How to change a life

This week marks the end of another school year, and I’m not sad.  It hasn’t been the greatest year of my career; I’ve grown immeasurably as a leader and a teacher, and I’ve gotten a clearer vision of what I want for myself in my future, but I’ve struggled with frustrations about the nature of my work, sometimes feeling stuck or downright discouraged when I felt like I cared a whole lot more than my kids.

It always seems that when I’m faced with these dark moments that I experience these flashes of brilliance and I’m reminded why I’m in education.  Because teachers really do change lives.  We don’t always know we’re doing it, and if we’re asked, we might say that we hadn’t made a difference for anyone.  But beyond what is expressed on all of the cheesy inspirational images on Facebook about all the good teachers do, we really do change lives.

Stu started teaching four years ago with a very challenging assignment: he was given two sections of Dropout Prevention (I’m not sure if that was the course title, but it was something like that) and three sections of English I.  Those were dark days for Stu.  I tried the best I could to help him (as much as he would allow) but he struggled to keep the interest of those students, to manage their behaviors, to connect with them and help them to achieve.  He tried to use techniques and strategies he had learned in his eduction courses and in his internship with gifted students at the middle school, but one strategy after another failed, and Stu was left to feel useless and stressed.  At the end of the year, he insisted that his schedule change because he had such a hard time with it.  Stu would never say that he made a difference for any of the kids in that class, but on Monday he received a note from a student he taught in English I that year.  She said: “I wanted to thank you personally for helping me enroll in honors and advanced classes, because without having done that I may not be going to USF now.”  Stu hadn’t been in contact with her at all in the years in between, but this student recognized that his involvement in her education changed the trajectory of her life.

Last week, I had visits from two of my favorite students (I know I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I can’t help it).  One student, Lauren, was in town to visit family before spending her summer working at an internship in DC and then heading off to NYU in August for law school.  I’m sorry, Lauren, if you’re reading this because I’m about to tell your story.  I taught Lauren as a freshman, sophomore, and senior in my first ever AP Literature class.  I knew she was something special from the day she walked into my classroom, and she has never proven me wrong.  Lauren was valedictorian of her senior class and attended Emory University where she did even more remarkable things.  I nearly peed my pants when Lauren announced that she had been accepted into Harvard Law School (cue Perfect Day lyrics here).  Ultimately, Lauren recently interviewed for, and earned, a very prestigious scholarship to NYU law school.  In fact, she interviewed in DC with Justice Clarence Thomas in his offices.  At the Supreme Court.  You know, because that’s normal.

Such a remarkable young woman seems like she can do all things on her own.  But Lauren has never let me forget how thankful she was to have had me for the majority of her English courses in high school.  I helped Lauren on her way (honestly though, she would have done brilliantly in anyone’s English classes; I’m just glad I was lucky enough to teach her).

It isn’t just teachers who make this kind of impact.  Our parents or children, our families and friends, our bosses or coworkers, our pastors, the random girl you speak to on a two-hour flight, all have the potential to make a difference.  If we let them.  And we have the potential to make a difference for anyone we come into contact with if we’re engaged enough to recognize the opportunity.

An open letter to my students, on your graduation day

My Facebook feed has shown little other than caps and gowns in the last month.  Many, many former students graduated from college in the last few weeks, and today many Cobras will become alumni.

Let’s face it: this year has been interesting.  New expectations of teachers in our school district — that we work in professional learning communities, that we align our teaching to the Common Core standards, that we demonstrate effective teaching through observations — well, your teachers have been more stressed than normal this year.  And you all know how well I deal with stress.  I was out so many days for various professional development activities, all with the hope that I would be a better teacher as a result; that seemed a bit counterintuitive, hm?

I’ve taught so many types of students this year.  Some of you made me nuts from the first day of school, challenging every word that came out of my mouth.  I managed to make some (many?) of you cry.  I’ve had near shouting matches with some of you in the hallway outside of my classroom.  Some of you hate me (although, I don’t think that those of you who hate me will actually read this).  Some of you don’t think I’m not worth listening to, while some of you think too highly of me.

You are a resilient, determined, snarky, spirited group.  Some of you have experienced more pain in 18 years than I have in 35.  Some of you are gifted, as thinkers, writers, or workers, above anything that I’m capable of.  Some of you make me want to cry for all the growth I’ve seen in the last four years.  You make me want to work harder and be better for you.

To the class of 2014, I couldn’t be more proud to have taught you.  Thank you for a year that caused me to grow, professionally and personally, above anything I could have expected.  Thank you for challenging me to be a better teacher.  Thank you for your words of encouragement.  Thank you for working hard.

Getting an education

In 2006, when Stu started working on his undergrad again at PHCC and I started at Saint Leo, I had a sort of vague idea that I might, one day, want to leave the classroom to become an administrator.  I was brand new at Hudson, only teaching my second semester of classes when I was applying for graduate school.  I barely knew what it meant to be an administrator, but I probably thought I could do it easily.  I remember seeing my peers taking the classes and completing the projects required of the masters program, thinking that I could very successfully do the work they were being assigned.  So I entered the Masters in Education Leadership program at Saint Leo University.

I kept pace with Stu; as he was toiling away at the tedious prerequisites in math and science, I was taking one class at a time.  When he transferred his credits to Saint Leo, and started his Bachelors in Education program in earnest, driving to Saint Leo two or three nights a week on top of a full-time job and homework for several online classes, I plodded along as well, taking more classes online so I wasn’t out of the house any more than necessary.  We had Cari, after all, and she was still in daycare.

For those who knew us then, our family must have looked very scholarly, as if this intellectual pursuit was something so noble and pure.  We would stay after hours at school to complete our school assignments before picking up Cari.  Then I would take Cari home while Stu drove to Saint Leo for his three-hour classes, and I would grade papers at the kitchen table while Cari hung out in the other room.  Stu would finish up classes and nearly fall asleep on the long drive home along 52 because there isn’t anything to look at on 52 except cows and trees.  We managed this while serving as class sponsors and chaperones, attending football games on Friday nights or conducting fundraisers on Saturdays.  But the truth of our experience wasn’t nearly so noble.  When we were both in classes, Stu and I would bicker constantly, we really sucked as parents, and we allowed TV to parent Cari while we finished homework.  I have a sharp memory from this time: one Wednesday night, the night when discussions were due in every single class EVER, Stu sat in the bedroom struggling to complete an assignment, and I sat in the living room struggling to complete an assignment, while Cari cried and screamed hysterically from the bedroom.  I was certainly crying, too, blinking through my tears to focus my vision on a stupid, ridiculous, pointless, and meaningless discussion post before 11:59 so I could get the credit.

But in May 2010, at the same ceremony, Stu earned his bachelors degree in education, and I earned my masters degree in education leadership.  It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Working through my masters program while my husband earned his bachelors revealed to me so much about what education really looks like for some people.  I thought, in my naiveté, that everyone’s college experience should be like mine.  I went to Mary Washington College, which I’ve mentioned here before, and experienced college in a stereotypical, but not very realistic, way.  I lived in the dorms for all four years.  I huddled into the library, pouring over thick, stinky books for obscure commentaries.  I wrote papers until the sun came up.  I worked impossibly hard, and I had the opportunity to delve deeply into Dickinson, Shakespeare, and Milton.  To this day I cannot recreate the level of analysis I was able to achieve in those days.  Lord, I was self-important!  But I never worked a job during college other than as a resident assistant or English Department assistant.  My only serious relationships were with my roommates and friends; I didn’t date seriously, and certainly didn’t have a child.  I had no idea what many, many others experience in getting their education.  But as a grown up, I was able to understand that just making it through was an accomplishment worthy of great praise, and one hell of a big party.

I consider myself lucky to have had both experiences: the stereotypical college experience and the adult learning experience.  As a stereotypical college student, I learned how to really, really work at something, content so challenging that I had to pick through it to understand every. single. word.  I learned how to speak with other smart people without making myself look like an idiot.  I learned how to operate under deadlines.  I learned how to BS like a pro, when necessary, and I learned that sometimes BS wasn’t going to cut it.  But as an adult going back to school, I learned to balance priorities that really count.  I learned how to support my husband selflessly.  I learned that sometimes Cari needs to see me work at something so she gets how important it is for her to work at something, too.  I learned that sometimes just getting something done was worth celebrating.  And I learned how to work impossibly hard, even when a million distractions are rattling around in my head fighting for attention.

So it isn’t only the content of my masters program that I will use one day as an administrator.  I will also use the grit and determination that I picked up while writing discussion posts while tears blurred my vision and my daughter cried in the other room.

The Care and Maintenance of Teachers (especially at the end of the year)

Dear students (of all ages) —

Please consider these suggestions for the proper maintenance of your student/teacher relationships as we come to the end of the year.

  1. Do not, under any circumstances, separate a teacher from her coffee.  Especially at this time of year.  She is likely NOT sleeping at night, catching up on for pleasure reading that she hasn’t been doing all year, or grading final projects, or wrapping up lesson planning for the year, or spending time with her family.  If possible, supplement her caffeine intake with Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks.
  2. When only eight days remain in the school year, it is in your best interest to avoid suddenly becoming interested in catching up on everything you’ve missed for, say, the last three quarters.  Instead, redeem yourself for the quarter, if possible, and do extraordinary work on your final projects.
  3. Your teacher teaches approximately 100 students.  She cannot possibly remember every class you’ve missed, every assignment you didn’t turn in, or your calculated average at a moment’s notice.  So try to advocate for yourself: ask your classmates what assignments are due, check your eSembler, or subscribe to your teacher’s Remind 101 for notice about upcoming deadlines.
  4. Smile at your teacher.  Say, “Good morning.”  Ask her about her weekend.  And be sincere.  Don’t follow these comments with ANY request.
  5. Understand that your teacher is a human being.  She is not perfect.  She might be a little snarky, she might get emotional, she might come across as a little rude, she might have a huge chip on her shoulder.  But she doesn’t hate you.  She doesn’t want you to fail.  In fact, she desperately wants you to succeed, if for no other reason but that you don’t have to take her class again.
  6. Complete your work.  On time.  And turn it in.  Don’t leave it crumpled at the bottom of your book bag.
  7. Listen to your teacher’s directions, the first time.  Try very hard not to ask a question about an assignment that she already answered.  Her patience gets thin when she has to repeat herself.
  8. When in disagreement with a teacher, be kind, respectful, and honest.  That will get you further than any amount of pouting, yelling, eye-rolling, sighing, head-tossing, or other form of attitude.  If a kind attitude doesn’t work, take a deep breath and take your seat.  Wait until after class to try again.  Or send an email.
  9. If your teacher apologizes to you, accept it with grace.  Then return the favor to someone else.
  10. It may seem impossible now, but one day, far in the future, you may look back at these moments, at this teacher, and realize that her persistence, her bullheadedness, and her resolve were actually awesome.  You’ll realize that she actually taught you something, and it probably isn’t about English, math, social studies, or science.  When that happens, find her on Facebook, send her a carrier pigeon, write her a note and tell her so.

Sincerely,

Mrs. P, a concerned teacher (in desperate need of a good night’s sleep)

Bad teacher

It seems that there are new stories every day about teachers making bad choices.  This morning, while Stu and I finished packing for our upcoming trip to Orlando with students for the Florida Scholastic Press Association convention, I heard a news story about a teacher who had been filmed in class screaming at a student and was being fired.  Captain Jeffrey Daughtry, a math teacher at a Sarasota military academy, was filmed for 18 seconds berating a student, shouting “Open your mouth again and you will die.”  This story comes only a few days after a Polk County teacher was arrested and subsequently fired for having sex with a student, and the Pasco county PLACE supervisor who was found in possession of thousands of images of child pornography.  Ugh.

It makes me so angry when teachers, or, at least, the very narrow population of *really* bad teachers, make us all look bad with their actions.  The thought of one of my peers taking advantage of her position of authority over a student makes me feel ill.  But sitting in the car with the two students I was charged with driving to Orlando, listening to them complain about their teachers, I realized that it’s not just the *really* bad teachers that are making teachers look bad.  It’s the teachers who don’t care, who don’t do the work necessary to be good at the job, who are impatient, who are rude, who are lazy.  I spent a lot of the trip trying to shed some light on how teachers think.  I told these girls that there are plenty of kids who don’t like me, and plenty of days when I don’t feel like working as hard as is necessary, and I’m not always very nice to kids.  I was attempting to explain away some of the complaints that they have about teachers.  But I know that I beat myself up over these infractions.  I strive to be better, to write better lessons, to grade student work more quickly, to be kind even when a kid has made me crazy.  The worst damage to my profession doesn’t come from the few serious offenders, but the more pervasive threat of teachers who can’t be bothered.

On the other hand, in this age of very prevalent social media, teachers often find themselves as digital stars.  Daughtry, a veteran, was fired for a rant that was captured on video, but claims that those 18 seconds don’t represent who he is.  I have to confess that I’m not proud of every 18 seconds that happen in my classroom.  Anything, taken out of context, might be construed as inappropriate, offensive, even damaging to a student’s self-esteem.  We’re encouraged to allow our students to use their cell phones and other technology in the classroom, but those same cell phones are used to capture moments that we don’t necessarily plan or approve.  Also, we’re human.  Kids are human.  By nature of our humanity, we are regularly in conflict with one another.  Can you remember how you treated your parents growing up?  Can you remember a time when your parents lashed out at you?  Yeah, that happens in the classroom.  Teachers see our students at least one hour every day for more than 180 school days.  It is inevitable that teachers will come into conflict with their students.  That’s good teaching.  If we allowed students to do whatever they want, our classrooms would be chaos.  But in order to maintain control, we must exert authority, authority that is occasionally frustrating to students.

I’m not condoning nor condemning Daughtry’s rant.  I just know that if I were in the same situation, I would hope for a certain amount of grace before administration and the community judged my behavior.  I also hope that I have earned enough respect from my students that they refrain from filming me, even in my silly, goofy, and awkward moments when it is most tempting.

We’ve got spirit, yes we do!

Thursday saw some pretty unusual ensembles at Hudson High School… Walking from my classroom to the cafeteria, I saw two boys in coordinating tutus, the Homecoming queen in full football gear, including shoulder pads, and the Easter Bunny.  Maybe if I had just started working at Hudson, I would be more surprised by these outfits, but since I’ve been around for a while, nothing really surprises me.  In fact, I was responsible for the 6’2 baseball player who wore a pale pink gown and a poster reading “Mrs. P is Gorgeous.”

For the past ten years, Stu and I have worked at Hudson, a (relatively) rural school north of Tampa, and during that time, we’ve been knee deep in all aspects of school spirit.  When we first started at our school, we knew that we wanted to get involved, and like a pair of suckers, we volunteered to sponsor the freshman class of 2009.  We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.  Almost instantly we were thrown into Homecoming week preparations; I remember asking my next door neighbor, who happened to be one of the senior class sponsors, what I could expect from the float competition.

“You’d better bring it.”

That was the beginning and end of her advice.  I didn’t ask again.

Stu and I, along with another brave soul, worked with that group of students for the next four years.  We went through so much with them, from miserable, heartbreaking, soul crushing losses in every single competition at Homecoming for the first two years, to petty fights, endless fundraising, and the painful realization that some wouldn’t walk because of a senior prank, to some of the best moments of my career, like coaching the senior class president through writing her speech at 10 pm the night before graduation practice, to winning two spirit sticks, to watching some of the best kids I’ve ever known walk across the stage at graduation.

Since we graduated with the class of 2009, Stu has worked with another class, but our involvement with school spirit has changed… instead of working with one group, we’ve taken over Student Government, and we plan and oversee events like Homecoming, Spring Fling, and Teacher Appreciation.  Working with SGA has its benefits; for one thing, I love that we make decisions that see school-wide implementation–I guess its the control freak lover in me.  When we do a good job with publicizing an event and it goes well, I’m thrilled.  And I love giving the kids at our school an incredible high school experience.  I know that my role as a teacher is important, even vital, but as an SGA sponsor, I am able to help kids make life-long memories with events like the Lip Sync Contest and Rent-a-Senior.

But there are struggles with this role that cause me to insist, at least once a year, that THIS will be the last time, the very last time, that I will be a part of SGA.  First of all, the way Stu and I run an event like Homecoming, we start planning for the next year almost immediately after Homecoming is over.  This year, Stu and I went to dinner only a week after Homecoming 2013 and debriefed while looking ahead to Homecoming 2014.  I even took notes.  We can’t escape it… we watch TV and say, “Isn’t that a great dance theme?” or follow Pinterest boards about school spirit (well, I do anyway).  So SGA is almost another full-time job on top of the jobs we’re paid for… to actually teach.  And I’m ashamed to say that at least once a year I’m not the teacher I can be because I’m selling Homecoming dance tickets or fielding questions from sponsors about some activity or another.  Then we have to deal with the people who don’t value our work the way we do.  We regularly hear complaints about the disruptions to the school day or our choices about dress up days.

But despite everything, the work, the hours spent at school decorating, the stress, and the complaints, I can’t walk away because I love the way school spirit has positively affected my school and my students.  I’m thrilled to see the tweets from kids who are proud of our school, who have had an awesome time at some event or another, who brag about our school.  We don’t have the prettiest campus, or the best dressed students, but our kids are proud to be Cobras.

Plus, I get to make relationships with students that last through time and distance.  I’ve attended graduation parties, weddings, and baby showers for my students from the class of 2009, and those relationships weren’t formed in the classroom, but formed over making floats and decorating crowns for Homecoming.

Were you involved in high school?  Did you have teachers who made your high school experience?