Teachers

Mettle and Heart

Much is said in education today about grit. We know more and more about the need to help build resilient children, so they can persevere through struggles of all kinds. Whether social emotional or academic, life is not always easy for the students in our schools. Some have suffered trauma that is almost unimaginable. Some work harder than we will ever know to complete their homework and come to class ready to learn.

It takes grit, resilience, mettle, and not just for our students.

Every day the teachers in our schools are doing almost unimaginable work to help our students be successful. Whether social emotional or academic support, they go above and beyond to meet the needs. This job is not for the faint of heart.

I watch with amazement as teachers sit beside students trying to solve complex problems, prompting and questioning until that magical lightbulb moment.

I watch as teachers give high fives and hugs and tie shoes and zip jackets. I watch as they ask about the soccer game or the dance recital, as they celebrate with students after the musical or the basketball game.

And I watch as they worry about the student who needs a new coat or who might not get any gifts at Christmas.

Yesterday I saw post after post about the families who were adopted and the gifts and meals that were handed out by teachers and administrators and counselors and community members who come together every year to help through an incredible community organization called Project Wee Care.

I was once again amazed by the heart of our teachers.

I caught part of an old movie this weekend, The Guardian. It’s about rescue swimmers in the Coast Guard. After a particularly harrowing experience, the young trainee asks the experienced teacher how he decides who to save. The answer has struck me over the years as a decent motto for the work we do.

“I swim as fast as I can, as hard as I can, for as long as I can. And the sea takes the rest.”

I read a message last week from someone who implied that because we cannot do enough, we should do nothing at all. No one I know in this profession believes that. Everyone I work with in our schools and in our districts believes that each and every child deserves our best effort, and each and every child we can help was worth the work.

This is not easy. It can feel overwhelming. It takes grit, mettle. But it is the most important work I can imagine. And in this holiday season, I am grateful for the teachers who put their hearts on the line each and every day to do whatever it takes to help. You make a difference in the lives of children.

It’s Our Job to Make Them Drink

It happened again this week.  Someone who was watching an amazing teacher doing incredible things in a classroom used my least favorite expression.  “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

I understand the intent.  For generations people have thrown this around to explain all manner of things…food not eaten, advice not taken, lessons not learned.  The idea is simple. We can provide even the best of something, but we cannot force anyone to consume it.  We cannot force a toddler to eat her food.  We cannot force a newlywed to heed the advice of his grandfather who has been married fifty years.  And we cannot force a student sitting in a classroom to learn.

I disagree.

No, we cannot make a horse drink water.  But we can certainly make the walk intriguing, and we can certainly make the water enticing.  The best teachers do it everyday.

They make the walk long.  They spend enough time to build background and provide the necessary scaffolding to help every student succeed.  They know that every child is in a different place with every lesson.  They assess what students know and fill in the gaps before they ever get to the activity.

They make the horse thirsty.  They understand that motivation and self efficacy are keys to the success of every lesson.  They supply the why for each activity.  They help students want to learn.  And they use the long walk to build a strong relationship, the most important thing our best teachers do.

And then they make the water irresistible.  They design engaging lessons that are impossible for students to resist.  They find stories and music and movie clips and speakers and field trips and projects that address multiple learning styles and allow each child to learn.

Our job as educators is not simply to design aligned curriculum and research-based instructional models.  Our job as educators is not simply to provide materials and experiences.  Our job as educators is not simply to provide a quality lesson and hope our students learn.  Our job as educators is to ensure, to guarantee as our mission so boldly states, that students learn.

It’s our job to make them drink.

I have been in many classrooms in the last month, and I have seen teacher after teacher doing this hard work.  It is happening everyday in our schools.  It is not easy, but it is our life’s work.  And I cannot imagine a more important job.

The Long Road

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I saw a former student this week.  He is one of those of those kids I will never forget.  There were three of them actually- Joe and Dalton and Jack.  They are forever connected in my memory.  Fun and full of life, they made each day an adventure.  I was on a half team that year, so I taught both English and reading and had a study hall.  Some of those students had me three times day- that was a lot of Mrs. Phipps.

Those three came back to visit sometimes when they were in high school and on one of those visits taught me one of my harshest lessons as teacher.  In an attempt to save precious instructional time, I would list each assignment on the board along with the last name of any students who did not have it turned in.  It made it faster and easier for me to remind them what they still needed to hand in.  Great system.  Well the boys came back to visit and there happened to be no assignments on the board.  They asked, “What happened to the Wall of Shame?”

So that happened.  Something I thought was a great system to save instructional time was actually a shaming experience for my students about whom I cared deeply.  Of course it was.  Seems so obvious now.

The road to Master Teacher is long and filled with moment after moment of hard-learned lessons. While I am not in the classroom anymore, I feel like I am still learning more and more about best instructional practices.

I regret the times I used word finds in class.  I regret the time my students spent making stuffed pigs and pig cakes as final projects for A Day No Pigs Would Day.  I regret the countless days spent typing “final copies” in the computer lab.  I want that instructional time back to do close reading and make actual meaning of language and vocabulary.  I want that time back to turn student loose on research questions of their own design about Shakers and agriculture and the Depression and family life.

When we know better, we do better.

Education is a reflective profession.  We are charged with a challenging, ever-changing job that matters deeply.  Our systems and our structures need to allow for data-based decisions, collaboration, common planning, Professional Learning Communities, and time for reflection.  Our leaders need the vision to make time where there seemingly is none.  Our teachers need the tools to plan, teach, reflect, change.  Our schools need the culture and climate to encourage risk and reflection.

As I look back on a lifetime in education, I really should not regret those lessons that failed, those projects that lacked purpose, or those systems that defeated my real purpose.  I learned so much from each of them.  When I knew better, I did better. I was blessed to have students who were honest about what worked and what didn’t.  I was lucky enough to work with colleagues who mentored me and who showed me a better way.  We learned together.  And I was privileged to have leaders who allowed me take risks and to fail at times in order to learn and to grow.

As the beginning of the year honeymoon comes to an end, and the real day-to-day work takes shape, I wish you all a year of risk and reflection.  I am overwhelmed everyday by the masterful work happening in classrooms all over our districts.  Our students are in good and caring hands!

Keeping the First Things First

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I work in education.  It is without question the most rewarding, engaging, and important work I can imagine.  We are entrusted with the care and teaching of people’s children. We show them facts and figures.  We empower them to think and learn things on their own.  And we shape what they believe and who they will become.  It is an awesome responsibility, and it is an enormous joy.

In classrooms, our focus should be on helping students develop the knowledge, skills, and character traits necessary to be the best versions of themselves.

In schools, our focus should be on empowering teachers and supporting students and families in order to meet the needs of everyone as they enter the classroom.

In districts, our focus should be on providing the resources and support necessary to ensure that each student has a successful school experience.

Steven Covey says it like this: Put first things first.

My roles in education have changed over the years.  I was a middle school teacher for thirteen years.  In that time, it was not always easy to put the first things first.  I set challenging objectives, designed engaging lessons and developed authentic and meaningful assessments.  I got to know my students on a personal level and tried to establish relationships.  But without fail, every year, there were things that got in the way of what I knew should be the first things.  Some of my students didn’t have enough to eat.  Some of my students had anxiety or depression or just that painful funk that often accompanies middle school.  Some of my students would misbehave and make it hard for everyone to focus on the lesson.  There were metaphorical fires to put out at times.  And in those times it was hard to put the first things first.

As a building administrator, those issues seemed to grow.  A disagreement between students in the neighborhood at night would spill over into first hour English class and end up in my office.  Those students who didn’t have enough to eat would stop in my office to grab a pop-tart on the way to class.  Sometimes a student who just needed to cry would take up several hours of the day.  I knew that my first job was to be the instructional leader in our school.  I knew that I should be in classrooms watching lessons and providing feedback, but it was not always as easy as I wished it would be.

As a district administrator, I know that putting first things first means being present in our schools and at activities.  I know it means being in classrooms watching lessons and ensuring that our curriculum is sound, our instruction is effective, and our assessment is driving instruction.  But there are still those metaphorical fires that get in the way. Staffing issues, discipline issues, and other emergencies (that many times are actual emergencies) get in the way of me keeping the first things first.

So what to do about it?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know that we need to give ourselves and each other grace when what we perceive to be the most important thing that someone should be doing doesn’t get done.  We need to recognize that there may be any number of things happening in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our district that are a more immediate need than what we shared as a necessary task.  We need to accept that our most pressing issue may be minor in the work that others are doing at a given time.  Sometimes putting the first things first means taking care of a hungry student, a frustrated parent, or a building principal who is asking for help

And then we need to refocus our attention, reflect on how we are spending our time, and design systems that support our work and allow for both the emergencies and the deeper leadership that guarantees all students succeed.

Nobody said this was going to easy.  But it is definitely worth it.

Imagine Something of Everyone

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I was overcome with pride this week as I watched elementary students working during Genius Hour in one of our schools.  Those boys and girls are passionate about saving endangered species and Mine Craft and teaching dogs tricks.  They lit up when they talked about what they were researching and what they cared most about right now.  And I watched their teachers empower each and every one of them.

Then I got online and found a video that some of our high school students made called Mean Tweets about cyber-bullying. It is remarkable.  They are taking tangible, powerful action to address a very real concern for young people.  They saw a problem, and they took steps to address it.  And I watched as their superintendent and their teachers and their administrators shared the video on social media, empowering them even further.

“Sometimes it’s the very people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Alan Turing

When I first heard this quote, I was sure it would end up in a blog.  I was sure it would be a retelling of the many people who have accomplished great things despite this or that.  I thought it would be about the people who overcame great challenges to rise in their fields or achieve great success.  But in the end, as I rolled the quote around and around in my head, it is not about that at all.  Because in the end, I do not agree with the quote.

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Deeper examination of the people who have achieved great things in spite of overwhelming obstacles will always reveal someone who believed in them.  There was a parent who told them that they were smart.  There was a friend who read their stories or looked at their drawings and appreciated them.  There was a teacher.  So many times there was a teacher.  Someone looked at them and saw what I like to call the sparkle, that inner glow that shines when they dance or run or sing or solve math problems.  Someone told them that they sparkle, and that someone ignited a flame…even if it was just once in passing long ago and the flame stayed hidden deep down inside.

I cannot, will not, live in a world where there are people that no one imagines anything of. I cannot, will not, allow anyone to go through life with no one believing in them.  I want to imagine something of EVERYONE.  I want us all to imagine something of everyone.

In my profession, this is not a nice to have trait, it is a have to have trait.

Every day children walk into our schools and spend their days with people who should imagine something of them.  Teachers are entrusted with the care and nurturing of minds and hearts and souls.  It is our job to see the sparkle, to know our students so well that we can help identify their passions and encourage them.  It is our job to do this for EVERY student in our classrooms, even the ones who are angry or quiet or difficult to like at times.  In fact, it is our job to find it most in those students.  We have the opportunity, the gift, to be the person who imagined something of the next great artist, the doctor who cures cancer, the President.  It is our job to imagine something of these future parents, neighbors, colleagues.

Reflect on the people who saw something in you.  Thank them.

Then look around for the people whose sparkle you should be seeing.  Reach out to them. Encourage them.  Nurture that sparkle.  Do not allow a single person to go through life with no one imaging something of them.

Imagine something of everyone.

 

Hugs, Hive Fives, and Hope

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There is no greater purpose than to make life better for someone else. Time spent in service to others is time well spent.  In education we are blessed with the opportunity to do this every day.  It is the greatest job in the world!

I had one of those moments recently that all educators have.  I saw a former student and was reminded of the impact that we have on the young people in our care.  In a brief encounter, she hugged me no less than five times.  Our connection is deep.  Middle school was not an easy time in her life.  She struggled with behavior; she wrestled with friendship issues; and she lost a parent.  We spent countless hours together in my office working through issues.

We all have those stories.  It’s a natural consequence of our profession.  But we could all have more of those stories if we were more intentional about our interactions with each other.

Life can be hard.  Growing up is not easy.  The day to day work of making friends, doing schoolwork, finding a seat in the cafeteria or on the bus, it’s hard.  Then throw in making or not making the team or the cast or the choir.  And some of our students are dealing with so much more, issues that no one should have to experience, poverty, illness, death.

But we have the daily opportunity to help make life better for them.  What makes the difference?  A person makes the difference.  You make the difference.

As a teacher, get to know the children in your class.

As an administrator, get to know them too.

I truly believe that while all of our students are unique, they also all share a few similar needs.

Everyone wants to be known, to be seen and appreciated for who they really are.

I call it sparkle.  Our students each have a sparkle.  You can see it in their eyes when they talk about their passion.  You can see it in their work when they are doing what they love most.  Do you see it when they sparkle?

And they want to be encouraged.  Something as simple as a hug or a high five can make the difference in someone’s day.

As we start another week, look for opportunities to find the sparkle in your students.  Know them. Encourage them.  Care about them.  You could be the hope they need to make their day, their life, a little better.

 

Who You Are Matters

Everything you have ever wanted, is sitting on the other side of fear.

Leadership is not easy.

There is risk and vulnerability in taking on the challenge of leading…in your classroom, in your department, in your building.  Anyone who has ever led a project or a group of people knows this.

Stepping into a more “official” leadership position requires a willingness to risk judgement, disapproval, and failure.  It is daunting, and it is immeasurably gratifying.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Shane Lopez (@hopemonger) speak eloquently this week about creating hope for students.  What resonated with me though was what he shared about creating hope for the staff members in our care.  There is research from Gallup around hope that helps identify what we need from our leaders.

Who we are matters!

People want a leader they can trust.  You will almost always hear the word “integrity” used when describing the leaders people most admire.  It is comforting to know that the person you are following, the person making decisions that impact you daily, has a strong moral compass.  We want leaders who are also good people.

We need to trust that our leaders are honest and ethical.  In education we also want people who are good role models.

There is something reassuring about knowing that if you say you will do something , you will.  The best leaders have amazing follow-through.  We trust that they will make good plans and see those plans through to fruition.

People want a leader who creates stability.  Who you are today is who you will be tomorrow.  Who you are with me is who you will be with others.  The core beliefs of our organization will be the same from day to day, year to year.

Leading frequently requires difficult decisions and conversations.  It is important to create a safe environment where you can tackle those challenges while building and maintaining positive relationships.  A stable leader does this.

People want a leader who is compassionate.  Dr. Lopez went so far as to call this love.  Engaging communities feel like a family.  The staff celebrates together.  The staff mourns together.  The staff shows up for each other.

This was an emotional week for many reasons.  There were some exciting celebrations, some scary family challenges,  and a difficult anniversary.  Such is life.  The real world rarely stops interfering as we try to teach or lead or live.  Compassionate leaders recognize that we are all traveling a sometimes fun, sometimes challenging path.  They listen to our stories.  They ask about our families.  They respect that we have good days and bad days, and they make the bad days easier.

Our schools are our work families.  It should not take a crisis for us to tell each other how we feel.  We do not say “I love you” enough in this world.

Finally, people want a leader who creates hope.  Gallup defines hope as “the belief that the future will be better than the present, along with the belief that you have the power to make it so”.   In education, what more could we want?  We teach to touch the future!

As a leader (and we are all leading in some area of our life), who we are matters.  Seek to be someone that others would want to follow.

The October Letter

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Fall is my favorite season.  Decorating the house for Halloween, curling up with a book in comfy clothes, and burning Yankee Candles bring me joy.  I love October.  But in schools across our district, October is a busy month.

I was walking the hallways of our school late one afternoon, returning to my office from a meeting.  As I passed a classroom, I heard a teacher crying.  Our conversation was long, and she shared all of the stress she was feeling: papers to grade, lesson plans to write, conferences to prepare.  She felt overwhelmed, and she was sure that everybody was feeling like this was the most stressful year they’d ever had.

Someday I will write a whole blog on the dangers of indefinite pronouns (like “everybody”) and superlatives (like “most stressful”), but for now, I’ll concede that after some probing, we agreed that people were feeling swamped.

As our admin team processed how we might support the teacher (and the rest of the staff), we decided to make our weekly grade level meeting about fun.  We crafted a fantastically motivating letter reassuring the staff that things would get better, and we shared positive quotes about the impact they were having on students.  It was good stuff.

We did a “save as”, called it The October Letter, and then discovered that we, in fact, had created an October Letter the year before.  Seriously!  There was a letter on our server with the same title and eerily similar content.  Apparently we had forgotten that our school was feeling the same way exactly a year earlier.

When we reflected on the school year, it made total sense.  We had been working for almost 12 weeks with only one day of vacation.  We had kicked off a new year, gone through an entire grading period, moved past the honeymoon phase and into the reality of our students’ many, many needs.  People were worn out.  And just when they were at their most tired, we asked them to be “on” for two nights of conferences and a day of professional development. It’s no wonder there were some tears.

School years have cycles.  Every school is unique.  In our school, October was the low.  Once we became aware of it, we could plan for it rather than reacting to it.  Effective leaders have emotional intelligence.  They recognize that the social and emotional health of students and staff is as important as effective instruction.

Plan Ahead

Get good at looking ahead and assessing when things may be too much for staff.  Plan systematically to roll things out over time.

Recognize the Signs

Pay attention to the climate in your building.  Ask and listen, so you can address issues as they arise.

Go Quiet

There is a time to push and a time to sit back.  Effective leaders recognize each of those times.

October is a gift.  Enjoy it!  The sunsets are glorious, and the weather is still nice enough to go for walks to enjoy them.

And if your school year cycle means you’re feeling some stress, take notice.  Get yourself back into balance by inserting fun where you can.  Look around, who needs a zip-lock bag of candy corn?  We can each chose to lead from our seat on the bus.

Keeping Connected to the Classroom

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I have the best job in the world!  (Everyone in education says they have the best job in the world, and we all really mean it.)  After 13 years in the classroom and 9 years as a building level administrator, I am currently working in our district office.  My job is staff development and instructional improvement.  I get to spend my time talking about effective instructional practices.  It is an amazing gift!

This week I spent two hours with a colleague doing walk through observations in one of our high schools.  We are implementing a new instructional model, and this was my opportunity to walk my talk.  I have spent the last year facilitating staff development for our administrators about this new model.  Now I need to spend time in classrooms watching the model in action.  I need to spend time with the administrators who are actually using the model with teachers.  It was wonderful.

There is an energy in a school.  I miss it.  Engaging lessons in the classroom, excited students in the hallway during passing period, and people building relationships at every turn.  It was fun to be back talking about good teaching with a great administrator.

And then it happened.

We got back to the office and were debriefing our experience when another administrator in the building popped in to let us know there was a discipline issue being addressed across the hall.  And there it was…the real world.

We ask our administrators to do so much.  There are hundreds of tasks that need their constant attention.  Safety and security, technology, parent concerns, student issues…the list could go on and on.  We need them to manage the building, but we also need them to be instructional leaders.  Finding that balance is not easy.

Walk through observations, reflective conversations, and meaningful feedback are all critical to improving instruction.  We know this!  But finding the time to do those things effectively can be a struggle.

Today was a good reminder for me that the real world sometimes gets in the way.  As someone who is not currently serving in a building level role, there are things I need to remember.

Listen and Seek to Understand

I need to listen openly to the experiences of the people who are implementing things in the building.  They have the practical experiences and a more realistic understanding of what is actually happening.  I may think I know, but I am not the one doing it. We need to have a relationship that allows for honest and direct conversations.  Time is precious; there is never enough of it.  When we can carve out time to talk, everyone needs to be willing to share openly.

Empower Others

No amount of planning on my part can replace effective implementation by the leaders in the building.  My role is to empower leaders to be both visionary and systematic.  I can only make things happen by developing capacity in others.

Offer Grace

While instructional improvement is certainly not all I do, it is the big rock in my world.  But what is a big rock for me may be a pebble in the moment of what they are dealing with in the building.  It is critical for me to remember that my piece is only one piece of what they are being asked to do.  If something gets dropped or a detail gets neglected, my first instinct should be to offer grace.  I have no idea what student issue that administrator has been tackling.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not letting building administrators off the hook here either.  This same real world exists for our classroom teachers too.

We ask our teachers to do so much.  Administrators have to remember that their perceptions will never be as accurate as the teachers’ actual experiences in the classroom.

And finally, I’m not letting classroom teachers off the hook either.  We ask our student to do so much.

This real world exists for us all.  Listening and actually hearing the experience others are having is a powerful first step.