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


Like many schools, periodic grade-level meetings are held at my place of employ 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 take 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.

Of course, some of the onus of the responsibility for conversations proceeding in the aforementioned manner rests with the senior administrator who is facilitating the meeting.  He or she must encourage a culture of inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness. After all it’s Each One Teach 100.

A pair of bootstraps is all you will ever need


Ever since NPR published an article on grit almost two weeks ago, news outlets and individuals alike have written about it – most presenting arguments in opposition. In fact, NPR has gotten a fair amount of mileage from the topic, having broadcast several articles on the subject.

I am not going to re-hash the topic of grit here on this blog. Plenty of people have posted their perspectives in recent days, and a Google search will lead you to those conversations. I will, however, leave you with the following quote, which, for me, bottles the answer:

None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody – a parent, a teacher, an Ivy League crony or a few nuns – bent down and helped us pick up our boots.
~Thurgood Marshall, United States Supreme Court Justice

Having privilege, e.g. gender, race and/or socioeconomic, doesn’t hurt, either.

My Interpretation of the Third Narrative


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 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


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. 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, 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.  Takes a LOT of emotional intelligence.

5.  When a leader avoids conflict, in my experience, it means the leader lacked skills, confidence, 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.  


How Do You Come To Compassion?


In an exchange of Twitter emails recently regarding a pending project, a colleague asked me the following question: “How do you come to compassion?”

I had asked her questions related to her own professional work on the topic.  Here is my answer:

How did I come to compassion? Over 20 years, working with young people.  My own practice was greatly transformed when I attended a five-day workshop in 2006 at Landmark College in Brattleboro, VT.  The workshop – “Teaching a Foreign Language to Students with Learning Disabilities” – didn’t have compassion as its man premise.  On the other hand, as I interacted with my colleagues, and reflected on my own practice and relationships with kids, I realized that I needed to develop greater compassion for the kids I taught, and, on a different level, greater compassion for myself.  Working with struggling learners is enriching, but it is also emotionally draining.  Especially when teachers often don’t get much support, training, and guidance from the educational leaders at our respective schools.

Additionally, I find that teaching compassion to the middle and high school students that I teach on a daily basis gives me hope.  They are willing recipients, more often than not, than adults.  So, when you mentioned your work, my interest was piqued.  To that end, I would like to get some sort of compassion training program going with the middle schoolers at my place of employ.  It would dovetail nicely with equity and social justice initiatives, and, compassion is a wonderful platform on which to build.  There’s already a H.I.P.P. initiative, and has been for about ten years or so. While a good program, it doesn’t really go deeply enough with respect to compassion.
Along with developing greater compassion in my teaching, I am learning to have greater self-compassion.  That includes knowing when I have reached my emotional capabilities when trying to support others.  As a person in a helping profession, I think we do, in fact, develop a superhero mindset.  In reality, we cannot and will not save everyone.  The older I get, the more I am realizing the truism of this fact.  To that end, I am currently investigating compassion and mindfulness training for teachers programs  - here and here.  In the meantime, I am re-considering those yoga classes.

Pound Cake as Teacher


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.

Privilege + Cell Phone = Knowledge


As a language teacher, one of the skills that I am striving to instill in my students is that of learner initiative, which embodies the intellectual curiosity and drive to seek the answers to questions.

Some background:  I teach at an independent school, where the student body consists of students of comfortable socio-economic privilege.  Additionally, all of them have at least one electronic device – an iPod Touch, or an iPhone or a smartphone.

In spite of the above, I find my students to be quite disinclined in this respect.  In other words, it is far easier for them to ask me how to say this, that or a third in Spanish, than it is for them to show learner initiative and look up the word in question.  Unfortunately, there is much learned helplessness amongst the privileged.

Having contemplated the aforementioned situation for some time, I decided to ask my students the following question:

“How many of you have a smartphone or iPhone with you, right now?” In a class of 15 students – seventh graders to be exact – every hand went up.

Just as I had thought, I said to myself.

Following this unsurprising discovery, I made the following statement:

“As United States citizens, we have virtually unlimited access to information.  And yet, we’re amongst the world’s most ignorant citizenry.”

::Crickets chirping::

I continued:  

“I won’t do the work that you can do on your own.  As beginning language students, it is important for you to develop the initiative to learn independently.  That means seeking out answers when you need them.  When you need to know a word, look it up.  In the palm of your hand, you have an infinite wealth of information.  Use it.”

Privilege + cell phone = knowledge

Superheroe Burnout


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.”

Women of color aren’t even considered bossy


Women of color aren’t even considered bossy. We’re considered bitches when we assert ourselves in ways that are similar to white women. Not only that, our race/ethnicity almost always precedes bitch.

If that’s how people see me – a Black bitch – I’ll wear it proudly. It means more about what they fear about me than what is lacking in me.

Why is it that white feminists seem to have nothing better to do than take words like bossy and make them a social justice issue?!?  I don’t have time for that.

Been There, Done That, Regretted It, Learned From It…



I think almost every teacher has been there: a class of students that seems destined to steal your joy, ruin your day, and sabotage your career.  It’s the class that makes a teacher’s stomach knot, head throb, heart pound, knees buckle, and skin become cold and clammy and sweaty.  And, these symptoms are brought on by merely thinking about the class.

A colleague and friend finds herself in the above predicament. Yours Truly has found herself in the above predicament at several points in her teaching career.  It could have been my body language, an unkind word, a terse reply. It could have been that I was feeling tired, cold, hot, unsupported, fearful, sad, lonely. Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, I had gotten on the wrong side of my students.  They talked badly about me to other students, and, perhaps, even other teachers.  They didn’t listen. They made teaching every day for a certain number of hours a day the most stressful hours of the day.  In a word: They didn’t like me.

When the critical tipping point presented itself – proverbial moment of truth – the time at which my gut was telling me that something was wrong, and that something I said or did caused it - didn’t acknowledge it until much later.  I was in denial that I had done anything to cause my students’ wrath.  In fact, sometimes, even oftentimes, I did not recognize it until years later when I had departed from a particular school, and a particular class of students has long graduated high school, college, and perhaps have started careers and families of their own.

It’s very difficult to acknowledge when you’ve messed up.  Especially when one is in a leadership position, and being a teacher is being in a leadership position.  On the other hand, it was when I embraced my humanity, and, fully acknowledged all of the things I had ever said and done to students that were unhelpful, unkind, and unwarranted, I began to grow and to transform in my teaching, and, in my relationships with students.  To finally acknowledge it is painful; after all, I was the teacher.  I was to have provided the best example.  Instead, I had failed.  Miserably.

But, there is life after getting on the wrong side of students.

So, I say to my Dear Colleague:

1.  Give yourself a big hug.  After all, you are human.

2.   Forgive yourself.

3.  Share with and gain support from people who know, love, respect you.

4.  Acknowledge, learn, grow, and transform.

5.  Things won’t change immediately.  In fact, the process of change may take years.

6.   Virtually every teacher has been where you are now.

7.   It does get better.