Saturday, March 25, 2017

Statewide Testing

Schoolchildren all over our state are involved in massive, complicated statewide testing right now.  All of our regular routines and patterns have slammed to a stop while we give kids a these required tests.

A colleague of mine, describing the event at his (very large) high school, said, “It’s a friggin’ production.  Like a full-scale movie set, everyone buzzing around trying to wrap this up.  We’ve got proctors and subs and small groups all over the place; we’ve got custodians and support staff and the office staff, all on board, and on call, and on deck, and just on.  All helping out in some way.  A production, I tell you.

I think of the process of testing a little differently.  To me, it’s a belly flop from the high dive—everyone hears it, and everyone feels it, and everyone emphathizes.  Because it hurts.  For a long, stinging while. 

A friend of mine who works in the southern part of our state called me the evening she’d proctored one of the tests for little girl named Dashi.  My friend works closely with Dashi every day because she needs extra help in learning to read.  Dashi’s eight.  She rides the bus 45 minutes to school through long and windy country roads.  Many days, when the bus pulls up to school, Dashi gets off first; she needs to hustle over to the bushes and vomit because she gets so bus sick. But she’s a relentlessly tough and positive child, and so she pulls a tissue from her jacket, wipes her mouth, and walks into school with a smile—albeit a wobbly and bluish one. 

Last Tuesday, my friend dutifully retrieved Dashi from her regular classroom, walking her and a couple other students to her office to take their required test.  Dashi dug right in.  Not long after she’d started, there was a question that required her to respond by typing several paragraphs. 

Did I mention—?  Dashi is eight.

But she’s mighty and willful, so she went at it, slowly picking her way across the keyboard to find her letters.  “I….n….. t….. h……”  Several minutes, it took her, and finally, she’d finished this much:  In the story theyre were 

She looked at my friend with despair and hope, as if she knew she couldn’t continue and didn’t have much else to say, yet simultaneously hoping someone would tell her this whole thing was over. 

My friend gave her the almost-expressionless smile she knew she was supposed to give.

Dashi worked a bit longer, slowly tapping away, tap-pause-look-tap-pause-look.  Then she put her head down and closed her eyes.  “I’m going to take a rest,” she said.  She sat for several minutes.  My friend saw Dashi’s body rise and fall with her breath. 

“I can’t do this to her,” My friend wailed to me over the phone.  “This is so wrong.  So.  Wrong.  I don’t know why we haven’t stopped this, somehow.” 

I didn’t know what to say, just like I’m not sure how to lead my teachers through this anxiety.  They are the ones who carry the heaviest weight.  Testing children this much goes against everything we know about teaching and learning.  The standardization feels unfair and unreasonable, especially at these young ages when the students don’t have the stamina and focus to show who they are as thinkers.

So I’ve mostly just been listening.  I can’t tell them to stop giving the tests—that’s not an option.  I can’t tell them not to care—again, not an option.  I can’t tell them to call their senators because we all know how fruitless and exhausting that can be.  (Betsy DeVoss, anyone?)

At night, I think about Dashi, and so many other kids like her, and how they are being asked to do something their brains aren’t ready to do.  I think a lot about this lady, about how courageous she is, and how I’d like to do something like that, but I can’t, for lots of important reasons.  

My teachers don’t have that option, either, and if they did, it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.  The legislators, the massive and powerful and wealthy testing companies, the legal mandates—the toothpaste is out of the tube, there, and we can do nothing to stop it. 

So when I talk to teachers, I choose my words carefully.  I tell them to stay focused on the things they do know—their teaching, their differentiation, the young people that come into their classrooms every day.

I say, “It’s just a law we have to follow.”

I say, “It will be over in a few weeks.”

I say, “I know.  I know.  I know.” 

I say, “I understand.” 

I say, “I’m sorry.”

It doesn’t feel like enough. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017


It’s rut time.  The days are running together.  I wear the same type of black pants every day, topped with a similarly dark selection of dull but at-least-they-are-warm shirts.  I yank on a pair of nondescript boots and trudge into another late-winter doldrum day. 

Monday was like that.  It was windy-cold—the worst kind.  Low hanging clouds, thick and blackish, could have been a mirror to my mood—but I did what we all do:  I got up and worked through it with a genuine smile on my face.  Then, after school, I went off to teach my graduate class, calling my husband on the way for a quick hello; after that, I drove back to my office.  I parked and walked in with my hair and coat and schoolbag swirling around in sync with the icy wind and snow. 

I was headed for my scheduled recording of a podcast for  I was whipped; all I wanted, really, was to go home and watch some crappy TV with a bowl of tortilla chips perched on my chest.

And then!  Then!  I got all re-energized.  Because of a simple conversation with a comrade, I was inspired and lively and eager again.

The podcast was recorded with (and by) Jeffrey Bradbury, who is the smart and sassy founder and CEO of TeacherCast.  He records these podcasts with all sorts of different people and sends their voices out into the world.  Jeffrey’s work is admirable, and actually kind of astounding when you think about it, because in addition to being thoughtful and innovative and wise, he’s also a technology coach for his school district and dad to three reallllly young human beings.  Like, triplets.  Eeegads.  That’s a busy dude, there.  

But the two of us got going, and man, we covered some good ground.  We talked about how being a school leader—in any capacity, really, not just a principal—is a complex and tricky job, one that makes you feel simultaneously like you’re suffocating in people and like you’re all alone.  We talked about finding mentors.  About inherent drive.  About being a lead singer, and about being told you’re going to be a different person now that you’re the guy in charge.

It was good stuff. 

I’m happy I got to talk to Jeffrey.  We put our minds together to create fabulous professional energy. 

Here’s the thing:  When we’re in the same-pair-of-black-pants-all-week kind of rut, we forget that having an energetic and passionate conversation about our work can make it do-able and awesome.  

Ruts feel deep and vast.  But there’s a cure, for sure… Seek, find, and talk to someone who’s different and new and makes you think really hard about what you believe in—and why you believe in it. 

**If you want more from TeacherCast, there's lots to see here... 

Subscribe to the TeacherCast Podcast on iTunes and YouTube

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I’d taught for seven years when I interviewed and was hired to be an assistant principal.  I was as surprised as anyone else; I certainly hadn’t foreseen going into administration.  But I was working for a principal I adored, a woman I admired and trusted, who told me, "You should do this someday."  So I got myself back in graduate school and found my way toward this first job.  It all felt right. Natural.  It seemed to make sense.

But a few nights after I was approved by our Board of Education as an official administrator—Middle School Assistant Principal—capital letters and all—a group of my work friends took me out to dinner at a local wine bistro, a sleek and glamorous place that made me feel very grown up.  They were older than I, women I considered mentors, all experienced and wise and fun. Each had been teaching twenty or thirty years by then, and their careers had them somewhat cynical and jaded.  They liked to tell stories of crazy principals they’d had along the way.  I never connected their grumblings to myself at all; in fact, I found them spot-on and, usually, hilarious.

The wine came, and then some flatbreads, hummus plates and spinach dip, and then some ooey-gooey desserts.  One of my friends slapped her hands on the table.  “Let’s have a toast!”

We lifted our glasses—me shyly, they tipsy and giggly.

“Cheers to you, Jen!” she said.  “Congratulations on completing your lobotomy.” 

They all laughed.   

I felt my brow crinkle. 

“You know.  Your brain.  Now that you’re a principal, you’ve lost half your brain.”

I stared at her.

She spoke more slowly, like you’d speak to someone being a deliberate dumbass.

“You.  Are.  A.  Principal.  So.  Now.  You.  Have.  Half.  A.  Brain.”

My speechlessness was drowned out by their laughter.  

"You'll be different now," someone else said.  

"You will," another chimed in. "They all do, once they have an office."  

They were on a roll, now.  It went on and on.  "Now you're one of them," and, "You get a key to the place, you instantly change," and, "You're officially A Suit now."  

I felt like a cat caught in an unexpected rainstorm—unprepared, surprised, unable to respond.  Betrayed, too:  these women, these people I admired, these people who’d mentored me, seemed to be turning on me and pushing me aside, out of their world and into a cliche.

Inside, I railed against their words.  

But in the first few years I was a principal, I thought about that dinner often. I watched myself closely.  Was I different?  Did I change?  Was I becoming someone that was talked about in disrespectful, mocking terms?  

Yes, yes, and undoubtedly so.

Because I did change.  Everyone does, when their perspective changes.  I began to see how complicated it could be to make decisions when there were people involved.  I learned how carefully leaders need to be, how dedicated to considering all points of view.  I discovered that blind loyalty to only one perspective is a foolish way to lead. 

I didn't lose half my brain.  Instead, the way I think changed.  Not better, not worse, not anything.  Just different.  

So, after all, they were right.  I did change. I'm glad for it, though.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Front Steps

I’ve always loved grocery stores.  As a kid, I jumped at any chance to tag along—not because I thought I’d get a treat, but because I genuinely loved wandering the aisles of neat, ordered rows of items, all organized and new and full of potential.

I grew up in a small rural area where there were only three options for grocery shopping.  The first was QuickMart, which existed primarily to keep folks stocked up with milk, eggs, Natural Light, and Skoal.  They had Reece’s cups, though, and Twizzlers, so I was perfectly happy when we ran out of milk and had to “run to town.” 

Down the street and around the corner was Troyer’s IGA.   It fit the mold of every other IGA on this globe; it was small, unassuming, and carried simple, basic foodstuffs and toiletries.  There were two of each item at Schecks:  a brand name or the ValuTime brand.  Kellogg’s or ValuTime.  Stouffers or ValuTime.  Campbell’s or ValuTime.  Eggos or ValuTime.  Pert or ValuTime.

We always got ValuTime.

And then, thirty miles away in Wooster, there was Buehler’s.  To me, going to Buehler’s was akin to going to Disney.  We didn’t go much, because it was too expensive, and besides it took a good half hour to get there.  But when we did­—?  Ohhhhhh

… ‘Cause, see, they had everything.  Every. Thing.  And there wasn’t ValuTime, because Buehler’s was too fancy for such shenanigans.  The options and choices were mind-bending.  The potato-chips alone! Lays and Fritos and Tostitos and Cheet-os and Doritos and popcorn and Corn-nuts, kettle-cooked and Classic and Ruffled and Wavy and cheesy and nacho-y and oh my god so many options.  And there were olives and cheese, kiwi and mangos, prepared pizza, a salad bar the length of a pickup truck.  There was a lobster tank, a full bakery, and a flower store, even, and a little bank, and aisles of coffee beans that people could grind up on their own.  I’d stand still and just breathe deep, deep, deep.

My friend’s Bethy’s mother was a career cashier at Buehler’s, having started way back at 18, straight out of high school. She was always there, swiping and clicking and taking money and giving change, working in that fabulous store all day long, getting to see all the cool stuff people picked up to bring home.

I was jealous as hell. 

When I first got to know Bethy, I imagined her house must be chock-full of various potato chips, complex deli meat, sweetened cereal (Corn Pops!  Captain Crunch!  Frosted Flakes!  Froot Loops! Cocoa Krispies!) and, of course, piles of things from the bakery:  Cinnamon rolls, for sure, and cookies, pies, sweet cakes and donuts.  I imagined her kitchen overflowing with the Delicious and the Fancy.

And then I started going to her house after school.  My mother was asked to teach a class at our local art center, so, rather than have me at home alone, my mother wrote me a note to get off the bus with Bethy for a few months.  We felt so free and grown-up, there in her house, just the two of us, skipping down the sidewalk and guessing what might happen that afternoon on “General Hospital.”

We’d be starving.  “We need fooooooood,” we’d moan.  Bethy would go to the kitchen and rummage around a while.  Usually, she pulled out a crumpled bag of ValuTime cheese puffs and poured them into a bowl.  Sometimes she’d come back with saltines, or a couple spoons stuck into a jar of peanut butter.  One day, she made us ketchup sandwiches out of hot dog buns; another, she opened a can of baked beans and we ate them, cold, out of coffee mugs.  Sometimes she’d say, “There’s nothing to eat,” and we’d settle in on the couch without a snack, or we’d look for quarters in her father’s jeans pockets, and, if we found some, we’d hustle down to the Quick Mart for a bag of Muchos, which cost us only $ .69. 

I was confused, though.  And disappointed.  Why was Bethy’s kitchen so sparse?   Her mother worked at Buehler’s, for cryin’ out loud. 

I didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then, finally, on a day there was no food and we couldn’t find any quarters, I blurted, “How come you don’t have any food in your house?”

Her eyebrow lifted.

“I mean, your Mom!  Doesn’t she pick up a whole bunch of stuff?  After work, I mean?  Doesn’t she shop?  For food, and snacks?”  Her mouth turned into a firm straight line.  My voice trailed.  “No, like, shopping?  For food?  After work….?”

She didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then, she said, “No.”  Then, she said, “She’s tired.  She doesn’t want to think about groceries after work.”  Then, she her voice strong and steady, “Besides, have you taken a look at the front steps at your house?”

My skin flushed.  Yes, I’d taken a look at our front steps.

My father was a carpenter.  He built houses for other people, three or four a year, beautiful structures with every detail accounted for.  But our farmhouse had front steps made of stacked concrete cinder blocks.  They were ugly.  An eyesore.  They looked like the front steps of a transient, a nomad, a mobile home or camper.  They did not look like the front steps of a talented and skilled carpenter, just like Bethy’s kitchen cabinets did not look like those of a mother who spent her days surrounded by groceries.

And she’d noticed something, about her mother, and my father, and about people who work hard, and are good at their jobs—people who are doing their best, and sometimes can’t do everything.  

The cobbler's children had no shoes, after all.  

After working on someone else’s house all day, my father didn’t have the energy to build us a beautiful front porch.  Our cinderblock steps were just fine.  Functional and fine.

After hours on her feet filling grocery bags for other people, Bethy’s mother didn’t give hot damn about groceries anymore.  Baked beans and hot dogs were just fine.

It happens to me, now.  After work, I don’t want to talk.  I don’t want to make any decisions or check email or be in charge of anything.  My deep and dirty little secret?  I don’t even want to sit down and read a story with my children. Because just like Bethy’s mom, or my father, at the end of a day, I’m freakin’ tired.  I’ve spent my day thinking about reading, thinking, explaining.  I’ve been patient and interested and I’ve had an opinion.  And when I go home, I don’t want to do those things anymore.

I try—of course I do.  I am a perfectly functional parent and spouse, I think.  But there are certainly days that my performance is on par with cinderblock steps and ketchup sandwiches.  Days where I just can’t.  And I feel a little bad about that, sometimes, but then I remember.  It’s okay.  We are all doing our best.  Cinder block steps were perfectly fine; ketchup sandwiches were perfectly filling; and my family is fine and functional and perfectly, deeply loved.  

Teaching, Time, and Water in a Sieve

"Time flies."  The nurse shook her head and locked eyes with the infant I held in my arms.  She was finalizing paperwork to discha...