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.

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

Pound Cake as Teacher

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I have been baking since I was about 3 years old.  For Christmas 1968, my Dear Parents gifted me with a Susie Homemaker oven.  A short time thereafter, I made my first cake.  Since then, I have baked about 100 cakes – all types and for all occasions.  My favorite cakes to bake, however, are celebration cakes, for birthdays and holidays.   February of each year begins the cake baking season with my Dear Brother’s birthday, followed by my Dear Mother’s birthday in March, followed by the birthday of Yours Truly in April, followed  by Easter, then Mother’s Day, then Father’s Day, then July 4th, then Dear Dad’s birthday in September, followed by Christmas.

Today, March 17, is my Dear Mother’s birthday, for whom I bake her favorite cake: A southern pound cake.  For all of its denseness, making a pound cake is a precise and fragile process: Flour and sugar must be accurately measured; butter, eggs and sour cream carefully brought to room temperature; and everything combined by not over-beating or under -beating.

Other than the love I have for my Dear Mother, and the immense joy I receive in baking her favorite cake each year, why do I do it?  I guess it is a desire to master something other than an intellectual pursuit.  Earlier this morning, I was reading a website the: the 13 things not to do when making a pound cake.  I have made many pound cakes.  Why would this information matter? It’s borne of the motivation and drive to do it better, each time.  It’s also borne of the desire to to nourish my intellectual curiosity, to learn the how’s and why’s of a technique or a process.

I suppose it’s the sort of desire for mastery that I want for each of my students to aspire to: To simply to make something better, to learn “just because”, and to experience satisfaction from a job well-done.

Superheroe Burnout

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I engaged in the following Twitter conversation on my timeline last evening. I was feeling overwhelmed by all of the tweets re: social injustices of various types slamming my timeline. I was also feeling inadequate in my support of a friend suffering from a newly-diagnosed and very serious health condition.

ME: “Feeling a bit sick, tired, and emotionally drained.  I bet superheroes don’t feel this way.”

TWEEP: “Oh, no! I bet even superheroes have an off day.”

ME:  Ha, ha! Thanks for commenting, and for reminding me that I can, in fact, hang up my superheroe cape once in a while.”

TWEEP: “We all have to hang up that cape from time to time.”

ME: “Ha! So true.”