When We’re Ready to Hear, Reflect, and Act

Recently, I assigned my Twosies an end-of-term project.  The project requires them to apply their learning and understanding of verbs, grammar structures and vocabulary related to sports. They have a week to complete it, and, is worth 30% of their grade.  The 30% caught the attention 0f my department chair, who emailed me, wanting to know more about the project.  I sent her the handout and rubric given to the students, with the following comments:

Is 30% too much? Should it be less? I’m wondering if I’m placing too much weight and importance on it.

I have attached the documents I gave to the students.

I want to distribute the grade for the project to include speaking and writing, which are the central areas of focus.

After a time, my department chair emailed a rather lengthy response. While it acknowledged the positive use of an alternative assessment via a poster project, it also  prompted me to re-examine my practice by taking the proverbial deep dive, which is something I had not done in a long time, and, which presented something of a curricular crisis for me. And, it was instructive.  I read my department chair’s words, and deeply contemplated each of her questions.  Following this re-examination and deep contemplation, I made significant changes to better support the students, including significantly lowering the weight of the project, providing time in class for students to work, and allowing students to construct their sentences in advance and receive feedback – changes prompted by the thoughtful questions and comments of my department chair.

But, perhaps the things that truly surprised me the most were these:

1.  The fact that I reached out to my department chair, via the questions I asked; and

2.  The fact that I did not take her questions and comments personally, i.e. I am a “bad teacher.” Although I did take her questions and comments to heart, I realized that the questions and comments were issued out of respect for me as a colleague, out of concern for me regarding the potentially heavy workload I was creating for myself end-of-term, and, what is in the best interest of the student population at our place of employ.

3. The above two points signal a significant and positive shift in my own professionalism, and one which I am not sure I was ready to make even one or two years ago.

Following the email exchange between my department chair and me, I immediately emailed my students, informing them of the changes I was making. I then emailed my department chair, and informed her of what I had done.  Some time later, my department chair emailed me, praising me for re-examining my practice. Additionally, she re-affirmed that the choice of a poster project focusing on writing and oral presentation was a good alternative means of assessment.


Don’t Ever Let Anyone Take Your Tighten-Up Away From You*

Yesterday morning at about 8:30 am, I lay awake in my bed, contemplating my next move. You see, it was Sunday, the last day of a ten-day holiday vacation. So, I was feeling somewhat down as it was because of this fact. Add to it that it had snowed a bit the day and night before, and, it was cold. My dilemma? I needed groceries. I could make do with what I had, but, the thought of having no orange juice in the refrigerator became less and less appealing.

After tossing around the pros and cons of remaining in bed versus orange juice in the refrigerator, I got up out of my warm, electric-blanket-fueled bed. And what did I do? I shined my boots and shoes: two pairs of the former, and one pair of the latter. As much as I like clean and freshly-shined shoes, it was a chore I had put off since my vacation began two weeks prior. With that task out of the way, and that brick off my mind, I proceeded to dress and head out to the store. But, before I could roll the Toaster out of the parking space, I had to de-snow and de-ice first. As I looked around the parking lot, while removing snow and ice with my Sno-Broom, I noticed all of my neighbors who I hoped would act with the same presence of mind that I had. Let’s face it: Cleaning off an icy, snowy car early on a Monday isn’t getting me all twitterpated.

Thus began a productive Sunday afternoon. As productive as I had had in several Sundays. And, to think it all began with orange juice.

*From, “A Huey P. Newton Story.”

Staying in my lane

Since the beginning of the Fall Term at school, I have been in a deep, reflective groove. In particular, a conversation with someone with whom I have been acquainted over ten years dropped some important knowledge on me re: stepping up to senior administrative positions in independent schools. That conversation, which lasted almost one hour, led me to the following conclusions about myself, both professionally, and personally.

a. Listening more, and saying less. The things I think are good and right to say may prove too much for those receiving them. They may not be ready.

b. Asking more questions, rather than providing all of the answers. I need to be more about helping folks to do their own thinking, and putting their own work in.

c. Being more humble, rather than feeling the need to be right, or always feeling the need to prove that I am right.

d. Feeling like I am the only one who can change things. The folks running the institution, in this case, a school, have insights and facts that I don’t have. Moreover, even Dr. King had help. In fact, he had the strength and power of an entire movement. Besides, being the only one concerned about changing things – especially in these independent schools – is emotionally and physically exhausting and draining.

e. Staying more in my lane. In other words: What have I been charged to do where I am? Is there opportunity to do more of what I want to do where I am? And, if not, where can I go to find it?

By the way, I teach Spanish

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

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???

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

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.