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How we “teach” reading

I’ve been on a reading binge lately. I had gotten out of the habit, mostly because I’d be so tired that I rarely could make it through a page before my eyes began to close! Reading had become a summer activity or maybe a snow day perk! Finding myself with some extra time lately, I’ve been keeping Amazon busy delivering the books I’ve missed out on over the past several years. I’ve devoured books such as The Great Alone, An American Marriage, and Educated, just to name a few. I’ve loved the incredible amounts of historical fiction being published, and found fun and delightful authors like Liane Moriarty. I’ve rekindled my romance with reading, and I love myself more for it.

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

“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.”

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 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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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.

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

“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. “

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….

Building Community

My class from 2003-2005. I had these kids for 5th and 6th grade. They built an incredible community within the classroom.

I wanted to give a shout-out to all of my teacher friends feeling the anxiety in their chests this week! Maybe it’s just ingrained in my soul now, because I’ve been feeling it too. Let’s call it “sympathetic anxiety.” It’s a very interesting feeling really, to know that I’m not going to have to sit through hours of PD, unpack my classroom, or make lesson plans for the first week. I’m also not shopping for supplies, getting together with my teammates, or feeling the anticipation of meeting a whole new crop of kids. There is no way to see the end of July approaching and not have these feelings.

I’m a bit melancholy, actually. One of my favorite parts of being a teacher is setting up my room for a new school year and then meeting those sweet faces as they walk in on the first day! New backpacks, new notebooks and pencils, new shoes….and the lockers!!!
In 5th grade, they are getting their own locker with a combination lock (just heaven!), which most learn to open quickly. Then something magical happens! Some of the quietest, less-confident kids master the combination lock quickly and then they become rockstars! How? They go to work helping every child who is struggling with a lock, to teach them to open their own lock! At first, the kids panic and come to me, but I begin to partner them up and pretty soon, I’m just an observer of this beautiful, harmonious classroom of students working together to solve problems.

As quickly as that moment takes shape, it just as quickly comes to an end. The community that we talk about and build during the first week gives way to teachers’ feeling pressure to get their numerous standards taught before the first round of “practice” testing. The community that was built “devolves” into hurried and frustrated voices and expectations, leaving children equally as frustrated. People keep asking why I’m leaving for a year; this is really my “why,” if I can be really honest. I have a tremendous problem with shoving developmentally inappropriate standards down the throats of students that aren’t ready for them, academically or behaviorally. It was a personal choice and even a form of personal protest against a system that I whole-heartedly adore and support: the public school system. I’ve had some backlash in the forms of private messages about whether I am making personal jabs at any single place or individual. I am not and it is very short-sighted of anyone to think that it is. Thinking that I’m “quitting” or not “in the fight” anymore is ludicrous and anyone who thinks that about me doesn’t really know me at all.

I have some theories about why we’re watching a mass-exodus of teachers and students from public schools, but it’s completely based on my personal experiences of 19 years in the classroom. When these 5th graders walk in the door on the first day, everyone is new to the building. In our school system, 5th grade is the first year of middle school; in my particular school, we primarily received students from two elementary feeder schools, but we are a “zoned-option” school for students living in and around a housing project across town. Then you have the regular number of transfers, students who move over the summer, etc. In other words, EVERYONE is new and EVERYONE is at the same level of new, especially the first week. There’s no comparison, no good/bad kids, no “smart” kids…everyone is the same because everyone is new.

The differences come when we start sorting kids. Have you noticed that? When we allow comparison to play a part in what we do in the classroom, the problems among the students begin. The focus is on their weaknesses instead of focusing on their strengths. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t offer support for students who have that need, but we spend lots of time focusing on student differences and sorting them out. Then we throw them all together and expect them to NOT notice these differences and to treat each other the same.

We spend a lot of time, effort, and training talking about “social-emotional learning” (SEL). This type of learning looks at the whole child and their social and emotional well-being. Students come to school at different levels of social and emotional maturity based on their life experiences. These don’t always align to what we’re teaching them and it is my opinion that we are asking students to do much more than what they are developmentally ready for as young adolescents. I don’t think it’s a big mystery if you work with kids, have your own, or even just keep up with the news, that our adolescents are struggling with a world and situations that are very different than the ones I grew up with in the 70s and 80s.

There’s nothing that exists in this world that would ever make me go back to those years. There are plenty of events that stand out in my mind that are still painful and probably affected me in ways I can’t imagine. It’s why so many of us as adults turn to therapy and self-help books!

My brother, Chuck, and I at about ages 8 and 6, not quite adolescents, but old enough to have lived through experiences, good and bad!

In today’s education-eze, we call these life-changing events, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These events could include the death of a parent, divorce, violence, being removed from a neglected home situation, sexual abuse, and probably other things that are beyond our comprehension. After 19 years in the classroom, I believe that I’ve heard almost everything, but undoubtedly, there is always something new that turns my stomach.

Despite the situation a child is living in, they all come to school. We don’t ask for a complete history as they walk in and divide them accordingly, they all show up and they all must learn. This is why I had to find a way to get an incredibly diverse group of kids to get along, so we all could learn. If you can’t find a balance, you’re in for a rough year!When I began teaching, one of my colleagues said, “Hey Pam! I’m working on this proposal for a grant. If I get it will you go to these classes with me?” I agreed, not even knowing how it would change my point of view toward teaching, learning, and the classroom.

Of course my colleague got the grant, and I spent several (5 or 6) evenings, and a week in the summer, going to classes at the old Waverly-Belmont building in Nashville. The program was called “Schools for Thought” and it brought full-circle many of the ideas and thinking that I had been introduced to during my student teaching and interim term at Gower Elementary. It was sessions created by teachers that encouraged teachers to start their year by building community in the classroom as a foundation, and then to continue to create lessons that encouraged students to work together to solve problems. It wasn’t a “boxed-up and sold” program, it was just good pedagogy. It created a community within the classroom where students worked out their problems through discussion, it supported learning of all levels and abilities, and it allowed students to understand that our learning and living in our classroom community could also be applied outside in the “real world.” Was my classroom perfect? Nope. However, many have grown into caring adults, with jobs, families, and a sense of community. This is despite their ACEs and their home life. Did I mention that many of my students didn’t come from “ideal” homes?

We built a community of trust, kindness and fairness, but there were expectations that held us all accountable. It is SCHOOL, after all! In fact, I believe that as the students learned to depend on each other and build relationships, it raised the bar! The amazing projects and fun we had in the classroom created memories and lifelong learners!

Here’s my point, we are spending lots and lots of time buying into programs and thinking that we can use them to “fix” kids. There’s nothing wrong with the kids. The kids are the same, but now they are thrust into an environment where we are pushing more and more on them and not allowing them to develop at a “normal” rate with any sense of community, without any sense of belonging, and without FUN! We are expecting them to be little adults and use standards that are way past their cognitive levels. Then, we want to tell them they have behavior or learning problems and place them in tiered programs while we continue to tell them that they are all should treat each other the same.

Restorative Practices is one of those programs. We focus on kids’ problems and their home life and their relationships with adults and use all of these things to justify – make excuses – for their behavior. Why aren’t we teaching them how to build relationships with peers and live up to the expectations of the classroom and the school? Honestly, I get it. I have my own set of ACEs, so do you, and so does the next person. Mine are uniquely my own and I guess I could have used them to become a lifelong victim. I could use them and say my acting out is a direct result of my anger over my parents’ divorce; or that my lack of commitment to a long-term relationship is because of my absent father. (Those are examples, not really my experiences!)

While I believe that students do need support and we do need support personnel in the form of social workers and counselors in the schools to help in individual situations, I don’t believe that continuing to call attention to our differences is the answer to what is plaguing public schools. If we continue to make excuses for poor behavior, if we continue to focus on what is wrong with kids, if we allow ourselves to kowtow to these well-meaning programs that are not making ANYTHING better, we will continue to see a mass-exodus of good teachers from the classroom and the best and brightest students will go elsewhere and fight for their education. I just couldn’t do another year of asking my kids who wanted to learn (about 95% of each class) to put up with the bad behavior of those who weren’t being held accountable (the other 5%) over and over and over.

And before anyone thinks that I am just speaking of my situation at my school, I am not. I have spoken with teachers all across the country. This isn’t a local problem, this is a national problem and it’s one that is debilitating public schools and degrading the teachers who want to build communities of learners. I think this is where my focus is heading as an educator. My experiences and successes should be built upon, not put away and ignored for whatever the “shiny program of the day” is for improving education. There is SO MUCH that works! There are so many people who continue to stick to their beliefs and make decisions based on what is best for students. I think those ideas should be explored and discussed and applied. I am currently reaching out to some of the area school and youth organizations here in St. Petersburg, so I can become involved in this community.

If you have read this far, thank you! Please continue to support, speak out, and vote for public schools. In my 25 years of education experiences in college and beyond, my beliefs about education have not changed: all children deserve a free and public education so they all have the opportunity to grow into successful citizens and community builders!

Now what?

I am incredibly blessed and humbled. After my last post about leaving my beloved classroom and school, I expected a lot of guilt. I expected a lot of resistance from everyone telling me not to leave, the kids need me, etc. I didn’t get any of that.

Not. One. Single. Person.

Instead I got a lot of “Good for you” and “Congratulations” and “You’ll be so much happier,” and my favorite, “Welcome to the rediscovery of YOU!” What???? After 20 years, I guess I thought that it would be the end of the world if I left the classroom. That I was indispensable. Not that I think the education system would collapse without Ms. Arnold, but that there would be some resistance.

I ran into my former principal at Costco (our regular running-into-each-other place), and she had seen my post and gave me the biggest hug and said how happy she was for me. If you know Connie Gwinn, you know that she was a strong leader for Hill for 9 years. She retired almost 3 years ago to stay home and be “Grandma,” but her heart and her support and love for the school are still felt throughout Hill and the cluster. She also taught in that same area for over 20 years before becoming a principal, so many of the families had already known her from when they were students themselves. There was a wonderful family feel to the school and the staff, because even if she was upset with you, it was like you were dealing with your own mom, you knew you were still loved and supported. So there in the middle of Costco, I got a big Connie Gwinn hug and I knew she understood. I knew I had made the right choice. Tom supported me. My Mom supported me. Connie Gwinn supported me.

It’s difficult to trust your gut, at least it has been for me.

I’m currently reading a lot of Brene Brown. She’s similar in age, but I don’t know that it matters. She is well-known for her TED talk on shame, but her book The Gifts of Imperfection has spoken to my soul. I have spent a lot of time striving for “perfection.” The right answers, the best mom, the best teacher, the best partner, the best daughter and it has stifled me and not fully allowed me to be myself….my flawed and imperfect self. In this book there is a chapter about letting go and the need for certainty (not something I have been doing). She says,

“I found that what silences our intuitive voice is our need for certainty. Most of
us are not very good at not knowing.”

I am horrible at this. I want to know the good, the bad, the hurtful…I absolutely HATE not knowing! However, my drive for “knowing” has been drowning out that intuitive voice, that little voice that talks to you and makes you feel vulnerable. If I feel vulnerable, I might fail and then maybe I won’t be the “best” anymore.

Have you ever said any of the following to yourself when making a decision?

“I’m just going to do it. I don’t care anymore.”
“I’m tired of thinking about it. It’s too stressful.”
“I’d rather just do it than wait another second.”
“I can’t stand not knowing.”

This is how my life was sounding on every decision I was making. I no longer trusted myself because I believed I wasn’t “enough.”

[Yes, this is really good stuff and I’m really working at being vulnerable and it really scares the hell out of me.]

Brene goes on to say a couple more important things about trusting our intuition,

“When we charge headlong into big decisions, it may be because we
don’t want to know the answers that will emerge from doing due diligence.
We know that fact-finding might lead us away from what we think we want.”

It’s scary to put yourself out there. I’ve been really comfortable in staying in the same place and in the same room and at the same grade level for 20 years. Comfortable is HUGE when you’re a teacher (including shoes!). It also made me very complacent. I knew it and my gut told me so and I was really trying to ignore it. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t being “the best.” It became really scary when I wasn’t sure if I would be disappointing the ones I cared about. I can’t tell you how uplifting it has been to feel and read the outpouring of love and support. My gut and intuition were correct.

Brene’s definition of intuition says,

“Intuition is not a single way of knowing–it’s our ability to hold space for
uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed
knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.”

The possibilities are endless and I just needed to realize that I was limiting myself when I refused to let go.