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