Sunday, August 23, 2015

Adieu, Summer

I am done.

I am done preparing 2.5 meals a day.

I am done making the laundry rounds.

I am done shopping leisurely on a Tuesday morning.

Done making a phone call when I feel like it.

Done sleeping past five.

Come tomorrow, I will rise earlier than I remember ever rising, crawl into the shower and wish for a mainline of caffeine. I will greet colleagues and readjust my mind to this noblest of professions, educating the citizens of tomorrow.

Come Wednesday, I will activate all the lessons and the classroom work I've done over the past weeks as I welcome a new crop of students and embark upon all the teaching I'm excited to do this year. I will begin club activities, participate in my teacher association, run department meetings. I will plan my days in fifteen-minute blocks and rush from moment to bursting moment.

Gone are the hazy afternoons with my dogs and gone are late-night movies with my kids. Gone are lazy coffee mornings and gone are trips to the hot springs with my mom.

And I could not be happier to say goodbye to summer, and hello to my calling.

Ready to return!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Straight Outta Summer

All parents of school-aged children know that late August is the time of retraining bodies to wake up and go to bed early. It's part of the annual back-to-school ritual, which the box stores so cruelly initiate in July.

But what about teachers? Haven't we also let our routines go, waking past nine and sipping coffee till noon? Using the bathroom whenever we feel like it, picking up the phone if the spirit moves us, and nibbling snacks the whole day through?

Let's face it: we are bohemians. Left to our own devices for longer than 10 weeks we might be so far gone we could never again silence children with a single hand gesture or write in a straight line on a whiteboard. We'd lose our superhuman abilities to read a clock with a five-second accuracy or toggle between inputs on our projectors while delivering how-to on a word problem.

Teachers, this is a public service announcement. Start training now! I am here to help you start your regimen so that when school starts shortly, you'll be ready.

First things first: Get your language in line.

You can't go back to school slanging and swearing. Quit cussing and clear up your enunciation. What's a Kindergartner to think if you go in there slingin' your potty mouth and mumbling through your sentences? Clean it up, people. Practice talking to your family members as though they were all your grandmother. And remember to smile at the end of your sentences!

Train up the body!

You cannot munch trail mix and take bites out of your gallon-sized yogurt bucket in the middle of AP Lit. You must break this habit. Set yourself a timer - start small, of course: no food for a half hour. Then increase to an hour. Then increase until you can make it from 7:30 to 12:30 with no bites of food, only a few small swallows of water. Imagine that you're going to be on Naked and Afraid! (This will help prepare you for the inevitable back-to-school anxiety dreams that should begin shortly.)

Speaking of long time frames, remember to include the bathroom in your training. Naturally, this piece of the training dovetails nicely with limiting food and water intake. If you can go six hours without even thinking about a potty break, you are golden.

Being with students, coworkers, bosses...anyone who isn't your family: A caution.

This is a bright spot in going back to school: seeing people who aren't your own family members. Of course we all love our family more than anyone else, but 10 weeks of nothing but family limits our ability to socialize like normal people in the world. However, reinsertion can bring unexpected challenges. Some tips: Remember to say thank you to people for ordinary actions like handing you a pencil. Try not to scowl automatically when a child says she wants some new music. Resist the urge to share your lunch with everyone; you'll need that energy for the next four hours.


Refamiliarize yourself with how they work and what they are for.

So, a recap. 

What we lose: sleeping in, wearing pjs all day long, finishing books, enjoying adult beverages at 4 pm. Get ready.

What we gain: a return to the noblest profession, seeing our inspiring colleagues again, and working with students young and old to prepare them for their own world. GET READY!

In other words, your new training routine is totally worth it. So get out there and get moving, champs!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Off-Season

Elevate! Celebrate! Connect! We wore our new t-shirts with pride the day after we received them, high-fiving each other in sessions and at lunch as we lived the directives emblazoned on the shirts. These t-shirts signified the finale of another fantastic ECET2 convening this July in Seattle.  Teachers planned the event, selected speakers, designed sessions, created displays, and shared with each other ways they have found to become better educators and elevate the profession. The Gates Foundation supported the convening, but it was teachers who showed up to ECET2.

ECET2 stands for Elevating and Celebrating Excellent Teachers and Teaching, and it is not just a convening. It is a movement. This may surprise you: the Gates Foundation has a strong commitment to improving education. Their commitment includes assembling this convening for hundreds of teachers, including travel and lodging, meals, and gifts. They do this because they know education is crucial to our national welfare, and teacher leadership is a key piece of a stellar education system.

Contrast this experience with the low opinion of teachers in rhetoric voiced daily on the national stage, where we are cast as greedy, lazy, and incompetent. When teachers are demoralized and defunded, they cannot be great. And with this rhetoric regularly punching the teaching profession in the face, sane people do not want to become teachers.

Imagine my dismay, then, when I learned of community members calling teachers in our school "seasonal employees." As such, we do not deserve pay increases or any other concessions negotiated between the school board and the teachers' union. In fact, because we are non-professionals we should not be unionized; we should have to fend for ourselves. We ask for too much already, asserts this stance.

This characterization of our faculty makes me reconsider my own commitments which I fulfilled this summer, also known as a teacher's off-season: to tutor a student for free, to spend many hours in my classroom preparing for the upcoming school year, to ignore my family while I read books to improve my teaching, to finish another endorsement on my own dime and my own time so the school can offer another class this fall. I do not normally spend time defending teachers' summer commitments, but a defense seems germane to this argument. After all, if I'm totally off-duty from June to August, can't someone else plan my classes, respond to emails, organize parent nights, schedule club meetings, pay attention to struggling students, or set up my classroom so it's all ready on August 24 when my on-season begins? I did that and more this summer.

The Gates Foundation knows that a solid education is one of the only routes out of poverty, out of the ignorance that allows tyranny. Education enables people to help others in meaningful ways. Progressive education fosters our democracy. Living out this belief, the Foundation supports teachers through initiatives such as ECET2. Why is it that a well-heeled, internationally active foundation understands the crucial role of teacher excellence in this equation, but some of our own politicians and community members cannot?

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Spaces Between

Recently I read that August is the Sunday of summer. This struck me as apt. Sunday is a day to gather and prepare, to collect ourselves for the coming time of work. So many teachers I know have spent not just this Sunday of summer but the whole time of rest – all the summer – regrouping, thinking, planning, collaborating, attending conferences, working on their classrooms. We like to explain to non-believers, those who would remind teachers that we get three months off, that we spend much of that time preparing for our coming year. It is a self-righteous, self-satisfying thing to say, and not incorrect – but not totally genuine, either.

Under the blazing sun of today as I hung clothes on the line, I stood in the spaces between the slack, damp t-shirts and enjoyed cool shade. I wondered, how much of this quiet rest time, away from the burning push of all-that-must-be-done, could we teachers really allow ourselves? My guess is, much more than most of us do.

My friend Monica helped me think about the overwhelming tasks of a teacher, especially one who has many other obligations heaped onto her plate, as separate boxes. Got a presentation to plan? That’s one box. Considering a new unit for the classroom? A different box. A paper to write for a class you’re taking? That’s a separate box. Sometimes we have multiple boxes open at once; other times we say, “I can’t open that box yet.” It’s a way of coping with the work.

What if, during summer, teachers simply proclaimed this: I will allow only three boxes this summer. Or two boxes. Or none. The remainder of our time would balloon quietly into a break of the kind that other professionals enjoy, where they don’t think about their work, where they spend meaningful time with their spouses and pets, where they lose track of the days.

What if we make summer the space between, the vacation so many people think teachers have. It is the space between up at five, bed at eleven. It is the space between school buses and copy machines. It is the space between frenzy.  A space with no reminder alarms, a space with no pinching tiredness. A space with no boxes.

And August, the Sunday of summer, is simply the last third of this space between: a stretch of late mornings, laundry on the line, early afternoon drinks, and sunsets with nothing to do tomorrow.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

I wish teachers were like that.

Yesterday I picked up my kids from camp where they'd spent the past five days living in the wilderness with about 25 other kids and five camp leaders. At the closing ceremony, kids presented their projects from the week.

The camp counselors threw a positive spin onto the end of each presentation. They said things like, "And Jason was so good at overcoming this challenge that the other kids were inspired by his perseverance," or "I loved Maddie's innovation when she encountered that obstacle. It showed that she was thinking creatively while trying to solve the problem." 

My daughter, sitting next to me, leaned over and said pointedly, "I wish teachers were like that."

I looked at her. Last year we received more than one negative, even snarky, comment from her teachers, either in an email directly to me or printed on a report card in passive-aggressive style. Here are some examples:

My question to a teacher: "How can I help her learn math better?" 
Response: "From what I see, she does not put in a very good effort.  She loves to read her book instead of pay attention...We work as individuals and as a team. Not a great effort either way."

Notice how this response does not answer my question, and blames the student for her math performance?

Or how about the teacher who wrote this on her June report card: "She needs to be re-taught how to follow directions."

Attaching a note like this to a final report card is disrespectful to the student and affords no time to address problems. Responding to a parent’s direct request for information about academic skill by blaming the student’s attitude is borderline professional malpractice.

This negative, even destructive approach to some of the schooling my children have experienced reminds me, as we start the August ramp-up back to school, that we should re-calibrate our approach to feedback and the ways in which we support students.

Did my daughter also have extremely positive interactions with several of her teachers? Absolutely! And those interactions helped her develop a love for learning and excelling. She wanted to have those smiling moments in their classrooms, times when she knew she had done well. How can we accomplish this? Strive to be more like those constructive, supportive camp counselors.
  • Reinforce the positive students do, whether it’s behavior or academic skills.
  • Find ways to support them in making good decisions.
  • Seek avenues to individualize your guidance.
  • Use productive words in your feedback.
  • When problems arise, address them punctually with students and parents, if needed.

I have gained much from observing the two styles of feedback on my own child. I’ve learned that as a teacher, I need to provide guidance and correction but with respect for the student as a human being. I need to define clear goals for improvement and show students how they’ve moved toward those goals, not simply find fault. Students are exactly the way we are: they shrink under negativity but thrive on support.

This August, I challenge all teachers to remember why we became teachers: not to tear down or insult students but to build them up and support them in their success. Let’s readjust our attitudes and adopt a positive mindset. Channel your inner camp counselor!