By the way, I teach Spanish

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Based on my Twitter feed, one may not catch on to the fact that I am a Spanish teacher.  In fact, I have been teaching Spanish consecutively since 1996. Prior to that, I taught Spanish from 1987 to 1989, at which point I took a seven-year hiatus to work in college admissions recruitment, followed by two years working part-time for a social service agency while I attended graduate school full-time in order to earn my M.Ed. in curriculum.

When I began blogging back in December of 2006, the majority of my blog posts focused on teaching in general, and teaching Spanish in particular.  From 2008 to 2010, I created a secondary blog, which has since been disbanded, as a blog focused on all things Spanish and foreign language teaching and learning.  However, the ordeal of maintaining two blogs – one discipline-specific, and one more social commentary-oriented, became too much.

There are plenty of blogs currently in existence which focus exclusively on the teaching of foreign language in general, and on the teaching of Spanish in particular, and I am grateful for and appreciative of those blogs, for I receive ideas and inspiration from them.  And, I decided almost eight years ago when I began to blog that I would never be able to blog exclusively about Spanish, or foreign language teaching and learning.  For me, teaching and learning have become so much bigger than my discipline: what I am striving for at this stage of my career is good teaching, grounded in culturally responsive pedagogy, and creating a learning environment of compassion and empathy.  This is not to suggest that I have no interest in my discipline because I don’t blog or tweet about it with any degree of regularity, or, that I am any less of an “expert” in my field as a result of the aforementioned.  Quite the contrary: I think about and reflect upon and read about and conduct research into my discipline, my classroom, my students, my teaching, and my students’ learning as a foreign language teacher and as a Spanish teacher daily.

And, perhaps this is the critical dilemma for me as an African American teacher: My mind, time, and energy are so often devoted to and spread incredibly and dangerously thin across so many educational interests, it’s any wonder that I am as vibrant in the classroom as I am.  However, I am not just about my discipline.  As a matter of human and educational survival, I cannot be just about my discipline. Sometimes, honestly, I wish I could; combining teaching Spanish and social activism is so very physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. On the other hand, I would not be the educator, or the person, I am and am striving to become, without doing both.

Sometimes, You Have To Be Your Own Cheerleader

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Very early in my teaching career, I was feeling very discouraged.  After two years of teaching at a day and boarding school, I was not sure if I desired to remain in the teaching profession.  Like so many independent school teachers in the late 1980s, career survival was “sink or swim.”  A lot was placed on my young, inexperienced and somewhat fragile shoulders: teaching four classes, coaching, residing in and co-supervising  girls’ dormitory, and advising, and proctoring evening study hall.  I was not sent to a new teacher bootcamp; those didn’t exist then for newly-birthed independent school teachers.  Additionally, I was not assigned a mentor; I guess they didn’t exist then, either.  The only thing the school in question did do was send me to an Advanced Placement teacher workshop.  To this day, I am still not sure how that workshop  was supposed to help me, a new college graduate with no classroom teaching experience, to become an effective teacher. But, perhaps the most important, I had no real sense as to what sort of teacher I was: Was I good? Was I bad? In the two years I taught at that particular school, I had been neither observed nor evaluated.  I was never given praise – for anything.  And yet, on the day of my interview, the school in question offered me a position, and members of the senior administration told me how much they “needed me” as a young teacher of color. I now know that those are not good indicators of a successful tenure at any independent school.  To my credit, I didn’t accept the position right away.

Thus, after two years of the aforementioned, I was feeling thoroughly and completely overwhelmed and under-supported.  To be fair, I didn’t ask for help.  After all, I was a liberal arts graduate from a top college.  Why, on Earth, would I need help?  But, I did.  And, nobody seemed to recognize that I was sinking, and I possessed too much pride to ask for the proverbial lifeboat.

In the spring of 1989, the second year of my teaching career, and, the second year at the day and boarding school, I had had enough.  I was ready to not only leave the school, but also to explore other career options.  After sharing with my Dear Dad my frustrations, he told me this: “Sometimes, you have to become your own form of guidance.  Sometimes, you have to be your own cheerleader, and not rely on others to do it for you.”

It was my Dear Dad’s words which forced me to assume greater ownership and responsibility for my career and for my professional development.  I did, in fact leave teaching for five years, at which point I worked in college admissions.  Following that, I enrolled in graduate school full-time, and eventually returned to a career as an independent school teacher.

Although it is empowering to have mentors and sponsors looking out for me, and I have been blessed for having had both over the years, it is even more empowering for me to not have placed my career in the hands of others. Being my own cheerleader has allowed me to become more confident in my capabilities, to take risks, and to pursue opportunities.  Being one’s own cheerleader is the greatest gift a person can give to her/himself.

Continue to Reach for Things

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The Dean of Students came to me just moments before the middle school division meeting was scheduled to begin.  “Do you want to meet now or after?” he said.  I responded, “Now, please.”  We proceeded down the very short hallway to an empty office.  The dean took his seat first, and then I took my seat, directly opposite him.

Once the two of us were situated, the dean told me that I had not gotten the middle school dean of students position.  I received the news well; after all, I suspected that I had not gotten the position.  Not because I was not qualified to do the work, which the dean confirmed.  He said, “I would have been able to work with any one of the three of you.  However, there was one area in which the selection committee felt you were not as strong, compared to the person who was selected.”  I asked the dean which area that was.  I then stated that my asking him such questions helps me to know and understand where others are coming from when I apply, and then am subsequently not chosen, for leadership positions.  He understood and appreciated this fact. The dean named the four areas: Professionalism – in which I was cited as impeccable; relationships with parents: strong and positive; relationships with students; strong and positive; relationships with faculty: this was the one which did me in.  The dean then asked me to choose the one area in which believed myself to be not as strong.  I chose relationships with faculty.  He agreed.

As the meeting proceeded to its conclusion, the dean stated the following:  “You give a lot to this community.  Continue to reach for things.” I think that in my entire 20-year teaching career, this is the nicest thing that any member of senior administration  has said to me.  Not only was it reassuring to be recognized for my contributions in the present realm, but also to faith and confidence for what I have to offer in future endeavors.

With that, I will definitely continue to reach for things.

Exploring My Leadership Capacities Part 2

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Recently, I had the pleasure of participating on a re-accreditation team for NEASC – New England Association of Schools and Colleges.  It is something that I have wanted to do for several years. In fact, I even put in a request to my head of school. Well, I guess he had forgotten about it, and, so had I.  Until last June, that is.  I participated in a leadership seminar for educators of color, at which time one of the participants asked about re-accreditation teams.  Little did I know that all that was needed was for the head of school placing a phone call to the regional association, and putting said educator on a list.  With that, I sent a request to my head of school via email, expressing my interest, and, reminding him of my previous request and prior expression of interest.  My name was subsequently placed on “The List”. That was June 2013.

Fast-forward to December 2013: I received an email from a staff member of NEASC, informing me that I had been invited to participate on a re-accreditation team in April 2014!  I was half-way to realizing another goal.

Fast-forward to April 2014:  I arrived in Boston on Sunday April 6.  The other six members of the team – some experienced, some not so much, like me, enjoyed a nice dinner. The next three days, we were hard at work: visiting classes, interviewing teachers, students, staff, and parents, reviewing reports, collecting data, and writing.  Once the school  day ended, it was back at the hotel for dinner, and then several hours of meetings to discuss the information collected, and, more writing.

The work was challenging, the days full, and the nights long. Additionally, it was one of the best professional development opportunities I have experienced to-date.  My team members were smart, hard-working, and conscientious, and, despite many of us not knowing each other from Adam or Eve, we worked well together, enjoyed many moments of levity, and, produced a quality re-accreditation document for the school under review.

I think that if one enjoys –  the process of curriculum design, development, implementation, and review; research and writing; and projects that involve creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication –  participating on a re-accreditation team is an experience in which to partake.

So…What If the Rest of Us Are Struggling???

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Over the course of my career, I have been involved in regularly-scheduled grade-level meetings in order to discuss struggling learners.  While I appreciate the opportunity to receive updates on kids, whether or not I teach them, I don’t appreciate the tenor such meetings have taken at times.

For example, a colleague may say that he or she isn’t having a problem behaviorally or academically with the student in question.  And, that is often where the conversation ends for that particular student.  Rather than end the conversation at this juncture, let’s take it to the next level: If a teacher is having success with a particular student, he or she should be asked to SHARE what’s working.  Keeping such information to oneself makes a teacher look and sound superior.  Moreover, it shuts down a conversation which is about the students, and not about the teacher.

Let’s encourage each other to NOT be that teacher by asking our colleagues what they are doing to contribute to the success of kids with whom other teachers on the team may be struggling.  After all, it’s Each One Teach 100.

My Interpretation of the Third Narrative

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My colleague posted the following.  Please go over to his blog, and read. Whether or not you are an educator, each of us has direct, first-hand experience with schools, whether they be public or private.

I posted the following in response to my colleague’s post.

Excellent summation, Mr. Thinnes. :)

The following resounded the most with me:

“We all already agree that what happens in preschool, is what should happen in preschool. And what happens in preschool is that every child’s needs and interests are identified, and they’re served, while they all function together as a cohort. And that happens again in post-graduate education. And the mystery is why that doesn’t happen in between.”

“What should be concerned about? What should we advocate for? What do we need from education?”

To be certain, there’s a lot that is wrong today with public education. I do, think, however, having taught in independent schools over the course of my 20-year education career – my fourth to-date at the moment – we must neither think nor suggest that all that is right and good is in the independent school arena, and that what they have is the ultimate goal for public schools. It isn’t. To the contrary, there is a lot that is wrong in independent schools, too. Aspects, perhaps, can and should be adopted, but, not the full package. As I said, I have taught in four independent schools.

A dear friend and colleague who consults regularly in independent schools, and, who is forging meaningful public-independent school alliances around the country, can co-sign on what I am saying. Additionally, he can tell you that at a recent gathering of public and independent schools, the independent school heads had mic-dropping responses to the things that their public school counterparts are accomplishing. Many independent-public school alliances are based on independent schools “allowing” public schools to use their facilities, and inviting them to events. That’s noblesse oblige. Rather, it’s about real dialogue between public and independent school teachers.  After all, in the final analysis, what public and independent school educators do isn’t all that different.

The thing that public schools are doing far better than independent schools is managing the diversity that walks through the door. Independent schools, on the other hand, are wringing their hands, ignoring it, avoiding it, hoping it all goes away. The fact of the matter is: the waters of diversity are swirling around independent schools, and are becoming ever deeper. If they’re not careful, they’ll be subsumed by the tsunami that this diversity is bringing.  The fact of the matter is: Independent schools can no longer ignore it.

One of the many things I learned during my two-year progressive graduate school experience is that lasting and enduring change is homegrown. That is to say, each school must examine what is good, what is lacking, and what is needed to fill the void. So, while a school may replicate, modify, or do a mashup of what is happening at the independent school in the vicinity, it needs to create its own model, from scratch. That is what works best at the end of the proverbial day.

Those are my thoughts on this fine Sunday.  And, I wasn’t even planning to post an entry today.

Leading from Within

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I had the awesome privilege to participate in the #CoachingLeaders @twitter chat, which takes place every Thursday from 9-10 p.m.  I learned so much from those who are far more expert than I am on the topic of leadership. At the same time, felt that I held my own in a conversation in which I am merely an emergent leader.

Here are some of the thoughts I tweeted during the conversation. The topic, by the way, was conflict in leadership:

1.  Low morale, lots of hateful gossip in the break room, and passive-aggressive behavior cause and exacerbate conflict in leadership.

2.  Depending on the day, leadership styles overlap.  In other words, we possess each of them : competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding.

3.  I would think that an effective leader needs to leverage all five, depending on the day, and on the situation.

4.  Leading is challenging.  It takes a LOT of emotional intelligence.

5.  When a leader avoids conflict, in my experience, it means the leader lacked skills, confidence, and/or self-esteem.  Result: Feared his/her employees.

6.  Leaders need strong Emotional Intelligence.  Cannot be stated enough.

7.  A strong indicator of a leader’s leadership style is how he/she interacts with others on a regular basis. Is it combative, or collaborative?

8.  To manage conflict, an effective leader needs to establish trust, listen authentically, and bring about collaboration and compromise.

I think I have the right ideas re: leadership.  Over the course of a 20 year teaching career, I have had ample opportunity to observe others in leadership positions, and I have been very mindful re: what they did well and not-so-well.  Make no mistake: Experience is a powerful teacher.

That being said, as a classroom teacher, I am a leader in my own right, and in that capacity, I have made many mistakes.  Through it all, the most powerful lesson I have learned about leadership, and teaching, for that matter, is the quality of my relationships with people.  In my immediate sphere of influence, that would be the kids.

An educator, whether she be a teacher or an administrator, can use the aforementioned eight points as a template for informing and guiding her relationships with people, and, ultimately, her style of leadership, especially in times of conflict.  In other words, she can begin by leading from within.

#LeadingFromWithin