling respected, enlightened, energized, knowledgeable, and confident.

In my twenty three years of teaching, few openings have gone as smoothly as this year's. And that's with a not-so-great training on the new evaluation document we are piloting. It was the other two and a half days that made the experience such a positive one for all of us (you know when teachers are pleased because they are even more vocal about the good stuff than they are about the bad). That time included:

  • Collegiality: From the faculty rock band at Convocation to the teachers-led discussion of our summer professional reading, from the group lunches to the staff/administration Q & As, the connections between us and the sharing of critical information in creative ways were inspiring. 
  • Learning: We walked away from every training session knowing what we'd come to learn. Seems simple, but it doesn't happen as frequently as we'd expect. This time, we came, we learned, and we left - brains overflowing, but in a really good way. 
  • Fun: Our administrators had a prize bag for good answers, good questions, good ideas, and good comebacks at our very-long, very-chocked-full building meeting. They knew the content was important, but they respected that we weren't thrilled to sit through it, and they looked to us to choose the topic with which we began, they gave us frequent and ample breaks, and they allowed for meaningful conversational deviations that helped us get our collective heads around some pretty heavy new stuff we're doing. The Super Blow-Pops and the mega-boxes of SweetTarts and Good N Plentys were just sweet, sweet, sweet icing on the cake. 
Walking from our building to another on campus for the final session of our PD days, a student teacher who'd interned with us last year made a comment that resonated, and will resonate for days, for the rest of us. He said, "These new teachers must feel like they hit the lottery." 

I felt like I hit the lottery, too. I want to hold on to that feeling and take it with me through the school year. I want to share that feeling with my new students, who will come to classes on Tuesday wondering just what high school English will be like. I want them to learn together, and really learn, and I want them to have some fun while doing it. I want them to feel the way I did this week: happy to be in school again.