A tale of three notes

It isn’t easy to be gone in teaching.  Wow.  So not.  Writing a decent lesson plan a sub can execute is oh so hard.  (Hey!  Life hack now that we’ve learned so much:  simply video record instructions to be played to the kids.  Send it to some key kids.  Trust them to do what you need and let the rest go.  Credit to the Tweet below)  

Getting a decent sub is another factor, particularly when you know your students.  I inevitably have a student or two that might flare when confronted with some sub’s dynamics.  This brings in moral distress.  Following up after a sub is its own labor. 

And then there is that thing… the very basic thing that we care about the job.  We care about the kids. We know teachers are integral; we want to be there.  But in reality, teaching  requires absences.  Teachers are parents and children who also have to take care of others.  And teachers need to learn how to take care of themselves.    Last year had extra extra complications.  In online ed, there was no ability to step back, really.  There weren’t any subs, for one, and the complications of the tech were an obstacle. In addition, time was simply more precious.  It felt more imperative to provide some consistency. 

Last year, when we returned to the building, there was this one magical day… yep, a TESTING day.  There were three testing days, to be accurate, but on one of them I had NO RESPONSIBILITIES.  None.  

So yep, I emailed my associate principal to say I was going to take a sick day to work from home, where I have a second monitor to be efficient.  I even had a desk at home, which I didn’t have at school because of social distancing/ construction.  I also qualified that by saying that I would be available via phone and actually, if there was a staff shortage, live close enough to be there in a minute.

And here, lightly edited, was her reply: 

Thank you for the heads up. Because I respect you so much, I need to share that I do hope you’ll reconsider.  The testing team worked so hard on this and one way we can support their efforts is to ensure we have staff here to cover in case anyone calls in sick. My concern is that if our Instructional Leaders are finding ways to avoid being in the building, their department members will follow that lead. 

The testing team added a list of available rooms. We have ample space for physical distancing and as long as we’re following masking and hand-washing protocols, we’re meeting health recommendations and guidance.

Happy to talk more – but between conferences tonight and my own duties tomorrow,  I’m afraid it will have to be after the fact.

And readers, you guessed it.  I revoked my “sick day” and went in.  I worked in the cafeteria a bit.  A desk here a bit.  A desk there a bit– an angrifying, inefficient and awkward day in the midst of a very very long year. 

Also, I am pretty sure I am going to throw up next time someone tells me they “respect” me. 

Here is a version of what could have happened: 

Thank you for the heads up and for being willing to come in at a moment’s notice if we are short staffed.  Take care of yourself and happy grading! 

And you know what would have been the best?  Something like this: 

Thank you for the heads up and for being willing to come in at a moment’s notice if we are short staffed.  If you are working from home, though, you don’t need to take a sick day!  Save them!  You’re doing the work you’d do here. Or better yet, step back from school.  Netflix it!  Bake!  Take those dogs for a walk!  Take care of you!

Three thoughts more on this: 

My first meeting with my new assistant principal this school year was me resigning as educational leader at the end of this year.  It’s been coming, regardless of the pandemic.  The “be here because you are a leader” email in combination with one other decision from last year’s departmental principal cemented the resignation letter.  And while I have rarely taken any personal days beyond funerals or parenting in the last five or six years, I made sure to take one already this year… I vow to make space to take care of myself in order to stay present for the kids and to maybe– just maybe– be able to stay in this field a couple more years. 

When I read my principal’s email with compassion, I recognized it as fear-based.  She wanted the testing to go well (and testing stress pervades our field).  In the context of similar comments and moves last year and this, though, that email did harm. 

I’ve had a range of principals in my career.  The main criticism of one of the top two in my estimation was that she didn’t take care of herself.  There wasn’t a sense of balance.  Being part of a good educational leader is also stepping back a bit when the situation allows it in order to be fully present when the system needs it.  I have often relied on those in leadership to help balance me.  

I take full ownership of my welfare now. 

At the end of April 2020, the district reported to the school board that there were 1,398 teacher absences up to that point when the 2017 year had 8,529.  The sentence provided was:  “the need for substitutes was likely less because of virtual instruction.”  I don’t know what I wanted to hear there, really.  Those numbers were teachers sacrificing themselves to be present on screen.  Those numbers revealed teachers exhausting themselves.  

A friend of mine runs a non-profit that pivoted to meet the pandemic while still actually growing their mission and clientele.  This spring, when vaccinations were in place, their board gave each employee each two additional weeks of vacation as a thank you and as a recognition of time spent pivoting.  

Education can’t quite do that– but I know of at least one school on one of the inservice days that said sleep in, take a walk, take care of yourself.  Don’t log in. Just rest. 

This post reminds me of this graphic, which came from the subsequent Tweet: 

Many students will remember me.  That is a benefit of teaching. 

But I am so very replaceable to the system. 

In that meeting where I resigned, the first question was who do I think is willing to step in.  It is a pragmatic question and I know from leaving leadership in one district to move to the next, any ripples from my absence disappear quickly.  

This is again why watching my mentor’s life resonates.  Life is short.  Prioritize.

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Something broke last year– and keeps breaking

I took comfort in meeting teachers this past summer and feeling not crazy when I heard reflections on last year and how hard it was over the summer decompress, no matter how mindful I was about trying to heal and recenter.  Going to my neighbor’s Fourth of July, a teacher from a neighboring district commented how her body was still exhibiting extreme stress, even as we turned to the second half of summer. On vacation, I heard a similar story.   In later July, I made a return to a store and person who helped me was a teacher disillusioned and exhausted by last year. She commented that she would like to interview school districts to ask what they did to support teachers in this past year.  

When I processed all the teacher voices I listened to, I noted it hadn’t really mattered if teachers were fully face to face or virtual, if their concurrent or hybrid time was long or short, if they were urban, rural, large or small- last year was horrendous and there is a reckoning. 

This summer, I unpacked what this Tweet listed as emotions: 

I read that list this summer and held so many of the emotions in complexity.  I read that list this fall, a quarter into school,  and hold so many of the emotions in complexity still.  How many different types of fear did I have last year? Do I have now? How many different people did I fear for, including myself?  How many different types of stresses did I have last year?  How did my living situation– my family situation, my resources– impact stresses by either heightening them or providing reprieve?  

This year, I am so grateful for my district and local mask mandates.  Every day, every class, though, I have to remind students to pull their masks up.  Every day, I sit at a desk with an eating area in view, people eating and chatting with not masks.  There is still ongoing pressure, but more of the pressure now is from knowing my stress levels.  Feeling my teeth clenched.  Stress headaches on year two. 

And the word in that Tweet I am most grateful to see is anger.  Anger.  I am surprised at the level of anger I have.   I know I am not alone in this when I’ve seen other teachers struggling as well (that online community has helped me navigate last spring, this summer, this fall so much more.)

The anger I have toward my field propelled me to counseling this summer.  Given an anxiety screener, I was alarmed at my results.  I have weathered so many crises in my life with aplomb.  I think this year’s stress toppled over emotions held at bay for awhile.

I expect I will be at counseling awhile because last year exacted a reckoning and this fall’s dissonance amplifies that need, yes, but last year also revealed so much about the costs of teaching in stark terms and processing all that will take time.  I also think Tom Rademacher’s blog resonates oh so much: 

“We aren’t going to fix all of what broke this year over the summer. A lot of it isn’t even finished breaking yet. We do, all of us, teachers and students and families and school leaders, need a break, some healing.”  This journal/blog is an attempt at some healing.  I think almost daily I think of Tom’s quote… I am not finished breaking yet. 

Sincere question: 

And about that counseling: 

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Ode to teaching

Oh, how I love so many elements of my occupation— which is more important to remember now. This year. Today.

*Please read in the voice of Scarlet Johansson or Adam Driver ala Marriage Story. 

Teaching allows me to witness in real time the moment an awareness washes over a perceptive, capable human.  Often, the awareness is “I can do this!”– a sign of present and future empowerment.  Sometimes, it is just realizing a question, method, or path exists that hasn’t been explored. Sometimes, it is “I am worthy.” 

Teaching allows me to touch the future.  I am forever preaching about students’ future selves and how they have to do things today to make their future better. Sometimes this means reading more efficiently.  Sometimes this is mastering punctuation so they can orchestrate their communication better.  Sometimes this is thinking critically, taking on perspectives. I do not do the work that encompasses me for today only; I do it for the future. 

Teaching asks me to wrap my arms and ability around hearts and psyches, centering love and acceptance and hope while identities are being formed and obstacles confronted. It is being present.

Teaching requires me to be intellectually nimble and forever curious.  There is no end to learning as each cohort of students forms its own identity, has its own culture, reveals its own needs.  Everything I read or think about is pondered in the context of teaching.  The world is a giant puzzle where I constantly snag a piece of information or awareness to use in the classroom. It is a constant and rewarding mental challenge.

Teaching provides deep connections.  It is being in the trenches with colleagues with amazing skill sets and awarenesses.  Bonds form, support uplifts. We are indeed better together. 

Teaching pollinates: students and colleagues alter me, planting new ideas and requiring constant growth and adaptation.   
Teaching accords purpose, a central ingredient to happiness.  Each student, each concept, each day is meaningful and purposeful.  What I do in the classroom impacts that student the next year, the year after, and even, sometimes, to their children and beyond.  What I do every day matters.

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Lessons in Teaching from My Mother’s Brain Tumor: Grace

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Mom on her birthday in high school.

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. Tonight I had the small-town pizzeria treat we have often shared on her birthday, but with her college roommate, not her. Mom died May 22 at age 70 of a Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor diagnosed in June.

Back at school this fall, I sometimes ponder how I survived last year at all. I had just quit my last school after 13 years, having been hired in my home school district, when we found Mom was sick. A whirlwind summer of neurosurgery and radiation left me scattered, and I went into a new school with new colleagues and new preps, and with only two weeks sick leave and no right to Family Medical Leave. I was my mom’s primary caretaker, though blessed with siblings and a host of family friends to help.

I’ve pondered a few lessons for this blog, but tonight’s is this: Grace. Simple grace. Sometimes it was giving myself grace, and not taking the extra minutes to fix the formatting on the worksheet, allowing some formative check-ins be small group discussions rather than exit cards, saving me grading time.  Grace. I can’t be all I want to be at all times. Mother. Daughter. Wife. Friend. Teacher. Me. Give myself grace.

Some of the grace came from administration, especially in May. Do I need to take my study hall time and grade papers? Go ahead. Need a tucked away office to buckle down during prep? Take mine. You just got a phone call you need to attend to? We’ll have someone in your room in two minutes. I hadn’t built a relationship with these people as I was new and just surviving, but they extended grace.

Most of the grace, however, came from students. It came in extreme moments when they heard my cell phone ring: silence fell quickly because any call was meaningful. Once, returning a computer cart during passing time, a student overtook me, my ringing phone in hand, saying she knew it was important. Grace came in small moments, too, when I would get caught in a theme of a poem (try teaching “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” the week you research hospice) or stumble in my words, my mind numb. Most of the time, grace was extended in patience when AP prompts did not come back immediately, or tests took a bit longer to grade. Grace. My students gave me grace.

I say this now as the school year starts and thoughts bounce in my head. At a department meeting two weeks ago, we talked over late policies. Our school is moving to not giving zeroes for late work, and not allowing grades to be impacted by work behaviour. Many teachers disagree, reasonably, even lovingly. Teaching responsibility has been a key element of our craft.

But I think grace. Believe in second chances. Allow kids to get out of holes. This doesn’t mean I won’t hold students accountable. I will spend some time tomorrow calling each and every sophomore’s family of those who did not read the last assignment in a timely matter. But I will have an alternative assignment ready… grace.

There is research to back that up– so many of the great grading gurus expound new approaches to scoring work, and an interesting article in the Atlantic this month argues why boys need grace so much more.

But the main reason I know grace is right is my students tell me so. Last week, students were given a prompt choice for their first story to tell about a favorite teacher. Many told of teachers who were engaging or who gave candy, but a clear theme was grace. Teachers who loved kids after they caught them cheating. Teachers who extended second chances. Teachers who asked why instead of assuming laziness. Teachers who made sure a kid understood the material, not simply shrugging when work wasn’t done.

My mom believed in responsibility, and so do I. But grace is a bridge, a parachute, a ladder. It gets us from crisis to success, it tempers the terrors, it digs us out of holes. I have oft needed grace, and so I extend grace.

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Why I loved Thomas Guskey today

So I had my fears.  I didn’t want to go.  But, boy, I am glad I did.

First, I really didn’t understand Standards Grading.

It is not simply substituting a 4 for an A or a 3 for a B, though it will take a few years of retraining for students and parents and teachers to comprehend that.

It is not highlighting a rubric and considering that feedback. It is a paradigm shift that does a few crucial things, the most important of which is to remove process and progress feedback from product reflection.  And we need it.

In every team I have ever worked, we debate:  what should late penalties look like? how much should this assignment be weighted?  There is no answer.  In today’s conference, Thomas Guskey repeatedly proved there is no consistency among educators on how and what and why to grade.  So what if we isolate some of the feedback, and, in the process, clarify the feedback?

What if there was a bolded achievement grade and then, as Guskey provided as examples below, separate grades for participation, homework, punctuality, and effort?   What if we graded just the skills manifested in that assignment, and then used a rubric 4, 3, 2, 1 to capture the other relevant and important but non-skill based attributes of a student?

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Loved it.

And what if we could take that just one step farther and then have standards supplementing that achievement grade, so parents knew what an A or a B or a C meant in my room particular to skills?   See below:

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Yes, it does take a paradigm shift.  Yes, there would be fewer A’s, but this is somewhat tempered by two things:

In the ten years since I did Standards Based, colleges rely less on GPA and more on the rigor of the classes.  According to Mr. Guskey, colleges love this system, mainly because it provides better feedback.  Right now, GPAs mean little as there is no consistency across the USA.

Also, the A is not the point.  Accurate communication of skills is the point.  In some ways, it is easier to get an A as there isn’t the law (or mob rule) of averages here.

But most of all, I did not feel that my propensity to invest in comments is undermined in this system.  I do not need to highlight a rubric, but I can identify a score according to a rubric.  If I had every kid insert a table at the end of the paper with the listed standards, I could easily slip in a 4 or 3 or 2 or 1.  I do not need to resort to paper grading.  I do not need a highlighter.  I can do both and I can do it well.

So consider me ready.  On board.  Salivating.

Let’s go.

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20 Years is Not Enough

Today I read an article in the New York Times celebrating Teach For America recruits for putting aside their six-figure salaries for their promised two years of teaching.  The comments, as always at NYT, are interesting.  I have added mine:

This is my twentieth year of teaching.  I have awards, degrees, and recognitions.  This year, I teach two new courses, and even with all my years of experience, I need to apologize to my students: my courses are nothing compared to what they will be in three years.  I have not the depth of material nor the mastery of the content and this is, again, despite twenty years of experience.  

If my twenty years of classroom experience isn’t enough to adequately prepare me for a class, what makes America think TFA’s mere weeks of training will?

But here is the saddest part.  I think TFA is right to recruit the best and the brightest.  Teaching needs the best and the brightest, but despite my intense love for my job, I don’t want my own children to become teachers.  

 Schools are ridiculed and scapegoated.  I no longer share publicly that I am a teacher, afraid of the reaction and the public scorn.  I no longer talk writing or critical thinking with my peers, but rather talk test scores and data points.  I no longer dream, supported by my administrators.  I instead have nightmares haunted by rubrics, checklists, and scores.  

TFA and their spokespeople are part of the assault on public education and public teachers.  I can not support nor condone them.

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Mea Culpa: My latest mistake

Today I apologized to my students. Yesterday I had two girls leave my class crying. The two are related.

It is the end of debates and two weeks before AP testing. I get nervous and anxious, trying to press kids on what to improve. I forget how nerve-wracking it is to debate in public. I forget how hard it is for kids to organize their debate team around sports and music and work and life. I forget. And in my desire to make sure the next group improves, I (and the class) point out errors.

And then a crying child (or worse, two)  brings me back to reality. Why do I not praise what is going well? Students will be more tuned into specific praise and more praise and then a little focused criticism. Why do I let my anxiety make me forget my better nature?

The girls who left my room crying after “losing” a debate deserved better, and they had real strengths that, once they left, I realized I should have said.

So today I apologized. Today we looked for positives. And the day felt better.

And then tonight I went into my Google Calendar and put a banner across the weeks that debate will likely be next year, reading “tell them what they are doing well.” I think I will tape that message to my desk as well.

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