Dear Teach, a word of encouragement for you

maria

You know you’ve been grading papers too long in one setting when you have to stop yourself from writing sarcastic comments on your students’ papers as feedback. #guilty

What I wanted to write on one kid’s fiction analysis in my reading class: “What in the world?!?! Did we even read the same story?”

What I actually wrote: What was the main problem the character had to fix?

Other times I masked my true feelings…

What I wanted to write: Is this in English?

What I actually wrote: Use your Frequently Misspelled Words list.

What I wanted to write: For the love! You might as well start copying your partner. You’re never going to make it in this class!

What I actually wrote:  Tutorials are every Monday and Tuesday after school. Please make arrangements to come next week.

When I reach this stage of paper grading, I know it’s time to hop up and take a break for a bit. Bye Felicia! I’ll be back when I can record grades without choking back mouth vomit.

We’re about a month into school now; we’re settling into routines. We’re identifying struggling students, setting goals, making adjustments, probably clicking along at a pretty steady pace. As we begin to settle into fall and the first round of assessments are administered, we sometimes begin to fully realize the pressure put upon us as teachers. For me, it’s usually about this time of year when I begin to feel overwhelmed… by a myriad of things: getting students to be successful in the classroom and having data to prove it, balancing work life/family life, beating down the to-do lists faster than they can grow, wondering if I’ll ever get a few minutes of peace to myself before bedtime without accidentally falling asleep… just a number of things that make me feel uptight. Inevitably, when I feel stressed out, I have to deal with self-doubt. This leads to more negative self-talk than I care to admit.

Anticipating this natural shift in the year, I’m being more intentional this time in dealing with my feelings. This year, I have a battle plan in place. (Because, yes, I’m one of the many who contributed to the $11.4 million dollar success of the film War Room.“The enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy.”) This year I’m choosing to take a pro-active approach to stress and self-doubt. I’m on the offensive now, and through much prayer I’ve identified my battle cry: 2 Timothy 1:7.

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.

A timid person is one who shies away from confrontation. A timid person feels unconfident in the face of strife. This is the chick who wishes things were better but never figures out how to actually make it happen. This is Elle Woods, when who we really need is G.I. Jane.

According to this verse (advice Paul offered to his BFF Timothy while being imprisoned for his beliefs), Jesus has equipped us with a spirit that is ready to take the offensive. In the face of self-doubt, he empowers us to stand up for ourselves and to protect our well-being. He provides us with the emotional, mental, and spiritual power to claim his truths instead of the lies the enemy would lead us to believe. We should not let Stress tell us that we are a poor teacher or an inattentive mother this year. Let’s ignore the voice that makes us question if our struggling students will be successful or if our family would be better off with a wife/mom who, like, cooks and stuff.

When we feel maxed out, isn’t it super easy to be irritable and snarky to the people around us? Through the grace of Jesus, we are provided with a spirit that continues to communicate in love. Therefore, this year I’m more equipped to approach my students, my colleagues, and my own family with patience and kindness.

Lastly, I am so thankful for the self-discipline to stay the course even when I am so exhausted I can’t even stay awake through a whole episode of Grey’s Anatomy. When we feel worn out, know that the enemy will want to strike us when we’re weak. In these moments, we’re more likely to lash out or give up. But, hopefully, this year will be different. As we begin to feel overwhelmed, pray this verse. Refuse to let self-doubt creep in and cause undue damage.  Let’s claim our right as a child of God saved through grace, to a mindset of power, love, and steady self-discipline.

Are you ready for battle?

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How to Be a Proud Parent to Your Child on Awards Day When He Doesn’t Win Any Awards

This is the time of year I ritually refer to as my Best Parenting Month. Note sarcasm. (I stole this idea from Jen Hatmaker. If you haven’t read her post, Worst End of School Year Mom Ever, you have missed out on a fundamental lesson in parenting. Even worse, you missed several key LOL moments and the chance to celebrate yourself for your parenting shortcomings that inevitably sneak out around the end of your child’s school year every year. Click here. NOW. MUST READ. Who wants to pass on an opportunity like that?)

Because… it’s May, and you are hanging on by your hot-pink, cannot wait a single second longer for summer, fingernails. May is a loaded month for parents of students– class parties, field trips, parent forms, permission slips, teacher requests and class orientations for next year, banquets, Muffins with Mom and Donuts with Dad, and a trillion other things I have blocked from my frontal lobe in a vain attempt to keep my sanity in tact and my hot-pink fingernails untarnished. We parents of school aged children all know, with the end of the school year comes the annual Awards Day Ceremonies courtesy of your local elementary or middle school campus. You know the drill: teachers award students for their outstanding achievements throughout the year.

first place ribbon

Certificate for Perfect Attendance!
(This kid has either been blessed with Super Parents or a bionic immune system. Or he’s in very bad need of scheduling eye, teeth, and well-check appointments. Either way, he deserves a nod.)

Most AR Points Earned!
(Oh, you are not familiar with “AR”? Well, you do not live in Texas. Foreigners just won’t understand.)

Mr./Ms. _____________________ [insert school mascot here, an especially adorable title for the kindergarten set.]
(A piercing bright light will momentarily blind you as this child takes the stage. No worries, it’s just her recently shined halo. You get used to it eventually. Before the ceremony began, her parents were escorted by a tuxedo-clad usher to their reserved seats down front and center. You only know this through heresay, of course. You snuck in the back to occupy space in the standing room only section– otherwise known as The Latecomer’s Section– about ten minutes after the ceremony began. Needless to say, your child won’t be winning this award any time soon. One of the prerequisites for this award is for students to be the offspring of the kind of parents who are completely alien to the standing room only section of the auditorium. Your kid was beat before he ever began, really. But, I’m sure he’s good at other things.)

If your school is like ours, then technically no elementary child will walk away without any awards. This is when the teachers really shine! Their creativity and ambiguous use of diction help to make every child feel special.

Oh look! You got the award for Best Smile!

And here’s one for you: Best Paper Passer-Outer

Then: Strategically Completed the Analysis of Strategies certificate

Next up, Returned All My Library Books Award!

And lastly, don’t forget: Asks the Most Questions certificate

Now, my kids are still fairly young. I haven’t been to a ton of these things yet, but I’ve got to say the whole thing makes me feel uneasy. Because my mind is a carousel that never runs out of tokens, naturally I’ve spent way too much time analyzing this. But I think I’ve got it now. When I attend the end of the school year awards ceremony (or occasionally take my place in the standing room only section, don’t judge), I sometimes have to repress this very primal, competitive feeling that threatens to creep out at some unsuspecting moment. I wouldn’t say I feel jealous of other parents whose children seem to win every award. I don’t wish the halo-adorned student were my own child to take home after the ceremonies. I mean, come on. I’ve got to get home to cook dinner anyway. I’d have to skip the subsequent parade in her honor. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

So, why do I get all antsy inside at these things sometimes?

Because I desperately want it to be my child’s turn to feel special at some point. 

None of my children needs to be the best at everything to satisfy me. I want them to reach their potential, for sure, but none needs to be the smartest, run the fastest, learn to read first, or waste time shining their halos to make me proud to be their mama.

Regardless of which awards they’ll win this year, which will be long forgotten in a few short years anyway, I am proud of them for a hundred things Awards Day may never notice. My shy, introverted kindergartener finally opened up to his teacher enough to read aloud to her around mid-December. He even promoted to reading aloud to a first grade group in his G/T meetings! My people-pleasing third grader has become more adept at making his own decisions and making his opinion known to his friends, something we only dreamed of in the past. And the list continues just like it does for your own child… making friends with the special needs student in the classroom, learning to tie shoelaces, writing names independently, completing the first solo flight on a chapter book, standing up to a bully in the hallway, completing every homework assignment on time, keeping up with a student planner for the first time, passing the ever-lovin’ STAAR test, and for the littles, just learning how to sit down in a chair and to keep quiet and walk in a straight line in the hallway. (You have not seen A.DOR.A.BLE until you’ve watched a whole line of tiny 5 year-olds with their duck tails and bubbles move down the hall!)

Remember, parents, that this one ceremony does not add to or take away from the total value of our children. More importantly, it doesn’t add to or take away from your total value as a parent.

My children are good kids, just like yours. I know their hard work over the course of the year will be recognized. I also know they are SO MUCH MORE than the colored card-stock they’re sent home with on Awards Day. Maybe my sons’ arms will be overloaded with certificates this year; maybe they’ll rush to me with a wide smile plastered to their little faces as they proudly show me their “Line Leading LIKE A BOSS” awards. I’ll be no less proud.

I’m their mama. It is my duty, and my pleasure, to be proud of them. I need them to know that I will always feel this way, regardless of how the world validates them.

This. Funny. The kind of mama I want to be.

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So, I’m not supposed to use the S– word in my classroom?

I cryptically repeated the exact same statement for the third time, trying my absolute darndest not to use any inflection that could be deemed “inappropriate.” “If you would like a dictionary, please raise your hand.”

Surely the third time will be the charm, I thought to myself. Nevermind that this was a READING TEST, of which new vocabulary makes up a sizable percentage of the score. Obviously. Nevermind that the kid I was hoping would catch on and raise his hand already owned the specific dictionary I was offering him. I mean, it’s his. He bought the electronic dictionary from Best Buy himself. He wrote his name on it in permanent marker. Forever until the end of time, or at least for two more weeks before this technology becomes obsolete, it’s his personal dictionary. So, why didn’t I just hand him the darn thing? FOR THE READING TEST?

Because this is the STAAR test, and state testing rules trump common sense.

Rules that govern how to administer the dreaded S- word, the Standardized Test, dictate that I may NOT hand out dictionaries to each student in the testing room, but I may OFFER them. FOR THE READING TEST. Apparently automatically passing one out to each student would be demanding a certain reading strategy be used. FOR THE READING TEST.

It is this kind of ridiculousness that makes me question my role as an educator. The state of Texas has taken micro-managing to an entirely new level. If I wasn’t so frustrated, I would be impressed.

As a classroom teacher for 13 years, I can assure you, the state has lost its collective mind in terms of uniform, standardized testing. Not my specific school district, not my campus, not the teachers on my hall.

But for your viewing pleasure, here are some more rules that prove standardized testing has completely lost sight of the Big Picture in education:

1. During testing, students may not wear sweatshirts with front pockets. They may not wear hoodies or jackets with hoods or jackets with pockets. (Hey, at least we let them keep their pants.) And please point me toward the section at Target that does NOT sell sweatshirts with front pockets or hoodies or jackets with hoods and front pockets for teenagers and preteens. When you find that store, you should buy them out. Just take out a small personal loan and go home with the entire stock. It’ll be a worthwhile investment every spring when testing days roll around.

What if one of our students tried to cheat on the state assessment? Some have, and undoubtedly more will. But slow your roll. Are we raising a generation of students who are so adept at cheating that they’ll spend more effort on cheating than on actually thinking? If that’s the case, shouldn’t we be more focused on the problem of an entire generation of dishonest humans?

2. Common testing supplies (like highlighters, dictionaries, scratch paper for the math test) may be requested by the student but cannot be initiated by the test administrator.

3. Teachers may only actively monitor during the assessment. All attention must be focused on the students at all times. For four hours. Teachers are expected to circulate around the room, never spending “too much time” in one location.

monitoring pic

4. Teachers are also expected to check on the students while they are working by double checking that each student is working on the correct part of the test and that they are bubbling their answers on the appropriate section of their scantrons, without leaving any questions blank.

5. At the same time, teachers are forbidden to look at ANY. PART. of the test. Somehow, we are to check the students but not actually read any of the words on the page. Don’t stare too long!

We’re molding a generation of teachers who are perfecting the art form of looking without seeing, which is a useful skill to have exactly 0 other times in life.

Keep in mind, naive reader, that our public schools are currently in “Stage 1” of a three stage system, built to increase the rigor of our state tests…er… I mean, instruction. Surely, the end purpose is to increase the rigor of classroom instruction statewide. But if that’s the case, then why was the passing requirement of tests like 6th grade math set at 34% and 8th grade reading at 56% in 2014? Even the lawmakers are admitting, “It ain’t gonna happen!”

* Should educators in Texas be held accountable for their effectiveness as teachers? YES! A resounding yes!

* Should students be held accountable for mastering age-appropriate educational concepts? Absolutely!

* Is a state-wide, one-size-fits-all assessment the best way to accomplish these goals? Doubt it.

But this is what has become of our public educational system in Texas. It’s not exactly what I signed up for when I first tried on those rose-tinted glasses my first year of teaching and embarked on my journey to change the world, one adolescent heart at a time.

I certainly never dreamed I’d witness a Facebook uproar as teachers banded together in an attempt to shoot down state legislation that has the potential to create a mass exodus of employees out of the field of education. (I am not a political guru; I have no business quoting legislative topics. But I can tell you everything you need to know about HB 2543. Scary, isn’t it?)

Do doctors get paid according to how many patients they cure?

Are preachers earning their paycheck based on how many people they convert each year?

Do collegiate professors earn their salary based on how many students earn a degree within the field in which they are being taught? (The instructors from my glory days of college sure are glad that isn’t the case. How many times did I change my major?)

The good new is this: I have, quite literally, taught my way across Texas, from the piney woods of East Texas all the way to the frozen tundra I like to call the Texas Panhandle. And in every district I’ve been a part of, I have met, learned from, and been challenged by REALLY GREAT TEACHERS. The state hasn’t totally ruined us. Not yet anyway. Teachers all over this great state are working innovatively and creatively to both prepare your student for Life and for the dern test. For the most part, teachers have found a pleasant balance. They are offering engaging, relevant, often project-based lessons. They are fiercely holding on to the responsibility of raising your student to become a productive, contributing member of society one day, not just really great test-takers. But make no mistake about it, teachers are also making sure your student is ready to pass the test. But, deep down, you’re actually pacified by that. Admit it: you’d complain if you felt your student wasn’t prepared for the test.

The take-away is this: Teachers are doing the teacher thing WELL. Your student is learning. The state assessment itself seems to have grown too big for its britches, and that creates a lot of friction. But regardless of what craziness the state creates for our public school classrooms, teachers are still in the business of loving on your children and providing for their educational needs.

5 Teacher Stereotypes: Are you one of these?

Can you identify yourself or any of your colleagues?

1. The “Cool” Teacher

This teacher is easy to spot. He’s stylishly dressed, and he’s the one getting fist bumps from every student who passes him in the hallway. You can’t hold a conversation with this guy because of all the kids interjecting with “Hey, Mr. Battle!” as you walk together to the lounge to check your mailbox. Even his name is cool. All the other teachers secretly want to be his friend too. But he’s already taken. His bestie is The Coach.

2. The Coach

Commonly referred to as The Group Work Teacher, this one runs his classroom just like he runs his team. A few examples:

With his team #1: No athlete will speak during practice unless spoken to. Don’t even attempt a response without direct eye contact and a response that ends in “Yes sir!”

In the classroom: No student will speak during class unless spoken to. Don’t even attempt a response without direct eye contact and a response that ends in “Yes sir!”

With his team #2: Players are expected to review the weekly scouting report. They are told to pair up with a teammate in the like position and quiz each other on their roles for the next game.

In the classroom: Students read the weekly chapter from the textbook. They are told to work in groups; complete the study guide at the end of the chapter.

With his team #3: Team gathers in locker room to watch and discuss game film.

In the classroom: Class watches a film after every test. “Wait! There’s a movie for that!”

3. The Newbie

This poor soul is readily identifiable by the permanent deer-in-the-headlight look on her face. Brace yourself if you teach in the classroom next to hers. She needs you this year. She will have A MILLION plus one questions, and it is your duty to teach her. She’s just now figuring out that she didn’t sign-up for the typical 9-5 job. She’s learning to juggle her home time with lesson planning and paper grading. Monday mornings are a special kind of struggle for her because she’s still young and holding on to occasional old, weekend-party habits. Hey, YOLO, right? Oh, and she remembers saying “YOLO!” while in college (because, come on! That was only last year.) while tossing back one more shot that will surely doom any hope of getting up before, say noon, on Sunday.

4. The Veteran

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This educator is a true professional. She has spent a great number of years perfecting her craft. Perhaps she has crossed that line where more years have been spent in teaching than in all the other phases of her life. She is often called The Lecturer because she’s been using the same lesson plans since 1976. But she never takes a sick day, manages to keep even the rowdiest of kids quiet, and is predictable and consistent to a fault, so no one messes with her. She has earned her seniority. That little calendar next to her desk counts down the days until retirement. It’s hard not to be jealous of her sometimes, isn’t it?

5. The Question-Asker

Every faculty has a token question-asker. This is the one educator who really likes to dig in to deep academic conversation during professional development. Unfortunately for the rest of the 150 faculty members, the group meeting will run 30 minutes longer than the time allotted on the agenda due to her incessant questioning.

“Yes, but what would Schlechty say about that?”

“I heard Kylene Beers speak last year. How can we implement some of those close reading strategies?”

Someone cut her off already! Find a new literacy article to distract her with so the rest of us can go to lunch!

32nd & P

school pic

I look across my desk at the students in my classroom, at the tops of their heads really, their faces lowered as if in reverence. They pore over their standardized test. Maybe some of them should take a moment of reverent prayer; they’re taking a re-test after all. This is their second attempt at passing the Reading test, and at this point, I say we leave no stone unturned.

Since all we teachers can do during these tests is actively monitor (gone are the good ole days of knocking out a set of research papers and finalizing grades), I’ve been busy keeping myself busy. My students would be horrified to know I’ve spent the last five minutes figuring out which animal each of them most closely resembles.

You’ll be glad to know that representing my room today are a baboon, a koala bear (his nose though!), a mouse, a cheetah (cute kid, lots of freckles), and a raccoon (it’s safe to say, he didn’t win that fight last week).

All in a day’s work at this campus on the corner of 32nd and Avenue P.

We’ve worked really hard this year to get to this point. The kids don’t need to know I’m totally freaking out inside—USE YOUR STRATEGIES! READ THE PAIRED PASSAGES FIRST! OPEN THE DADGUM DICTIONARY RESTING RIGHT BESIDE YOU OR I MAY BE TEMPTED TO BEAT YOU WITH IT AFTER THE TEST! FOR THE LOVE OF ALL MANKIND, DON’T YOU DARE PUT YOUR HEAD DOWN ON YOUR DESK AND CLOSE YOUR EYES!—but I’m totally freaking out inside. Because a ton of them are SO CLOSE to passing. Some of them are THIS CLOSE to being successful.

And that’s the thing. The students on our campus are finally starting to come around to the idea that education is valuable, and what’s more, some of them are starting to believe that they can be good at it. The adults here are hard at work affecting a positive change. We are undergoing a cultural shift here at 32nd and P.  And you should take notice. We know that if our families and our immediate neighborhoods will begin to show that they value what’s happening at school, then we’ll be successful in teaching our kids.

We’re not there yet—dear goodness! How many times this year have I joked with my partner teacher to get my bail bond money ready after particularly grueling days? I’ve spent many days this year feeling frustrated or discouraged. But this campus is SO CLOSE to reaching the point where we can turn the corner.

Our teachers are in the trenches every day, working their hearts out to affect change. Lessons are innovative and engaging; a literacy movement is pushed and supported by every discipline on campus—even in classes like P.E. and Orchestra. Our teachers are “best practicing” LIKE A BOSS.

Now, the downside is: the numbers will betray us. The numbers don’t know how far we’ve come and where we’re headed. There is a vision though, and eventually it will be fulfilled.

But that takes time. And the TEA and numbers are incredulously impatient. But our campus will forge on, wisely recognizing the progress being made and the time needed to bring change to fruition.

So, what are the keys our little campus on 32nd and P will need in order to turn the corner?

1. Keep HOPE strong. Scripture says “never grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). I’m guilty of losing that vision myself. Many days may make you want to lose your mind and take up heavy drinking, but hang in there. Keep an eye on the Big Picture. Change the “neighborhood”; change the school.

2. Be positive.

Attitudes are contagious. Positivity yields positivity. Negativity yields negativity.

3. Continue to teach that school is different from home/the streets.

Let’s convey the idea that education is important; knowing the answers is cool. And both teachers and students alike will be professionals.

And our kids can be successful.

They’re not there yet, but eventually they will be.

Keep an eye out for this school in the next 5 to 10 years. With the right leadership and a sustained vision, you’re going to wonder what those people are doing down there at 32nd and P. You’ll be learning from them.