Be Careful How Often You Help Someone

What happens when you’ve helped someone in the past – not once, not twice, but several times – only to learn with further reflection and input that, maybe you shouldn’t have?

Recently, my Dear Mother asked me about an acquaintance.  This person is someone with whom I taught for about a year, at which point she was released from her position for sub-standard performance.  Since then, she has struggled with landing another teaching position.

My Dear Mother asked me if I had communicated with the acquaintance recently. I told her that I had not. In fact, the last time the acquaintance and I communicated was via a text message in late August. We were supposed to have lunch, but, as it turned out, she needed to head out-of-town to assist with her ailing mother.  I jokingly told my Dear Mother that I most likely would not hear from the acquaintance until the next time she needs something.

Which made me think: This person has asked me for things on several occasions.  Moreover, they were big asks, like: writing a letter of recommendation; serving as a reference; proofing a cover letter; providing her with a copy of a resume and a statement of philosophy; and offering suggestions for a lesson plan for an interview.

My Dear Mother raised a good point: This acquaintance is someone I really don’t know well, at least, not well enough to have offered myself as a reference, or, to have provided a letter of recommendation.  Still, I did those things, and more.  And yet, they are things I would not have asked of the acquaintance if the roles had been reversed.

So…why did I help the acquaintance? She was down and out, as they say, and seemed to need support and resources. I was able to supply both, and did so without expecting anything in return.  I thought it was the right thing to do at the time.

My Dear Mother’s suggestion? The next time the acquaintance phones me in need of something, I need to have a candid talk with her. My Dear Mother is correct. I don’t feel I was taken advantage of by the acquaintance, since I chose to help.  That said, I do feel in hindsight that the amount of support and resources I extended to the acquaintance was far more than I should have allowed in light of my relationship with her: I don’t really know her.

I need to learn to say no.


Drive-By Conversation

A recent meeting/conversation about eighth graders, grades, and learner outcomes left me feeling very frustrated.  Here’s why:

  1. We were presented with a document, created by another school leader several years ago, and asked to comment on it.  Mind you: Each of us was given only about a minute to speak.
  2. The original document was prepared by the school leader in question in response to perceptions that the eighth graders at that time were “not working hard enough”, and, the teachers assessing them at the time were, “too soft”, as it was believed that there were, “too many” ‘A’ grades.
  3. Related to #2, the eighth graders were not being appropriately prepared for the “rigors” of the grade nine program. In actuality, there is not much that is truly different between the eighth and ninth grade programs.
  4. The conversation deserved much more time that it was given, as it involved school culture, beliefs about how students learn, how teachers should teach, and how students should be assessed. In fact, such a conversation is truly a full-year conversation.
  5. It raised questions about what we should expect of students – especially students who, in large part, present with a variety of learning challenges, coupled with anxiety and depression resulting from the learning challenges.
  6. School leaders are generally not well-grounded in multiple pedagogies.

I attempted to raise some points in order to elevate the conversation to a different plane.  But colleagues, and the school leader presiding, didn’t seem interested in having a philosophical conversation in order to get at the real issues.  All of which made it feel very much like the drive-by conversation that it was, and in turn will produce another drive-by solution, if one can call it a solution.

Our students deserve much better.

Disrupting the Self

I’ve been reading a lot lately about “disrupting” oneself. And, although I am not fond of such 21st-century corporate-speak techy terms, it, nevertheless, captures what I have been thinking, feeling and experiencing recently.

The day after Thanksgiving, I had a rather painful conversation with my Dear Mom. Though offered in love, her words forced me to face a painful albeit inconvenient truth about myself: I lack the necessary emotional intelligence to move myself to the next phase in my life.  My career coach alluded to the same about two months ago, and yet, it all didn’t become clearly solidified until Friday morning at the kitchen table in my dear parents’ home.

I am also recognizing that I perhaps missed my calling in several respects: I should have been a doctor, or, an engineer, or, even a cook/chef.  Not to say that I haven’t found teaching gratifying in many respects.  I am good with kids, but, not because it comes naturally to me. On the contrary: it doesn’t. Rather, I have worked hard to develop and sustain my relationships with youth, and have learned a lot about myself in the process.  But, I am forced to work too hard at it at times, as it demands a lot of me mentally and emotionally. Interpersonal relationships don’t come easily to me.

On the other hand, I am realizing, at 50 and a half, that I enjoy the creative aspects of teaching and learning more: the research, critical thinking, planning, collaboration, implementation and evaluation that go into developing effective curricula. Especially when it comes to helping educators take the necessary risks to become better for their students, with the end-goal of  improving teaching and learning. Moreover, am growing wearier of the mundane aspects of middle/high school teaching life.

In fact, a dear friend and colleague – who is a consulting psychologist – stated in a recent and all-too-brief conversation (I enjoy her company, support and advice) that my leadership voice as a trainer/presenter/workshop leader may prove more viable than in a more traditional senior administration role. Relating to people in the former role is more organic. Which is perhaps why I enjoy giving presentations and workshops to adults.

All that being said, I am finally facing the realization, with the help and love and support of my Dear Mom, that I need to develop the same skills to work productively with adults that I have to work productively with kids. Working successfully with adults in my day-to-day habitat has, in the words of my Dear Dad, been “up and down”, for reasons that are inbred in the culture of independent schools, and, for reasons that are my own shortcomings of personality and temperament.  Regardless, I need to develop stronger emotional intelligence. Now, all I need to do is determine the best way to do it.


When the survival instincts kick in

How does one mentor, coach and lead oneself through a bad uncomfortable situation?

At one point in my career, my place of employ was undergoing a five-year strategic planning process.  I have my own thoughts about the efficacy of strategic plans, and how they relate to independent schools. But, I will leave it there for the time being.

On the morning of the second installment of the strategic planning process, I was already feeling skeptical, detached, and a lack of investment.  I anticipated, based on what I had noted from the two pre-strategic planning meetings, that there would be no significant component involving the recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color, faculty and staff of color in senior leadership positions, recruitment of students of color (mind you, the independent school in question resides in an urban area), and, developing a more positive and productive relationship with the community, which is two-thirds people of color.

Oh, how I do hate being right about such things…

The core group – 30 faculty, administrators, and “friends of the school” – had devoted the entirety of the previous day planning for the second installment.  One of their activities was developing five focus areas. To my lack of surprise, there was not one focus area dedicated to discuss diversity/multiculturalism/race.  Not. one. This created a significant dilemma for myself and two colleagues – who represented three-fifths of the Black faculty and staff. We. had. nothing.  Not that conversing about enrollment, or financial viability, or academics, or community relations, or, even progressive education, were beyond our capacity.  Of course it wasn’t. What was, however, beyond our comprehension, not to mention very frustrating and disappointing, was that the core group didn’t seem to think it necessary or important to discuss diversity/multiculturalism/race.

The process facilitator came to lend guidance and support. After about ten minutes, my two colleagues decided to participate in the community relations conversation. I decided to participate in the progressive education conversation.  Having experience and expertise with the topic, having taught for six years at at a progressive school, I thought I could engage productively, despite how I was feeling at that moment.

The progressive education conversation – which lasted about one hour – was engaging.  At the end of the hour, the group – there were seven of us – had surfaced what I thought were significant talking points: external community perception, national reach and significance, the institution as a leader in professional development re: progressive education, and the why of progressive education for teaching and learning. However, for the second hour, despite the aforementioned, the only topic that the other six members of the group could lock onto in any substantive way was to discuss the creation of a community perception survey.  Which was very telling for me on many levels.  I very much wanted to discuss in greater depth what the first hour of conversation had surfaced, and, somehow, bring the diversity/multiculturalism/race aspect into the conversation. But, I was unable to find a way in. It was at this point that my survival instincts kicked in. As the only person of color, it was once again, and by default, my job to raise the “R” question.  And, let me tell you, it’s exhausting.

Given my personal and professional dilemma, I decided to defer to the will of the other members, and let them have their conversation and discuss their survey. Sometimes, it is best not to say anything. I remained as engaged as I could – nodding appropriately, smiling, and looking at each of the group members as they spoke.  I was invited to “get in” to the conversation – mind you, after 20 minutes – but, I was invited, nonetheless. I declined by saying with a smile, “Not at this time, thank you.”

At the conclusion of the two-hour strategic planning session, the process facilitator asked me how things went. I told her the first hour was good, but the second hour, not so much. I explained my dilemma to introduce the race question.  She said, “But you have got to raise them.” Perhaps she was right.

On the one hand, I was disappointed in myself: I should have, in fact, taken the risk, and raised the topic. Being a person of color, born and raised in the United States, there are things I see and experience that many White Americans simply don’t, precisely because they are not of color. And, taking up the proverbial mantle, even when it’s uncomfortable, may be the only chance at true revelation that my White colleagues will have at that moment in time.

On the other hand, the sort of mentoring I provided was to myself: One of self-care and self-preservation.

The leadership? I need to get to Cali, and, to a workshop. But, perhaps, a different workshop.

Being a Kinda-Sorta CI Teacher

This past summer, I embarked on a journey to drastically alter my approach to teaching foreign language. Frustrated by the fact that many of my students simply were not making the degree of progress I desired, due to struggles with mastering grammar structures and large quantities of vocabulary, compounded by learning challenges, I decided to explore TPRS – Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.

Actually, I decided to explore TPRS, yet again.  A teacher I met during a five-day workshop in Vermont back in 2006 was using TPRS successfully, and recommended that I check it out.  When I returned from Vermont, I signed up for a day-long training which happened to be taking place locally.  Unfortunately, the experience was a disaster. The training in and of itself was fine.  On the other hand, the workshops at the time gave teachers the false impression that they would become TPRS masters the minute they returned to their classrooms in September.  Not. true.  Overwhelmed and frustrated, I abandoned TPRS before the fall midterm.

The truth??? TPRS takes a very long time to learn and fully master, requiring many hours of training, coaching and practice, not to mention attending conferences and workshops, and purchasing materials. All of which can become quite expensive. So, for me, there is a strong privilege dimension to TPRS and CI: If one has ample access to release time and funding, support from enlightened administrators, and, is geographically situated in close proximity to TPRS coaches, one can make great progress. If not, the path is difficult at best.

To the credit of those who are responsible for training teachers on how to use TPRS, the workshops, information and resources have come a considerable distance since 2006. Furthermore, there is greater understanding on the part of TPRS trainers regarding what is actually required of a teacher to become fluent in TPRS. That sort of understanding did not seem to exist in 2006.

Anyway, from June until August of this past summer, I devoted many hours to learning about TPRS and CI – Comprehensible Input – via reading of TPRS/CI teacher blogs, watching YouTube videos of TPRS/CI classrooms, purchasing a teacher resource book, and examining sample curriculum materials.  I like and appreciate many of the tenets of TPRS; the method resonates to a large degree with my own philosophy on how teachers should teach language, how students should learn language, how students should be assessed, and on language acquisition. Conversely, there are some challenges and dilemmas with my current situation preventing me from adopting TPRS and the accompanying resources whole hog:

  1. My language department is currently a textbook-driven language department in levels one through three.
  2. My colleagues in the department are not currently TPRS/CI adopters.  Therefore, I have decided that it is nice to work cooperatively with my colleagues, since the students I teach in grades seven and eight – Spanish 1 and 2, respectively, move on to them.
  3. I am, therefore, limited in my capacity to deviate too much.

So, after many hours of exploration, reflection and deep contemplation of TPRS and Comprehensible Input – of which the former is just one delivery method of the latter – I decided that full adoption of TPRS is not the appropriate path for me at the present time. This being said, many good things have emerged in my teaching as a result of the hard work I did this past summer:

  1. I have learned to slow my delivery considerably when speaking Spanish to my students.
  2. I am more intentional about using Personalized Questions and Answers – one of the hallmarks of TPRS – to provide comprehensible input, and to develop interpersonal skills, with a focus on listening and speaking skills.
  3. I am checking for understanding more regularly and consistently, via formative assessment, i.e. warm ups and exit tickets.
  4. I am more committed to staying in the target language, and striving to achieve 90% time in Spanish for me and my students during class time.
  5. I am focusing more on developing reading, writing and listening skills.
  6. I am focusing less on vocabulary and grammar structures for assessment purposes.
  7. I am using #authres (authentic resources) I have been reticent to use in the past, such as songs and commercials.

Therefore, I am a Kinda-Sorta CI Teacher. Perhaps to the hard-line TPRS purists, this is problematic.  However, I have arrived at a comfortable place for the time being, and, I am okay with it.

Critical Friends Group® Coach and Facilitator – FINALLY!

I say, “finally”, because it was about five years from the time I informed my former head of school of my interest and desire, to actually being invited by the then-director of professional development to attend a five-day, 40-hour training. I will leave it there.

On the other hand, the experience thus far has mostly been what I expected.  I enjoy working with my co-faciliator/coach, and working with new teachers and teachers new to my school.

Having said the aforementioned, I cannot lie: There are times when the coaching and facilitating experiences at my school have not been as robust and as rigorous as what I experienced during training. To that end, I now desire to expand my coaching and facilitation skills beyond the Critical Friends Group® model, and obtain training in instructional coaching. Specifically, through the National Equity Project.  Here is what I have my eyes on at the present time.

So, Year 1 is in the bag, and Year 2 is underway.