Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!

Super Teacher's Job is Never Done!
Photo courtesy of

Teaching is the profession that teaches all the other professions. ~ Author Unknown

My goal is to reveal one teacher's humble journey of self-reflection, critical analysis, and endless questioning about my craft of teaching and learning alongside my middle school students.

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'." ~ Dan Rather

Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Struggle for Respect and Power: A Student Teacher's Story

It is my hope that my blog can be a place for teachers to exchange ideas and share their stories. I am fortunate enough to be in contact with a student teacher at my alma mater who is embarking on what I'm sure will be a prosperous and fulfilling teaching career. 

This teacher is allowing me to share her concerns, and please feel free to offer your thoughts and suggestions as well. Here is her story:

Your blog is wonderful, and a few of your entries really hit home for me. You actually addressed some of the issues that I have been struggling with recently. I have been in charge of my eighth grade class for about two weeks now, and as of yesterday, I found out that my students are complaining about me. I hold these students to higher standards than my cooperating teacher (i.e. I expect them to write more frequently, and I am very strict about being respectful and staying on task). One of my students told my cooperating teacher that I was a "complete b" and that I was screaming at them and tearing up kids' papers. The guidance counselor has also been getting complaints from the students that I'm too mean. 

For now, I asked my cooperating teacher not to leave the room while I am teaching because clearly I am not screaming or tearing up anything, and I don't want it to come down to my word against theirs. I am just feeling a bit attacked, because I don't think I have the support of the guidance counselor. I am also a little taken aback, because my cooperating teacher and professors specifically told me that they thought my classroom management and professionalism in the classroom were admirable. I know that the students are bored with the curriculum, but I am struggling to find ways to make it more meaningful to them, as my cooperating teacher has a routine that I am being expected to follow. I haven't been given any really useful advice by my cooperating teacher on this matter. The students clearly do not think that I am on their side, which I know is a huge problem. 

Like you said, however, I am struggling to establish an atmosphere of respect in a school where the students have no conception of apropriate behavior or the way to speak properly to a teacher, especially a young woman. I think the school culture encourages students to complain about teachers without really having any accountability for their own behavior. I know that my students resent the fact that so far I have expected them to stay on task and to show far more respect than their previous teacher demanded. I was wondering if you have any advice on this issue. Thank you again for all of your helpful advice!


Wow -- so much of what she is talking about here resonates clearly with my experiences in the classroom.

First off, I believes she NEEDS to let her cooperating teacher and college professor know about all her concerns and perceptions of this situation. She must keep her communication as open and honest as possible with them.

I also think this teacher needs to have her cooperating teacher speak to the students about behavioral expectations while she is teaching and to emphasize to them directly that she is their new teacher, not just a young person temporarily filling in whom they do not need to respect or listen to. I know it can be difficult for students to take student teachers seriously, and a lot of it depends on the tone and expectations set forth by their mentor teachers.

More importantly, this teacher needs to give herself a lot of serious credit here. She has walked into a room where the students are used to doing what they want, and she knows she is holding them to HIGH expectations. She is doing them a real favor. In fact, they are probably learning more from her -- about English and how to behave -- than they were previously.

It also sounds like the students are trying to play this teacher and your cooperating teacher off each other. They are trying to play good cop vs. bad cop, just as children tend to do with two parents. This teacher needs to NOT let them see that they are getting to her or negatively affecting her. She needs to keep her tone as professional and poised as possible, as she is already doing. After all, they are children, she is the adult, and she needs to remember that. The students are not her equals, and she cannot let them fool her into that or have her thinking that she needs to negotiate with them. 

Above all, she needs to know that she is doing an amazing job in a very difficult situation! Student teaching is a challenging enough experience in and of itself without all of the unnecessary stressors and negativity she is experiencing. I remember this from my own experiences just five years ago. I encouraged her to document this experience and what she is learning from it. It will only make her a stronger and more knowledgeable teacher -- and professional -- as she begins her own teaching career.

Her response:

Your response means so much to me, thank you. Honestly, I've been feeling like a lot of blame has been coming my way and it seems like the fact that I am holding students to higher standards is negatively impacting me in terms of the way my cooperating teacher and the guidance counselor view my teaching style. I am also wondering whether it is worth it to keep emphasizing this classroom atmosphere if it is going to cause so much drama, especially in this school where there seems to be no culture of accountability. 

You are so right that the students are trying to play my cooperating teacher and I off each other. The problem is, is that I think she is letting them and doesn't really see the problem with it. For instance, when one student told her that I am a "bitch," she seemed to think it was funny in a "kids will be kids" kind of way. I was offended that she didn't tell the student that it is never appropriate to speak about a teacher that way, but that's just not the culture of this school. My friend (who is gorgeous) who is also student teaching had a twelfth grader say to her "I'm 18 and single," and her cooperating teacher thought it was funny and didn't say anything to the student. 

I have seen other instances where a student has complained to the guidance counselor about a teacher and instead of asking the student how he might have been wrong, she jumps to the student's defense and encourages this "it's not my fault" attitude. I have watched my cooperating teacher, and she allows students to not participate in class, come unprepared, and be disrespectful toward her. The fact that I don't allow this behavior is making my students see me as the "evil teacher" who is their enemy.

This student teacher has such a powerful voice here and a truly frustrating story that resonates with so many of us. Please feel free to post comments and suggestions to her on this blog! After all, as teachers, we have to be there for one another and lend our ears, knowledge, and words of wisdom whenever possible. It is time we do something to change the mentality that teaching is a profession where we "eat our young!" Change all begins here....

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Going Beyond the Call of Duty

Is there such a thing as being an "overcommitted teacher?" Can too much of a good thing be bad for you? Is there a point at which we care too much? These questions cross my mind frequently, particularly at this fragile time of the school year when standardized testing preparations and external stressors cause many educators to reach their personal and emotional limits.

Regardless of the profession one has chosen, I firmly believe in one's right to a safe, supportive, clean, and pleasant environment to work in. Each person should be able to feel comfortable and carry out their duties with limited negative external influences. Well, I happen to teach in a building that is over 30 years old whose temperature tends to vary drastically depending on the day and season. Lately, the entire building has been an ice box, especially in the basement (where I used to teach). These extreme conditions prompted one colleague to write on email on the school's listserv, "I know we can’t do much about the fact that this is an old building with an old heating system, but please can we have some heat in the downstairs science rooms? It would just make coming to work a much more pleasant experience if I could feel my extremities. Please???" This is not the first plea for heat, better air quality, or comfort on the part of our staff, and it will certainly not be the last. Frankly, it is depressing.

Aside from room temperature and air quality control issues, teachers in my building also feel a sense of desperation about student discipline and their own safety. Despite sending referrals for student physical and verbal abuse (towards themselves and staff members), rarely is anything truly done or followed through with these students. The easier response is for the administration to push these concerns "under the rug," smile, and say we are doing the best we can with these students. Are we? I really do not think so -- for the students or for ourselves. 

How on earth can teachers be expected to give their "all" to their students every day in the classroom if their fundamental needs and rights as human beings are not first honored? How can we expect them to teach the neediest students without the help, support, and follow-through of the school leadership? Why are teachers isolated and left "out to dry" rather than genuinely helped and supported? Personally, I am thankful that I have established a solid and honest enough relationship with our principal where I can now directly address these real school and staff concerns with her -- and feel like she is genuinely listening and caring about what I have to say. I had the opportunity for one such honest and open conversation this week, and it will be telling to see how she moves forward and decides to address her staff's dire concerns.

Believe me, I understand the pressure and myriad responsibilities on any administrator's plate today, but there is no excuse for any of their teachers to feel unsafe walking down the halls or in their own classrooms. Teachers in my building already go beyond the call of duty with their students every day. Now, it is time for administration to do the same and return the simple favor of mutual respect, communication, and follow-through to their professional teachers. And it can all start with working with the building services team to ensure teachers are not freezing to the point of numbness when teaching.

"I Pray for these Students Every Day"

My co-teacher will tell you that in the 30+ years she has been in the classroom, the vulgarity and disrespect demonstrated between and among her students has exacerbated every year. Even though I have only been teaching for five years, I could not agree more.

Each spring, our 8th graders love to push our buttons and stretch the boundaries to see how much they can get away with, especially our boys. Believing they are ready high school and have outgrown middle school, our boys begin showing egregious behaviors toward us, themselves, and one another. Unfortunately,  this year, it has most frequently presented itself in the forms of physical violence, sexual harassment, and profane language. Many of the girls are just as guilty too.

Take, for example, two very difficult and tough African American girls we taught last year (I had the opportunity to teach them for two years). One of them has two supportive parents, though they are going through a nasty divorce and the father continues to struggle with drug addiction. The other girl has gone home to find that her family has moved and locked the door, not informing the girl where their new home was. This "family" threatens to give the girl up for adoption every day. We did the best we could with both of these students in middle school and knew in our hearts that the latter student was not at all ready for high school. Still, on they went, and within a few months, each had been suspended multiple times.

Last week, these two students were both serving out-of-school suspensions and decided to "meet up" at a local business. In this particularly parking lot, one of these girls beat the other up, and yes, there were other students on hand who videotaped the whole incident. In fact, when one of my colleagues discussed the tragic incident with a student, the student said, "Oh yeah, I was there. Do you want to see [the fight]?" This mere question brought my colleague to tears and moved her to tell me, "I don't know what's happening with these kids. It's tragic. I have to pray for them everyday."

Pray for them we can, but how do we, as educators, instill in students a sense of civic responsibility, respect towards others, and human decency? These are lessons many of them do not receive at home, and let's face it -- we only see students for a fraction out of their entire day. The technological world we live in has made students "plugged in" all the time and capable of destroying other students' lives, reputations, and confidence with the stroke of a mouse or the flash of a camera. Too many stories inundate the news of students sending pornographic images of one another to an entire school or, in a very recent story I heard, "scooping" girls in the hallway (when male students will reach around a girl's neck and touch their chest or reach under their skirt to touch their privates as a "game"). There is absolutely no sense of self/peer respect or dignity here.

I am a firm believer of teaching by example and regularly modeling to students what respect, good citizenship, and self worth look like every day. In fact, my eighth graders are in the middle of a unit on responsibility ad recently finished performing and analyzing the play, Twelve Angry Men. In our review for their Formative Assessment next week, I am going to ask students, "What makes you want to do something to make this country a better place?" We will also extend the conversation to a more local and classroom level.

Each day, it is heartbreaking to see the vulgarity and rudeness many of my students display towards one another, both in the classroom and during unstructured time. I refuse to give up hope, though, that it is not too late for my students to recognize the harmful impact of their cruel words and actions -- and see that there is a better way to treat others and themselves. Even if I cannot control what happens in their lives outside of my school building, the least I can offer them is a safe, supportive, and respectful environment to learn in.

Friday, February 26, 2010

When God Created Teachers .... A tribute to all of us!

I have to admit that these Winter Olympics are addicting! I have managed to lose a significant amount of sleep the past two weeks staying up late to see so many amazing performances by Team USA. Always impressive and inspirational!

One of my closest friends, Jen, sent me a fun email forward last night that I had to share with you all:

On the 6th day, God created men and women.
On the 7th day, he rested, not so much to recuperate but rather to prepare himself for the work he was going to do on the next day.
For it was on that day, the 8th day, that God created the FIRST TEACHER.

This TEACHER, though taken from among men and women, had several significant modifications. In general, God made the TEACHER more durable than 
other men and women.

The TEACHER was made to arise at a very early hour and to go to bed no earlier than 11:30 p.m.- with no rest in between. The TEACHER had to be able to withstand being locked up in an air-tight classroom for six hours with thirty "monsters" on a rainy Monday. And the TEACHER had to be fit to correct 103 term papers over Easter vacation.

Yes, God made the TEACHER tough ... but gentle too.

The TEACHER was equipped with soft hands to wipe away the tears of the neglected and lonely student...of those of the sixteen year old girl who was not asked to the prom.

And into the TEACHER God poured a generous amount of patience. Patience when a student asks to repeat the directions the TEACHER has just repeated for someone else.
Patience when the kids forget their lunch money for the fourth day in a row.
Patience when one-third of the class fails the test.
Patience when the text books haven't arrived yet, and the semester starts tomorrow.

And God gave the TEACHER a heart slightly bigger than the average human heart.
For the TEACHER's heart had to be big enough to love the kid who screams, "I hate this class - it's
boring!" and to love the kid who runs out of the classroom at the end of the period without so much as
a "goodbye", let alone a "thank you."

And lastly, God gave the TEACHER an abundant supply of HOPE. For God knew that the TEACHER would always be hoping. Hoping that the kids would someday learn how to spell...
hoping not to have lunchroom duty...hoping that Friday would come... hoping for a free day.... hoping for deliverance.

When God finished creating the TEACHER, he stepped back and admired the work of his hands. And God saw that the TEACHER was good. Very Good! And God smiled, for when he looked at the TEACHER, he saw into the future.

He knew that the future is in the hands of the TEACHERS.
And because God loves Teachers so much, on the 9th day God created "Snow Days."


Thank you to all of the teachers out there committed to making a real difference in the lives of our students, one day at a time. GO us!!!!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Putting the Fun and "Play" Back into Learning

Well, I'm now another year older and hopefully wiser! I am hopeful that my 27th year will be the best yet, both in and out of my classroom. And yes, I did finish my marathon to end breast cancer on Sunday, and my right foot is still complaining (I'm afraid I may have some form of plantar fasciitis and am trying to rest and use ice baths!). Being forced to not run has given me the opportunity to put some long hours back in my classroom this week and really think about the idea of learning -- and how to make it enjoyable, fun, and worthwhile again for my middle school students.

Thanks to the T440 alumni listserv from Harvard, I am sent many ideas and reflections on learning, teaching, and questioning students regularly. One such email reached my inbox a few days ago, where a fellow alumnus had discovered a very intriguing and well-written article from The New York Times from earlier this month. Always a fan of insightful Op-Eds, I read and surprised myself at what I came away with.

Basically, the article stated that to truly motivate students, we have to incorporate the idea of "play" again into their learning from a young age. And no, that should not stop once they enter kindergarten and become swamped with endless state and national tests every year. While it is refreshing to see that the Obama administration is wanting to overhaul the way we measure schools' success and how federal money is allocated, the emphasis still needs to be on providing the right resources to underserved students and training our teachers to be the best educators possible for their learners. As we approach mandated state testing early next month, many of my colleagues are at the breaking point with stress and frustration levels as they try to "cram and cover" everything in their subject area's voluntary state and county curricula. Why the stress? Teachers have become "test-obsessed" while students continue to be bred as "testing machines." Where, I continually ask, has all the fun gone in their learning??

In her article, Susan Engel writes that we are strangled and confined with our current state of teaching and learning -- and the testing that drives it. This testing obsession completely undermines the developmental needs of students and prevents them from learning early on what truly matters: developing ways of thinking and behaving that will ultimately lead to valuable skills and knowledge in their adolescence and beyond.

It is next to impossible for educators today to envision any classroom free from the exhaustive list of objectives and skills confining students and teachers and devoted instead to a few key, prioritized goals and outcomes. From a literacy standpoint, Engel writes, "A school day where every child is given ample opportunities to read and discuss books would give teachers more time to help those students who need more instruction in order to become good readers." In this kind of alternative, student-centered classroom, students would write about subjects that had real meaning to them and thereby learn to use writing as a meaningful means of communication rather than an activity focused on "getting the A."

Alongside this invaluable engagement with literature would be the opportunity for teachers to work with small groups of students to further probe their thinking. Students would be asked to critically think about their learning with open-ended and analytical questions that would invite rich discussion and active connection with the material. Could such activities be meaningful? Of course. Connected to the right kinds of learning goals and outcomes? Yes. Fun and enjoyable for students? Absolutely. In fact, I would argue that this kind of direct engagement with texts and critical conversations could be considered "play" when used effectively with collective student buy-in.

I think Engel would agree. As she articulately states, "Research has shown unequivocally that children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning. Play -- from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games -- can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest them in their own way." This kind of "play" also promotes the acquisition of critical thinking skills that will prepare students to be skilled communicators, learners, and leaders of society as adults.

All too often, I see my students not knowing how to listen or communicate respectfully to one another. Incorporating student-led groups, discussions, shared inquiry circles, and writing centers allows students to learn the value of peer-to-peer discussion and feedback in a safe and supportive environment. The foundation of trust and respect, however, does not come overnight and must be daily modeled and supported by the teacher. These are communication skills that cannot be measured by a test score but certainly can help students perform and learn better in ways that fully challenge and engage them. After all, don't we want to raise critical thinkers and communicators, not testing machines?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fighting -- and Running -- for the Best Cause I Know

As we honor Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I cannot help but think about my mother's own struggle with the disease and give thanks for her still being with us today. She is a two-time survivor of breast cancer who also beat ovarian cancer (She has been cancer-free now for almost five years!). What an inspiration and fighter she is!

While my Mom certainly has a lot to celebrate, her older sister, Ellen, is rapidly losing her battle with terminal cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer was discovered at too late a stage last spring, and Ellen was given very little time to live. She has already surpassed that and is a true joy for all in teaching us how to live while dying (much like Randy Pausch did in the past two years for millions of Americans). Ellen, who is my beloved aunt and godmother, is very much a second mom to me. Today, she went to her doctor, her two sisters at her side, and was told that she would be entirely under the auspice of Hospice moving forward.

Despite all of this horrible news, Ellen has remained incredibly grateful for each day she has left with her family. You will NEVER hear her complain about her pain or suffering. In fact, she and I have had some critical conversations about life and death over the course of the last year. It is amazing how much acceptance and wisdom she has about her eventual passing -- and how inspiring it is to watch her treat each new day as a gift.

OK, a touching story, Kay, but how does this relate to teaching? Good question. Two years ago, as a seventh grade teacher, I first learned about Randy Pausch's story and decided to share portions of his "last lecture" to his university and graduate students with my students. Thankfully, they took the lesson seriously, I shared my mother's cancer survivor story, and a few students even shared their own family members' battles with cancer afterwards. Tomorrow, I am going to share my mom and aunt's story and diagnosis with my current students. I will explain to them the importance of giving thanks for the loved ones in our life and all that we are blessed with every day.

In addition, as I turn 27 on Sunday, I am going to tell them about my birthday gift to myself, my Mom, and Ellen -- running a full marathon (my eighth) for breast cancer research in Jacksonville Beach, Florida on my birthday. I see no better way to honor the two most important women in my life. Though certainly not my first marathon, I have no doubt that this race will be the most emotional for me thus far due to its personal significance and the cause it embodies. I know I am not as well-trained as I would like to be due to our lovely DC blizzards, but I will use all the physical and mental strength I can muster to cross that finish line. That race will represent the victories so many women have had in conquering breast cancer, the tragedy of the millions of lives lost, and the hope for my students' generation that we will eradicate this evil disease in their lifetimes. This miraculous day couldn't come soon enough.

Ultimately, I hope to raise awareness about cancer among my students and have them see what is truly worth fighting for in life. As we are in the middle of our unit on responsibility, I hope to model for them what it means to be a proactive, meaningful, and productive member of society, one who never gives up and fights for everyone who cannot. This is not a lesson any curriculum guide can provide but one that our adolescent students need -- and crave -- to prepare for their adulthood lives. Let's keep hope and faith alive for their sake.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Writing, Laughter, and Fulfillment: The Recipe for a Happy Teacher

I'm happy to say that I have started to share my blog with fellow colleagues, who seem to enjoy it. Yay! A few of them asked me today, "How do you have time to write a blog??!!" I firmly believe that it is SO important to make time for things you love to do every day, and for me, writing is one such activity. Growing up, I always had some sort of journal that I usually named, cherished, hid under my pillow, and often kept locked away in my room. It housed all of my hopes, dreams, fears, and, of course, innocent crushes of the moment. As I got older, I started to document my domestic and international travel experiences. Five years ago when I taught in China, I also kept a blog (Sadly, I lost much of the content).

Why write? Why bother to have a blog? Well, the writing part is easy. For me, it is relaxing, therapeutic, and an excellent way to work out your inner thoughts, ponderings, and sources of daily humor. A blog just makes all of this crazy mumbo-jumbo once housed inside Kay's unpredictable head public for the world to see  -- and hopefully derive insight and joy from. A blog also holds me publicly accountable for continuing to talk about the craft of teaching I adore so much.

When speaking with one beloved colleague of mine this afternoon, we both came to the realization about how important it is for us to have creative outlets of expression, just as it is for our students. A highly innovative, creative, and joyous teacher, this colleague also loves to write and has been known to email "travel blogs" home to family and friends when in the Big Apple and other classic destinations. The simple art of going through the writing process, she believes, is invaluable and makes us honor our own words and thoughts all the more. I could not agree more. Our own attempts at writing about our personal experiences help better connect us to our students' journeys as adolescents trying to mold their own identifies amid the chaos of everyday life. I think this whole process keeps us young AND our souls far more alive, frankly, no matter how old you are.

As I am addicted to email and check my accounts compulsively dozens of times a day, you can imagine how thrilled I was to just receive this gem of a message from the aforementioned colleague, who is very much a true inspiration and mentor for me. She writes:

Recipe for a Happy Teacher:
Take 1 well-lit , comfortably warm (or cool) classroom
Fill it with no more than 22  eager- to -learn  students
Add one para or co-educator (for two extra hands, eyes, etc. )
Add "state of the art" equipment
Include the latest texts
Dribble all over with your enthusiasm for your content
Sprinkle with passion for teaching
Locate and then add  about 10 other talented co-patriots and ask them to be on your team
Chop up and discard meaningless testing
Shake thoroughly and pore into a school-shaped mold
Let stand 180 days (minus 5 or so snow days)
Free (YOURSELF) from the mold
SERVE with an extra helping of positive attitude
She then added her own love and cited me as a "very fine" teacher. Could I have a better or more clever way to end my long day? I think not! 

And yes, our writing process will never end ... 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Kay, they're not your children!"

The good news: I survived my first day back at school after an unexpected 10-day break due to DC's multiple blizzards. The bad news: my eighth graders seemed to come back with even more attitude, sass, and, of course, hormones. I really believe that these years of teaching will hopefully make me a better parent one day. In the meantime, though, I cannot help but sometimes get a bit too attached to my students and want to see them as my own children.

Am I embarrassed to say that I have a tendency to get TOO emotionally attached to my students? Not at all. In fact, I do not believe good teaching can exist without mutual respect, trust, and openness on the part of the teacher and student. I aim to build this positive rapport and dialogue with my students from day one. You cannot expect any student -- an adolescent one especially -- to want to learn from you if you have not proven to them that you care about them and know something about them outside of being a student in your class. Personal relationship building lies at the heart of every effective teacher's craft and presents the most opportunity for any teacher to truly reach a student and inspire him or her to be the best learner -- and person -- possible.

Of course, there is a fine line between getting to know students and knowing when to draw solid boundaries, especially as a younger teacher like me. Even though I am in my late twenties (as of this Sunday!), I look much younger, which often presents problems initially with students wanting to see me as their peer -- and not an adult. Being a young, attractive female teacher presents an array of problems when attempting to teach hormonal eighth grade boys, who tend to develop crushes on you easily and want to "Facebook" you. This year, more than any of my other four in teaching, is no exception.

In fact, my co-teacher and I were discussing today how much worse this particular group of eighth grade boys is in terms of blatant vulgarity, disrespect towards adults (especially women), and sexual inappropriateness. My first obvious example of this came in September, when I overheard two boys in one of my classes making an inappropriate sexual twist on my name. It was not until one of these boys decided to call me this name in front of the rest of the class that I knew something had to be done -- and that this was a perfect "teachable moment" to establish firm, fair boundaries with him.

What made the situation even more uncomfortable is the fact that this male student and I got along very well from the start. We shared a love of running, a similar sense of humor, and a passion for learning, with the student often stopping by to say hello and finding any excuse to get my attention. What started as an innocent "crush" on his part had escalated to an over-stepping of boundaries that was completely disrespectful and uncalled for. Not knowing how to react to the situation initially, I decided to call his mother, at the recommendation of a trusted colleague. I did, and boy, did my student's mother unleash her fury and disappointment at him that evening.

By making that phone call, I knew I was potentially destroying -- temporarily or permanently -- the rapport I had with that student but was also hopefully teaching him important adult/student limits and boundaries. Since the phone call, this student has been much more respectful to me in class and has not overstepped any lines. What he did decide to do, though, was express his hatred of me behind my back and harass students who have close relationships with me. Knowing a bit about this, I decided to continue to make this a learning opportunity for the student and "lectured" him as appropriate about his work ethic, participation, academic potential, and his mother's wisdom. Believe me, I have analyzed what transpired with this individual student far too closely. What it basically comes down to is that this student wanted to see me as a peer, felt I had "tattled" on him to his mother, and now is forced to associate me as a adult aligned with his mother.  He has even told me several times, "You sound like my mom," which I now take as a compliment.

While I know it is unrealistic and unhealthy to believe that all my students will "like" me, it still is hurtful when I hear about this student expressing intense dislike of me. When you spend so much time and emotional energy on a student, you want them to like you -- and to see you as an adult they can look up to and learn from. The student has commented that he feels I "treat him differently than other students," and I recently told him that's because I see the potential in him and want to push him to give his best in everything he does. I still would like to hear more about why he has so much "hatred" and frustration towards me (and maybe he will feel comfortable expressing this to me at some point in the future), but, as my husband reminds me, "Kay, they're not your children! He's only 14 and barely even a person yet." True, but I cannot help but become emotionally attached and want the best for him -- and my other students.

Why do teachers invest so much of their time and emotional energy into their students? And why do we choose to focus on individual students over others? After all, my constant thinking about the events surrounding this student seem silly and trivial compared to the serious issues many of my other 120 students bring with them to school every day. Oftentimes, I find myself having to step back and realize that I will NOT be able to reach every student and that not every student at this point necessarily WANTS to be reached -- or changed "for the better". What I can hope for, though, is to plant the seed of trust, respect, and communication that will motivate my students to want to achieve, be their best, and make safe, healthy decisions for themselves down the road, both in and out of school.

I may not have my own children yet, but for the meantime, I think it's OK to see my students as my surrogate "children" who mean the world to me. Is there anything wrong with that? I certainly hope not.

Monday, February 15, 2010

'Tis the Season for Test Anxiety

Inevitably, when I walk back into my school and classroom tomorrow, anxiety will be high. With a full week off from school due to our "blizzard of the century," we have lost five valuable instructional days in the month before the dreaded Maryland State Assessment (MSA). Beginning in kindergarten, students learn quickly that standardized testing matters and is often supposed to be a "true showcase" of what they learned so far that school year. Pathetic, I know.

My eighth graders are THE most tested K-12 grade, and they know it. In addition to the regular MSAs, they have a MAP-R reading test at least twice a year, at least three practice MSA tests, the Science MSAs, a technology assessment, midterm and final exams for high school level credit, the PSAT, and for many, high school magnet entrance exams. These are, of course, in addition to the regular quizzes, tests, projects, and essays assigned in their seven daily classes. With AP and IB exams, the SAT and ACT, and the HSAs (High School Assessments) as integral parts to the college application process, high school will only present more opportunities for students to make or break the grade with their test scores.

The question is -- does this kind of standardized testing measure students' genuine levels of academic growth and potential? Many proponents of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, which began in 2002, believe so. Don't get me wrong; I also believe schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning and achievement. However, there has to be a better way to do this than teachers constantly shoving tests down my students' throats or feeling so pressured to "teach to the test," especially as a English or math teacher.

This climate of never-ending testing creates an endless cycle of despair and pressure that is detrimental to students' health, happiness, and personal well-being. Our current sixth graders in our building have so much anxiety about testing and school in general that a handful of them make themselves sick before school each morning -- or put on a display in the parking lot when refusing to exit their parents' vehicles. My eighth graders are conditioned to testing and know what is expected of them, though I find it disheartening that they almost expect teachers to "teach to the test" in their core subjects now.

This winter, my students completed a propaganda project on a controversial issue of their choice, with one of the topics being standardized testing. It is amazing how much my students already know about the importance of testing, and I was pleased to see several of them create vivid visual displays and present thoughtful, articulate speeches revealing their opinions about testing. Not one of them saw standardized testing as improving student learning or teacher instruction. I believe they may be onto something here....

Even though it is important for students to learn and master district and state standards in each content area, creating a standardized test for each skill is unnecessary. I find that the more authentic assessments allow students to display their knowledge of concepts and skills using a variety of creative mediums, be it through art, music, poetry, speech delivery, or personal/analytical essays. Howard Gardner reminds us of the seven intelligences people possess, so why not give students options in their tests, essays, and projects? Kids are so stifled these days, and very rarely is imagination and creativity encouraged in the classroom. This is truly devastating, and as teachers, we have the power to fundamentally change this reality.

Currently, my students are reading and performing Twelve Angry Men, a classic play in three acts by Sherman Sergel. Each student is taking on the persona of one juror and getting to bring that juror to life in our classroom every day. In addition, my students are learning meaningful vocabulary words about criminal law, exploring the roles of juries in modern society, drawing personal interpretations of the courtroom and their chosen jurors, becoming their own jury with modern court cases, displaying mastery of plot and character through DYRT (Did You Read This) quizzes, and ending the unit with a critical character analysis in the form of a five paragraph essay. Students love these opportunities to express themselves through theater, art, and writing.

By denying students the chance for authentic assessment and pure creative expression, we are thereby denying them of one of the most important skills they need for adulthood -- the ability to feel comfortable in their own skin and discover their own passion for a written or artistic medium of expression. Despite the crazy testing climate students today are forced to exist in, we have the challenge of identifying true teachable moments and encouraging our learners to explore themselves -- and their many intelligences -- in class each day. The more interactive, hands-on, and applicable to their own lives their learning is, the more information and knowledge students will retain about each subject. And yes, this is the kind of knowledge that will be reflected in not just standardized tests but in the true people and leaders they have the potential to become.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Teaching: My Own Love Affair

It's Valentine's Day, a time to give thanks for the loved ones in your life and to keep Hallmark in business. My husband surprised me with a beautiful bouquet of roses last night, and I had his favorite macaroni and cheese casserole waiting for him when he got home. Aww! Today, we will be heading to a fantastic chocolate and wine tasting event at a new hip wine bar in Virginia.

Romance and marriage aside, Valentine's Day is also a time to be grateful to have a calling and profession that I love -- and truly cherish every day. I feel most alive when teaching and often find myself "falling in love" with my students' progress and development throughout the school year. Eighth graders are certainly too old and too "cool" to show their affection for their teachers with genuine hugs anymore. We are lucky to receive even a few gifts for Christmas or the end of the year, unlike elementary teachers. No biggie. Thus, when we feel appreciated and respected by our students -- with their own little ways of showing it -- that is often the greatest gift of all.

Trust me; I would never want to repeat my own middle school years. I was an extremely quiet, self-conscious, awkward, and self-proclaimed "nerd" who still thought boys had "cooties" and hiked my shorts up a bit too high. I was just beginning to discover who I was and had a LONG way to go before feeling comfortable in my own skin. I see myself at the vulnerable age of 13 and 14 in many of my own students. There is one student in particular who stands out in my mind.

For two years, I had the pleasure of knowing a special student who completely emerged from her shell and began the lifelong process of self-expression and love. When I first met her in August 2007, she was non-verbal and refused to speak in class -- and even when alone with me. She was constantly ill and plagued by chronic injuries and absences from school. She immediately became a priority focus for me and someone whom I was determined to help grow and gain confidence bit by bit. One day, I noticed her black sketchbook next to her English notebook. "What's this?" I inquired after class. She answered by opening to a picture of a tiger she had drawn. "It's beautiful," I said. For the first time that year, she smiled.

From then on, this special student began to join me regularly for lunch, each time with a different drawing to share. She slowly started to speak and open up to me about her love of art, animals, and reading, three loves I also share. Our conversations were open, honest, and real. Slowly, she started displaying more confidence in her words and actions, both during our meetings and in all of her classes. At the end of the school year, I received a touching email from her mother, who thanked me for making such a different in her daughter's life. I still have that email today and cry every time I read it.

Since I moved up with my then-seventh graders to eighth grade last year, I had the privilege of teaching many of my students for a second year, including this special student. Our friendship and her trust in me only grew, as did her confidence, smile, and success in school. Now happy and healthy in high school, she recently came back to visit me to inform me she made the honor roll for the first time and was really enjoying her time in school. What wonderful news!

Each year, several students stand out to me, be it for their academic ability, personal potential, or all-around growth and success. This year is no exception. Today, I am reminded to once again give thanks to those students for coming into my life and teaching me as much -- if not more -- than I could ever teach them about life, love, and learning.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Honeymoons, Harassment, & Hope: A Part of Every School Year?

I love the first days of school every year. After over two months of blissful, satisfying summer vacation, both the teachers and students re-enter the school building with smiles, hugs, and enthusiasm about what lies ahead. Usually, this honeymoon period only lasts for about a week or two, if we're lucky.

This year was no exception. After two years with the group called "the worst class the school has ever seen," I was ready for a change and a new batch of students. Boy, did that change come, and in a big way.  The first few weeks of school, my 120+ new students were among the most polite, respectful, and eager middle schoolers I had ever met. One student even thanked me for teaching him after his second class. Wow, I thought, this is going to be a great year!

Now, don't get me wrong. In many ways, my third year in my current school district in Maryland has been quite successful. I am much more comfortable with the curriculum I teach and, for the first time, feel like I have a solid handle on my classroom management repertoire. I work with a fabulous co-teacher and have an amazing mentor in my co-team leader, in addition to an incredibly creative, dedicated, and talented team of teachers. In those ways, I am more than blessed.

Perhaps what has continued to disturb me the most is the enormous disconnect between the administration and teachers in our building. The communication from the top down has become so horrible that sometimes, I cannot help but laugh at what plays out in our school.

Let me provide you with two vivid, recent examples. A few weeks ago, two students were accused of verbally harassing and hitting one of our administrators. Their punishment was 10 days suspension with a strong recommendation for expulsion. A few days later, a student, whom I have devoted a great deal of time and energy on, left his vocabulary warm-up sentences on the ground by his desk, which I found after he had left at the end of the school day. On this paper, he had written that he wanted "to homicide" me and that he felt "sadism" when messing with me. Nice, huh? Of course, the English teacher in me thought, "Darn it! Couldn't he have at least used the words correctly?!" In all seriousness, though, the sentences scared me. To make a long story short, an administrator brought the student and his mother into her office the following morning. His consequence? To write an apology note to me and serve after-school detention with an administrator for three days the following week.

What lesson have we learned here? Sadly, time and time again, I have seen countless examples of teachers being verbally and physically harassed and abused with the student(s) at fault receiving minimal -- if any -- meaningful consequences. However, if the same kind of abuse happens to an administrator, the child better start praying. Ultimately, only in those cases, the student is punished to full extent possible.

It may sound like I am griping here, but I think it's important for teachers to be much more respected as knowledgeable professionals and colleagues alongside administrators in their schools. As someone in my building who is supposed to be a liaison between the "top dogs" and teachers, I am often disheartened with the daily verbal and psychological abuse teachers have to endure. Oftentimes, their voices and needs are the LAST ones to taken seriously, IF they are heard at all.

Next week when I return to school on Tuesday, I am hoping for a second honeymoon of the school year.   With it, I want to have continued open and honest conversations with our school's leaders about the importance of SHOWING they respect, value, and understand their teachers' voices. I am hopeful that our current dismal situation can change, but I also am no longer a young, naive first-year teacher.

Regardless, if there is any way my profession can once again be respected and admired to the degree it deserves in this country, I, as an educator, cannot ever lose hope at the possibility of positive change and growth, on the part of my students, colleagues, and even our administration. People can change, and the road to such change begins with a single courageous conversation. The question is, who is willing to have one when it matters the most? I hope I am.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Teaching is a lot like running a marathon....

As many of you already know, aside from my husband and teaching, the other love of my life is running. I have been a runner for as long as I can remember. It has always been the one sure-fire way to relieve stress and have "me time" at the end of a long day in the classroom. In summer 2007, I decided to train for my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, with St. Jude Heroes and raised over $2,000 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, TN. I ran in honor of one of their  precious patients and wore a bracelet with his name. And let me tell you -- there is no better motivation to get you through your first marathon.

Since I have an addictive personality, I was hooked. Consequently, I have run six more marathons, two endurance relays, countless half marathons and shorter road races, and my first ultramarathon, the John F. Kennedy, Jr. 50 Miler, in the past two years. Now, I am running a marathon a month through May and am also training for my first sprint triathlon in DC this June. Yes, I am smitten with marathoning and endurance competition in a BIG way. Why do I subject myself to such torture, you may ask? As you may have realized, I LOVE personal challenges and activities that push me outside my comfort zone and allow me to achieve what I once thought was only impossible.

At the start line of every marathon, I know I am about to embark on a difficult, unpredictable journey that will test both my physical and mental toughness. Similarly, at the start of each day as a teacher, I know I am embarking on another kind of journey that often tests my mental, interpersonal, and intellectual limits. Teaching is another kind of marathon for me, one where the journey is of far greater importance than the finish line or how long it takes to get there. Both kinds of journeys require endless practice, patience, perseverance, determination, positivity, and above all, the firm belief that yes, I can do this -- and no, I will not give up, no matter what happens or what barriers stand in my way.

My students know all about my passion for running. Many of them are athletes themselves struggling to find similar kinds of success and fulfillment within school walls. I display all of my race bibs on the classroom wall behind my desk and wear my finisher medals to school the day after each marathon or ultra race. Inevitably, students always ask, "Did you win??!!" This naive but adorable comment invites the teachable moment. "It isn't always about winning, you know. Sometimes, just getting to the finish line earns you a medal," I'll tell them. They continue to ask about whether I've won or not, but I hope they also learn a greater life lesson -- that nothing worth doing is ever easy and that nothing worth doing is worth quitting on.

I truly believe it is crucial to open yourself up to your students and reveal to them your inner humanity. Many times, students, especially those in their adolescent years, believe teachers are "ancient" and "uncool" creatures who live in school 24/7.  I aim to eliminate this stereotype by opening myself up to my students and demonstrating to them the importance of finding something that they're passionate about -- and not give up on it. And, of course, it doesn't just have to be sports. I am amazed at the talents that emerge when I introduce creative projects to my students that allow them to imaginatively express themselves through art, film, music, theater, or poetry. When you can help a student find a true passion, the joys and long-term benefits are infinite.

So, my mission to help students run their own race and tap into their true loves continues well beyond the 26.2 miles of each marathon I run. It is their smiles, enthusiasm, and hunger for learning and personal identity that keeps me going each day -- and helps me find greater meaning to reaching every finish line, be it in my classroom or on the road.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reflecting and Reminiscing....

Up until the summer before tenth grade, I always wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up. I loved animals and figured this love would naturally translate to being a vet. Then I spent a summer at Tufts University School for Veterinary Medicine following my freshman year of high school and almost fainted while seeing a dog have its back operated on. Clearly, animal blood, guts, and I were not a match made in heaven, unfortunately.

Luckily, I had a Plan B. My freshman English teacher was always commenting to me what a great teacher I'd make. "Hey, if the vet thing doesn't work out, you really should consider teaching," she would tell me. "Right," I thought, "over my dead body."

Slowly but surely, I found myself most enjoying school when I could tutor and help my peers, especially with their writing. Though the Writing Center at my high school quickly imploded, my passion for helping and teaching others only grew. I found myself most alive when helping others learn as a tutor and thoroughly enjoyed my experiences in my former fifth grade teacher's class as a Cadet Teacher during senior year. I arrived on Colgate University's campus in the fall of 2001 with high hopes and great aspirations to be an English major and earn teaching certification in Secondary English (grades 7-12). Thankfully, I executed the plan well and met one of my greatest mentors as a student teacher in rural New York State. He continues to be a true friend and personal guide today.

Rather than immediately enter the unpredictable world of U.S. public education or enroll in graduate school after receiving my Bachelor of Arts in 2005, I opted for the road less traveled -- to spend a year teaching English at an international school right outside Shanghai, China. The experience there itself was incredible, though I must say I was spoiled at the impeccable behavior of my middle and high school students (Little did I know how easy I had it then!!) and a bit disheartened at the unprofessional and often embarrassing behavior of my American peers. This frustration, combined with numerous family and personal health issues, caused me to end my term there prematurely, unfortunately. Let's just say China still has my money and part of my heart, so I hope to go back at some point and finish the job. :)

Post-China, good fortune and an excellent friend connection allowed me to relocate to Somerville, MA and quickly begin a new life, this time in a new, unknown world for me -- sales. Truthfully, I am grateful for this experience at a 9-5 desk job in a teeny tiny cubicle. Not only did I almost lose my mind entirely, but I also craved being back in the classroom again much faster than anticipated. At that moment, I knew there was only one job that could fully satisfy me, as a person, intellectual, learner, leader, and guide. A teacher I was meant to be!! Yippee!!

Reenergized and again eager to learn as much as I could about learning and teaching, I was lucky enough to be accepted at and complete my Masters in Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The year I spent on campus in Cambridge was eye-opening, completely worthwhile, and constantly exciting. Never before had I been immersed 24/7 and surrounded by hundreds of peers sharing the same passion for teaching and desire to help ensure our next generation of learners receives the highest quality education possible. Every day there, I was pushed beyond my comfort zone and challenged to think outside the box -- and everything I already assumed to be a reality in teaching. My noble, eccentric advisor, Professor Eleanor Duckworth, espoused Piaget's belief of constructivist teaching, which allows the learner to construct his or her own learning and discovery. She firmly believes that the learner can accomplish far more when empowered to do so and given the chance to ask experience the lesson material hands-on. I find myself using her trademark phrases, such as "Tell me more" and "Say more about that" every day in my classroom today.

But alas, all good things must come to an end, and my year at Harvard ended far more quickly than I desired. I spent that summer acting as an Assistant Dean at a summer program for middle schoolers outside of Boston and then moved down to Washington, DC to be with my then fiance and now husband, Greg. My Harvard degree was a blessing and allowed me to easily get my foot into the door of a widely respected school district outside of DC. I began teaching at my current middle school in August 2007.

It is hard to believe that only two and a half years has passed since then. In that time, I have grown in leaps and bounds as an educator, person, teacher leader, learner, student advocate, and communicator. I am blessed to work in a school with incredibly dedicated colleagues who genuinely love to teach and are really there for the kids. I know not all teachers have that luxury.

In my next entries, I hope to explore some of the fundamental truths, realities, questions, and conundrums being a middle school public educator in the 21st century presents -- and how we, as educators, truly do have an awesome responsibility and unique opportunity to engage and inspire the future leaders of our world. It is this responsibility that gets me out of bed every morning with a smile on my face and hope in my heart that perhaps today, I will get through to that reluctant learner, witness a "lightbulb" moment in a struggling reader, instill confidence in a student with low self-esteem, or help an eighth grader better prepare himself for the challenges and perseverance that lie ahead in high school.

Read on, folks, read on....

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snowed In & Stir Crazy .... But Still Sentimental

Today marks the eighth snow day my district has had so far this school year. This unexpectedly long leave from the classroom is a direct result, of course, of the worst winter Washington, DC has ever seen. We recently surpassed even the 1899-1900 snow totals. Call it what you will -- Clusterflake 2010, Snowmageddon, Snowpocaplyse, SnOMG, Snowverkill, or all of the above. I'd like to call it the days of enjoy-this-long-break-while-you-can, and no, do not even THINK about how far into June or July we'll be teaching at this point.

What exactly do I do in the classroom, you may ask? Well, here's a sample dialogue that usually transpires as someone asks me what I do for a living:

"I teach."
"Oh! What grade? What subject?"
"Middle school. 8th grade English."
"Oh God, I'm so sorry." 

This is a short, sweet way of saying the following:

"Who would want to deal with the unpredictable, manic, crazy, hormonal messiness that adolescents in middle school bring with them each and every day? Who in their right mind would voluntarily chose to work with the worst of the MOST awkward years of growth and development? Are you ******* OUT OF YOUR MIND???!!!!"

Yes, I am crazy, and yes, I absolutely adore my job ... most days. :) In fact, teaching is the only profession I have found that can rob me of my sanity on a daily basis but still make me want to wake up at 5 a.m. and drive to work each morning. Teaching is a gift, a joy, a struggle, a puzzle, a question mark, an exclamation point, an ellipsis, and, above all, a thoroughly rewarding journey of personal discovery and fulfillment I have been on for the past five years. I wouldn't trade it for the world.

I know there are already hundreds of teachers' blogs out there (which is wonderful to see), and I hope to share my story as yet another example of what teachers experience and derive joy -- and heartache -- from every day. I truly believe teachers have the hardest job in the world, and this blog is meant to celebrate the awesome responsibility and privilege we as teachers have -- the good, the bad, the ugly, and the unexpected. I hope you enjoy the ride.