The Things You Remember

“Policy matters but the humanity of a school matters a lot more.”

As I travel home from what was a wonderful Core Advocate Convening, the quote above from Jason Zimba continues to swirl in my head.  In the midst of dealing with a tumultuous legislative session and the final push of learning before the end of the school year our school and community has mourned the tragic loss of one of our precious former students.  Like many teachers in my building memories flooded back of the face and personality  that once occupied a desk in room 406.  The question has continued to swirl in my head…what do I really remember about kids?

I can’t tell you today what many of my students scored on their math K-Prep test the year they took it.  I may be able to name a couple of kids who knocked it out of the park with their growth on the MAP assessment but for the most part those numbers leave my head quickly once the window is over.  I don’t have a strong recollection of who was the outstanding math student for any of the 12 awards assemblies I have attended since I started teaching.  Part of it I am sure is the fact that I have an absolutely terrible memory but the other part is deeper than that.  I remember lots of things about all the children I have had an honor to teach but the things I remember are way more than test scores, student voice results, and proficiency ratings.

I remember the class of students that used to be able to get me so off track and tickled with their witty comments that I’d have to turn around to the board so I could stop laughing to get things back on track.

I remember the year we had a penny war to donate money to the local animal shelter and the kids bringing in so many pennies that we had to buy a coin counter to help with the crazy amounts of change we were dealing with…we haven’t been allowed to do a penny war since!

I remember the 52 students that I got to spend a year teaching with Joe Payne.  For 177 days we caught lightning in a bottle and my teaching career and philosophy was forever changed.  I remember how those kids believed in us just as much as we believed in them.

I remember the year we had our first team fall festival as a incentive for the kids and the little girl that bobbed for more than a dozen apples and left with soaking wet hair and clothes (we didn’t bob for apples the next year!)

I remember the group of kids who after doing the Mathalicious lesson “Big Foot Conspiracy” asked me if we could investigate if my clothes should cost less than most people because I’m so short.   And the student who got mad at me and said I was too mean and too short to be a teacher.

I remember going to cheer on the sports teams, academic teams, and clubs so that all my kids know I care and see who they are outside of my classroom.  I remember making posters to cheer on our kids in tournaments and championships.  I remember the excited hugs when they brought a trophy home and the heartbreak on their faces when they came up short.

I remember the little boy who was crying in my room on his birthday and the teammates who decided to run to Kroger to get him a birthday cake fast.  I remember the lady at Kroger who was sweet enough to put is name in it fast.  I will always remember walking into his last hour class with the candles lit singing happy birthday and him crying again and explaining that it was the first birthday party he had ever had.

I remember the student who brought me a teddy bear from her collection for my birthday one year.  It still sits on a shelf in my classroom and although the little girl changed districts I will always remember her name when I look at it.

I remember the little boy whom after seeing my hair curly and not straightened one day said “Man Ms. Powers I do not like your hair that way it looks terrible.”

I remember the little girl that came in every Monday and Wednesday for extra math help and worked so hard to catch up to her peers.  A much I told her and her family not to, she rarely came empty handed and loved bringing me beautiful flowers from her mom’s garden and my favorite the occasional sweet tea.

I remember the student who wrote on her weekly reflection that her week was awesome because she got to see her dad in prison.  I remember being a little kinder and gentler the next time she missed an assignment or another day of school due to family circumstances. 

I remember the student whom some colleagues and I sent home a backpack of food for Thanksgiving break because we knew they didn’t have enough at home.  He returned Monday morning and proudly pronounced that the beef jerky, fruit snacks and peanut butter crackers we sent home were the best Thanksgiving dinner they had ever had.

I remember the students who lost parents while they were in my class and trying to give them some sense of normalcy when they returned.  I remembered hearing one particular student tell a friend that sometimes she felt like she could feel her dad right beside her and I remember my heart breaking a little for how her young life had changed forever.

I remember the heartbreak I feel when you get word that a former student has passed away.  I remember the seats they filled in my class, their personalities, and the fun they had when we gave them time to just be kids.  I remember meeting their parents and getting their emails to check in to see how their child was progressing.  I remember having the honor to spend 177 days with someone so special.

I have reflected a lot in the past two weeks about the things I do remember about my students.  I have went to bed many nights in the last two weeks wondering if I do enough.  Do I have fun with them enough?  Do I show them how I love them enough?  Do I praise them enough?  Do I acknowledge all the things that make them special enough?  Will I ever be able to remember enough?

Teacher Appreciation

The irony of teacher appreciation week being the same week as state testing in Kentucky isn’t lost on me!  As I have rushed around trying to tie up all the loose ends in my kids learning for the last week the topic of teacher appreciation has continued to weigh on my mind.  Even in the midst of trying to figure out what to get my own children’s teachers to try and show how much I appreciate the love of learning that they have instilled in Jackson and Embry, my mind keeps coming back to the question, “what do teachers really need to feel appreciated?”.  Don’t get me wrong, I love every card, flower and gift I have ever gotten from the sweet faces I get to teach daily as every teacher I know does.   But in my mind there are lots of things teachers want to feel appreciated beyond just this special week.

Teachers want administrators that see them tirelessly working to plan lessons, grade papers, and analyze data while simultaneously loving on children, helping families, and serving their school in a variety of ways that go beyond their four walls.  They want to feel like they are both seen and heard.  They want to hear things like “you are doing a great job”, “how can I help you”, and “I am thankful for the work you do for our school”.

Teachers want Superintendents that know their name and see the good work they do to not only help their own students but support other teachers in their school and district.  They want to feel that they are more than an employee number, test score, or highly qualified certificate and instead are seen as a human who works hard, makes decisions in the best interest of kids, and never stops trying to be better today than they were yesterday.

Teachers want students that instead answering the question of “what did you do today” with “nothing” share with their parents all the AMAZING things they got to experience that day.   They want their students to go home excited to share about the awesome science lab they did, real-world math lesson they got to experience, debate they were the star of, or art project that they just finished.

Teachers want parents to ask their children every day at the dinner table what they learned that day and to stop accepting “nothing” as an answer.  They want parents to send them a quick e-mail when their child comes home excited about something they learned so they know that the hours they spent preparing were well worth it for that child.  They want parents to see how much they love their children and how they only have such high expectations because they know they can do it.

Teachers want community members who are more reluctant to throw stones at them after they see a bad worksheet circulating on Facebook, a sensationalized news article, or a conversation in the grocery check out line.  We want our communities to see the 99 amazing things that happen every single day rather than just the occasional mistake.

Teachers want politicians who see that they became teachers not because they couldn’t do anything else but because instead they knew inspiring the next generation was their greater calling.  They want to feel like their knowledge and expertise is recognized and appreciated.   They want decision makers to seek their input and trust their judgement and have decisions made with them rather than for them.  They want to know that there is a future in their profession and that the retirement they have diligently paid into will be their when their service is completed.

I am sure I will catch some flack for this post (I always seem to) but to me this isn’t about complaining about how teachers need to be appreciated more.  I will have a wonderful week of thoughtful children and their families sending e-mails and sweet handwritten notes, a PTA bake sale that provided us with lots of treats, and I am sure a thank you email from both school and district leadership.  However, in my mind teacher appreciation goes way beyond these five days and should instead be a focus year round.  The best appreciation can’t be found in a store or a Pinterest board; it comes from a respect and admiration for what they do every day to shape the future of this country.

Tagging Goldfish

This will be a quick post (23 days left of school, has this teacher in a craze to get everything in!).  Lots of people asked me about our Tagging Goldfish activity so I wanted to share fast.  As much as I love fancy lessons, cool activities, and technology nothing gets 7th graders more into learning than food.  This populations and sample activity was the perfect way to grab the kids attention after spring break and get them into statistics and probability mode.

Goldfish

Full credit goes to Harvey’s Homepage for the awesome SMART Board lesson that was the inspiration for the activity and to my amazing co-worker Jennifer Laytham for making the student work along which was the perfect addition.

Random Sampling (Smartboard Fishing)

The directions are pretty clear on the student worksheet but in order to facilitate this activity I give each student pair a brown paper bag filled with a random number of goldfish.  Using a small cup they go “fishing” to catch a random number of fish and tag them with food coloring (or sometimes we use magic markers to save on the mess).  Once tagged, the students dump their tagged fish back in the bag and shake them around to let the fish go swimming.  Next, they go fishing again to catch a number sample and record the number of tagged and total number of fish they caught before releasing them to swim again.  They repeat this process three times recording data as they go.  Once they have all of their data they add up the number of tagged fish caught and total fish caught before using proportional reasoning to estimate the total number of fish in their bag.  After I have checked their math and reasoning I let them dump the bag out to count the actual number of fish in their bag and as an extra review have them find the percent error of their estimate.  Of course the kids favorite part is eating the Goldfish after they are done!

My students really enjoyed the real life connection of tagging the goldfish like scientists tag animals in the wild to estimate populations as well.  I am sure there are TONS of variations and extensions out there but this was the perfect way for use to get back into learning mode before our last stretch of the school year!

Not Equipped

For the most part I feel like I have had a really strong year teaching.  My students have been great and very excited about learning this year, I’ve found some new engaging lessons to further strengthen what I already had in place and my teammates were willing as ever to go along with another year of my grand plans for team building and working to develop a community culture for our students.  Yet even with all of that I still have a looming sense of failure hanging over me.  I see, believe in, and acknowledge all the good things that happen in my classroom daily.  I also openly admit all my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher (frequently on this blog) but what is weighing on my mind heavily are more than just personal and professional weaknesses.  I know there are things I can do better; I could do a better job connecting with all students, I know I can continue to plan stronger more engaging lessons, I know I can always do a better job communicating with families, and I know there will always be room for improvement in using data to drive instruction more than I do.  Like all good professionals I will spend my time off this summer, my next school year, and for that matter the rest of my career working on all those things and more trying to continually be a better teachers for all students.  Those are things I can fix, improve, and adjust.  What I am most concerned about are the things I am honestly just not sure I will ever be fully equipped to do.

I am not equipped to provide all the support needed to help my refugee students heal from their past and reach their full potential here.  These students, some of whom were being recruited to be child soldiers just mere months ago, are now expected to simply adjust to a new life in a different world.  Beyond needing intensive language support they have mental health needs due to their prior experiences that are far beyond what I can help with between the 4 walls of my classroom.

I am not equipped to deal with the number of homeless students who come in and out of my classroom as rent is due, family situations change, and their welcome at friends homes is worn out.  It is an insurmountable task to ask kids to learn math when they aren’t sure where they will sleep that night or what school they will be attending next week.

I am not equipped to deal with the number of students who come to school hungry each day.  I am not sure the average person knows how many teachers have desk drawers filled with peanut butter crackers, apples, fruit snacks, and anything else they can find on sale at the grocery store to give to students that show up at school too hungry to learn.  Don’t get me wrong I am happy to pick up extra snacks weekly for anyone who needs them but that doesn’t help the nagging feeling I get knowing there is no drawer full of food when they go home for weekends, Holidays, or summer vacation.  Every teacher in America knows what it is like to wake up and wonder which of your students is waking up hungry that morning.

I am not equipped to deal with the heartbreak that comes from being a teacher.  Over Spring Break one of my students was missing and I am not sure my mind ever stopped racing or my eyes closed until I heard he was found and home safe.  I turn on the news more times than I can count to see a glimpse of a sweet face I once taught hardened by life, who has been arrested and facing serious charges.  My heart aches each time I think of their 7th grade smile knowing what awaits them in the journey now in front of them.  No teacher is ever really prepared to comfort a child who has lost a parent or even worse a parent who has lost a child that you had the honor to call a student.

I will never be equipped to deal with the amount of hate my students live with on a daily basis.  Someone brought to my attention recently that the students I teach today grew up in a post 9/11 world.  September 11th ushered in a new level of hate and mistrust for everyone and these kids simply do not know a world without that.  The kids I teach today know a world of profiling based on religion, race, nationality and appearance.  They know a world where nations are pitted against each other.  They turn on the TV to see politicians, celebrities, and average citizens in a war of words twisting the truth and manipulating others for personal gain.  In short, the students I teach have learned to trust no one and I can assure you that is awfully hard to get a kid to buy into learning if they don’t trust you first.

Everyone seems to know how to “fix” public education these days.  In my own state, they believe the solution to be charter schools and education vouchers.  I don’t know how to fix the issues but I also can’t believe that charters and vouchers are the answers either.  Sending kids to a school with a different address doesn’t fix their home life, hunger, or emotional issues.  The problem is deeper than a change in school, teacher, curriculum or standards can provide.  In my opinion we should be pouring our time, energy, and resources in helping kids where they are.  We could be providing home support, mental health support, and resources to help meet these kids basic needs so that instead of worrying about where they were going to sleep that night they could focus on being a kid and learning.  We could be equipping teachers better on how to help the neediest students in our classroom.  We could be equipping schools and districts with resources that help students and teachers rather than threatening to cut funding and support when our kids, teachers, and schools need support the most.  We can do better; that I am sure of.  I know I get up every day resolved to do better and be better than I was yesterday, unfortunately I am just not always equipped.

A Case For Common Core

Perhaps nothing has become more politicized, polarizing, and dividing in education currently than the repealing and undoing of all the work the was done on the Common Core Math Standards (ok maybe charter schools but that’s a topic for another time).  From heated discussions about states right to chose curriculum to bad worksheets from worse books and websites my social media website is abuzz with pictures, stories, and articles all building a case against the Core.  I’d like to propose we look at it less of a political hot button issue and more about helping the 120 kids I am currently teaching.

In December I welcomed a new student into my classroom, we will call him “G”.  G came to my classroom labeled as homeless because although his parents had a place to stay he did not have a permanent residence.  Upon further investigation G had been enrolled in 5 schools in two years.  One of those was another middle school in my own district and the others were from  another state.  Let that sink in for you a minute…five schools, two years.  G is extremely bright, able to reason about math and is a joy to teach but came to me with D from his last school and a failing record from the out of state schools.  I have to believe these grades are a result of a lack of consistency in education and home life rather than as a result of ability as after my first meeting with G it was evident that he is more than capable of high quality work.

Where G struggles is in the content he missed while moving from state to state and school to school.  In the transfer from district to district and curriculum map to curriculum map he missed not just lessons but entire units of instruction.  If the state he came from was teaching geometry when I was teaching integers and he shows up to my classroom during the geometry unit he ends up with geometry twice and integers not at all.  Although I work tirelessly to address gaps for all students you can imagine that it is very difficult to replace entire units of instruction for a student while teaching 30 others in the classroom that have their own learning gaps and needs.

Unfortunately it isn’t just a math issue.  I know students who moved from state to state between 6th grade and 7th grade.  If our state teaches geography in 6th grade and his new state teaches it in 7th grade that student is now set up to take geography twice and miss another course such as U.S. or World History.

Trust me I get more than anyone the need to autonomy in teaching.  I thrive off the opportunity to select my own activities and lessons in order to provide my students with what they need in order to help each of them reach their full potential.  The last thing I am looking for is a prescribed curriculum where teacher’s hands are tied to daily lessons and activities that don’t let them use their professional judgement and abilities to their full extent.  However, I will always make a case for National Standards that assure that no matter where G enrolls next that he will be able to pick up where we left off with no gaps in instruction.  As we continue to live in a more and more global society our population becomes more transient and able to relocate more easily than in generations past.  Shouldn’t our education system find ways to support students regardless of location rather than hoping they all get all the content at some point?  Let’s make the Common Core argument more about kids and less about politics.

Teacher Burn Out

I have spent most of the last three weeks feeling as though I am failing miserably in all aspects of my life.  I am not sure why the weight of failure continues to lay heavy on my shoulders; no one has criticized me specifically, I haven’t had any major disasters professionally or personally, and for the most part I have juggled the many balls I have in the air without too much struggle but yet it still doesn’t feel like enough.  I made the short drive home last Friday night (Friday the 13th and a full moon…wow) exhausted and defeated from a long week and thought to myself, “this is why teachers get burnt out”.

I spent the weekend with teacher burn out on my mind and although I had already made a week’s worth of plans and copies knew it was time to throw it all out the window and find some lessons that would help reignite my passion for teaching this week and help me remember all the reasons why I love what I do.  Thankfully we are in the middle of ratio and proportions in 7th grade math and with the help of the wonderful folks at Mathalicious I was able to spend the first two days of this week falling in love with my classroom all over again.  We spent Tuesday comparing Lebron James’ salary to the average teacher’s (the kids were ready to start a Go Fund Me account for teachers by the end) and today we learned all about how long the average person’s life is and how many days we spend doing various tasks (we spend over 9,000 days of our life sleeping!).

It was fun watching the kids spark for mathematics come back and their engagement in class increase from the use of these real-world lessons but a quote from today’s lesson about time really brought me back to the idea of teacher burn out.  We spend over 1/3 of our life or about 10,000 days at work and according to the video we watched, “that is why it is so important to find something you love to do”.  I kept coming back to those words over and over again and asking myself, do I really love teaching, and if so why do I feel so burnt out?

The answer to that question is complex but important.  Good teachers don’t burn out because they don’t love teaching.  Good teachers love teaching so much that it keeps them coming back day after day in spite of everything going on around them.  Good teachers don’t burn out because there are too many papers to grade, kids to love, or lessons to plan.

Good teachers burn out because they aren’t given enough time to do the very thing that brought them to the profession; teaching kids.

Good teachers burn out because they are required to spend more time assessing kids to prepare them for state and national assessments than they get to spend teaching.

Good teachers burn out because the message sent by political and education leaders is that real change comes at the district, state, and national level rather than recognizing the magic that happens in the trenches everyday in America’s classrooms.

Good teachers burn out because each time they turn on the news they are forced to hear about charter schools, vouchers, and the privatization of schools rather than support of the work they pour their hearts into every day.

Good teachers burn out because they continue to try and teach more and more children each year with less and less funding.

Good teachers burn out because they are asked to selflessly give their time, money, and resources  unlike any other profession.

Good teachers burn out for a lot of reasons but none of them involve not loving the 30+ faces that stare at us each day in classrooms across America.  Good teachers need the time, support, and resources to keep falling in love with teaching every day.  They deserve work days filled with inquisitive kids, interesting lessons, and confidence in their professional judgement and ability instead of being focused on politics, lack of resources, and accountability models.  Good teachers deserve the chance to be good teachers.

 

 

The Heart of a Teacher

I am not sure if it is the approaching holidays, the exhaustion that comes at the end of the semester or the faces of some special students that have touched my life this year but I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to have the heart of a teacher.  I’ve spent a fair number of hours in a variety of teachers classrooms over the past few years, been to countless conferences to hear leading education experts, and read every research article and education book that I’ve been able to get my hands on and yet none of these experiences can fully capture the heart and soul of our nation’s schools.

I’ve observed teachers with more content knowledge than I will ever possess.  These people have spent their lives studying mathematics and are more of a mathematician than I will ever be yet they lack the heart of a teacher that motivates students to learn difficult material.  I’ve also seen teachers who have to continue to push themselves to expand their content knowledge to understand it to the level required to teach students but whose classrooms are amazing places of learning because of the heart they have for every kid that enters their room.  There’s no doubt in my mind that it is easier to teach someone who loves kids the content than it is to teach someone who knows the content to love kids.

I sat in a meeting recently about what could be done to further improve the quality of math education in the state of Kentucky and although there were varied opinions on how and what to do the one thing we all agreed upon was the fact that 99.9% of teachers have the absolute best of intentions when they get up and go to school every morning.  I don’t know many teachers who get up and say you know what I am going to purposefully send a bad worksheet home today so it can confuse my kids and go viral on Facebook.  I don’t know a teacher that looks for a more confusing way to teach something so their kids can struggle and feel unsuccessful.  I don’t know many teachers who can stay in this profession with the long hours, unreasonable expectations, and ever changing climate without having the heart of  a teacher.

I truly don’t know when I developed a heart for teaching.  It was never my intent to be a teacher.  I was supposed to make six figures doing marketing or become a big name in the agriculture business in which I was raised but it’s not what ended up happening.  As a part of my “leadership degree” I ended up in a classroom student teaching and while those first years were rough and the learning curve was steep I couldn’t deny that there was something about those hugs from kids who needed love, the funny notes about my class, and the excitement from kids who were finally excited about learning that stole my heart.

My days are messy and stressful but my heart stays full.  Last week I had the crazy idea to build gingerbread houses with 110 7th graders.  I’d say 75% had never undertaken such a task and by all accounts the day was a disaster.  However, although I am still cleaning icing and sprinkles out of every corner of my room those kids laughed, worked together, and made memories that they would have never had otherwise.  I went home tired and swore in the car on the way home that we’d never do it again and then I looked at the pictures and watched the videos.  I saw the smiles, the giggles, and the joy that thirteen year olds had when they built their first gingerbread house and rather than focusing on the mess that heart of teacher kicked in and I started thinking about what we could do next instead.

I teach a little boy this year that by all accounts I should stay mad at.  He doesn’t do his homework, disrupts my class with ridiculous jokes and stories, and gets sent to me from other teacher’s classes more often than I can count.  However at the same time he greets me every morning and before class with a good morning and a hug, he does well on almost every test in spite of not doing his homework, and makes me laugh when he knows I am having a bad day.  Those are the kids that make this teacher’s heart stay in the classroom.  I wish often that I wasn’t so stressed, that I didn’t perpetually have a bag of papers in my front seat to grade, and that my e-mail inbox was below it’s current 10,991 messages but I wouldn’t trade any of that if it meant I didn’t get to spend my days with kids like that one.

I get more emotional than I like to admit when I see the news these days about the climate of education in America.  Charter schools, turmoil over Common Core Standards, accountability changes, private schools, a bankrupt retirement systems, and leadership changes in Washington are just a few of stories that weigh heavy on my mind but yet I keep the faith in my profession.  I remain hopeful not because of policy changes, political promises, or  leadership but simply because I’m certain that you can’t stop the heart of a teacher.