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The Wall (no, not that one. let’s not get all political)

The midyear slump can be a killer; when faced with “the wall” remember to take it down the same way you put it up, brick by brick.

Last week was my favorite week in the school year, mid year exam week. I’m going to be selfish for a moment here; it’s my favorite week not because I get to see how one test exemplifies the lessons and imparted knowledge of my teaching this past semester, but rather, it’s my favorite because it’s a lull before the new semester. A time to reflect and plan for what’s to come (and we get more than 18 minutes for lunch). We secondary teachers get an opportunity to furiously grade,and plan but in a much more relaxed and quiet atmosphere.

This year wasn’t the same, because the levity that I usually associate with the week was limited by the other projects I have taken on this year. When I stopped to take a breather, I realized I had hit the Wall.

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I’ve hit the Wall plenty of times in the past. Usually it’s in March where everybody seems to be high strung with the “I’m so sick of winter” blues, April seems like ages away, and then you realize you’ve got to start taking your son to baseball practice, when it’s cold.

This Wall was different.

The difference was that I had created it. Each brick was another project, or task, or responsibility that I willingly accepted. The mortar that held all of these bricks together was the effort, or lack thereof, I had put into each project. The ominous National Board candidacy process I began, the January term grad class (which I should have put more effort into), attempting to get back in shape, the resolution to make more family time, a second “remote” contract job, facilitating professional learning for my union, more stringent feedback guidelines for my students, are all “bricks” of my own creation. I dug the mud, I shaped the brick, I fired the kiln and I mortared them together. It was a beautiful wall, but it was too big to be purposeful and thus became the Wall.

Walls can be debilitating. Instead of finding solutions, the gut reaction is to curl up in a ball at the base and wait for someone to come by and help; perhaps they help you climb over it, or cut a door in it, or simply knock it down. My wall was different. I liked my bricks, I didn’t want to move past, or cut them out, or knock them down. I wanted to save them, rebuild them, maybe make a beautiful arch, become a mason of my projects so to speak.

Sounds good, right?

Now that we’re a week into the second semester, I’ve got a little rhythm going. What I’ve managed to do is scrape out some of that mortar holding my Wall together. Each brick is still in perfect condition, but I’ve placed some off to the side. My wall is about half the size it once was. I can see past it. More importantly I have these wonderful bricks that I plan on using as I draw up some new plans.

There’s a good chance that someone or something can come by and throw up a whole new row of bricks in the next few months, baseball season will be here before you know it. If that happens, I’ll just have to see if my plan works for not just my wall, but for others as well.

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Teachers, It’s Time to Advocate for Our Profession

I graduated from college back in 2001. Like many college grads, with a few months of student teaching under my belt, I was ambitious, arrogant, idealistic, and scared. I wanted to grab students attention, teach lesser known works, make English class something that was less lecture, writing essays, and grammar lessons, and more deep thinking and discussions. I was going to be the “cool” English teacher.

I was lucky enough to have  had a cooperating teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School that supported every choice I made, and had the utmost faith I’d be a good and dedicated teacher. I respected him, and will forever be in debt to his guidance and professionalism. So, before I left Washington D.C. that summer to move back home and search for jobs, I made a promise to myself.

When teaching becomes nothing more than a job, I will walk away.

I did, and I wrote about this a couple of years ago here.

Since I’ve returned from my leave, I’ve been more energized and certainly more involved, but something is still missing. The very nature of working in a school labeled as persistently low achieving and forced into a School Improvement Grant funded Transformation Plan takes its toll. (I should mention that the school has successfully been removed of that status, but we still have a long way to go)

My classroom was manageable, my teaching was good, not great, but good, but my view of the system, the whole education system, was what frustrated me the most.

Now, at the expense of ruffling a few feathers or being labeled a “rabble-rouser”, I make the following statement;

No one thing can polarize teachers, administration, students, and community like federal funding.

Initiative overload, tight deadlines, “just spend the money” mentality, and the constant imposing threat of, what it we’re not successful? (without positive reinforcement) drives stakeholders to size each other up instead of bringing them together. The “chain of command” and traditional hierarchy that should be more flexible in these times, becomes more rigid. And for individuals like myself, frustration grows as the teacher’s voice becomes muted amidst the chaos of reform.

That lack of voice, or silenced voice, is what brings me to the title of this blog entry [nice segue, right?]. As a moderate introvert, I tend to swallow my frustrations and let them fester, or day dream about confronting those frustrations in fantastical and elaborate ways (see figure 1)

Fig. 1

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I could bring my concerns to my superiors, and I have, but the change as a result of that is little or never fully fleshed out.

So instead of having the same discussions over and over again, it’s time to build a team, say my piece, and be at the top of my game.

I will advocate for my profession by being the best teacher I can be, and not by what others might define as the “best teacher” (cooperative and quiet).  I will advocate by challenging myself in pursuing what I believe to be the pinnacle of teacher excellence, National Board Certification. I hope to inspire others to do the same, and I will catalogue my journey here on this blog.

Come along for the journey, be inspired, and share your advice.

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From Kentucky Blue to Fescue: Why Educators Need to Dispel the “Grass is Always Greener” Mentality

A few weeks ago I realized that it was one of the last days I’d be able to mow my lawn, midmorning, on a weekday. So goes the summer of a teacher. As I rolled my mower back into my shed, I took pride in my neat parallel lines running the course of my patchwork swath of green, neon green, and brown grass. Ah summer…

It made me think about a comment I made earlier this summer while sitting down to dinner with my grad school cohort. In reply to a question about what I learned when I was working as a data analysis coach for RI schools, I said, “the grass isn’t greener, it’s just different shades of brown.”

Perhaps there was a twinge of cynicism in there, but the more I think, and reflect, and move to push my professional self to my full potential, I have realized that brown grass isn’t a bad thing.

As any homeowner can tell you, brown grass isn’t dead grass (most of the time). It’s grass that has chosen to lose its plush lustrous green to protect itself. Under that layer of thatch is a living thing that needs to be coaxed back to health, but it is living, and it is capable of bouncing back; water, fertilizer, changing the cutting height, and time will all allow for that grass to make it’s slow recuperation back to green and thriving.

Can’t we view schools in the same light? My building, like my lawn, is in transition. At times I feel as if it’s one drought away from moving past brown to scorched. There are however bright spots. I see tufts of green that given the right conditions can spread. I also see, behind closed classroom doors, brown grass holding on to its last living roots.

The lawn that is my school needs some help. We want the green lawn, but we fall victim to the quick fixes; throw down some seed, a quick watering, pull a weed or two. These may work, they may not; as experience has shown me, most of the time it doesn’t change a thing (that goes for my actual lawn as well).

This is why we need to conduct a soil test of sorts. Let us figure out what we need, instead of just over watering, or over fertilizing, or letting the green grass fend for itself. Check the soil, go organic, leave a few weeds for color, tell the neighbor to put a leash on their dog, but most of all, give it some time for those remedies to work. Assess what we need and give it time so we can bring the whole lawn back to one that’s fun to run through barefoot.

Even then… you still have to keep up with its needs. The greenest lawn is always one step away from losing it’s luster.

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A New Year, A Renewed Vision

And so it begins…

I’m sitting up thinking about tomorrow. It’s our first day back to school wth students, and  like my own kids asleep in their beds, I’m  wondering/ worrying what the day will bring. My hope is that it brings a new perspective.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend the summer, not only with my family, but with an extraordinary group of educators. The result is that “Mr. Keating” feeling, that ran through my veins 15 years ago when I started, is back. So without getting stuck on needless backstory I’m going to relay to you my guiding principals for the coming years.  Thank you to Megan Allen and Sandy Merz for the inspiration, and my cohort partners, Anne Neary, Jessica Roberts, Katie Biggs, Katie Girard, Chelsea Berry, Amanda Rogers, Kathy Renfrew, Betsy Keith, Roz Bryyne , Genessa Zickefoose, Laura Dailey, Megan Paul, Cecily Merrill, Jesse Riemenschneider, Melissa Schumaker, and Gail Parris for your expertise and support.

My Teacher Leader Manifesto

Just a teacher. I said it, in some ways I meant it, and then I engaged in a 15 minute fake re-do argument in the shower the next morning, because of it. It haunted me. It made me angry, that just, hanging out there, a white flag stating that your career holds more value than mine.

It made me think of the first resumes and cover letters I sent out, the feeling I had when I accepted a position, the fear and excitement of walking into my first professional day. It reminded me that I never really cared what others thought before, because it was the prospect of making a difference and my students that mattered most.

So I looked at my old resume, it was short, lacking in experience, but full of life. I quoted Steinbeck, “Many teachers have taught me soon forgotten things, but only a few like her created within me a new direction, a new hunger, a new attitude. I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that teacher. What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.” I needed to reclaim that drive.

So, “just a teacher?” To that I say no!, not anymore, no biting my tongue when someone makes the summer crack, no cowardly shrugging the shoulders when someone asks, “you’re not going to be a classroom teacher for 36 years are you?” No more! My colleagues and I will strip that derogatory term just from the vocabulary of every teacher. I am a Teacher, capital T. In my classroom, my building and my district, I help strengthen the pillars that every community is built upon. I don’t measure my worth by hours, or salaries, or titles; I measure my worth by possibility. The possibility that my brief interactions with students will help move us forward.

In committing myself to that end, I will use the following guiding principles to regain and strengthen that vitality.

Guiding Principles:

1. I will temper my emotions with data, and scholarship. I will not become a slave to complaining and quick knee jerk decisions. I will assume that others have done the same and afford them the same respect I hope to receive. I will act as a professional and utilize protocols to keep interactions professional.

2. I will engage in a constant quest for knowledge. I will ask others for their expertise, champion self directed study, open my eyes to the realities that I face, and search for the tools to address them. I will search out best practice and keep an open mind.

3. I will leave my door open. My room is a classroom for students and teachers. I will let others see and hear my successes and failures. I will welcome in the cynic and the novice and I will ask them for guidance. I will welcome in non teachers to understand our needs and strengths.

4. I will take risks. I will try new things and view failure as learning. I will challenge ideas that are professionally unsound and show others that we should not be afraid to raise questions and offer our expert opinions.

5. I will call myself an expert. I will acknowledge that my experience and education have laid a strong enough foundation to be a lifetime learner. I will redefine the term expert as one that is less about knowing it all, and more inline with wanting to know it all.

6. I will be proactive. I will not wait for change to come to me, but rather seek it out. I will call upon others to move our students and our building towards success, instead of waiting for someone to do it for me. I will use the tools at my disposal and, if need be, find or create new ones to chart a course to success.

7. I will laugh at “burn-out.” I will make time for family and friends. I will lean on my colleagues and offer them the same. I will remember who I was before I was a teacher and remind myself that it is that part of me which makes me a great teacher. Collaboration will be my battle cry. I will urge others to do the same.

8. I will always see the students as the end. There is but one end in education and that is the students who come before us everyday. Every meeting, training, professional conversation strengthens our abilities to serve and guide our students. If those meetings, trainings, etc. are not explicitly directed to that end, see principle 4.

9. I will make the title teacher one of respect. I will showcase the hard work of my colleagues near and far. Build relationships beyond the walls of the school. I will not tell others about the work we do, but show others the work we do. I will encourage, not dissuade my students to become teachers.

10. I will humbly acknowledge that each of these principles will fail if I only rely on “I”

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How a year off made a world of difference in my teaching practice.

I’ve been lucky.  When I graduated in 2001, districts were bleeding teachers.  I moved home from college and applied everywhere.  Miraculously, I found myself not with the difficult decision of which part time job I should take, but the pleasantly difficult decision of which ELA teacher position I should accept.

I don’t mention this to boost my ego, but to set the stage.  14 years later, I’m still in that same position and that’s a good thing[1]; but one can’t be faulted for thinking “what if…”

In the June of 2013 I took a leave of absence from the teaching position I held for the past 12 years.  It was the most difficult decision I have had to make in my career.  It didn’t help that, as usual, the entire school community knew before I had a chance to collect my thoughts.

Regardless of my second guessing and gnawing sensation of guilt, I was able to make a life changing decision a little more manageable with some help from my Union.  Thanks to contract language, I had the ability to request a leave for a year, knowing I could return in August and bring with me a year’s experience and knowledge.  In the normal everyday world of academia one might call it a sabbatical.

I spent the next 12 months working for a for- profit education consulting company, guiding teachers and admin in looking at their data more strategically.

While I brought back knowledge of data analysis, I returned with more pedagogical knowledge than could have been absorbed in 10 years of PD.

Without the concerns associated with evaluations and forms, grading and planning, etc.,  I spent quite a bit of time reading and thinking; necessities that I often considered luxuries as a classroom teacher.  I thoroughly read through the standards and my curriculum without the naysayers and over thinkers breathing down my neck.  I read more about pedagogy than I had in undergrad, or in my entire career for that matter.  I asked questions of teachers in classrooms and districts other than my own. My lunch was longer than eighteen minutes.  It was glorious, and the cynicism that had been creeping in over the past few years all but disappeared.

Despite being away from the classroom for a year, I never took off my teacher hat.  I kept thinking; I could do this, or we should do that, why are we working so hard when the answer is right in front of us? 

A day doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t ask me, “so are you glad you came back?” with a slight twinge of what the hell is wrong with you in their tone.  (I can’t fault them for both the question and the tone; things have been stressful the past few years in my building.)

My consistent, unwavering answer; I am.

I am glad I returned.  For every thought that may have led me to think of staying in the private sector, there were ten more which made me wish I was back in my classroom implementing new knowledge.  The energy we all have that month out of teacher prep or undergrad programs was back ten-fold.

That energy helped recommit myself to this profession.   I committed myself to being a reading comprehension trainer for my local; I committed myself to being a more active voice in my school.  I’ve committed myself to offering advice and sharing best practice.  I’ve committed myself to my students.  And while I know, not everyone feels that I am committed to my school, I suppose that is the price to pay for pursuing knowledge and taking chances.  In the end, I know that I am, and I’ll still be here teaching years from now and that’s a beautiful thing

[1] Recently, teaching seems to have an “entry level position” tag associated with it.  This bothers me to no end.  I like teaching, whether it’s children or adults,  I don’t have to “move on” after I’ve had a few years of classroom experience.

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