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. 

Precisely None

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