How we “teach” reading

My love of books stretch back to my childhood, partly from a mother who read to us daily, and partly from the companionship of a book. Reading for pleasure was emphasized in our home with trips to the library, magazine subscriptions, and public television shows such as “Sesame Street”, “Zoom”, and “The Electric Company”.

Reading was fun. It was an escape for a quiet kid who loved being alone as much as she loved playing with friends.

As I grew older, books taught me about the world around me in new and thought-provoking ways. The first one that comes to mind is To Kill A Mockingbird. Ms. Cobb read it with us in 7th grade. It gave me a new lens in which to view the world, starting in my own backyard.

To be honest, looking back, I realize that the influence of books and my respect of fine literature has a lot to do with teachers who were passionate about them. To this day, I don’t care too much for reading Charles Dickens, but I have a great appreciation for his writing based on the way Mrs. McCarter (9th grade English) and Ms. Brickey (11th grade English literature) shared their passions for his works. Doc Gore had us read Tess of the D’Urbervilles in senior English. I was incredibly annoyed with that novel, but I can envision (30 years later) the scenery described in its pages.

I love books and reading, but my teachers showed me how to appreciate it. When I became a teacher, I wanted to share this love with my own students. I wanted them to find the comfort and escape in words that I had experienced. We read Roald Dahl and played with the language in The BFG. We explored survivalism and the outdoors in My Side of the Mountain. We had a whole day of making recipes from the book, demonstrations from a parent about how to survive in the woods, music, and we even had a parent build a classroom “tree” like the main character lived in in the book. I would bet those kids were more engaged and remember more about the adventures in that reading unit than anything else we taught that year. My team and I created incredible units that were hands-on and explored other ideas, cultures, and points of view. I loved teaching reading and I hope many of my students learned to appreciate it as well.

Sadly, this type of teaching isn’t happening in classrooms anymore. Gone are the novel studies and the units I spent hours researching and crafting. In their place are prescriptive lessons, scripted text, and informational passages crafted by some “institute” that claims fictional test-score gains on a vague group of students. Gone with it is the passion for teaching reading and the love of reading a book by many students. When I set up my classroom, I was most proud of my expansive library of fiction and non-fiction. It was my goal for students to discover where their passion for reading would be, whether fantasy, Sci-fi, historical, or realistic fiction. We made time for silent reading and read-aloud EVERY day and it showed up in their grades and their test-scores. My firm belief is that reading develops the mind, the vocabulary, and allows for better and creative problem-solving skills.

When I mention this to young teachers today, I feel old. They look at me as if this type of enjoyable teaching is ancient history or that I’m somehow making it up. The classroom 10 years ago looks nothing like the scripted texts they teach to their uninterested and bored students today! A whole book?? A two-hour literacy block? Perish the thought!

I wonder about the short attention spans of young people. I wonder about the rise of fake news, the lack of researching for the truth, the disinterest in anything real, and the fantasy world of social media. After not reading novels for a long time, I’ve had to relearn how to be still and allow the words and pictures to form in my mind. Fortunately for me, I had the advantage of teachers who were free to share this in their classroom and it was easy for me to get back in that groove. Today’s students and teachers do not. I don’t believe that books are going anywhere, but our appreciation for stories, imagination, and the word-crafting is slowly fading. I also wonder if it’s the reason some teachers aren’t staying in the classroom. By not allowing teachers that creativity and passion in their lessons, it makes the hard days even harder because there’s nothing joyful to balance it out.

This world needs more pleasure readers. We need to give our kids this avenue for thought and expression. Books have allowed me so much, even when my worse times weighed heavily. Now, more than ever, we need to teach an appreciation for reading in order to give students the freedom that goes along with it.

When there’s a manhunt for your former student

With all of the holiday hullabaloo, it’s been a bit difficult to keep up with the news, but it’s been quietly sitting at the back of my mind. My heart goes out to all of the families who have lost loved ones this past year. Holidays and traditions make it all harder. Especially, when you have lost people suddenly or violently. It makes the world dimmer and holidays usually bring a few tears.

I’ve seen quite a bit on Facebook regarding senseless crimes this past week. Most notably the fatal stabbing of three young men, two of which lost their lives. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child, much less one that you already have gifts for under the tree.

https://www.newschannel5.com/news/suspect-in-deadly-nashville-stabbing-due-in-court-witness-testimony-expected-today

I’m also praying for the accused. His life has been rough these 23 years and I hate that his life can’t be turned around at this point. Not that I didn’t try when he was 11. He was in my classroom and I was his 5th grade teacher. He didn’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll become a violent criminal.” Michael didn’t have much of a support system at home.

Before you think I’m a pushover and coddled him in 5th grade, think again. Michael had 42 office referrals in that one year. Most of them because of his anger. I cannot diagnose anyone, but that was about 8 years into my teaching career, and I knew there was something wrong with that child. I spoke with his father, who was overwhelmed, frustrated, and probably not well educated himself. He was raising two children and taking care of an aging father in a two bedroom apartment. He explained that he had custody of Michael and his sister because their mother had abandoned them, left them without food or water, in an apartment in Clarksville. Mom had her own mental health issues, and was possibly bipolar. I spent a good deal of my time talking and working with Michael that year. I referred him over and over for counseling. We provided dad with referrals and people to call, but still, here we are. A year of 42 discipline referrals, documented explosive anger, and this child continued in school, no counseling, no medicine, and a lack of support. He continued to Bellevue in 6th grade where he continued to act out and exhibit explosive episodes. My understanding is that he was in numerous fights and eventually referred to alternative school. My information goes cold after that.

Fifth grade isn’t where my relationship with Michael ends. I had moved to an apartment complex across the street from his during the school year. When school let out, he came looking for me at the swimming pool. We chatted for awhile. One on one, he was delightful and could tell a good story. He stopped by several times to check in. At some point there was a knock on my door, he’d figured out my apartment. Now, I wasn’t fearful or threatened, but I also know how the world works, so I never invited him in, but again, he just wanted to talk about life and to see how I was doing. I saw him not too long after that, he’d been getting in trouble at school. He blew it off. It wasn’t too many days that had passed when I heard from another teacher that he’d been an instigator in a fight and was sent to alternative school. I haven’t heard from him since. Several years ago, his name appeared in a news story about a stabbing incident in Bellevue. I prayed for him and everyone involved. It was written up as a domestic dispute, so I never heard anything more.

Until Tuesday.

The teacher I teamed with texted me a link to the story.

Since the news broke, I’ve traveled back to that school year over and over in my mind. Michael is only one student of thousands that pass through our schools with undiagnosed mental health issues. Placed in classes where they are usually behind, with a lot of frustration because no one seems to understand what’s happening in their mind. This is more than childhood trauma or ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), this is mental illness and we place these students in regular classes, in regular schools, with typical students and with teachers who have no special training to deal with the behaviors that come along with it. We expect these students to perform at the same level, and these teachers to deal with these behaviors, all while teaching 20 other children. These behaviors are being seen in elementary classrooms everywhere. Unfortunately, our schools and our teachers do not have the space, the manpower, or the resources to deal with these children. Instead, when one of these kids “explodes,” we clear the classroom. We take away from the other kids because no one will stand up and say that the kid who is exploding needs a different environment for learning. No one wants to admit that sometimes a child with a disability (and mental illness is a disability), should be removed from a regular education classroom and served in a smaller environment. No one wants to hear that their child has a problem and needs a special setting.

We have to stop sacrificing the masses in the name of political correctness or with the idea that the public school can “fix” everything that’s wrong.

Michael isn’t the only student I’ve had with mental illness. I had one several years ago who went back and forth between school and a mental health facility. No transitional classroom, no special training. He was released from the facility and reenrolled in his zoned school the following day. How is this best practices for any child, teacher ,or school?

As a teacher, I was told to document the behavior, make phone calls, fill out endless paperwork for meetings with specialists, use rewards charts, attend meetings, fill out more paperwork, create special spaces, create transition plans, only for none of it to work, and then the year would end and the process would begin again the following year, because we want to give the child a “fresh start.”

There’s a serious problem among our young population. A rise in suicides, violence, and acting out. Our children are crying out for help and we continue to placate to them, much to the detriment of our “regular” students. I think we need a different approach to deal with these behaviors. There’s no easy solution, nor is there only one solution. My belief is that our districts and leaders need to begin addressing these issues, starting with our youngest students. Convene teacher leaders at the elementary level and really listen when they share ideas. Those “specialists” have nothing on a teacher with multiple years of experience managing 20 5-year-olds! That’s when we can truly begin to help our most vulnerable and begin to save our schools.

As for Michael, once the media moved on, I haven’t found any updates. I did read that he was to make an appearance in court this week. It’s tragic and my heart hurts for everyone involved. This shouldn’t have happened. I’ll never stop wondering “What if?” While I don’t believe that any of Michael’s history excuses his actions, it does make me continue asking , “What if our schools were on the forefront of helping solve this crisis, instead of on the butt-end?”

What if we had given this child the services he needed? What if we had done something about the 42 office referrals from one school year? What if the school system and the mental health system began working together? What will we do so that no other family has to go through this?

It’s way past time for a real conversation about mental illness in our classrooms.

Lead Like You Mean It!

I love the move “Lean On Me” with Morgan Freeman. There are so many great moments where Mr. Clark does or says something to inspire his students and teachers. If you’ll remember at the beginning of the film, Mr. Clark is teaching in an active class with involved students in a beautiful high school. A board member comes in to tell him they lost the vote and Mr. Clark lost his job. He was furious. He walks out with the words, “This place will get exactly what it deserves.” Cut to the next scene. Guns and Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” is playing, spray painted walls, drugs being dealt, and a student is shoved in a locker, and all you hear in the empty hallway is the voice of the student crying for help. Same school, but when the leadership went in a different direction, so did the school.

Opening Scene “Lean On Me”

We spend a lot of space, on tv and written, talking about leaders. We hear about the world leaders. We analyze the comings and goings of any person who might be in charge of something. This would include elected officials, CEOs, board members, bosses from any company, and even our own households. Our kids have leaders among them. They form clubs, organize games, and figure out whose house will be best for the next sleepover. Leadership is partly inherent and partly developed. I believe almost anyone can be a leader with the right focus in the right areas. However, leaders can also destroy. They can take their powerful position to serve selfishly and create fear among the people who depend on them.

I spent every school year focusing on bringing out the leaders among our students. We spent the beginning of the year focusing on the qualities of leaders, what a leader does, and who inspires them. I always heard the typical names of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the President, and even people like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey. What I was always inspired by though, was when the students would write and tell me about a personal leader in their life. A parent, an aunt, an older sibling, a church leader, and even sometimes a teacher! I often times think kids know a whole lot more about life than we give them credit for!

Great leaders are followers of other great leaders. They study what others have done and try to emulate the qualities they value and develop those qualities into their own style. Unfortunately, Instagram has hijacked the term “follower.” When you see someone you like, or someone who has great clothes, or advice, you click on “follow” so that you can see their posts in your feed. Gathering followers is a multi-million dollar business. Gather enough followers and companies begin to ask you to feature their products and you get advertising revenue. So our “leaders” are people pushing products that they might or might not use.

“Leader” is now becoming less and less about behavior and more and more about image.

I have a Master’s Degree in Leadership. I attended Trevecca Nazarene University for many Saturdays and summer days to obtain my degree. Going to school with other teachers who wanted to become administrators was so empowering. Many of us were in Nashville, but there were also people from the surrounding counties. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the challenges that this program brought to me. Mostly, I enjoyed the leadership development that took me to the “next level.” Not as a principal (although that was the original goal), but as a leader among my peers.

I always felt it was my responsibility to give back. In my job, in my community, to my family. I was so fortunate to have the support of so many as I was coming up through the ranks, it never occurred to me to sit on the sidelines and do nothing. So I led committees, clubs, teams, and whatever else needed someone to take charge.

While I don’t intend to be an administrator, I never pass up on an offer to help someone with their instruction and management systems. Leaders make themselves available to support or find the truth in a situation.

I have been talking/texting with a former student teacher. She’s at an elementary school and struggling, mostly with what all first year teachers struggle with, classroom management and planning. We talked earlier in the school year and I encouraged her to persevere, to take a great classroom management class offered by the district, and to reach out to her instructional leaders. That’s their job as leaders. They are to work with and encourage teachers who are struggling, especially one in her first year. I was heartbroken when she texted this week and told me she had decided to resign. That she never left school feeling like she had done a good job.

Then it got worse.

Her principal, the instructional leader in her school, the person who she should be able to turn to for support, berated her and suggested she look for another career. The final nail: she told her that she had no plans to rehire her.

It’s only December.

Why would we take a person who wants to learn and do a good job, and make them feel like a failure? An educational leader, should set the example and offer support, not tear someone down. Would she have said that to a student? You aren’t being successful, so maybe you should just go ahead and quit school? You’d never talk to a student that way, so why would it be ok to talk to a teacher with only 4 months of experience that way? My heart went out to her. At a time when good teachers are leaving in droves, the school leaders take the ones who are left and are trying to get rid of them too!

I put her in contact with our union leaders to help her find some support, and hopefully she will stay in teaching. That principal should be ashamed. Unfortunately, this is happening with a lot of teachers, with a range of experience.

Leaders, at least good ones, will take the time to help and support the people around them. A leader shouldn’t say “good job” because it’s on their to-do list, but because they value people and want to support them. A leader’s job is to enhance self-esteem, to guide, direct, and even sometimes redirect others. They believe in their profession and choose to help novices, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s never about one person, it’s about moving forward as one.

Leadership can also turn toxic. I have watched as good schools turned into bad schools with toxic leadership. Leaders with their own agenda and out-of-control checks and balances can topple a school. That negativity spreads like wildfire, amongst the students, the staff, and the administration. The students get out of control, teachers find other positions, and test scores plummet. I’ve lived through one of these and watched as our former principal revived it to glory. It was my life’s work and I’m proud to have been part of it. A great leader can lead others to their vision and rally them to greatness. Everyone knows it isn’t easy, but with the right vision and with buy-in, a leader can revitalize even the most struggling schools.

I share all of this because everyone who reads this has the capability to lead. The world, whether you’re in education or a student or an athlete, needs people to lead and inspire others. It isn’t easy to put yourself out there. Sometimes you’re out there in the wind all alone, but by rising up and speaking up for what’s right, you make it ok for others to do the same.

We Are Family…I got all my students with me!?

My teacher buddies….my classroom “ride or die”!

Can you hear the Pointer Sisters singing? When that song would come on years ago, my friends and I would put our arms around each other on the dance floor and sing it at the top of our lungs, “We are family! I got all my sisters with me!” We were all close friends, spending our lives at each other’s houses and celebrating each other’s successes and helping support each other at our lowest points. It’s easy to understand why we felt like sisters…like FAMILY.

Schools and their faculty, staff, and students spend 180 days together. That’s half of a year. They celebrate successes and support each other through the challenges. Just like a family. In fact, for some students, it’s the only place where they find structure, discipline, and sometimes love. It’s feasible to think of your school as your family, especially these days when we recognize that families come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. Should we tell teachers and students that we’re a family?

It’s a huge conundrum for teachers. Where do we draw the line between home and school? Are we really a FAMILY?

Let’s walk through this like an algebra problem. Where does SCHOOL fit into this equation? When I was hired, I was given a salary and benefits to do a job. Of course when you’re working with the same people day-after-day, you get to know one another. You even become friends. It’s how it is when you’re in the “trenches” together. You get to be close. However, as teachers, we still need to realize that this is a JOB and this is what you are getting PAID to do. It’s definitely a blurred line and it’s what I refer to as “The Family Problem.”

Outside of work, I stay in touch with my FAMILY. Even if I don’t always see them, I try to check in because I love them. They are my “home.” We gather to eat a great meal at birthdays. We get together to help move and celebrate and mourn. I don’t have to explain “family.” Everyone knows that feeling for the people who have been there your whole life. I don’t know about you, but there are lots of things I do for my family, and most of it is enjoyable! If my brother and sister-in-law need me to hang out with my niece on a Saturday afternoon, sign me up! When my daughter wants me to come over to help her clean out her closet, no problem! My mom needs me to help her get her Christmas tree out of the storage room, of course I can help! There’s an obligation that I feel when I think about my family.

I bought into the whole notion of school being “family” for a long time. I see where there are definitely parallels that we draw between teachers and parents. I know kids who have come to school and referred to their teachers as “mama” and thought, “It’s wonderful that this kid feels so comfortable and safe at school that they call Ms. Smith ‘mama’.” I spent many hours investing in my school family and its children, usually to the detriment of my own. When I was with my own, I was thinking about my school children, buying supplies and making plans, or grading papers. Then I heard a podcast a couple of years ago that really called this whole idea into question. What is the role of the school and the teacher versus the role of home? Is it really the schools responsibility to raise the child? Should a school be providing food, clothing, and shelter, as well as emotional support for a child? Who decided that schools and teachers are responsible for the WHOLE child? Should the 7 hours and 180 days that students are in school carry more weight than the other 17 hours and 185 days that they’re not?

At the end of this post is a link to the “Cult of Pedagogy” article and podcast with Angela Watson who created “The 40-Hour Teacher Workweek” program and hosts the “Truth for Teachers” podcast. The podcast discusses why we shouldn’t refer to our school communities as a “family.” “When we hear that being said to us,” Angela says, “particularly by someone who is in a position of authority above us, we need to stop and ask, What’s the intent? What’s the impact? Is this being said to make me feel loved and supported like a family? Or is it being used to exploit me for unpaid labor? I think the school family analogy can be used to manipulate you into doing all kinds of unpaid extra duties, so it can be code for ‘You’re expected to spend all your free time going above and beyond with no compensation.”

I don’t believe that our administrators are plotting how to get us to do more, but as schools are asked to do more and more with less, they have to tap in to the workforce that is available to them. Also keep in mind that most administrators are making 25% more in salary than a teacher. While it might be something they want to do and will reflect positively on the school, the average teacher already has a 2nd job, whether that’s a paid position, or just taking care of their own family. The school family line gets blurry when you’re constantly told you’re a “family” and constantly asked to volunteer your time. If my mom or daughter ask for me to do something, I do it out of obligation and love. Should I feel that same way when the administrator at my school asks me to run a booth at the Fall Festival? At our core, teachers are giving individuals who got into this business because of their desire to educate and help students. They want to say “yes” because that’s how they’re wired. Who is going to say NO to the kids? The problem is that teachers are finding less and less time to devote to their own needs and to their own families and obligations. Do we really wonder why teachers are disgruntled and leaving for other jobs? No other job will ask you to give as much as teaching. Some people will argue that the reward is greater, I disagree.

I will admit though, I spent many years building a strong classroom , hallway, and school COMMUNITY. I believe that strong communities support great learning. In fact, I discuss this in a previous blog. (See https://teachingandbeaching.com/2019/07/24/building-community/ )

I attended college and set up my room each year, but it was never my intent to adopt 80 children. I wanted to teach! I wanted to build the relationship of teacher-student and guide them in learning the wonderful things that I had to share for 180 days! I wanted us to learn and laugh and share. I wanted to build a relationship based on respect and caring. I wanted to be a confidante when a kid was struggling, and a cheerleader when they “got it.” A teacher…not a mama/aunt/grandmother/cousin/sister. There’s a big difference!

Let’s talk about the school COMMUNITY for a minute. One of the greatest communities in a school are your peers! Teachers need other teachers! We need them to bounce ideas with, to share “good cop/bad cop” duties, to make your copies when you’re running late, to vent with, and to laugh with no matter how rough it gets! If you’re lucky, your teacher buddies are with you year after year like mine have been, but you also get a new crop of recruits each year to bring into the fold. As frustrated as you get with each other at times, that person (or people) is your emotional support and “ride or die” at school!

Laura and I taught next to each other for 16 years! We’ve been through every family and personal event you could ever think of and then-some! We’ve shared kids for so many years and have so many one-liners, that you would think we were inseparable! There are kids whose names we bring up and launch into fits of laughter! We have seen it all! Here’s the truth though, as much as Laura and I are friends at work, we lead very independent lives outside of school. We get together for dinner and ABs (adult beverages), but our families don’t intertwine.When summer comes along, we hug and celebrate, but we don’t really plan to see each other again until the end of July. It’s how we roll! I’m planning fun things with my family and so is she. In fact, we rarely even text or talk until then as well! I know teachers who are super close at work and at home. Their lives totally intertwine, and that’s wonderful! I think the place where we spend so much of our time should be full of people you have commonalities with; that’s how we make friends! The most difficult part of leaving my classroom has been leaving my teacher friends. We text and grab drinks, but it’s not the same as the day-in and day-out. I miss them a lot!

“You’re irreplaceable to your family,” Angela continues, “but your school can hire someone else to take your place within a week. So I encourage teachers to question this internally when you hear it. And when you’re choosing which words to use yourself, consider finding a term that’s a little bit less loaded. I like the phrase ‘school community.’ In a community you have a responsibility to work together and be cohesive, but you don’t have all that baggage and implied guilt trip of letting your family down.”

I think Angela Watson is on to something. The extra fundraisers, the extra activities, the extra collections are exactly that, EXTRA. If we want our time and our jobs respected, then we have to be very selective about what we CHOOSE to give our time to and not be manipulated into feeling that sense of obligation. All of those extras that make a school look good, can’t happen without the volunteer hours. Those extra hours you’re putting in are exactly what’s burning YOU out. No one should make you feel GUILTY for wanting to walk away from an event, task, or fundraiser.

I wish I’d known this years ago. As I look back, I feel there were many times when I put my job ahead of my own family. The problem is I never saw teaching as a job. I always viewed it as my purpose and passion. I believed that the more hours I put in, the more I was giving to my students and that my happiness depended on theirs, and my worth as a teacher depended on me giving 110%, and giving them the support they were missing at home. I, like many of my colleagues, took on the responsibility of making sure these kids knew I was at every game, every event, every concert, and play, just like a parent, grandparent, or aunt. Beyond that, I also made sure they were clothed, fed, and emotionally cared for as well. No wonder kids are calling their teachers “mama”! This love and responsibility walks a thin line though. By trying to be our students’ “biggest fan,” we are burning ourselves out and jeopardizing our own families. I’ll close by throwing it back to the Pointer Sisters. The song says “We are family, I’ve got all my sisters with me!” That’s a far cry from, “…I got all my students with me!” The dance floor would just be way too crowded!

Some of the many friends I’ve made in my teaching community!

Check out the Cult of Pedagogy website!

https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/school-norms/

Angela Watson’s Website

https://thecornerstoneforteachers.com

Learning is More Than a Textbook or a Test

I think we can all agree that classrooms today look very different than the classrooms of 30 years ago full of Gen X students. My core classes, for the most part, consisted of our teacher standing in the front of the room, explaining a lesson, and then I would work at my desk to demonstrate my learning by writing a paragraph or working a math problem. It wasn’t until high school chemistry class where I actually got to do something with my hands. Even then, the steps to follow were outlined for our labs. “School” consisted of a teacher who gave us the info, and as a student it was my job to demonstrate that I understood. I was a good student. I did my work. I paid attention in class. I was a traditional student in a traditional classroom setting. However, it didn’t occur to me until many years later when I was teaching that not everyone was the same type of student. What happened to the learners in my classes that were struggling readers? What happened when students struggled with math? Our Science and Social Studies consisted of reading from a textbook answering questions at the end of a chapter, and taking a test. Basically, it was just another reading class and for a struggling reader, it probably wasn’t very enjoyable.

Not enjoyable…until we went to “specials.” Related arts, related studies….whatever your school calls them. In college, they are electives, but really they are classes where ANYONE can excel! In fact, I don’t know that I was ever as proud of myself as when I accomplished something in one of my related arts classes. Creating a piece of art, designing a house, building a lamp, following a recipe and baking a delicious cookie, or speaking a sentence in a foreign language were some of the best times in school. Even PE. I was not the fastest and I was never chosen first. I loathed PE until high school. I loved dance fitness and gymnastics and so our PE teacher would let me lead the warm ups. I doubt she realized it. As I think back, it was probably because I was in the front row and ALWAYS participated, but that small act encouraged me to try all of the sports thrown at me that year. Football, tennis, badminton, volleyball, basketball….all the sports that year I felt like I could try because a teacher encouraged me in a different way. I began moving more at home and exercising on my own. The following year I chose a weight-lifting class instead of standard PE. Throughout my adult life I have always come back to exercise. Part of it is because of the endorphins, but could it also because a teacher believed in me and gave me a push and encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone? I think so. I think that when we are challenged in a different way, sometimes we realize our true potential. I’m not a world-class athlete. I’m not a competitive athlete, but I’m most confident in an exercise class! Disclaimer: That doesn’t mean I’m the best dancer though!

Several years ago, Project-based Learning became all-the-rage in districts around the country. I am always fascinated to know the lingo of the “next big thing” in education. It’s usually something good teachers have done for years, repackaged and branded! Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is a style of teaching and learning that has been researched and developed further by the Buck Institute for Education. This non-profit is now called PBL Works, but its mission involves supporting teachers to design and implement learning that meets the needs and motivates a diverse group of learners. While this isn’t the first time projects were used to guide learning. This is the first organization to research methods and materials to use projects in a more meaningful way and present it to districts. Teachers of various subjects work together to plan a project where students create their own learning opportunities. The teacher is just the guide. This is VERY different from the way my reading and math teacher taught, but it isn’t very different from my related arts classes! PBL was EXACTLY what my 7th grade related arts classes were doing. In fact, I am going to reach out to some of my peers from that year and ask what they remember about 7th grade and I’ll bet you’ll see some of the same responses about related arts! I’ll do this on my Teaching and Beaching Facebook page!

In 7th grade our related arts classes were on a 9-week rotation, which made it a pain for the teachers since our year was broken into 6-week reporting periods! I had to take a class called Industrial Arts. It was taught by Mr. Centimole (haven’t seen him since then, but I remember his name!). He introduced us to architecture and the tools that architects use when creating a design for a home. It was so fascinating and I was turned on to a whole new world of creativity. He gave us the background, but then our project was to use what we had learned to create and design a home. He gave us the parameters, but we had to rely on ourselves to complete the project. I loved going to his class and feeling like I was working towards something, like I was creating a masterpiece. I had to include my math skills, I had to be able to read charts and graphs, I had to be able to communicate what was in my head onto paper, and to seek out the answers when I had questions. It was probably the most challenging thing I’d done in school at that time, but I finished it and I received a decent grade on it if memory serves me correctly! Am I currently an architect? No, I’m nowhere near an architect. However, can I read a schematic and understand a design? You bet! Did I feel good and accomplished after that 9-week class? Absolutely! I also remember the amazing drawings I did in Art, the baking I did in Home Economics, and the Latin roots and artists I learned in a class called Foreign Language Survey (I have never seen this class reproduced anywhere!). These classes were hands-on, creative, and appealed to ALL types of learners.

This isn’t mine, but it is similar to what we were required to do. Even the details in the bathrooms!

Not too many years later, those classes were cut due to “budget constraints.” I’m still wondering how we continue to think public schools are for EVERYONE when we don’t teach for ALL types of learners! It makes me so angry that classes that sparked passion and interest, even after 35 years, aren’t important enough to include for children that NEED these types of classes. Schools have to scrape for art classes, music classes, and band. PE also comes out of this budget. As for supplies…well, that’s why so many fundraisers are needed and why so many organizations, like Donors Choose and LP Pencil Box (MNPS), are important.

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Unfortunately, these types of classes aren’t a priority for districts. If research shows that we all learn in different ways, why then are we only using one or two programs to teach reading and math? Why are we only testing using standardized tests? This has never made sense to me. We tell teachers to be creative, but you can only use this program. We know that people learn in many different ways, but we only measure learning “officially” in one way. Then to top it all off, part of a teacher’s evaluation (and in some places their income) is based on that test. Meanwhile, students are becoming more and more frustrated with school. Districts should really think about how our students learn best and realize that we already have everything we need before they go and spend millions of dollars on the next boxed program.

We also have lawmakers who continue to figure out ways to siphon money away from public education in the name of “failing schools.” How about we put all of these funds back into the public schools and support the structures we already have! This exercise in “backscratching” by public officials and trying to pass it off as “what’s best for kids” turns my stomach and is destroying what little creativity and autonomy is left in our schools. It’s part of the reason these types of Related Arts classes are cut and the ones that are left have huge class sizes. You can’t be as creative in an art class of 32. If you’ve never taught, there’s a bigger difference between 20 and 30. It’s obvious which lawmakers have never stepped foot in a classroom when they say that having 36 students is as easy to prepare for as 20! Even with a second adult in the room, it’s a nightmare! Don’t believe me? Go try it!

PBL isn’t a new concept, but it does change the game in the classroom for your students. It isn’t a boxed program, and you don’t have to pay a fee to access the website. A simple internet search will turn up lots of articles, projects, and ideas to get you started. Not everything you teach can be part of a PBL and I know there’s no bubble sheet that it can be measured on. However, the idea is to give kids confidence in their learning, to know how to apply their learning, and to help them view learning in a different way. One of my favorite projects that I did with students in my classroom involved creating their own arcade game! I had seen a video on YouTube about a kid that turned his father’s auto parts store into an arcade with games made from cardboard boxes. The story went viral from this documentary and a flash mob showed up one day setting in motion not only a movement and foundation, but changing the trajectory of a 9-year-old’s life. Watch Caine’s Arcade. I used the video as a jumping-off point. How could we create a fun environment for learning without adding to the environmental problems? The students researched different types of games and how they worked and designed their own games, built totally out of recycled materials. The students had to teach a concept we had learned about in Science, and they had to share it with an audience. It was the BEST project I had ever created. The students worked in small groups of their choosing. They designed their game. They brought in materials from home. They integrated knowledge and they created prizes. On the day of the presentation, we invited other classes to our arcade and the students had to work out a plan so that everyone had a shift, because they wanted to see what everyone else had created! Also worth mentioning is the lack of discipline issues I had all during this project. When students are engaged, their focus is on their task, not what they’re missing out on!

Finding new ways to engage learners is part of teaching. I’ve heard the argument of how students should just do it the same way everyone else is, but everyone else might just be going through the motions of the classroom and not really learning. If you are a teacher and expecting all of your students to learn in the same way, you need to rethink your profession. I want my students to become learners, lifelong learners and finding ways to keep them engaged, and not just try to entertain them, is a shift that I hope you’ve made or are beginning to make. Remember back to the greatest moments you had in school. Was it sitting and listening and memorizing? Or was it thinking, doing, and creating?

As always, I love to read your responses and thoughts. If you have questions or are wanting more guidance on this topic or any other classroom topic, I would love to help! Please email me at pamarnold2001@gmail.com

Why We Need Social Studies

Did you ever see Jay Leno’s segment “Jay-Walking”? Jay-walking asked seemingly logical questions to people in various cities walking down the street. One of his favorite topics was to ask people citizenship questions or questions that focused on United States history. I remember sitting with my mouth open at how little some people knew about our government and history!

JayWalking Citizenship Test

While this is funny to watch, and I’m sure there are people who knew the answers that were edited out, how much of this is truly reflective of what is taught? JayWalking was at least 10 years ago, before smart phones were attached to every hand and Alexa arrived in our homes. Are Americans really lacking in some of the basics of history and government? Does it really matter if it’s taught in a classroom? In this age of social media and entertainment news, has knowledge gotten better or worse? With Google, Alexa, and Wikipedia at our fingertips, shouldn’t we know more than ever before? The facts are literally with us all of the time!

Let’s take a moment and think about our last two Commanders-in-Chief, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. In a speech in 2008, then Sen. Obama stated that he had visited 57 states while on the campaign trail. What??? He then followed up later, admitting his gaffe, blaming his exhaustion on the campaign trail and laughed it off by saying it felt like 57 states, what he had meant to say was that he had visited 47. Recently, President Trump tweeted congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs for their Super Bowl win, and how the great state of Kansas was well-represented. Oops…he really needed to take a moment and consult Google. He removed that tweet once someone pointed out that the Chiefs are from Missouri. This is not a political argument, but shouldn’t the leaders of our country be a little more versed in the history and geography of the country they represent? Or at least better fact-checkers before they speak or tweet!

The teaching of Social Studies (government, history, geography, economics, sociology) is slowly becoming eradicated from school curriculums across the country in favor of more reading and math instruction. As more high-stakes testing is taking place, and more $$$ are thrown at bringing up lagging test scores, knowledge is getting lost. In fact, one could argue that the more intervention that is taking place in a school, the less prepared students are for life outside of the classroom. While reading and math are vital skills to have, an educated populace is much more than deciphering words and figuring out what’s being asked in a word problem (reading disguised as math). It’s an understanding of how communities and governments came to be; it’s how jobs and economics determine the success or demise of a region, and how past choices have affected the growth of a nation. Yes, you have to read and you need a good foundation of math, but by not giving students the knowledge to use these basic tools to interpret history, culture, and economics, we are doing a disservice to them and to the future of our nation.

Here is an excerpt from the position statement of the National Council of the Social Studies:

According to a report by the Center on Education Policy, since the enactment of the “No Child Left Behind” federal education policy (NCLB), 44 percent of districts surveyed have reduced time for social studies. That percentage rose to 51 percent in districts with “failing schools.” 3Denying students opportunities to build social studies vocabulary and background knowledge by engaging in social studies activities can lead to lower literacy levels and, ironically, increase the achievement gap. 4 As a result of educational practices steeped in the “teach to test” phenomenon, teaching and learning are reduced to that which is necessary for students to do well on state tests rather than providing a well-rounded program to ready students for life as active citizens in the context of a global society.

History is so much more than facts that can be generated by Google or dates listed on a website. When I taught my 5th graders any topic in history, we read and examined the topic from various points of view (historical thinking). They looked at maps, graphs, and charts to compare and contrast the impact of an event. They used primary sources to get a feel and a better understanding of a particular time period. They created their own interpretation and discussed the effects of the events on how we live now. They listened to each other respectfully, and could disagree without calling names at each other. It was a great way to teach kids to enjoy Social Studies and even if it wasn’t their favorite subject, I felt as if the students had more respect for it at the end of the school year. I wish I had been able to get to every topic on my list of 70+ standards. Yes, I had over 70 standards to teach 5th grade, a span of 1860-2019. That’s a lot of history! Add to it that while my class period was 80 minutes, I also taught Science. I alternated the days for these, but it equaled a half year to teach all of the standards for each subject. I worked with other teachers to integrate my topics into their subjects, but prescriptiveness of those subjects made that difficult and the lack of planning time didn’t allow much depth. Tennessee changed some of those standards beginning in the current year (2019-2020), but it still isn’t being given the time in classrooms or the autonomy for teachers to teach it well. It also hasn’t been tested in any meaningful way in at least 4 years. However, in my subbing experiences in Florida, I am quickly understanding that classrooms in Tennessee are given more time for Social Studies than those in the Sunshine State. In my experiences, Social Studies is being taught in middle (6-8) and high (9-12) schools as their own subject as part of a 7 period day. In elementary schools (K-5) it isn’t happening at all. None. I’ve only been in one school where they began the day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I’ve attempted to understand this lack of Social Studies, but no one I’ve spoken with has actually been concerned because they are so reading and math focused. In my search, I realized that the standards exist, but since they aren’t tested until HIGH SCHOOL end-of-course exams, no one is teaching it! The only tested subjects are reading and math. Again, those subjects are needed, but we aren’t teaching students how to apply them and enjoy them, only how to show mastery on a test.

When I was in school, it was important to memorize facts, because unless you had a set of encyclopedias at home, you were limited in where to locate this information. Why else should Social Studies be taught? In 6th grade (Nashville in the 1980s), I remember learning some incredible stories and lessons about ancient civilizations! Our teacher, Mr. Deising, brought those stories to life for us in the classroom. The year ended with The Olympic Games played on the field at the only full-size replica of the Parthenon in Nashville’s Centennial Park! In 7th grade, Mr. Parrish gave us a world view of history by bringing in other cultures into the classroom. We learned songs that were familiar tunes, but in different languages! The man would stand on his desk and lead the class in song, and I can still see it in my mind 35 years later. Teachers such as this engaged us with the content and made it relevant to our lives. Even Mrs. Hudson in U.S. History in the 11th grade, shared with us note-taking techniques and ways of reviewing and studying that I still apply. Yes, she gave us lots of facts, but the skills learned along with those facts have served me well-beyond her classroom. Even more, I developed an interest and a passion for history that has crossed into my classroom and led me to places and friendships that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

So WHY aren’t we teaching Social Studies? I could go very “conspiracy theorist” here and say that we are deliberately dumbing down American schools so that they can be privatized. I am currently in the “Jeb Bush land of vouchers”, but that will be for a different day. What is happening here is a huge disservice and a lack of respect for our country, our veterans, our forefathers, historical figures, explorers, and innovators who dedicated their lives to something bigger than themselves. How will our future leaders (the kids sitting today in classrooms everywhere) avoid the mistakes of the past if they’ve never learned from them? How will students learn to love their country and respect other cultures if they don’t understand the stories behind it?

For the future of our country, our students, and our world we NEED Social Studies, perhaps now more than ever. Isn’t that funny to hear? A world where knowledge is literally at our fingertips, doesn’t know how to use it. Google is great for facts and fact-checking, but it is horrible for independent thinking. Let’s encourage our school leaders and legislative bodies to return Social Studies to the same levels as Reading, Math, and Science. Let’s return passion, interest, and pride back into our teaching and to our students.

“We Never Have Problems Getting a Sub”…said no school ever!

I had a crazy dream last night. I had subbed at my old school and the new teacher in my classroom mistook it as I was coming back…like she was out of a job! She said , ”Well my husband is wanting to go to Alaska!” Internally, my brain was screaming, “but that’s the trip I went on!” She cleaned her stuff out and I was left…in a room of kids I didn’t know.

I woke up more than a little confused!

That’s the stuff of crazy right there! One, you can’t go back again. Two, being left in a room full of kids with no plan is a nightmare in and of itself!

As a classroom teacher for 20 years, I had plenty of “guest teachers.” When my daughter was young and would get sick, I would rush out some sub plans, sneak into school in the wee hours, and then return home and spend the day being “mommy.” Then there were the professional development and conferences, not to mention the “mental health” day you might need in February or April (depending on if there had been snow days that winter!). Needless to say, we all need to be out of our classroom once-in-a-while, so substitute teachers are important in keeping learning on track.

I spent a year as a sub before taking a full-time classroom position. I enjoyed being in different schools and comparing the environments. I quickly learned which schools would set me on a path to success, and which ones to steer clear from. In my previous post, I shared my current training experience in the school system that I am moving to in Florida. I still haven’t decided if I’ll return to work full-time, but I’m enjoying getting to know the school system. I am enjoying the flexibility that comes with substituting. Plus, I get to hang out and have fun with kids, without the grading or meetings! Read about that training here.

Truth is, I’ve been in several different schools and had several different experiences, just like every other school system. I realized though, traveling to different schools with varying schedules can be confusing to anyone, even a seasoned teacher. In this day and age of rising classroom vacancies and never enough subs, teachers and schools should be doing everything possible to hold on to their teachers, and especially their substitutes. I had forgotten how difficult it can be to walk into a building of strangers and ask the simplest questions. While some schools do this better than others, all schools and teachers should take a second look at how they create an inviting and sub-friendly environment.

In my own classroom, after a year of subbing, it gave me great insight into what I needed to have prepared for my own subs. In fact, I used to spend so much time preparing for a sub that it was easier to be at school than to be out! (I’ll bet many teachers reading this know exactly how that feels!) However, even the best planners cannot foresee what will happen when they aren’t there. Fortunately, good teachers can prepare their classrooms and their lessons in a way that will keep good subs wanting to come back to your classroom each time your child has a sniffle, you have a Math training, or when you need to block out a day for doctors appointments! I’ve gathered some ideas and suggestions to help your sub, and in turn, help your students have an almost flawless day!

While you may not expect to be out any day, at the very least, you should have a Substitute Binder labeled and near your desk at all times. This binder should include any pertinent information about your class that someone should need to know if they stepped in and knew nothing about your classroom. For example, current class rosters, special circumstances, allergies, a daily schedule, a map of the school, a list of daily procedures, names of helpful adults and kids, and a set of emergency lesson plans. Those should be by your desk at all times, as a minimum. I always set mine up thinking, “What would a teacher need if I can’t be here tomorrow and I’m unconscious and can’t give any information?” It sounds a bit morbid, but it wasn’t about me. It’s about your students and about your team. Leaving incomplete plans or information hurts everyone and makes you look incompetent.

Now if you really want to impress your sub, let’s take this a little further. Include a map of the school and be sure to highlight the adult restrooms and soda machines. Leave a copy of your discipline plan, and set up a special reward system for the “star students.” Create fun and easy to explain lessons. Why would you leave the hardest and most mundane work for when a sub is there? How would your students react to this activity if you were there? Imagine how they’ll react to a sub!

Here’s a really great sub binder that I found through the blog of a substitute teacher, who is now a classroom teacher. She has some great ideas on Teachers Pay Teachers, as well as some freebies that she offers for your “sub tub.”

A well-organized sub binder is a MUST!

Speaking of students, if you know you’ll be out, prepare your students ahead of time. Let the students know who the sub will be (if you know ahead of time), and what your expectations are while you are gone. Reassure them that you’ll be back and that a “guest” teacher is similar to having a guest in your home. While the guest will do their best to keep things as usual, they may not do things exactly the same. Leave names of helpful students and the names of students who do specific jobs (line leader, restroom monitor, etc.). In my experience, even the most well-behaved students will take advantage of a sub’s lack of familiarity! Therefore, be detailed about how students walk in the hallway and how many trips you make to the restroom. The procedures that you put in place are out the window when a new teacher comes in the room!

As for your most challenging students, really think about what they are able to handle when you aren’t there. I had a situation where a classroom had a student who was creating a distracting environment for everyone. When his behavior became too much for me and I called the office for him to be removed, the administrator (who was very familiar with the student) questioned me and why I was having him removed. First, never put your sub in that position. If you know a child is that disruptive, have a plan in place. Have your admin (or other personnel) come by and check in with that student. Leave a note for the sub and give them strategies to use with that student. Leaving them with no knowledge is frustrating at the least, and might make them think twice about returning to your classroom, or even your school. Remember, there aren’t enough subs out there to begin with, why are they going to want to return to spend the day with mediocre plans and unsupportive administrators?

Substitutes start their day by checking in at the office. In the system I currently sub in, the district has a policy ACROSS THE SYSTEM of how substitute teachers check in. They are issued an ID badge, a room key, and a roster. However, some schools do this in different ways. My favorite has been in a high school where everything was laid out with my name, rosters for EVERY class (not just 1st period), a map of the school, the teacher’s schedule, and a friendly person to greet me and show me where to go (it was a HUGE school!). On top of that, each person (including the students), greeted me, welcomed me, and thanked me for being there. Yes, it was a public high school. In addition, the neighboring teacher checked on me to make sure that I had what I needed and offered any support. Needless to say, that’s a school where I want to spend more time. The teacher left great plans, and we had a flawless day. Your administrators and office staff should also have a plan in place and work together to support the guest teachers in the building. It sets the tone for the day. If the school has high expectations for their students, more guest teachers will want to be in that building!

So what will you do to improve your school environment for the day you can’t be there? Planned or unplanned, it’s going to happen and it’s up to you to keep your “well-oiled machine” growing and learning!

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If you’re needing help, support, or mentoring in your classroom, let’s chat! Message me at pamarnold2001@gmail.com

Adventures in Babysitting

I’m a bit excited and a bit nervous!

Last week, I went for my orientation to substitute teach in the St. Petersburg Public School system. I was pleased and surprisingly excited. It’s never been my intention to leave the classroom. Only to transition between what I’ve been doing and whatever comes next! As much as I love the flexibility of my days, I am really looking forward to having more of a schedule!

First, I was incredibly impressed with how PROFESSIONAL I was treated. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with how sub training works, in most systems the minimum requirement of a sub is 2 years of college (60 hours). Other subs might have a college degree, but no classroom experience. I was trained with a group of licensed teachers who were there for a variety of reasons. Some, like me, are new to the area and not ready for a full-time classroom while they are trying to figure out how to adjust to the area. It’s Florida after all! A lot of people move here in search of the “beach life” and milder winters. (Tom and I are in the “life’s too short to always wish we were at the beach” category). Then, there were the “retired teachers” who were looking to supplement their pension. I actually was sitting with a lady who retired from MNPS in May and had moved here with her spouse. Small world… The last group was of young teachers who had moved here and not yet secured a job in the system for various reasons. So, there we were! All of us interested in staying in the field of teaching, but not committed to one classroom!

Teachers are, across the country and in my experience in Nashville, too-often talked down to and treated as less than experts in their field. Our district administrators bring in outside experts for trainings that many of us could lead ourselves; our school administrators micro-manage our lives and classrooms as to what we “should” be doing; parents attempt to control our classroom environments as if their child is the first (and only) one we’ve taught; communities seem to think we are all burned-out and out to “get” the black/Hispanic/immigrant/smart/disabled/rich/poor/gay/trans/etc. student. While my experience in this system is limited, I didn’t get that feeling in this training. However, out in the schools it may tell a different story.

First, this was unlike any “training” I had received before! We were told that we were professionals, and how much the staff and the district appreciated us being there. Every bit of the training was planned out and organized, but never trivialized or minimized. Meaning, I was never read to or treated like anyone less than what my college degree dictated. I felt respected and my time was respected. In fact, it was understood that the biggest reason we were there was procedural and to learn the substitute website! Honestly, I never take a pass on software training!

The biggest eye-opener and learning curve came about 30 minutes into our day. A school-resource officer gave us a great training on what to do in an active-assailant situation. I’ve had several of these over the years. With every scary school shooting situation, another round of training came to our staff. It’s the most horrific situation that a teacher could find themselves in, yet they return to the schools and classrooms each day despite what the media continues to glamorize. Stoneman Douglas is locate southeast of here, and Orlando is only down the road to the east. The police and the people here have first-hand knowledge of what works and how to prepare teachers and staff members to be aware without distracting them from educating and putting students first. Again, it was organized and informative without being alarmist or treating us as less than professional. Unfortunately, I have sat through many trainings with different “experts” and each one has given us different information and expectations. While I feel fortunate that I don’t have a first-hand account of this situation, the best people to learn from would be those who have. I would highly recommend the school safety departments from other districts to visit here and talk about the procedures that they have in place. I’ll address some of these ideas and concepts in a later post.

The rest of the day consisted of procedures and what we could expect as a substitute teacher in this school system. We did take a quick 30 minute lunch break. There was a cafeteria that had a grill cook and many in-house made salads, snacks, sandwiches, and baked goods for a very reasonable price. The day wrapped up with a demonstration of how the district’s sub system operates and the nuances we can use to tailor it to our own needs.

The day was scheduled to end at 3, and we completed our tasks a little after 1. So, instead of giving us filler material to keep us there to fill a time commitment on their part, they respected our time and let us go home. Not something I have experienced in many other trainings.

As far as trainings go, it was straightforward. The presenter (and head of the department) spent many years as a teacher and school leader. She was well-prepared, well-spoken, funny at times, and could answer all of the questions with confidence. I felt at-ease and well-prepared for what comes next, and I knew who to contact with my questions. Mostly, I felt respected for my knowledge, my experience in the classroom, and for the years I spent learning my profession earning the two degrees that I hold licenses for in Tennessee, and soon in the state of Florida.

I walked away and couldn’t help but compare the day to what I had experienced in my previous school system. I even questioned whether it was because I was completely new and in a new environment, but I carefully went through what had transpired over the previous hours. As objectively as I could, I looked at the materials I received, each interaction with a person from “central office,” and each email where information about been shared. Of course, this is all first-impression and I’m not a teacher in a day to day situation, but it does pique my interest. I’ll be interested in speaking with other teachers in the district to learn about how this all translates to them.

I am still undecided about returning to the classroom full-time. I just read a list of the worst states to teach in across the country. Tennessee was listed amongst them, Florida was not. Most of the states that were listed are in what Alabama’s governor labeled a “teacher-shortage crisis.” While I do believe there is a shortage of teachers nationwide, there are things that school systems can do to RETAIN the teachers that already are in the classroom. By first giving their trust and respect back their classroom professionals (the teachers), I think that these states could move off of that “worst” list. By treating their teachers as college-educated professionals worthy of praise and support instead of with empty promises and apologies.

The Shoulders of Giants

A new teacher, fresh-faced and armed with the knowledge from her student-teaching experience, as well as her university professors, walks into her empty classroom and sets down the armful of bags labeled “Target,” “WalMart,” and “Parent-Teacher Store.” A feeling of pride washes over her. She imagines the minds she will mold here! The thoughts of changing lives brings tears to her eyes. Today is the day when she will set up her classroom! “Where do I begin?” she wonders. The orientation, provided by the district, gave lots of paperwork and information, but nothing on how to build a classroom, much less teach in it! The bags she brought in are full of decorations, books, and punch-out letters. She knows how to put together the perfect classroom. She knows how to write a lesson plan, but there’s nothing in her bags that will help her with the execution of those plans. Nothing about how to talk to a student and determine their level of understanding. She was so confused! Nothing she had learned in college prepared her for this! She needed a fairy godmother to appear about now, someone who could guide her on what happens next.

She needed a mentor.

If you’re a teacher, I know this sounds familiar! It’s how we all felt walking into our first classroom. The pride! The joy! Soon followed by: The fear! The anxiety! And the tears.

How do I arrange my classroom? Where do I get supplies? Where do I get my lessons from? Is there a book? What happens if they don’t like me? Can I send them to the office if they talk back? What time is lunch? When do I pee? How do I use the copier? What do I do with them on the FIRST DAY? How long until Winter Break? How do I get all of these Standards across in just nine weeks?

Where did I go for the answers? I had a wonderful principal, but these weren’t principal-worthy questions. The school secretary could help with some of my questions, but she was overwhelmed herself with all of the new registrations.

It was very intimidating to imagine myself in a classroom, alone, with 30 sets of eyes that are waiting for my guidance…expecting me to be the “all-knowing teacher” they imagine. I wasn’t even sure where the restrooms and cafeteria were located!

The greatest gift to a novice teacher is a strong mentor. Someone who will patiently answer questions and give advice and guidance freely and lovingly. For a new teacher to succeed, finding someone like this is priceless and necessary. In fact, I recommended to all of my student teachers to find someone in their building that they can turn to in a struggle. I let them know that I can always be reached for advice, but it’s nothing compared to having someone who is in the same trenches!

I was incredibly lucky that my first year was in a school where I was surrounded by incredible teachers who reached out without thinking twice! My first teaching assignment was actually 7th grade math! Anyone who knows me knows that math can be a struggle for me. My brain isn’t wired that way!

I was basically standing in my classroom in the days before school started and had no idea how to proceed beyond the first day introductions!

Then the most confident and intimidating woman I’ve ever met comes walking in! She introduced herself to me, and inside I was thinking I’d found my first ally! Karen Phair is truly the most confident woman I’ve ever known. I’m pretty sure that she could run the worst middle school without blinking an eye or raising her voice! She made herself known in my world immediately and answered all of my questions as calmly and as many times as I asked! She had an affinity for math and for 8th graders, both of which scare the heck out of me! She retired a couple of years ago, but still is influencing the lives of students and teachers with her part-time school role. I never would have made it through those first weeks without her and some other very special teachers.

I can think of multiple days when Bonnie Hyde would spend extra time talking with me and sharing ideas and advice, especially when it came to working with her “cherubs” (her word for the hard-to-love-but-needs-it-the-most kids). Bonnie was our ELL teacher, something I had no experience with, and she shared a love of Social Studies. As a first-year, second-year, and even a third-year teacher, she was someone I could turn to for advice, help, and support. Not because she was assigned that job, but when you have a passion and a love for serving students, you want others to share that as well. After Bonnie retired, she went on to work with a publisher, and she worked to mentor young teachers in the classroom. Even though I was long past a novice, I still loved to chat with her and hear her take on classroom teacher struggles. She passed away a couple of years ago, but I will never forget the kindness and patience she had for me and the compassion she showed in the classroom.

After the first two weeks of school, I moved from the 7th grade math class to a 5th grade SELF-CONTAINED classroom! Now it was me and 32 other children all day long! I had numerous experienced teachers on the 5th grade hall, but none impacted me as much as Ellen Davenport. I realized I already knew Ellen from many years before when I was a teenager and volunteered for Vacation Bible School at my church. Ellen’s daughter was in my class and she was the sweetest little girl! Anyway, Ellen loved teaching and loved our students. She was kind and reassuring and helped with every issue I had in my very crowded classroom! She loved Science and was always willing to get her hands dirty, rescue a “critter”, or steer me to a fun hands-on lesson. Ellen not only was a great mentor, she became a wonderful friend! She went on to teach in the gifted program and recently retired to spend more time playing tennis, cheering the Vols, and loving her husband and grandchildren. She showed me that there was more to life than teaching and I wish that I had remembered that lesson! She had a great balance of teaching and home and I always admired her for this.

Our mentors are important. Experience should be valued, not cast aside like yesterday’s news. I think teachers understand this better than most young people today. For example, I had a new teacher on the hallway who was dynamic! I loved her ideas and her energy! I know that I was learning as much from her as she was from me and I made sure to tell her that. I believe that even the most experienced teacher can learn new things about teaching. How can we promote lifelong learning without modeling how we learn and communicate?

The ladies I mentioned earlier weren’t just great mentors, they were great learners and listeners. They taught me if I wasn’t willing to open myself up to input and ask questions, how could I tell my students to do that? I know I did a lot of telling over the years, but I hope that when my colleagues and former students think of me, they’ll remember that I was as good of a LISTENER as I was a teacher. Don’t think that because you’re new to the profession that you shouldn’t have an opinion. There are many people in the profession, who lifted me up with their wisdom, their advice, their lessons, and sometimes just a kind smile. I learned so much from teachers younger than me and less-experienced than me! Just because I carry that “professional” license, doesn’t mean that I know everything about connecting with kids and adults!

Teachers should not be left in isolation once they’re hired and assigned a classroom. I have always questioned why this is considered appropriate for the profession as a whole. While I do believe in teacher education programs and degrees, I also believe that there is incredible value in spending time in the classroom with an experienced teacher. I always felt it was my duty to do that for college students coming up through the ranks. I had multiple student teachers at different levels visit my classroom over the years. I had novice teachers that observed my lessons and asked questions about my methods. Unfortunately though, once teachers are given a degree and a classroom, our system says that they should be in the classroom teaching, and we don’t give them time and mentors to work with on a consistent basis. Teachers need other teachers to help them through the highs and lows of an incredibly loving and demanding job. There are many days that I would have crumbled except for the support of other teachers.

Here’s the gist, if we don’t begin to acknowledge and value our experienced teachers, they will go away. We see it already in many of our priority and high-needs schools. The teachers that fill those roles are young, novice teachers with no mentors in the hallway to turn to when they struggle. I guess they can look up strategies on the internet, and I guess they heard about all of the shiny, new programs from their college professors just a few months ago and can’t wait to try that out on a kid that is reading two years below their grade level. Pretty soon those young teachers will get to frustration and leave the profession in less than five years. Our experienced teachers are leaving the profession in droves. My school experienced a 50% attrition rate last year, and the district as a whole STILL has over 150 vacancies in classrooms. That is quickly becoming the reality of schools everywhere. That is happening every day, in every school district across the nation, not just the one in which I happen to be employed.

This should be unacceptable in our communities and I hope that our leaders are reaching out and finding out WHY teachers are leaving the profession and using that knowledge to improve working conditions for those still in the classroom. It makes me sad for the young teacher who wants nothing more than to teach and guide students on a path to success. Who will this young teacher turn to when they are struggling? The answer isn’t found on Google! That teacher will likely find a job making the same money with less stress in the near future. Lyft and Uber are full of former teachers!

The young teacher I mentioned at the beginning is full of hope and excitement! She could be the teacher of a future president, an astronaut, or a scientist that cures cancer. She might mold the mind of an artist or a world-renowned musician. She could inspire great leaders of Fortune 500 companies! She can inspire kids to dream and excel beyond their own limitations…but it won’t come from WalMart, Teachers Pay Teachers, or an Amazon wishlist. It doesn’t even come from the degree that she worked so hard to obtain and probably has loans to repay. It only comes from the heart, and from the guidance and support of those around her. It will come from the knowledge she gains from watching, learning, and observing those mentors that she will hold in her heart and tell stories about for years to come. By standing on the shoulders of giants, she will move mountains!

The Pinterest Problem

I thought taking a year off would be easier. I’ve been MIA for the past two weeks because I have been truly lost not knowing what I should be doing to busy myself July 25th forward. After 20 years of planning, cleaning, setting up and readying a classroom for 75 5th graders, I’ve been on the sidelines and trying to ignore the school supply aisles, back-to-school sales, the Target Dollar Spot, and the emails from “Teachers Pay Teachers” about their big discount sale!

Thank goodness for the people who love me! I had meals with good friends — teachers, of course! — so we could catch up on all of their things that have happened while I was busy with other stuff; my Tom flew me out to Vegas after his annual convention and I felt like a jet-setter! Nothing like the bright lights, the shows, and a little gambling to give my mind a huge distraction!

I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss it…at least a little. Not the politics, the drama, nor the discipline; I miss greeting the students on the first day, and the joy of, well, teaching! I even missed the pre-year setup, although, I must admit it was never my strongest area. The process of preparing my room’s look and feel always made me a bit anxious.

Setting up my room was always a challenge. I remember my first year of teaching. I put up a bulletin board or two, a few posters on the wall, and that was it. I had no idea what to do to make my room have that “homey” feeling. I would walk around to other classrooms and try to see what other teachers were doing to create a comfy environment for learning and then take those ideas and apply them to my own classroom. In fact, I never stopped doing that. I love going into other teachers’ classrooms to see the unique imprint that each of them places on their learning environment. Many teachers have a real gift and talent for that.

I am in awe of so many of the “classroom reveals” I see on Instagram. I follow different teacher hashtags and so everyone that uses that hashtag shows up in my feed. It’s amazing the effort and color coordination that some teachers put into having a classroom ready on the first day — I can’t help but wonder if some of these teachers’ homes are as color-coordinated as their classrooms. They are incredible; I’m sure many students have their minds blown walking into a classroom so organized and beautiful! Personally, I don’t remember any of my teachers from my youth putting forth so much coordinated effort on our classrooms. What I DO remember is that the best classrooms and the best teachers were organized and utilized systems to manage and keep order in the classroom. No special equipment, décor, or lighting necessary!

This could be the cozy living room in someone’s home, instead it’s a great place to read on a rainy school day!

I think the Pinterest-inspired classroom is a beautiful way for teachers to express their talents and love for building a safe, welcoming environment. However, I look at that classroom that I’ve randomly picked from IG and several questions come to mind:

  1. What did this person spend on this small portion of their classroom? I guess it all could have been donated, and the teacher could have done the sewing herself…but even so, there is lots of money in this photo. The lighting required money. The rug. Those benches. As a teacher who spent most of her career as a single-mom, no way could I have dropped several hundred dollars on my classroom when my kid needed new shoes, school supplies, or even a little Mommy/daughter time. It looks great, but this is a disservice for teachers to post these types of classrooms and for so many other teachers look at it and think that it’s the “standard” we should try to attain. It isn’t — more importantly, don’t ever believe that your class has to look like this in order for you to be a good teacher.
  2. What will this classroom look like when the “Winter Break” rolls around? You know that a classroom can look perfect without the kids…same as your house! When my students would leave EVERY afternoon, I would walk through and pick up pencils, stray caps from glue sticks, and library books. I would then go around with wipes and wipe down smears and sticky from every surface. Then, if something made of cloth needed to be repaired, I assessed it and triaged it: trash, tape, glue, or my mom. If there’s something unraveling, you can bet the kids will pull on it. If the stuffing peeks out, they will pull on it. They can’t help it. They’re kids!
  3. Does this classroom setup improve the relationship between the teacher and students? In my experience, students need to feel part of the process in order to have buy-in. In other words, just making it look pretty, doesn’t mean they’ll respect it or work harder for it. Instead, create areas for student-inspired work and allow them to have ownership. My favorite way to kick off the year was to discuss community and to discuss what should and shouldn’t be part of our learning community. I would have the students create a paper-bag community that we would hot glue up on the wall to remind us throughout the year of the community that we were building. These items were purchased at the Dollar Tree! I didn’t need a “Donors Choose” account, a special grant, or a winning lottery ticket! Then, as the seasons changed, the students would create decorations to show how the seasons changed in our community as well, such as snowflakes in winter. Yes, this took part of a class period. Sadly, I didn’t do this as much in the later years because the pressure to teach content — all those standards — began to take over the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) that I had built into my classroom. My realization: the less I was able to focus on building classroom community, the more issues I had with discipline and respect.

My point is this: when did we become so obsessed with special themes and designs for our classrooms? Does it make us better teachers? What does it say to teachers with very little means other than the “start up” pittance that we give new teachers? I know how I felt after seeing these classroom and began comparing my classroom to what I saw on Pinterest. I felt inferior!!! Yes, a successful teacher with years of classroom experience felt inferior because my classroom didn’t measure up to what I saw on social media. I thought that I must be missing out on the next great thing in the “teaching world” and my classroom needed to be just as cute as all of the “new” teachers’ rooms. I began spending hours searching the internet for ideas within my means and abilities that would make my class Pinterest-worthy too. I called my mom (because I have NO sewing ability) and emailed her photos of curtains that I thought would be inexpensive and easy. They required very little sewing, but lots of cute and coordinated fabrics. I hopped on over to JoAnn Fabrics and $60 later, I’m walking out with fabric, ribbon, Velcro, and whatever else I thought I might need to create the cutest curtains!

These are similar to the DIY curtains my mom and I created for open storage spaces in my classroom.

To shorten this story, my mother spent many hours cutting strips of fabric, and we spent hours in the classroom putting them together. They were indeed adorable (and still are — see the photo of me at the top: I circled them behind me). They provided a cute cover-up for some open spaces and I appreciated finding a fun project for my mom and me to work on. We did have some issues with actually getting them to stay up, but I found that giant thumbtacks can hold some weight! These curtains, though adorable, span only four feet total with a cost of $60 and nearly eight hours of work! My plans to span the windows across the back of the classroom were immediately abandoned.

I wonder, though, did the money, time, and effort put into these curtains have a payoff in the classroom? We were (and still are) a “Restorative Practices” school; creating a space in our classrooms called a “Peace Corner” was required. I always had a place in my classroom for students to cool-down, work alone, or just isolate themselves from others. (We all have times where we need to be alone and need space, especially in middle school!) Mine consisted of a desk and a think chart that usually focused on identifying feelings. Students were still expected to work, even isolated. But a “Peace Corner” goes way beyond that…they vary from room to room, but usually involve some sort of carpet, pillows, comfy cushions, fidget toys, and a chart to help students identify feelings. Soft lighting is also encouraged. To our administrators’ credit, they worked hard to find items in the community to supply to teachers, so that there was little cost. They even purchased inexpensive type fidget toys and coloring books to give students something to do as they calmed down. However, I know teachers who did go out and purchase items to make this the cutest little area for our kids who were feeling out of control. Most of these were destroyed by the end of the school year. This is way over the top and out of a classroom teachers’ scope of responsibility. Again, we are asking our teachers to give more…as they receive less and less. I can’t imagine what it was like for a teacher in a school where they were told it was a mandate, and then given no support to implement it. My curtains were soft and pretty, and I did them to fall in line making my “Peace Corner” unique, calming and enjoyable. Looking back, I’m not so sure any student noticed.

If you are the type of person that this all comes naturally for you, I’m so envious! Go for it and decorate up! Make that classroom an incredible place for your students to visit and learn. But for those of you (I include myself in this!) that have to work really hard at creating an engaging bulletin board, it’s okay if your classroom isn’t ready for social media. Your classroom should be ready for your kids and organized at a level that works for you and for them! Quit the comparison! You are enough! Be yourself and share pieces of who you are in your décor! That is what you need to kick off a successful classroom and school year! A few lamps and a throw rug or two, along with your own system of organization should be enough to kick off the school year. Better still, allow your students to guide you. When you allow your students to take part in creating the classroom, they will have more respect for it. Make the time to let them feel a part of your room.

If you are struggling to live up to something you see on social media, just remember “comparison is the thief of joy” and different is ok! Sharing pieces of yourself with your students (and that includes your sense of style) will make them feel more connected to you. I would love to know more about the teachers reading this blog, so share your classroom photos with me! Pinterest-worthy or not, you are all doing amazing things in that space and I’d love to see what is happening in your classroom!

On a personal note, I’m still in search of a new fit and a new design for my daily life outside of the classroom. The renovations on our Florida home are coming along and I’m even planning to do a bit of subbing in some local classrooms! I still love visiting in other teachers’ classrooms, and I may have things to share in the near future.

Coming at you from a rainy day in Florida….
Pam