Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Writing for Our Lives

The Need for Release

I work in a high-needs building with some amazingly dedicated educators who toil daily to help students sift through the layers of poverty, self-image challenges and traumas both evident and latent.  I believe that the reality is, schools like ours should address the emotional and physiological toll paid by adults working long-term in these kinds of arenas. We are all familiar with the high attrition rates from high-poverty schools, and there are many, well documented reasons for it.  However, what is not as often examined, it seems, is the impact over years of high levels of adrenaline and cortisol pumping through the veins of teachers who work on the front lines diffusing inner and external fires all day. I could say more, but suffice it to say, for now, that working as a coach has given me an interesting vantage point as I work through, and observe other teachers working through, these dynamics. In addition to my other professional interests, I have informally developed a strong passion for teacher wellness. I tend to define teacher wellness a bit more broadly than our health insurance company does, although I definitely ascribe to all of the prevention strategies they recommend. I tend to think of teacher wellness beyond things like triglycerides and blood pressure levels--as super critical as they are–and look to more subtle things like ongoing mental exhaustion, self-efficacy and how a lack of it erodes effectiveness and hope.  I examine the micro-aggressions that drain a teacher's energy throughout a day. I’ll be posting more about this topic, so I won't attempt to cover it here in depth. However, what I want to address in this post is what I see as a life-saving strategy for teachers: writing.  It is no secret that many teachers live as parents, caregivers, and other high-responsibility roles outside of the classroom. It could sound almost funny to suggest that people with such full plates sit down to write for their own purposes. I do believe, though, that it is a critical, if underused, piece of our survival.

Three Camps

Teachers are charged with helping students to grow in confidence and competence as writers; yet if you sit down and talk to teachers themselves, you will generally find three camps.

1.There are those who strongly self-identify as writers, who enjoy the process and understand the craft. Usually these people use writing in their real lives and or for enjoyment pretty regularly.
2. The second category includes those teachers who have been told that they are good at it, but because of perfectionism and under-use, they lack confidence in their own abilities and don't write as much as they probably should.
3. In the third camp, there are those teachers who got blasted with a red pen throughout their school experience and so learned that writing is all about correctness.  For them, there is no room for it to also be about enjoyment. With good reason, enjoyment and accuracy are mutually exclusive in their minds, and no matter what they tell their students, they stay as far away from writing in their own lives as humanly possible.
 I want to say that for each of those groups, especially for teachers working in extremely challenging environments, writing is a necessary tool to help us process this incredibly complex vocation of ours.

Countless well-known writers have shared the powerful, cathartic experience that writing has been for them in their lives, helping them to work through personal traumas, illuminate the world around them and unearth salient truths about who they were meant to be.  It doesn’t hurt that these artists felt gifted to write and cultivated that gift.  But can’t the average person benefit in the same kinds of ways from the release of self-expression? I would say absolutely they can—and they should. And so, I will continue to live before my teaching colleagues as an advocate of the life lived always asking, always learning, and always, writing...

Where to Begin?

It can be completely intimidating and overwhelming to launch a life as a writer, I imagine—much like it feels like being born anew to try to make myself a person who works out regularly.  There are major mental hurdles to overcome, and I dare not downplay that! But it’s a process that must happen, I believe.  I think these simple steps could really change the game:
  • ·        Making writing samples (on site) regular practices in our teacher hiring processes
o   The building I am in now required a writing sample from applicants.  It is the second application process that worked this way—we received a prompt we were not privy to prior to the application process, and had to write, by hand and on the spot, responses to certain questions.  If this were our norm, we could help identify early on those who are investing in their own learning as writers and who may have no tools to impart to our students in this area.  Knowing this kind of expectation is in place would encourage all teachers to continually seek practice and improvement as writers.

  • ·        Incorporating some fun writing elements into our building culture:
o   Student-staff pen pal pairings; staff members writing notes to one another; encouraging letters from teachers to students in testing grades, etc.
o   Building written reflection into our staff meetings--Periodic written reflections on our day at the start of a staff meeting as a “grounding activity” and to decompress.  This would get teachers into the rhythm of experiencing writing as therapeutic.

I am convinced there are untold numbers of latent writers who have not yet been activated, freed, celebrated…many of those undiscovered writers are teachers whose students desperately need them to learn what is in them.  And even more than that, those teachers themselves need the gift of their own words to cast light of illumination on their practice, their relationships to their work, and their world.  I am here to say it, and say it, and say it again, until we all have heard… Writers, write on!  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Join the Movement! #workfreelunch


Not that you can tell it by the time I took to report it here :-), but I am thrilled to have begun the journey of writing blog posts for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards!  My first blog post is linked below:

National Board blog posts are famously to the point, which is good for loquacious folks like me.  I think you will enjoy the read.  Essentially, I have begun the adventure of giving myself just 30 minutes out of every busy day to take care of something that's important to me, that's not work.  Maybe it's personal e-mails on my own laptop, or calls I need to make for my family, or just conversation with a colleague.  But I'm thankful to just be learning a dimension of self-care that I'd been ignoring for far too long.  Please read on! Share your thoughts, comments, and more importantly, share the blog!  Thanks, and happy, long, life to all of my teacher friends out there! We've got to pace ourselves, friends.  The #workfreelunch is a start!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Calmest Classroom Ever

In my very first classroom, there was lots I didn't know, and much I learned the hard way. Yet one thing I did know was that I insisted on a space where both my 7th graders and I could work peacefully, with ample space for our minds to wrap around our lives and work.  As a lifelong music lover, I knew that one way to invoke peace was through music.  I knew that the pervasive thump and boom of hip hop and pop music invited students to stay in a constant space of hyper-stimulation, where they could never settle down into their own thoughts and rest.  I introduced my reluctant students into an expanded idea of music they are "allowed" to enjoy.  "Who says because you are part of this or that demographic group, that you can't enjoy calm music? Who says strings and violins are not for you?"  It was a hard sell at first, but soon, my students came to welcome this music's departure from their norm.  They were learning that the time, place and purpose determine the genre of music that supports your goals.  Their worlds expanded...

Sixteen years later, I'm still more convinced than ever that our students need these restful spaces, where familiar songs become the backdrop for our best work and where we have an individual, experience, in community, against the backdrop of a powerful soundtrack.

My husband is a brilliant musician, and in addition to our love of family and education, music is one huge thing that brought us together.  We have a vision of creating all kinds of musical supports for students in their learning, much like the Grammar Rock era did for 70's kids. Click the picture above to hear or purchase Classroom Calm, on original compilation of songs that I think you'll love. The product description lists lots of ways to use this music...but suffice it to say, it will, as they say, give you life!!  Let it be a game-changer for your classroom and your world...

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Delicate Dance that is Public Education

I remember being livid reading outsiders' critiques of public education and teachers.  People and publications would spout off about how teachers could be good, bad, or indifferent and how it really didn't matter, because the tenure system guaranteed all teachers a lifelong salary...or at least for as long as they wanted to teach. I could not identify proof of such a system, though, in my area of the country...I also didn't know any of the lazy teachers they talked about who brought the harsh axe down on the rest of us.  Sixteen years in, I now understand that my perspective was the result of a very unique set of experiences.  Alas, I have come to the conclusion that union life is, indeed, the double-edged sword in the teaching world.
On one hand, history has shown us that there are people on the management side of labor who don't understand boundaries. They are relentless and driving in their work lives and because their thirsts for achievement, recognition, and mastery are so strong, they will impose their own maniacal drive on others, bulldozing boundaries that help keep people emotionally and physically safe in their work lives. I know this is happens and that it is for this reason that unions rose up to become a buffer between unreasonable management and the workforce. This is most definitely, as history has proven, a noble and important role! Representation makes a difference in the lives of educators.  In light of stories I have heard about educators whose rights are nearly nil, I know that my local union's representation really is a blessing! We are protected from unfair working conditions, overflowing classroom sizes, and other perils. I am thankful!! ...And then, there is my other mind. My other mind tells me that any good thing put in place to give protection, safety and a sense of well-being has the potential to morph into something that becomes less than a practical expression of its ideal.
     To proclaim that my experience, having taught officially in only one school district and one part of the country in one city (albeit for 15 years) is a representative sample of what everyone is doing all over the country and in every context, would it be presumptuous and silly. I will not do that. However, I will just speak about my experience and put it out there as a wondering as to whether others have seen the same. What I have observed is that yes, many times teachers are protected in mediocrity by our system that makes it nearly impossible to get rid of them if they are not performing. It was really hard for my younger self to understand or receive this truth... But a truth it is! In my context, there is a pay scale that aligns with a person's number of years in the classroom. You move up the pay scale just by being in the classroom another year, and you move across the pay scale by earning more credentials. This part makes total sense and I am on board with it, because moving up the pay scale is not an unreasonable thing, nor is it excessive given the fact that the pay scale increases don't typically keep pace with inflation. But here's the rub: both teachers who are continually growing and improving in their practice, and teachers who have decided not to, are moving across this pay scale together. The wheat and the tares.  There is not an effective weed-out process in order to distinguish which is which. Yes, there is an evaluation system in place and to which all administrators and teachers are subject.  I have been through the evaluator training for our state and am credentialed to evaluate myself. So I understand the rubric and the evaluation process and I think that it's actually set up pretty well in terms of the rubric's criteria and the evaluation standards. 
     Evaluations are an expectation of this work. The challenge is that since these criteria are not being applied by robots, human subjectivity and other variables come into play.  I think people are not used to the idea of really, truly evaluating based on evidence that is available and based on a strict interpretation of the rubric. In fact, when I went through my evaluator training, I had trouble passing the credentialing piece at first because I was trying to do what has almost come naturally, and which I think comes naturally to many administrators: giving people the benefit of the doubt. In the absence of specific evidence, giving a rubric score that, really, was not valid.  I think this happens for many reasons, but at a subconscious level I am willing to bet that a big part of it is that administrators, who don't have a union to protect them, in my state, don't want to deal with the headache that comes with really doing a close evaluation of their direct reports teaching that would result in negative evaluations, the need to justify those evals, and possible backlash/ reprisal from the union. I have met many people who seem to have found this loophole. Their attitude and output-- and even sometimes their words--show that they envision themselves doing their work as teachers who hide safely in the shadow of a proverbial big brother.  Big brother gives them the boldness to yell out taunts daring anyone to ask them for their best work.  They interrogate and complain their way through many assignments, using their creative energy to figure out how to discredit the assignment, expectation or work team, when they could be using their creative juices to jump in and get it going. Instead a feeling invigorated by the opportunity to do meaningful work, they are filled by what feels like the power of being able to resist it. This is counter-productive; it hurts the students and staff morale, and it is one of those ugly but surely unintended outcomes of having such a strong union.

So what's the solution? I would say this:

     What if we went back to the drawing board to examine the kinds of things that are currently mandated in our school systems and that are unproductive drains on teachers' time? What if we reevaluated the kinds of things that are unnecessary interruptions in a teacher's school day? What if we did a huge time audit in order to figure out how to restructure teachers' use of a day for maximum efficiency, focused on teaching and learning? What if we then revisited our union contracts and figured out a way to work in a flex portion into the contract, so that administrators/leadership teams could have some influence that would allow them to plug staff members into work that they've determined will move their buildings forward, without expectation of resistance in the form of, "the union said I don't have to"? What if our evaluation systems were crafted courageously enough to include those so-called soft skills and un-measurables as professionalism and ability to work collaboratively as a team player? If teachers knew that acting boorish and refusing to play with the others would be reflected in their evaluations, maybe we would see an increase in demonstrated emotional intelligence in the education workplace. Maybe we would see less cliquish behavior, more willingness to work outside of silos in the instances where that still exists... perhaps we would see teachers figuring out how to be a part of the team and truly, meaningfully contribute without violating their own values or sense of boundaries. 
Further, our current teacher standards highlight collaboration, but our evaluation system rewards individual achievement. If our evaluation system also reflected the priority on working with others (with a change in our rubric and all), teachers would begin to place a priority on working well within this skill set. Maybe we could incentivize learning how to work with others effectively - and, gasp, find ourselves working smarter as teachers learn to plan and create together! Maybe these teachers who would have learned to share credit and workload could find more efficient and more authentic ways to even assess students so that they are taking less work home, being more thoughtful during their work hours, and generally sharing the load of work more equitably. I do know that the professionalism and team player components would not be without controversy--but what if there were a 360 degree feedback kind of process woven into Administrators evaluations, as well? This way there would be kind of a two-way checks and balances system that would call on both sides of the labor coin to constantly be in upgrade and improvement mode.
I don't put forth all of these ideas expecting that just because they seem clear in my little head, that they would run without a glitch in the real world. But one thing we do know is this: We need some alterations to our current approaches if we plan to truly see equity within and among public school districts, as measured by our highest metric: student outcomes. Let's keep brainstorming, together!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Efficacious, Effervescent, Empowered, Energized

I used to believe that teachers taught mostly from a place of natural gifting and developed skill.  I now believe that even more.  I just understand now that we have not done the best job of teaching teachers to understand themselves, know their strengths and struggles as people and as instructors, and to navigate what they learn in their journey of self-understanding.   So it is true that our natural bent towards being engaging, charismatic and believable in front of students helps us out--but it's not true that only certain people have this.  But do we realize that for each of us that thing comes from a different place?  

The dictionary defines "efficacy" this way: 


noun  ef·fi·ca·cy \ˈe-fi-kə-sē\

Simple Definition of efficacy

  • : the power to produce a desired result or effect
(Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary)
As I watch a transformation this year of a formerly struggling teacher into one with much more results already in the classroom due to coaching, support and modeling, I understand that much of what we often define as poor teachers are really just teachers struggling in their confidence.  What if we re-framed that entire conversation to focus on where a teacher struggled to believe he or she could, rather than looking first to what they produce? I am convinced we could shift the course of students' experiences in this nation, particularly where the destructive path of poverty has worn the way before us.  I'm excited about this living experiment I'm watching: what happens when a teacher's confidence begins to rise? What are the effects on classroom culture, student motivation, measurable learning, teacher stamina and retention?  Ultimately, how is the entire school community affected by that teacher's shift?  Stay tuned as I continue to explore this study...
Interesting reads:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Bit About Me

So, now that I've committed to blogging regularly, it will be very helpful, methinks, if I begin by sharing who I am and what I'm about.  I am a teacher of 16 years in the urban public school setting, with summertime employment in private school settings, as well. Serving students from grades K-college and beyond has given me a breadth of experience...but my favorites are elementary students and adult learners!  I have always loved and specialized more in literacy, and have also taught all subjects.  I am National Board Certified in early and middle childhood literacy, and am trained in Literacy Collaborative and Reading Recovery.  I am a teacher consultant with my local affiliate of the National Writing Project, and have lots of inventive plans for contributing to the teacher blog world through this blog and my Teachers Pay Teachers store

I believe I have a unique contribution in the teacher blog world. I am at once a teacher and literacy specialist, a student of leadership and team-building, and a singer and songwriter. All of these elements come together in my creative world. My biggest passions are literacy, teacher wellness, teacher leadership and retention, the use of music to enhance learning, and urban education. Thanks for joining me on this journey. Let's go!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


Blog world...hello! I've been waiting to meet you...There is so much I want to say, to contribute to this meeting of the minds we call the teacher blog world.  I am thankful to be in your midst.  In truth, I really don't look to compete with those out there doing fabulously creative lesson plans or creating cute content.  I do have some original and creative things to share, which I can't wait to unveil...but mostly I'd love to help engage us in some of  the dialogues--sometimes hard ones--that will help move us forward as professionals...and as human beings living together in this beautiful, crazy world of ours. Welcome to my world! I'm glad you're here. :-)

Shout out, also, to Designs by Kassie, where Kassie, the mastermind, is patient, detail-oriented, and always professional! I love her work and am glad to join her portfolio. :-) Thanks, Kassie!