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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.

The waves are calling…

The quote from John Muir goes, “The mountains are calling and I must go.” However, as beautiful as the mountains are, the waves are what call to me. I took the photo above within 2 hours of the plane landing! It’s been such a stressful year and my heart couldn’t hold it in anymore! I spent sunset allowing my soul to reconnect and relax. Sounds a little crazy, but in stressful moments, I often turn to the meditative sound of the waves.

This year was a particularly difficult one. At my core, I’m a teacher. I love working with people to gain knowledge and share some of the fascinating facts that I have learned over the years. As I watched the waves roll in and out, I realize that tears are streaming down my face. I realize that this year was my breaking point.

I didn’t even know I HAD a breaking point.

It’s no fun to walk into the same fight and struggles each day. In fact, some could even call it the truest definition of insanity, the one where we do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome.

It isn’t the school, it’s a great building and cleaner than most (that’s still not saying much!). I have access to technology and supplies. I have a great team and administrators who listen and are supportive. We have parents who literally give shirts off their backs to our kids. We have support personnel like counselors, social workers, behavior specialists, family involvement specialists….and the teaching is phenomenal!

So, Pam, why is this not nirvana?

We are sure giving a lot to the kids. Free supplies, free food, free counseling, free education, free family events, opportunities to achieve their wildest dreams…but not a damn one of us is holding these kids accountable for any of it.

“Restorative Practices” is a great program when we implement it to help kids and not just give them another excuse to become a victim. We have a lot of people who seem to want to be victims (parents and students) and it’s taking over our classrooms..but more on that in a different post.

So, since the waves are calling, I must go to them. I am not returning to my classroom this fall for my official 20th year. It’s been a difficult decision, but I believe it’s the right one for me. Right after that photo was taken, I thought I needed to walk out of my relationship. I thought he was the whole reason I couldn’t “fix” the issues in my classroom, that he was the reason I had no life outside of the classroom, and why I had been emotionally eating my way through the year and added 10 pounds to my frame despite working out daily. So I left, like literally took all of my stuff, rented a car, and left.

I spent two days crying and driving along the coast and trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. My thinking was that NOW I could finally spend all of my extra hours working and signing up for committees and really focusing on building relationships with kids.

Yes, that’s really what I told myself. I left my partner and my life so I could work MORE.

Y’all that’s not right.

My daughter has been sacrificed. My ex was sacrificed. My hobbies and my friends have all been sacrificed. My self-worth has been sacrificed. I have nothing left to give.

I still love it. I’ll still fight for it. I still believe in free and public education with every fiber of my being, but it’s being destroyed and it’s taking the teachers with it. I am very fortunate that my partner and I sat down, worked through the issues, and could recommit ourselves. We also realized that something had to change. We couldn’t see our relationship making it through another year like the last one. I admit that I’m very fortunate that I have a partner who can support us financially and that I have this option. Most teachers don’t and it’s been evident this week that I’m not alone in how I’m feeling. The word that has been used the most is “brave.”

I’ve never thought of myself as brave. Definitely didn’t think of myself as brave for leaving. There are so many teachers and others out there that need to find their own voice, because, like me, they’re burning the candle at both ends, and when they actually say “no,” they’re made to feel like they aren’t doing enough “for the kids.”

So I am going to try my hand at all sorts of new and brave adventures, including writing this blog! Please reach out, subscribe/follow, and I’ll keep on loving becoming my imperfect self!

Living the dream!

Hey New-Best-Friend! This is my first blog. My first step to living out my dream! That sounds a bit corny, but it’s true! I’m 48 years old and I realize that I’m not now, nor have I been, living my best life. For 20 years, I’ve spent countless hours teaching, mentoring, loving, nursing, and leading others to their best selves. I’ve raised a daughter and watch her daily struggle to find her place in the world. I’ve been married (and divorced) twice and I’m in a long-term relationship. In all three instances, I’ve put my needs last. 

I’ve always felt like I had a lot of experiences to share and I love to write! I hope you enjoy being part of my experiences and hopes and dreams! In return, I hope you’ll be able to use a small part of what I share to further your own hopes and dreams!

Here’s to sunshine and sand!