“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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 youto be a good teacher.
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!
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!
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.