Thursday, September 15, 2016

Authentic Professional Development

Confession… I am on a career path right now that I didn’t expect 15 years ago when my journey as a classroom teacher began. I must have sworn a hundred times that I would never leave the comfort of my four walls. I was 10,000% committed to my students, their parents, and improving the community through the work I did within the safe space of Room 100. I loved every second of crafting a lesson based on the students’ interest. I couldn’t wait to attend things like Back to School Night, Family Fun Night, and the Picnic on the Green. My excitement would reach its peak when it was time to perform our second grade program. I would cry tears of joy when I got to sit at the piano and sing with my kids at the end of the day. I will never forget the moments we had singing our “class song” and “Tomorrow” from Annie. My students were awesome, and everyone of them led me to where I am today, just as I led them.

As a classroom teacher, I invested every ounce of my being into connecting with my students. I wanted to know what they liked and didn’t like. I wanted to know what made them excited and what made them cry. I wanted to see where they lived and where they played at home. I wanted to cheer for them at sporting events, dance recitals, band concerts, and karate tournaments. I wanted to celebrate at their birthday parties and worship at their baptisms. I wanted to befriend their parents and learn the family history so I could better understand the WHOLE child. I didn’t much care about what their previous teachers said, nor their report cards from the grades prior to me. Grades in general didn’t hold much weight with me anyway. (That's another post.) That was last year… They were a whole year older, wiser, and more mature when I got them. They deserved a fresh start each year regardless of how they ended. Imagine if you had to start each day without new mercy.

On this new career path, my goal is to equip, encourage, and empower teachers in order to strengthen our profession. While I don't have my kids anymore, I do think of the educators that I reach as my students. I consider it a great honor to play a role in if cultivating our work. Professional Development (PD), as some call my work, is the daily assignment I am charged with accomplishing. It is required for educators to renew state licensure and to stay current in best practice for effective teaching. I have learned a lot in the last 14 months of this new journey. One such lesson…. educators need me to approach their learning just like my former first and second graders.

Wait… Pause… I am not dare calling grown adults children. However, I am saying that their needs as learners are almost identical. There is something woven through the DNA of all of us that responds to positive, powerful, personal relationships. Just like my students, teachers need someone who will connect with them, who will cheer for them, who will stand beside them as they try new things. They need someone who will pick up the pieces if everything falls apart and someone who will tell them it is ok if they mess up. They need to hear, “No, you are not terrible if you are afraid, and no, you are not awful if you need help with your class.” They most certainly need my patience, my grace, and my support. If I the desired outcome is for the profession to be developed through my work, the need me to love the profession first, and teach it second.

Sadly, in the PD world, there are those who come to deliver the message of “change and hope” that aren’t really there to build relationships and invest in educators. Many are there because it’s their job. They are there to remind you of test data, district initiatives, state directives, and make sure you do “D, all of the above.” They were over the classroom and all the work it entailed, so they became PD leader so they could tell other teachers what they should be doing, instead of actually doing it themselves. Others are there because they are pushing their own agenda or work. They have a book or publication that they want to tell you about that espouses educational awesomeness (or so they think).  Some are there because they like the attention of being an EDU Celebrity and want you to know how special they are. There are a few that have crept in through the back door, and they don’t really know much about education, but one dog and pony show lesson got them right to the top as a presenter on _______ topic.. They are not very authentic, and you know it the moment they speak.

So what am I? Am I authentic or just a charlatan with my pooch and baby horse? Am I genuine or a fraud with snake oil trying to “up my sales”? Am I delivering a blank newspaper to your door while you expect daily news? That answer is up to the teachers in the hundreds of schools I have visited over the last year and a half, but here's what I have to say about my work...

Honest truth, when I am preparing to be your PD leader, I think about how tired you are because you work way more than 8-2 each day. I think about all the things that are going on in your life beyond the school building. I consider that we aren't the same kind of teacher and maybe my style isn't your style. I consider that your skill set is most likely different than mine. I remember what it was like to sit through those horrendous, boring, irrelevant faculty meetings, and I try to infuse excitement, hands-on, relevant content into my presentation. I remember what it was like to pay good money out of my own pocket for a ho-hum conference, and I make sure to provide ideas and strategies that can be used in the classroom the very next day. I remember what it feels like for PD attendance to be required after an 8 hour work day that included a 15 minute lunch break, a zero minute bathroom break, and a bonus PD on data during your common planning period that was supposed to be for creating new, exciting, engaging lessons with your grade level, and I make sure I am respectful of your time.

Oops… Did I go too far? Did I say too much? If so, I sit here applauding and cheering. Someone has to say it. Actually, someone needs to shout it. No more click through presentations. No more  sit and get. No more talk for and hour while I fight sleep. No more mass PD for the one teacher who needs help getting his reading scores up. Teacher PD needs the same care, crafting, and delivery as student lessons. Authentic PD should happen, as lessons do for students, after careful consideration of the “class”, after a needs assessment is given, after a connection has been made, after teacher voice has identified areas for growth, after _________________ (insert whatever you as the professional opportunities for learning should go here.)

Our profession is the greatest on the globe. No one has a more noble and honorable career than we do. Regardless of  some negative views of public education, we are incredible and our professional development should be the same. If I come to your school, I promise you incredibleness. I promise you it will be relevant, fun, engaging, and above all, it will equip, encourage, and empower you to be developed professionally. You deserve it, just like your kids.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

I Wish Other Teachers Knew

The other day this article popped up in my newsfeed on Facebook. It was heartbreaking to read some of the responses that students wrote for their teachers to know. I think this should be a required back to school experience in every classroom. We must know our students this well if we want to reach them. Students carry around a lot more than most of us realize. These kids had a lot of courage to share their thoughts and be so vulnerable. Sharing your inner feelings about your fears, worries, and emotions isn't easy. It exposes the real you and sets the stage for criticism, yet it also empowers you and helps others to see the normalcy of so many of the things we all deal with. 

Taking my cues from the students in the article, I decided to write this blog post to share with ya’ll my teacher fears, worries, and emotions, all on the outside of my mind, knowing full well that I am opening myself up to all kinds of criticism, yet hoping above all that it starts a dialogue between teachers so that we can overcome our fears and insecurities to strengthen our profession. A few years ago when I won some awards for being a great teacher, lots of people put me on a pedestal, assumed I had it all together in my classroom, and had no concerns about my ability as a teacher. Nothing could be further from the truth as you will read below. The awards helped, but the insecurities remained strong and intact. I am nervous even as I type this because I know the words that you are about to read are going to expose me to the teacher world in a way that I have never been before. Being open and honest isn’t easy, but If me being a vulnerable educator leads you to being a stronger teacher for your students, then it’s all worth it. 

Here is what I wish other teachers knew…

I am clueless about teacher jargon. Yes, I have a MAT degree. Yes, I have sat through countless meetings talking about every acronym under the educational sun. Yes, I am a director of PD. But, it’s true, all those “teachery” words just aren’t my thing. I know what to do to teach every child, and to be good at it, but those words… forget about it. Google is my friend. I look up a lot of stuff. It took me almost 13 years to understand summative vs. formative, and I cannot even say pedagogical. My teacher friend Dawn Mitchell knows all these words. I keep her on speed dial. 

I am not very well read. Yes, I read. Yes, I can comprehend. Yes, I was the Reading Teacher of the Year once. But, reading is so difficult for me. A book that takes normal readers a week to finish would take me two months. Seriously. 2. Months. That is why I always hated faculty book studies. You would have to have 3-4 chapters read each week. I could barely get through one in a week. I learned how to participate though. I just wouldn’t speak first. I would let the “more educated” speak then build off of what they brought to the group. Maybe my reading struggle is what made me a more patient reading teacher. Regardless, the struggle is real, and it’s not my favorite thing to do.

I questioned my teaching every single day. Sometimes, I even cried about it. Often, the tears would come as soon as I closed my classroom door at the end of the day. Did I teach regrouping correctly? Did I love them enough? Did I speak too harshly to kid misbehaving? Did I communicate respectfully to the parents, coworkers, students? These questions frequently brought tears to my eyes. I am such an emotional person. Tears come very easy for me. Many times I would be reading a story to my students and get choked up. Once while reading Lisa Wheeler’s, Turk and Runt, I cried so much that students started crying with me. It isn’t even an emotional book, but the love that Runt has for his family even though they treated him poorly just gets to me every time I read it. I really should get a grip.

I am not a techy teacher. Well, some of you think I am, but I really lack in this are so much compared to my friends like Dyane, Mike, Tony, & Gina. These folks inspire me to be better at it, but secretly I am afraid so many times. But, my fear to not prepare students for their future was greater, so I would always try techy lessons. I loved them after the fact, but leading up to them, I was all nerves.

I am not a good weekly lesson planner. My lesson plans were always (still are sometimes) last minute. I did my best thinking in the moment, thus my most creative ideas came when I was under pressure to finish them. Last minute thinking doesn’t work well when the whole week’s plans have to be on your desk first thing Monday morning. How could I make a plan for Friday when I had no idea how the kids would take the information Monday-Thursday. My best friend, Matt Johnson, he is the best lesson planner I know! Wow! I wanna be like him! You should see him think through the details of his week. One day at a time just worked better for me though. One of my favorite lessons that I do with Peter Reynold’s, The Dot, was literally thought of in the shower before school. I got to school, gathered my materials, and made magic happen. Yes, I had something in the little square in my little plan book for that day, but those little squares were just there because someone told me they had to be, not because they made me a better teacher. (Disclaimer: ALL beginning teachers should plan, plan, plan. This confession is more for the veterans.) (Insert smiley emoji) Yes… I was always prepared and ready to teach students, but those little boxes don’t make you a good teacher. A color coded plan book full of great ideas doesn’t mean you know how to implement them.

I was nervous every single day I was in the classroom. Would today be the day I blinked at recess and missed something important? Would today be the day I didn’t know how to teach a certain skill? Would today be the day that a student rode the bus home but should have been in the car line? Would today be the day I be asked about my teaching methods in a faculty meeting and have no clue how to answer? Would today be the day I accidentally stapled my finger and shouted a bad word in front of students as I winced from the pain? Would today be the day that parents charged the office and demand their kid be removed from my room because they didn't like me, my lifestyle, or my teaching style? I know you are nervous about things too. Hang in there. As I reflect on all of that worry, it definitely didn’t help anything. It took away precious moments that I could have been making a mark.

I am intimidated by you. Yes, you read that right. I am intimidated every time I walk into a classroom of another teacher. It never fails. I walk into your rooms and immediately see amazing anchor charts, organization to the Nth degree, centers designed for every learner, journals filled with the most amazing work, technology being utilized in a way that would make Steve Jobs proud, and I hear your patient voice just as sweet as pie! Without hesitation, I start comparing everything you do, with everything I do/did, and instantly, I feel like I stink at teaching. You are amazing, and I feel like I have a lot to learn because of your awesomeness.

Now that you know all this, I don’t have to “wish you knew” anymore. What I do wish, is that you would be just as honest with yourself. Face your teacher fears, weaknesses, emotions. Grow stronger as you conquer each one. And, most importantly, remember you’re not alone. We are in this together for the sake of our students.