Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sausage Being Made (Or, a Community of Kindred Spirits)

A few weeks back, I got an email from David Redneck, editor of The New Yorker.  David Remnick emailed me.

Well, he actually emailed a few million people—all the subscribers of the magazine—but, you know, whatever.  The email was to share a few additional articles we could enjoy over the weekend.  But he opened his email with a question many people ask, all the time.  They ask it of writers, mostly, or if they are a writer, they ask it of themselves.  Lots of organizations have asked this as part of blogging or Twitter campaigns.  Why do you write?

David answered it this way:
Why do writers write?  They do it to answer questions that obsess them, to share what they've discovered, and, most of all, to find a community of kindred spirits.

I like that.

It's like being an educator.  We surround ourselves with our kindred-educator-spirits, because we know (albeit reluctantly) that most people don’t really want to know what we’re actually doing or how we’re doing it.  They don’t want to see the sausage being made—they just want to enjoy it after it’s over with, and complain about it if something tastes off.


So, at a family gathering, when we tell our aunt and uncle we’re going to a conference to learn more about best instructional practices, their eyes glaze over.  When we geek out about a new book list or Newbery winner with a group of friends, they smile, like one would smile at a toddler spouting off about dinosaurs, and change the subject.

A blog about being an educator is about as fun to the rest of the world as a blog about how doorknob mechanisms actually work.

Seventy-percent-ish of people don’t have kids in schools, and they think about schools vaguely if at all; in terms of students and learning, they want to live in neighborhoods with strong schools, and they want the community children to be quiet in Starbucks.  For the 25% who have students in schools, they want their kids to like their teachers, get good grades, and have a good experience moving toward college. 

That’s it.

So we circle tightly around one another, validating and justifying our conversations about how to be the.very.best.teacher we can be.   We join professional organizations and drool at the idea of attending a conference with other like-minded educators; at school we talk about learning and instruction over lunch, in the hallways, and in our free time; and we get all jazzed up thinking about new ways to teach and lead.  We have to look at our inner tribe, because our outer tribe doesn’t care.  We need to find the people who understand our acronyms, our philosophies, our mindsets.  Within that circle, we challenge one another—we spit and fight, agree and disagree, hug and love and fill one another up. 


We stick tight—because we are together in this community of kindred spirits.  

Friday, November 24, 2017

Takeback


I take it back.

I'm mad.

In last week's post, I bragged about how steady and reasonable I've become when faced with an attack from a parent, but today I need to be more honest about it.  No more zen.  Not this week.

I'm mad for all the reasons people get mad— it feels unfair and mean and unreasonable—but mostly I'm mad because I don't understand.

I don't understand why a parent would lash out to a teacher—someone who gives, and gives, and gives--spewing unreasonable anger at the very person to whom they send their child for hours and hours each week--the person who is hired to because of educational and instructional expertise.

Here's where I have to back off and acknowledge: Yes, yes, I know—there are a couple of bad guys out there. And, yes, there are lousy teachers.  A few who don't give a damn.  Given.  But why has that made the rest of us have to play defense all the time?  Why are all the good souls lumped in that same bad batch?  Those of us who get up every day and teach children—math, science, reading, manners, etiquette, communication, god-knows-what-else—why are we like hunted prey, not sure who's the next disgruntled parent to lash out and throw some fastballs?

One of my supervisors was talking about this the other day.  Her analogy was perfect:  If I took my child to the pediatrician and was told he was sick, would I get mad at the doctor?  Would I write emails full of scathing and unreasonable accusations?  Would I take to social media and tell everyone I know about the doctor's incompetence?  Would I raise my voice?  Find all the disrespectful words, scattering them about like moldy old breadcrumbs?

No.  I wouldn't.

I'd be grateful for his help and expertise.  I'd use words like, "team" and "guidance" and "plan" and "support."

I'm angry that teachers seem so under attack.  I'm angry that we always have to take the high road—that we can't even really stick up for ourselves anymore.  We have to take it, and take it, and take it.  And meanwhile, we have to give, give, give.  Because that's what we believe, and that's what we do.  We are teachers, so we muster up, silent and strong, everything we are and everything we know—and we give it back to the world.

I don't know what to do about this problem—I really don't.  We live in a political environment where anyone and everyone (even our President, for crying out loud) can spout off anytime, on any little thing, with no regard to truth or consequence.  It's become funny, to some people.  Not to me.  It makes me sick.  Sick, sick, sick.

I don't see an end to it, either.  The toothpaste is out of the tube, and there doesn't seem any way to stop it, much less put it back in.

So, yeah.  Today I'm mad.

But, still, in spite of it, or because of it, I am still determined to do my best and stick to my beliefs.  We all are.

It's the only tool we have.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Parents

Several weeks ago, I was in Orlando to present at a conference for school administrators.  I asked them about their biggest stressor. “What exhausts you more than anything?”  I asked.

I wanted to know what makes principals feel ineffective— what interrupts their sleep at night, or what makes them feel they can't win, no matter how hard they try.  I handed them slips of paper to jot down their thoughts.

Their answers followed a very distinct pattern: Parents.

When a student walks into our school, their parents walk in, too—sometimes literally, walking right alongside—and there might be one, or two, three and four parents to contend with.  Maybe more.  They seem to take twice the space, both physically and emotionally, than their children do. 

Students are usually pretty happy to be at school, and they understand the expectations of the whole thing. But the things they carry from home, the words they hear over the dinner table about “the schools,” and the lessons they learn from their parents about relationships, work ethic, responsibility, self-advocacy, confidence, and hundreds of other human traits, can be traced directly to their parents.

Before going any further, it is important to note that “parents” is a term that has evolved over the decades, no longer necessarily defining a family unit as it did years ago.  Whether it is a school of 100 students or a school of 4,000 students, the “parents” to which I refer include traditional parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, older siblings, neighbors, friends, and partners.  The terminology itself doesn’t matter for the purposes of this conversation, or, more broadly, for the purposes of educating the child, because the end point is the same:  We are accountable to these parents, regardless of the particular connection they have to the child.

It's also noteworthy that 99% of our parents are unfailingly, lovingly, and relentlessly supportive.  They understand we are best as a team.  They understand our intentions are good, and also know their knowledge of their child—how the child thinks, learns, and interacts—is important for us to know.  Most parents also acknowledge the longevity of an education journey, and don't lose their minds over isolated incidents or bumps along the way.

The other 1%, though—?  Well, it seems impossible to please them.  Every day brings some sort of phone call or email containing a complaint—the behavior of a teacher; our use (or lack of) social media; our communication practices; discipline decisions; use of resources; opportunities missed and opportunities squandered.  And every time it happens, it feels frightening in a unique and troublesome way, like we’ve done something wrong but can’t determine what it is. 

And the fear is legit. 

Many public schools depend on tax levies for necessary funds to keep our schools running, and are accountable to an elected Board, who is accountable to the public.  It’s a system that insists educators please parents.  To be successful, we need them to celebrate our mission and be grateful for their child’s school journey.  And if they’re not happy, consequences can reach pretty far—failed levies, fractured community relationships, a school system separated from its constituents.  Further, an angry parent can go rouge on social media or at community events, actively working to tarnish the personal and professional reputation of a school or teacher in incalculable ways that feel deeply unfair and impossible to address.   Worse, public schools have no defense against a slandering parent—public schools take all children, as the law requires them to do, and that means public schools also take all parents.  No questions asked.

Private schools face a different challenge, because their revenue is directly tied to enrollment, and enrollment is directly tied to parent satisfaction.  While private schools may have more autonomy in expelling a student, doing so is often damaging in immeasurable ways, and not only to the financial health of the school—after all, removing a student because his parent is impossible makes no sense if we are, at our core, advocates for the child.

While I have always prided myself in the relationships I build with parents of students at my school, I have certainly gotten kicked in the face more times than I’d like to admit.  I've experienced threats, slander, and a damaged reputation—among other things. 

Just last week, a previous parent raged on social media about how “the school” had refused to help her son (now graduated) through some reading struggles.  I was gobsmacked:  If she were referring to me and the teachers as “the school,” she was dead wrong; her son had extensive, intensive reading intervention services, and, from my memory, we’d all worked together beautifully to determine how to evaluate his learning difficulties and put an excellent plan in place to support him.  Our paperwork (including many documents she signed) indicated a flawless process of intervention, plans, and communication.

My computer in my lap and my mother's cozy quilt over my knees, I started at her Facebook post, no idea what to think.  She’d been fueled by other parents social media rants, I guess, and somehow was led to publicize an account that hadn’t actually occurred.

There is nothing more disheartening, both professionally and personally, than the feeling of being accused of wrongdoing regarding a child’s learning, of being blamed for things we did not do, of being negligent.

I didn’t reply to her post, though many other people did, and I’m sure the “you go girl” comments felt very validating to her. 

There is nothing we can control about what parents say and do.  But I’ve come to accept it, and along the way, I have learned a few things about building, maintaining, and utilizing my connections with parents. I feel good about making parents as partners in my school, giving them a voice while keeping my own philosophies intact.  A parent myself, I have frustrated or wronged, and developed a deeper level of listening and empathy when interacting with parents.  Best of all, I have learned what to do when I fail—when parental connections break or are truly irreparable—by staying steady, holding my head high, managing how much I obsess, and patiently waiting it out.  I don’t let parents crush my confidence or my mission.  I have, in many ways, found balance. 


This growth over time certainly doesn’t diminish the feeling in the gut that comes when a parent chooses to re-write the story.  But it let me stay steady.  Which, to me, is a victory.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Collective Biographies

My staff did something super-cool together yesterday.  I want to tell you about it, but first I have to ask:  Have you read Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal?  You should.  It is fantastic.  Amy's work always is.  Was.  The world lost this brilliant and kind soul this past March.  You heard about it, probably, or heard about her, if you happened to read this, which a whole lot of people did, whilst they squeezed their tear ducts and thought about love.

But, yeah, Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal.  My friend Brenda, founder and editor of Choice Literacy, sent me my copy, which makes it super-special, and by now it is all marked up with pencil scratches and post-its.  I’ve read it lots.  After I read it the first time, I had to take a break before a re-read, because it was so rich and good that I needed a minute, like you need a sip of water before you go in for another bite of molten chocolate cake.  

It's yummmmmmm.

But the activity I want to talk about?  It is described on page 158 of Amy's book, or Google might let you cheat here.  

It is called the The Short Collective Biography Experiment.  

Amy suggests doing the activity over dinner, which we certainly weren't able to do; on the contrary, we had just 75 minutes together during part of a district-wide professional development day, and we were crammed sardine-style into a meeting room at our local recreation center. 

I have a very large staff.  Some have been together for a couple decades, while others are newer (even brand-new).  I would describe them as a tight and loyal staff, but like any family, they occasionally snap and snip.  We’re strong and mighty together, but, yeah, you know—we get tired and grumpy sometimes.

I wanted an activity to bring us back to our core, ourselves, our mission. 

So I took Amy's Short Collective Biography idea and this is what I did:

1.  Randomly put teachers in tables of 6-8 based on the color of a “thank you” card I’d handed them as they walked in.  We had an opening writing activity to get us in a thoughtful, grateful mindset— everyone took five minutes to write a thank-you note to someone they cared about.  I told them it could be a note to a neighbor, a colleague, a parent, an old friend, the cashier at their local Starbucks.  I didn’t care who— I just wanted them to take a moment to acknowledge the goodness that someone else brings to their world.

2.  As they wrote, I slipped a large sheet of cardstock and Sharpie on each table. Then I told them we were going to discover new ways we are connected.  I asked for a reporter and recorder.  

3.  I asked them to talk to one another, starting with questions, and create a list of things each member of the group could say are equally true.

3.  I asked them to avoid easy or surface things—“We all love payday” or “We love Fridays” or “College was AWESOME!!!!” 

4.  I gave them 20 minutes. 

5.  The recorder wrote their final list on the cardstock.  Most got really creative and artsy, like elementary teachers tend to do; in the end, each group had a beautiful creation capturing their collectiveness.  

6.  We had a share-out.

It was good.  Really good.  As they worked, the groups were animated and focused.  At times, they laughed so hard I thought they’d fall out of their chairs; other times, they were serious and sad.

Some of the things they came up with in their connective biographies:
We are all siblings to someone.  We have lost a loved one to a sudden death.  Our first year of teaching was very difficult.  We have watched a sunset on the Pacific.  We are mothers of boys.  None of us has ridden a horse.  We prefer sweet to salty.  We’ve never been to Canada. 

Listening to the share-outs brought more laughter, more thinking, more reflection, more conversation. 

Afterwards, I asked them to summarize their takeaway from the activity.  

... We can think we know everything about one another, but we might be missing some of the simplest, basic things.
... We all share experiences that connect us in unique ways, yet we have come to them from hugely different places.
... You never know how you are connected to someone else (student or colleague) unless you ask.

... Start with a question.
... Hearing the biographies will illicit future questioning. conversation, and connection.  

... We have so much to learn about, from, and for each other.
... Starting with gratitude is always a good idea.
... Um... yeah.  This would be a great activity for kids to do together.


I loved this activity together because it was rich and deep and built a unique sense of camaraderie.  We put aside the stressors of our work and the pressure to be curriculum hammers and, instead, just focused on us—as a team, as human beings, as a group working toward the same goal. And the only thing it cost me was $5.99 in green cardstock and a few bucks in note cards.  

Pretty fantastic. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Things We Carry

I’ve wondered whether to write about the recent loss of my father-in-law, mostly because I want to be super-sensitive to my husband and his mom, because it’s their story and not mine. It seems inauthentic not to write about it, though, so, in the past week or so, I’ve started writing, and then stopped, then started again— more times than I’ve put on shoes.  And still I’ve gotten nowhere.  It’s tricky, writing about an important death.  Words don’t flow.  It’s hard to identify feelings, because they’re jumbled and dull.  

When someone we love dies, everything fogs.  

There’s nothing to say, really.  Is there?

His death was a shock, and it happened quickly, though with that specific slow-motion that comes with death. 

The simple thing that happened was his heart was tired.   The un-simple thing that happened is so complicated that it would take a handful of medical professionals to get it right.  

It has been a few weeks of strangeness.  Flashes of sadness, the unexpected kind, when I remember that he is gone, and when I think about what this death means for us, his family, his grandchildren, the ones left to think about him.  

Strangely, too, this seems like it has intensified the pain I carry for others.  Being a principal, or any type of leader of people, means you carry the weight of a lot, lot, lot, lot of people. Staff, parents, colleagues, and students—we hear their stories, and because we are the type of people who do this, we lift the story and carry it with us, trying to lessen the burden for someone else. 

Last summer, at a conference in Philadelphia, I met a principal friend for coffee. As we talked, our conversation drifted beyond the management and instructional parts of our work, seeping into the heavy feeling of having people count on us.  On his staff, he had, he guessed, right then, at that moment, more than ten different people who were in some deep, deep shit.  He pulled out his napkin and started to note specific worries he had for members of his staff.  An ill parent.  A spouse struggling with addiction and anger. An adolescent child who cannot seem to find his way.  Foreclosure and bankruptcy from a family business gone wrong.  Social and emotional upheaval.  A mentally disabled sibling, undergoing treatment for illnesses he can’t even understand he has. 

Wow.  Right?  Just… so much.  

There’s no real formula on how to help, either.  People react in all kinds of ways when their lives hurl into crisis mode:  Some tell their friends and colleagues, others carry it privately and alone.   Both are fine, but we can’t predict a person’s reaction to a particular situation—and, thus, we can’t plan how we, ourselves, should respond.  No.  Instead, we just need to honor each person, honor each journey, and, if we can, help carry the burden.

And of course, we have to care of ourselves so we can help.  It’s so hard to do.  I certainly haven’t got it figured out.  I really wish I had a neat, clean, concise bulleted list of suggestions, but I have no such thing.  Instead, I try to just be extra forgiving of myself.  I keep exercising.  I eat right, but don’t get too mad at myself when I get lost in handfuls of MnM’s and pretzles (yes, together).  I try not to worry about the insomnia that robs my sleep night after bloody night.  When I feel the snark and judgment of others, as comes with a job like mine, I try to ride it out and release it into the universe.   It’s okay, I remind myself.  You’re carrying a lot.  

That’s what we do.  Carry all we can, and recognize when it’s getting heavier, heavier, too heavy.

And love to my dear father-in-law—a man with whom I shared a unique and sweet fondness.  Rest in peace, Fred.  xo

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Head lice

When I was six years old, the week before Christmas break, my first grade teacher gave my class the lecture about head lice.  It was the “talk-to-the-parent-through-the-kid” approach:  Your parents should clean your hair very well every single night.  They should make sure all sheets, towels, hats, gloves, and clothing is squeaky-clean.  There had been a lice outbreak in our school, and she told us we needed to keep very, very clean.  “We will be doing lice checks on everyone here at school,” she said gravely.  She showed us pictures of lice; she talked about how quickly they reproduce and how they would make us feel itchy and uncomfortable.  As she spoke, dread settled in my stomach and crawl up to my face and then my hairline.  Almost as if I couldn’t control my own hand, I began to scratch the back of my head.  I saw Miss Lehman’s eyes flick over to me.

I don’t know who thought telling a group of six-year-olds how to parent our parents on this issue was a good idea, but, well, whatever.

The school nurse knocked on the classroom door a few minutes later.  “Send them all out, one at a time,” she told Miss Lehman.  “I’ll give them a quick check and send them right back to you.”

Miss Lehman looked right at me.  “Honey?  Why don’t you go first?” she said.  

My face flushed hot as I stood and left the room. 
 
The nurse beckoned to a stool placed right outside the classroom door.  She held a box of wooden toothpicks in her gloved hand; she picked one out and placed the rest of the box on a stool next to the chair.  I felt the pick on my scalp as she weaved it through my long hair.   I listened hard to her breath, hoping it would tell me what she was seeing.

It just took a moment.  “I’m going to have you go in and get your things,” she said.  “Your mother is going to have to come get you and take you home for the rest of the day, all right?”  I nodded numbly.  Her voice was kind, but there was an unmistakable condescending tint, which felt like chastisement.  I imagined a speech bubble above her head:  What a disgusting child you are.  Get out of this school and go clean yourself up.  

I so did not want to go back in the classroom to retrieve my coat and backpack.  Everyone would know I was filthy and itchy; they would whisper about my creepy-crawlies.  My mortification was thick, raw, and ugly.  I thought I might throw up. 

But I was a compliant child, so I pulled myself up from the stool slowly, as if I wore a block of concrete on my feet instead of my raggedy winter boots.   I turned, desperate for a last-minute reprieve.  “Go on,” she said, nodding toward the door.

I went.  It was a very, very long journey to my desk, my cubby, my books and lunchbox, out the door again and toward the office. 

I breathed again when I saw my sisters, sitting side-by-side in the office. It hadn’t occurred to me they would be there, too.   I was so happy to see them I had to hold myself back from crying.   I sat in the empty chair next to my oldest sister.  “It’s okay,” she whispered.  I nodded.

My mother arrived to pick us up and endured the school nurse’s detailed instructions on what to buy and how to treat our hair and clothing.  “Don’t skip any of the steps,” she said, handing over three sealed envelopes, one for each of us.  “This explains when the girls can come back to school.” 

We left the school, bundled in our winter coats.  There was RID, and hot water, and hours at the laundramat.  There was even—this was 35 years ago—a head-dunk in kerosene, because my father wanted to make damned sure the lice was gone forever. 

It’s annoying when a writer tells what she’s trying to say, because a good writer shouldn’t have to explain herself.  But I do it here, just in case, because of course this isn’t about lice, or how much we’ve evolved in the area of lice treatment, or about what’s right or wrong with how we do things.  It’s about the snapshots a child will slip into a lifelong photo album. 

I’ve never forgotten that day.  No one was unkind; no one had ill intentions; no one did anything wrong.  It was just this thing that happened, and I remember it as clearly as I remember anything.  And I think about that, often, as a mother and educator—about those early memories, and how fiercely they grip.  


Children are seeing; they are watching; and they will remember. 

Sausage Being Made (Or, a Community of Kindred Spirits)

A few weeks back, I got an email from David Redneck, editor of The New Yorker.   David Remnick emailed me. Well, he actually emailed a few...