Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Beat Down

I had such high hopes for this year. I look back over my posts for the summer, and I reflect upon the goals I set and how much I hoped to accomplished with my kids. I was so excited about all that I've learned about teaching students to have a growth mindset and having the opportunity to share my new learnings with other teachers. Although sad, I was getting used to the idea of teaching only two subjects, and I was very excited to plan well thought out units without having to spread myself too thin. I look back on the resources I found this summer, and what I hoped to accomplish.

And now?

We are only 10 weeks into the school year, and I am exhausted and feeling worthless. I'm a punching bag. Opening my email makes me start to panic. Walking into school has my stomach in knots. I come home every night wondering how I could possibly do more and what I have done so wrong.

We are the lightning rods, and the insults and threats are the lightning bolts. They hit, and they hurt.

"Just let it go in one ear and out the other. You know it's not true."

"You are a great teacher; don't let them get you down."

"It's not that they are mad at you. They just don't know what else to do so they're taking it out on you."

But it's not that easy. Each of those words sticks. No matter how many times I read the positive emails and replay the highlights of my days, it's the negative, stinging words that I'm lying awake thinking about at 3 AM.

I'm not sure how to make this better, but I can say that in my 19 years there has never been one like this. I hope we can figure out how to make it better before everything I love about teaching is gone.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Mindset on a Plane

This year I have taken on a new position, 21st Century Professional Learning Leader, in addition to my daily teaching duties. While I was waiting to be given a "here's what you're going to do as a PLL," paper or speech, I found out very quickly that wasn't going to happen. I learned that I had the opportunity to take this new position and make it into something of my own.

When I met with my principal initially about my position, the focus was most definitely on technology. I agree that technology plays a huge role in our lives today, but it definitely is not THE only part of 21st century learning and skills. If you've done any reading on the topic, you may have seen this graphic from the Partnership for 21st Century Learning:


While tech skills are part of one piece of the puzzle, they aren't the entire puzzle. I wanted to help people understand that, and I wanted to really focus on the critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity piece and how it relates to the work we do in school. I was also extremely curious about how the concepts of growth and fixed mindsets, a topic my district has focused on from a philosophical perspective but not so much an instructional one, fit into all of this.

I decided to use the idea of developing growth mindsets as the vehicle for my part of our school's professional development we started in August and will continue through the rest of the year. I found a resource called Ready to Use Resources for Mindsets in the Classroom, and I used that to plan my first session in August. It was well received, but I knew there was more, so I got two other books: The Growth Mindset Coach by Brock and Hundley and Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler

Like every beginning of the year, I got busy and the other books sat on my desk at home waiting patiently for me to read them. The opportunity came when I flew to Houston to visit my brother's family. Because I was highly engaged the 3 hour flight to Houston was plenty of time for me to read through the Coach book. I was able to begin to develop more of a research based background as to why a growth mindset matters physiologically. I also started thinking about how I could redo the sessions I was to conduct on Tuesday when I got back to school.

I was just as engaged on my flight back, and I used that time to get about halfway through Jo Boaler's book. I'm pretty sure the people next to me thought I was cray for all the "Woah!", "No Way!" "Really!" and, "I've been teaching math wrong this whole time," comments that kept popping out of me. With an even bigger research base, I came up with a revised plan for my original session and my follow up session, and I was eager (almost annoyingly so) to share my new knowledge with my coworkers.

My first session on Tuesday went really well, and I received a lot of positive feedback. It truly was interesting to see my colleagues struggle with growth mindset activities because so many of us tend to have a fixed mindset. I blame the educational culture for this. We do not value mistakes and growth opportunities. We are evaluated on one score, one test, one day.... mistakes are bad. Perfect tests are valued... they're the gold standard. But I now understand that perfect tests are the one way that your brain will never, ever grow. 

As I read on the plane and listened to people share during my sessions, my thoughts wandered back to the students my district has lost in the last few months for a variety of reasons. Kids who, based on our recent suicide training, had all the preventative factors in their back pockets. They shouldn't have become a statistic. But they did. I can't help feeling like we as an educational system had something to do with that. The pressure to be perfect. The pressure to not make mistakes. Focusing on things they aren't good at. Keeping them from things they want to be part of to practice their weaknesses. We're cultivating the worst of a fixed mindset, and I can't help feeling like that has to be part of the reason some of our kids make the choices they make.

I have made a three year commitment to this position. If I can make even a small dent in the systemic problem of creating fixed mindsets in our kids, and if I can make a positive change to help my students develop a growth mindset, then these three years will be the most successful of my career.

To the Lady at the Gym

Dear Lady at the Gym,

I thought you looked familiar, but that's not why I waved to you. I was just waiting for somebody to reply to my text, so I waved for you to cross so you didn't wait for me unnecessarily. Honestly, I was a little shocked when you walked up to my car, but like I said, I thought you looked familiar. I figured you were coming to ask, "Are you Mrs. Bair?" and then I would see whose mom you were from one of my 19 years.

But you didn't.

You came over to my car and you said, "I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you and your transformation. I see how hard you are working, and you look fantastic. I remember you because I had kids at Rheems, so I remember you from when you taught there. You look incredible, and I just wanted to tell you that you need to keep up the great work. You are an inspiration." As you walked away you gave me two thumbs up and yelled a final, "Keep it up, you look great!"

I think I managed to squeak out a thank you. At least I hope I did. No stranger has ever said anything like that to me, and I think I was a little bit in shock.

I haven't had the chance to see you again during a workout, but if I do, I hope I'll have the courage to come up and talk to you. I really want to tell you what an impact your words had on me. I think I always feel like my friends HAVE to tell me they are proud of me. They HAVE to be positive and supportive because it's what friends do when you're trying really hard. But you..... there was no mandate for you to walk over to my car and say those words.

But you did.

And I don't think I'll ever be able to put into words how much you inspired and encouraged me. How much you made me want to keep going and to keep making good choices.

So thank you. Thank you, Former Rheems Mom who saw me at the gym. Your words have made a permanent impact on me, and hopefully I can do them justice.

Sincerely,
Becky

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Walking the Walk

One of the life skills I try to impress upon my students is the fact that every mistake is an opportunity to learn. I also try to teach my kids to get the whole story or get to know a person before they make a judgment. The first is especially important for me because I feel like all of the pressure to score well on the tests we gives makes students feel like mistakes are bad things. 

It's easy to look at these things from the lens of doing school work - what is one mistake on a math paper? Butting in front of your friend in line? Calling out while somebody else is talking? All mistakes we can learn from, but at the end of the day they won't change our lives. 

But what about real life? This week I was part of a very challenging situation. It made me judgmental. I assumed. I didn't think about the fact that there's always part of the story that we'll probably never know. I questioned and "what if-ed" many different things. I forgot that every experience in our lives should be looked at as an opportunity to learn. 

After some time I was able to look at the event from a different perspective. And as I've reflected over the past few days, I realized that I needed to do what I teach my kids. We all make mistakes. While there are always some sort of consequences (another valuable lesson I try to teach my kids), mistakes don't have to define a person. People deserve a chance to learn from their mistakes. Judging a person based on one event means that you never really get to know who that person truly is beyond that one action. 

My hope is that everybody involved in this situation has the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and move on. I know I have, and I hope to do my part to help others do so as well. 




Sunday, September 4, 2016

First Week Reflection

Well, week 1 is in the books. As I look back over the learning and thinking I did this summer, I found some things that I wanted to do that I didn't (yet) and some things that I wasn't even thinking about that I did.

For example, in this post I talked about letting my kids set up the classroom. That didn't happen. I arranged my desk, my other furniture, and my students' desks so I would have a large group area, places for small groups to work, some places where individual students could go to have quiet time, and specific places for my two groups to have their materials. I haven't given up on this idea, but it just hasn't happened yet. What I did decide to do came from our experience at our first inservice day. I felt comfortable and was willing to take risks that day because of the people who were in my group. So I decided to let my kids pick their seats, which I have done in the past, but this year I'm going to let them stay there. Usually, after the first week, I would get an idea of who the talkers were, which best buds sat next to each other, which groups needed a better mix of stronger learners, and then I would regroup the kids. This year I'm not. I'm going to let them stay there for another week or so, and then I'm going to ask them who they'd like their new group to be. It was actually a really cool experience because when my afternoon class came in to pick their seats, one boy even said, "I don't think we should sit together. Sometimes we don't get along." And the other boy agreed and picked a different seat. I'm curious to see where this little seating experiment takes me.

One of the best things I did this summer was set my goals for the year, and one of them was to incorporate more student directed learning. To start off each year I do the same set of team building activities, and the purpose of these is to help the kids get to know each other and to create reminder posters for the students to refer back to throughout the year. The result of my first activity is typically a "how my actions affect others" poster, then I do a "problem maker" poster and a "problem solver" poster. This year, as we did the first activity and started to reflect, my kids made some awesome statements that didn't really fit into the framework I had used in the past. I caught myself starting to tell the kids that their ideas were good, but I wanted to focus on something else. I stopped, and I wrote down their statements. I used those statements to start a "Wall of Learning" in my classroom (pictures coming on Tuesday) where we will be posting any comments the kids make that show they have learned something about life. Does it feel weird to not have my model charts up on the wall? It sure does. But I'm excited to take the ideas of growth mindset and student directed learning and put them into practice. I'm also happy to realize that I have already given my students the opportunity to direct the learning in our classroom.

A final change came on parent night. Our directions were to start with a brief, 2-3 minute introduction about ourselves and then speak about the curriculum. What the students will learn was to be the focus of our parent night. I respectfully disagree with that. If the parents want to know what the kids will learn, they'll look up our curriculum documents. I believe that parents are coming to see who their child is spending their days with and what their child's life will be like while they are at school. So with that in mind, I introduced myself, I talked about the required topics, and then I did a growth mindset activity with the parents that I had done with my students. It was amazing! I learned that my parents are as scared, if not more scared, than the kids to share their ideas and make mistakes. But I also learned that the parents thought the ideas of growth mindset made sense and were great things to practice. I hope to use our discussion about being brave as a connection for all of my communication with my parents this year.

It wasn't all butterflies and unicorns, but I will say that it was a pretty good start. I'm still adjusting to having two distinct groups of kids in my room, and I'm still struggling with how to feel equally connected to each. But I'm sure that will come with time. Right now I'm going to enjoy the rest of my long weekend with family and friends, and I hope that you all will do the same!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Inservice Was Amazing

Wait...... what????????

I know, I know, it's shocking, but you read that correctly. Today was my first teacher day back at school for the 16-17 school year, and it was absolutely amazing.

My district gets it. They get that we have moved way too far on the "let's pass the test" continuum, and now we are swinging back. The swing back is focusing on the 4C's of 21st century learning: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. We also added in a 5th - control; as in you need to release control to the kids. So instead of just sitting around and talking about it, today we actually did it.

We started our day with the usual welcome message, but that very quickly transitioned to an entire day of stations and sessions that we could choose for ourselves. We weren't assigned to groups. We weren't give a schedule to follow. We were basically given a series of challenges and told, "Go see what you can do!" These challenges included:


  • 6 organized presentations for which we needed "tickets" - they included a presentation by Bricks for Kidz, a session on mindfulness, a drum circle, a paint and create activity, a team building activity, and geocaching.
  • a Twitter challenge (check out #easdopeningday to see all of the fun activities)
  • a series of outdoor games (cornhole,  and giant versions of Jenga, Connect 4, Scrabble, Pick Up Sticks, and Dominoes)
  • a photo scavenger hunt
  • a Graffiti Wall where people could simply post their thoughts
  • a marshmallow / pasta building challenge
  • an egg drop challenge (Our egg didn't break!)
  • an ice cream truck with ice cream for everybody
Lunch was served from 11-1, and we needed to be back at the main area by 2:00. But other than that the days was ours to plan and carry out. I was able to attend the Bricks for Kidz presentation (good, but too much talking) and the drum circle. My group and I worked on the photo scavenger hunt, participated in the egg drop, played cornhole and an intense game of pick up sticks, and enjoyed some delicious ice cream. Definitely not your typical inservice day.

At 2:00 we wrapped up our activities with a little reflection where they asked us 4 questions for reflection. We got into groups representing K-3, 4-6, 7-8, and 9-12 (a rarity that we all get to interact) and talked about our thoughts and take aways from the day. While our group came up with some great ideas, here are mine:
  • My district administrators trust me. They didn't need to put me in an assigned group, have an administrator follow me, or make me complete a series of sign-ins. I was trusted to go out and make the best of my day, and that made me want to get as much out of it as possible.
  • I have permission to go for it. If my administrators are willing to give up the control and let us learn the way we did today, it means I have permission to do the same with my students.
  • Even when you sometimes want to go it on your own, it is nice to have the support of others. We could all go inside our classrooms and close the door, but it would not help the kids or be nearly as much fun as working together to solve problems.
  • It's okay to get out of your comfort zone. You will survive, and you just might possibly like something you never thought you would.
  • Just like my colleagues and I deserve the opportunity to lead, so do our kids. Sure, it may take a few extra days, but it's time to give the kids the reins when it's possible and see what they come up with.
  • There are many, many ways to show proficiency, and they don't always involve a pencil, a test book, and a bubble sheet. I'm really hopeful that we begin to have a little more freedom with how we measure our students' proficiency towards the standards.
I honestly never thought I would say that an inservice day was the best day ever, but clearly the tides are turning. After years of feeling like I was doing a disservice to my kids by focusing only on "the tests" I finally feel like I can focus on my kids and help them learn and grow as amazing human beings. It's going to be a great year!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Trying to Refocus

Not going to lie, I had a little bit of a melt down today while I was working in my classroom. I am trying to keep in mind all that I learned and reflected upon this summer. And as I was thinking about everything, all that kept creeping into my mind were all of the roadblocks I was facing. I had to leave school, come home, and spend some time at my favorite spot by the river to help myself get back on track.

Probably the most important lesson I had to repeat over and over today was that things don't have to be perfect. Things can be changed if they don't work out. It's okay to try something, decide I don't like it, and then try something else. But I just want it to be perfect -- these kids are going through such a huge change, I want everything to be perfect for them so their transition can be as smooth as possible. But just as I want to give them grace and make it easy for them, I am being hard on myself. This would be a huge transition for me just to switch my teaching assignment. Now add on all of these new strategies I'd like to try, and everything is even huger.... more huge? Bigger. More uncertain.

And instead of being patient with myself and giving myself the chance to experience a few bumps, I'm putting the pressure on myself to make everything perfect.

Seriously?? Nobody is perfect. Nor did anybody ever expect me to be perfect. So where did this come from?? I don't know, but I'm going to keep reminding myself that the best I can do is try. If things work, great. If not, I'm a pretty good planner and a pretty good problem solver, so I sure I'll be able to come up with a different solution.

Time to refocus and reset my attitude. I'm not setting up my perfect classroom. I'm getting ready for a great group of kids, and together we will learn and grow and figure out what works best for us.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Camp Can Do

I'm sure I've probably posted about camp before, but it's probably been such a while I thought I would take a minute to talk about it again.

Camp Can Do, formerly sponsored by the American Cancer Society, is now a nonprofit organization that runs at Gretna Glen Camp & Retreat Center. Camp Can Do provides two weeks of patient camps for children currently in treatment or those who have been in treatment for a wide variety of pediatric cancers. In addition to our patient camps, we also run a weekend camp for the siblings of our patients.

Many times when I talk about camp, people will say, "Oh how sad. That must be a terribly hard thing to do." In a way, they are right. When we have to say goodbye to our campers, it sucks. There's no easy way around that. But the week itself... the week itself is magical. People also often say, "Wow. Thank you for doing that," or, "What a wonderful thing you're doing to help these kids." While I appreciate the sentiment, I shouldn't be thanked. Believe it or not, we should be thanking the kids.

I wish I could accurately put into words what camp means to me. I wish I could explain the silly, ridiculous jokes, the body noises, the goofy actions, the amazing accomplishments, and the hope that fills up my heart. But honestly, those words don't do it justice. I'm not even sure a story will do it, but I can try.

My partner and I are the counselors in the youngest girls' cabin, so we typically have girls ages 8, 9, and 10. Often we have very sick little girls, other times our girls have been out of treatment for a while even at their young ages. This year, we had a young lady who is not only taking medicine for cancer, but she also faces the challenges of being deaf and mute. As we got our medical review before the campers arrived, we were told that nobody was really sure if she understood that much sign language, and if she read lips it would probably only be in Spanish because that is what is spoken in her home. We don't speak Spanish. We didn't speak sign language. But they told us she was a great young lady, we would love her, and we would figure it out.

It's amazing how universal some hand signals are. We were able to get started on Sunday with lots of pointing and making up our own signs. Thankfully, another counselor in our cabin has a friend who signs, and we quickly found out that our young lady spoke sign language much better than anybody realized. With the help our cabin partner and another good friend who took a sign language class last year, we were able to learn many new signs to help us throughout the week.

While that's interesting, the even better part of this story came as we went through the rest of the week. The other kids, who really didn't HAVE to learn sign language and include her, made it their goal to learn some sign language to be able to play and talk with our young lady. 15, 16, and 17 year old campers spent time during our free time playing "house" with our young lady. She would give them a chore or challenge to complete, and if they didn't complete it, they would be sent to bed early! We never once asked these kids to do this. We never once had to say, "Hey, don't forget to include our friend." It got to the point where she didn't need any of the adults any more, and that's just the way we like it.

Camp is like a world of love in its own little bubble. These kids have every reason to be ticked off, to be angry, to think people owe them something. And they don't. They are full of caring, compassionate hearts, and they do everything they can to show how thankful they are to be there. They are present in every moment of camp, and they soak every experience up like a sponge. I learn so much about appreciating the small things and loving life from these kids that it fills my cup for the entire year. In a summer full of reflection, my week at camp was the icing on the cake. It has me ready to be positive and present throughout the school year because my "other kids" deserve it just as much as my "summer kids" do.

In case you're interested in learning more about Camp Can Do, you can check out our website. If you're in the PA, MD, NJ, DE, NY area, we also have our first annual Gala coming up, and we would love to have you join us.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Giving Up Control

The puppies decided they didn't really want to sleep in this morning, so I was up early (well, early for me.... some of you people... oy!) and reading through some of my blog posts from the past few days. As I was reading this one by George Couros it definitely got me thinking about all of the time I spend in my classroom and how it's changed over the years.

I used to be that person who was in my room for hour and hours getting things set up and looking perfect for the start of the year. Then I started following the Daily 5 workshop format, so I left a lot of information off my walls. All of the anchor charts that went with the Daily 5 activities were made with the students, so my bulletin boards, my word wall, and my motivational posters were up, but large chunks of my room were empty so we could create those charts together. I often wondered what parents thought of those empty walls because the stereotypical elementary classroom is all butterflies and bumblebees and color and Pinterest whoooaaaaaa, but nobody ever really said anything much about it.

This summer I've also started becoming more interested in learning a little bit about self-regulation thanks to these posts by Aviva. While I'm patiently waiting for my book to arrive, it got me thinking about all of the "stuff" we have all over our classrooms, and do I need to have less stuff instead of more stuff to help my kids be successful?

All of these puzzle pieces led me to write this statement in my "New Ideas" document that I've started this summer:

Ask the kids how THEY want to set up the classroom and what THEY want to see on the walls.

That was quickly followed up with these questions:

Do I give the kids guidelines - a space for this, a space for that? 
Do I tell them what I used to do?
Do I just let them go and see what they come up with?
How do I deal with the fact that I have two distinct classes instead of just one? Do I really have the time for the second kids to rearrange the classroom, or do they just deal with what works for my morning kids?

I'll be quite honest, I am very intrigued by this idea. I'm just wondering if I can really give up the control necessary to let it happen, and I also wonder how I can blend the needs of both my classes so that the room works for everybody. I think that my fourth graders would actually do a great job with it, so I think this may be one of those times where I just have to go for it and see what happens. At the worst, I come in some weekend and reset the room, and we try again. Isn't that what life's all about?

Anybody try this? How has it gone? Any pointers for somebody who's just giving it a go for the first time? 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

No Better Time

This week's assignment for my district's book group from Unbreakable by Angela Watson was a combination of several different topics, but the one I could appreciate the most was the topic of finding your own professional development. Even when I haven't been as active here doing my own posting, I'm always browsing different sites to see what I can learn. I've said it once, and I'll say it again:

I have learned more through Twitter chats and my online communities than I have ever learned in a district sponsored / developed professional development day.

Some people might see that as a sad statement, but I choose to look at it as an opportunity for my district to grow and change and as an opportunity for me to love learning and find what's best for me and my kids. I worry that once EdCamps and personal connectedness become "the latest thing" and that it will lose it's personal side. That's what makes all of my PLNs here online so special -- they are mine, not something that somebody told me I had to do or something that my district pigeonholed me into through a set of choices. 

I've been spending a lot of time learning through my favorite blogs (I use Feedly to keep track of all of the ones that I follow) and Twitter (Tweetdeck is also a go to for me) this summer to help me adjust my feelings about the change in my teaching assignment in the fall and look for new strategies that I can use. I want to be a better teacher of kids, not a better teacher of math and science. To that end, I've got several documents started with links to activities, blog posts, videos, activities, and notes from books and articles that seem to be great resources for the new year. 

And then I read this post by Pernille, and it made me laugh to myself. How many times have I found the BEST resources or discovered the GREATEST idea over the summer, only to have it fizzle out in a month or not even make it to my classroom? More than I'd like to admit. Pernille makes a great point. When we get busy, we settle into what's comfortable (the known, the usual) for us. I always have grand plans for all of the new knowledge I learn, but they never seem to really come to fruition. The first suggestion, "Do things now," may seem like I'm wasting my summer. But as I mentioned above, I love learning over the summer when it's mine. Intentionally setting aside a day makes sense to me so I actually sit down and rework my plans to incorporate my new learnings so I make the best use of them during the school year.

I'm hoping that if I really use one day each week, leaving me six other days for non-school related summer fun, I will be able to focus on my goals and really achieve what I would like to accomplish for myself and with my kids this year. 

So let's hear it! What are your favorite tools for your learning? What are you doing to enjoy your summer and still feel ready for the upcoming school year?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Change

Recently I stumbled upon a TV show called Bar Rescue, and it's been fascinating to see an "expert" go into a failing bar and turn it around in a matter of 5 days. Each bar has a bit of a different situation, but the general themes of owners being overwhelmed, owners not being present, and owners being indifferent to what's going on in and around their bars are the ones that viewers see the most.

As I was watching today, it got me thinking about how hard a monumental change really is, and how easy they can make in seem as they pick out the best scenes from 5 intense days and pack it into an hour long show. Particularly for those owners who are adamant that there is nothing wrong with them or their business, I sit and wonder what actually happened - who was it? what did they say? was there some kind of intervention? - behind the scenes that actually made these people turn over a new leaf. Interesting enough, a quick search of Bar Rescue locations near me shows that all seven of the locations within 100 miles of me ended up closing, even after being rescued. Maybe change takes more than five days and a newly renovated bar?

It wasn't just a TV show that got me thinking about this topic. Change has been on my mind because Friday was the one year anniversary of moving into my new home. I left my "starter home" of 14 years for a new life, and even though it was the right decision, it was hard. Changing my life, even though it has made me a happier, healthier person, was hard. Terribly hard. Changing my teaching assignment at the end of this year was hard.

I guess where I'm going with this is that change always kinda sucks. No matter how you try to have a good attitude, look for the positives, and make the choice to focus on what you can control, it's a challenging situation. And we never seem to give people (and especially ourselves) the grace or the time we deserve to actually process and work through the change so that we can come out the other side a better, stronger person.

My challenge to you is for you to give yourself and others some grace when there's change going on. You never know how a little bit of time, a kind word, or just some space to process something new will help somebody learn and grow.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Goals

After yesterday's post I sat down and really thought about what I want for my goals and priorities. First I really had to think about what goals and priorities are. I came up with the following definitions for myself:

Goals: those things that I want to accomplish by the end of the next school year
Priorities: the things I want to keep at the top of my list for my well-being

I made lots of lists and realized that the whole purpose of this was to limit what I was doing, so I tried to focus on manageable for one school year. Here's what I came up with:

Goals for 2016-2107:
  • Look at my students as whole children - I will not focus on my kids as test scores, and I will do what I can do help them develop as good people.
  • Get back to using technology the way I was using it 5 years ago
  • Incorporate more student choice / student directed learning in my classroom 
  • Develop well written, integrated science units for each unit of study
Priorities to achieve my goals:
  • Use my time at work wisely so that I can focus on my health and enjoy my time at home
  • Focused planning time with my teaching partner to help us both learn and grow as teachers
  • Use my online presence to learn and reflect on what's happening in my classroom
I feel like my one extra duty, my building's tech liaison, falls into my first goal and my priority to keep up my online presence. There's also another potential position I might apply for that would support all of these different goals and priorities. I'm hopeful that setting these goals and using what I'm learning this summer will help me be successful this year.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Setting Priorities and Goals

I mentioned a few posts ago that I'm a yes girl. It's really hard for me to say no, especially when it comes to stuff that will let me play an active role in the changes going on in my district. I'm pretty positive.... scratch that, I'm absolutely certain that some people believe that I participate so often because I'm bossy, want things done my way, and have a big mouth. I hate that I come across that way, and I'm really working on fixing that (although I guess some people's perceptions will always be the same no matter what I do), but in my heart I know I do it because I want us doing what's best for kids.

Because of my tendencies to get involved in everything, I have definitely overextended myself at times. This has left me feeling overwhelmed, and I've often felt like I can do a few things great while leaving other things in the dust. To cope I rotated the things that were done well and the things that I slacked on in the hopes that eventually I'd do a good enough job at everything to keep having my voice heard.

A couple of things happened that have started to change that.

First, I have a new life. It sounds kind of dramatic, especially since I didn't have a life-threatening illness and nothing horrible has happened to me, but I really do feel like I'm living a totally different life since my divorce. As such, I actually like being at home.

Second, through no choice of my own, my teaching assignment has changed. When I moved to my new school 5 years ago, we were pigeon-holed into teaching only Social Studies and ELA or STEM classes. But after one year, my close friends and I recognized all of the transitions were horrible for our kids. We proposed that two of us would switch back to teaching all four subjects, and that proposal was accepted. It was fantastic to offer kids stability during a huge transition, and I still feel like it's the best thing for kids. Unfortunately, that program has ended, and this year I'll be teaching only math and science. While I'm trying to look at the positive and see this as the opportunity to ONLY focus on two subjects, my heart is breaking because I know kids will struggle this year because they have too many teachers and too many transitions throughout the day.

Third, I have stepped down from my position on the math curriculum committee. I was tired of being blamed for our grade level's poor PSSA scores. I was tired of being judged as somebody who couldn't lead a group of teachers. I was tired of being told one thing in one situation, and then being told in front of the group that the initial discussion never happened and I was wrong. While my learning during my time on the math committee was tremendously valuable, it wasn't worth some of the other situations I was dealing with. So I decided that it was time for a fresh set of eyes to take a look at things.

Fourth, I continue to read through Unshakeable by Angela Watson, and in it she reminds us that it is okay to say no. She encourages her readers to set priorities and goals. Obviously everybody wants goals to move towards, but Watson suggests using them as a framework for saying yes. If something meets your list of goals and priorities, say yes to it. If it doesn't, say no. People who care about you will understand the no, people who don't will judge you. But they likely would judge you no matter what, so it's always better to keep your well-being at the fore front of your mind.

So, here I am wanting to have more time at home, starting to only teach only 2 subjects, taking a huge responsibility off my plate, and learning more about setting boundaries. It seems like it would be simple for me to create my list of priorities and goals.

I have no idea where to start. Lofty versus manageable. Professional versus personal. Short term versus long term. Just like everything else, I'm making a list of priorities and goals that is way longer than is reasonable. So now I need to throw everything out on paper, really look at them, and think about what I really want to do this year. Decisions, decisions.

What are your priorities and goals for the upcoming school year? How do you limit them so that your time and actions can be meaningful and purposeful?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Tough Lessons

I think we can all agree that sometimes life teaches us the most important lessons in the toughest, most awful ways. Three times in the last few weeks I've been saddened by losses, and now that I can finally step back and look at the losses with a bigger lens I realize that I learned a very valuable lesson.

The first loss was the loss of my parents' dear cat, Janie. Now, I can already hear some of you starting that losing a cat is really not that big of a deal. And for you, that may be correct. But for those of us who love animals, losing a pet is really like losing a beloved family member. Our animals are the ones who love us unconditionally, never talk back to us or judge us, and are always there to greet us no matter how grumpy we are from a bad day. Her loss was especially bad because it coincided with my dad's birthday. I watched my mom and dad question their actions and what they could have done differently to prevent the situation.

The second loss was the loss of a beautiful young lady in my school district. I didn't know this girl, but her death has sent shockwaves through our community.

A final loss happened again to my parents. We thought we had found them a friendly, curious new kitten to fill the empty space left by Janie's passing. My parents and I spent about an hour and a half with her, my dad had named her, and she really seemed to be getting along with my mom. But through a very unfortunate event, that kitten passed away, too. For the next day all of us blamed ourselves. We didn't eat, we didn't really sleep, and we were constantly thinking things over. What we could have done differently? What we should have done differently? What would have made things turn out differently than they did? Unfortunately hindsight is always 20/20.... I absolutely hate it when people say it, but it is so true. We can always look back at a situation and think about what we should have done differently to get a more desired outcome. But the fact of the matter is, maybe that outcome that we wanted really isn't the one that we needed at the time.

So I mentioned that sometimes these awful situations help us learn valuable lessons. Here are my new learnings this week:

The first lesson I've learned is to follow my gut. In the case of both me and my parents, we each had that gut feeling about both cat situations, and we dismissed them. This isn't the first time this has happened to me. My gut typically gets things right, and I need to follow it a little more closely in the future. School wise, my gut has been telling me that is more important to focus on the kids and their well being than on test scores. This terrible tragedy solidifies this for me, and I am going to make it the focus of my year this year.

Another lesson is that we can't blame ourselves in many of these situations. We can "shoulda, woulda, coulda" ourselves until our hearts ache and until we feel like there is no way out. But the fact of the matter is that you can't ever go back in time and change things. There is always a reason we make the choices we make at the time we make them. We have to take what has happened, learn from it, and move forward (when we're ready) with those new lessons helping shape those steps.

What do you think are the most important lessons that you have learned from challenging situations? How have they shaped the person you are today?

Friday, July 1, 2016

Moving Past Fear

Dictionary.com lists the first definition of fear as

a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

For a long time I let fear control much of what I did. Many of the fears I had involved others and what they might say or think about me as I was trying whatever task was at hand. I stayed way too long in a crappy situation because of my fear of being labeled a failure and because of my own belief that if I couldn't fix things then I was a failure. I'm not sure where this fear came from, and why I was so driven by what others thought of me (perhaps my own struggles with my self esteem?), but I was afraid to try so many things.

Then there were some fears that didn't have anything to do with other people. For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of thunderstorms and heights. My mom swears that my fear of thunderstorms comes from the day I was born. It was an unusually hot and humid day (which means it HAD to be bad if it was unusually hot and humid for a PA summer!), and that evening our area experienced some of the worst storms my mom can remember. It didn't matter what stories or scientific facts my parents told me about the thunder and lightning, if there was a storm I was sleeping on their floor. While I'm getting better as I get older, some storms still get my heart racing.

I'm not sure where the fear of heights came from, but it's pretty bad in some cases. I have a really hard time walking up steps with open backs. I can't stand on somebody's loft in their house and look down over their first floor. I love flying and roller coasters, but please don't ask me to walk up the steps inside the Statue of Liberty or get up on a ladder. Or on a step stool, really. Yeah - it's that bad.

I've had a pretty long bucket list to which I've kept adding instead of crossing off. Many of these items remained on the list because I've been too afraid of the task itself or of what people would think of me while I was doing it. Two examples include doing a mud run and going zip lining. My thoughts ranged from, "What would people think?" to, "I'm too big to do a mud run," to, "Zip lining sounds fun, but I'm too afraid of heights so I'll never do it."

Well, low and behold, with the right motivation I am discovering that I can overcome, or at least work through, my fears. When asked by an amazing young lady, I very quickly signed up for and completed a challenging mud run. It wasn't about competing, it wasn't about going fast, it was all about helping Sarina meet her goal. And with that single-minded focus I didn't really care how I did everything or what anybody else said, our group just made sure Sarina finished.

Zip lining wasn't quite so easy. There was no other person to focus on as I completed the tasks of climbing up onto the platforms, crossing the bridges, and jumping out into the forest. It was all about me, my willingness to trust that I'd be okay, and to not worry about what others might think. So as a special celebration for our birthdays, my friend and I signed up to go zip lining at Refreshing Mountains. My friend knew I was scared and offered to cancel, but I said no way. He constantly asked if I was okay and cheered me on as I completed each task. Our guides couldn't have been more supportive, nor could the family of five that were with us in our group. These three kids and their grandparents could have easily made fun of the lady who was chicken, but instead they celebrated each of my little victories, including the first time I stopped hugging the tree in the middle of the platform! Each jump and landing helped me build more and more confidence until I was able to complete the final task with just a little nudge from our guide. I'm still in shock that I did it, but I actually think I want to go back and try it again. We'll see. 

The fact is this: I crossed both of these items off my list. I did it! I still am afraid of heights, I still am not super confident in myself. But each little victory helps me believe more and more in myself and become more and more willing to try things that I once never thought I'd be able to do.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

I Like to Say Yes

I like to say yes.

The first reason I like to say yes is because I love learning new things. I think continuing to learn is one of those innate reasons that led me to become a teacher. My friends call me the Google Queen because if I ask a question and nobody knows the answer, I want to find out what it is.

The second reason I like to say yes is because I want my voice heard. If changes are coming down the pike, I want my voice to be part of the implementation. I want to be able to say what I think is good for the kids and what is not so good. Sometimes this gets me in a little bit of hot water, but at least my voice gets heard.

A third reason I like to say yes is because of the kids. Sometimes I can really see why we are doing something and how it will benefit the kids, so I jump right in to see what will happen if I give it a go. Other times it's because I disagree with the benefits for the kids. I feel like somebody has to speak up for them if a new initiative is going to make them more of a number than a little person. (See above in regards to getting in hot water!)

I've also come to realize that I said yes to escape. When things were not so great at home I said yes because yes kept me busy. Yes kept me at school in meetings or working on tasks. Yes kept my head and my hands busy even when I was at home. Yes was a great way to throw myself into something useful and beneficial while avoiding everything that was going wrong.

My answer was also yes because a lot of times many other people's answers were no. So many times I said, "I'll help if you need me to, but if somebody else wants to do it, please pick them." And there were just no other thems to pick.

There have also been many times where the yes wasn't my yes; we affectionately call it being "volun-told" to participate. The latest happened this past school year when I finally said no to something and received an email that started, "You administrator believes that you would be a valuable contributor to our conversation. We will be meeting..........." It's flattering that my voice is valued, but even when I say no I still somehow end up saying yes.

Now that my life is a little bit different, I've been working really hard to balance my passion for learning, my love of being involved, and the feeling that I don't want to / can't do everything. In our latest summer assignment from Unshakeable by Angela Watson, I read about establishing healthy habits and determining what matters most to me. She recommended asking these questions before deciding to take on a task:

  • What would happen if I didn't do this?
  • What will happen if I do it later?
  • How long will it really take me to handle this?
Now, these questions were specifically meant to help teachers prioritize the work they need to finish for their classrooms while handling all of those unexpected things that pop up during the day. But the first question really struck a cord with me.

What will happen if I don't do this?

It's a really interesting question to ask yourself about a lot of those things that we seem to make into "must dos" in this day and age. There are so many things that it will apply to, and I really want to make it into my question. It's not that I don't want to keep saying yes, I just want to say yes to those things that REALLY matter to me. I guess that'll be my next step: deciding what really matters.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

One Lucky Girl

This.

And this.

The eagles' nest is at the very top of the center tree.


And this.

Canadian geese - momma, poppa, and babies floating by

And this.

What is all of this? It's my front yard. Okay, well, technically I have to walk all of 2 minutes if I want to get there the illegal way (down over the railroad tracks) or 4 minutes if I want to do it legally to get there, but it really is right in my front yard.

It's my happy place.
It's the Susquehanna River.

People knock the river all of the time. With Three Mile Island just a couple of miles upstream, another power plant at one end of town, and the county incinerator at the other, people tend to think it's pretty dirty and disgusting down here. But that's not the case at all. I'm certain there is more we could do, but right now the river is thriving pretty well.

This morning I rode my bike for maybe 15 minutes, and at the end of those 15 minutes I got to see two fledgling bald eagles messing around by their nest. I also got to see Mom or Dad come in and drop off their brunch. As I was watching the eaglets, a family of Canadian geese floated down the river, and a great blue heron flew by. I also got to see a small raccoon, and that did concern me a little bit. Little bugger didn't look sick, but he definitely shouldn't have been out at 11:15 am. 

Then I peddled back and stopped to enjoy the views from the White Cliffs of Conoy and a small little fishing spot where the Conoy Creek flows into the Susquehanna. It was a beautiful morning, and it made me realize how lucky and happy I am to be where I'm at.

Today's good news was tempered with some bad, though. My parents had to put their sweet kitty Jane to sleep. I swear Jane was a dog in a cat's body; she loved to be the center of attention, loved to be brushed, loved to be held, and loved loved loved nothing more than to sit on my parents' deck and watch life go by. It definitely will not be the same at their apartment now that Janie got her wings, but my bike trip this morning reminds me that there is always a circle of life. As tough as it is, leaving is as much a part of life as arriving and living, and we have to take her spunk with us as we keep going.

So I'm lucky -- I get to live in this beautiful place, feel all of these emotions, and keep on keeping on. What makes you a lucky person today?



Monday, June 20, 2016

What I Believe

This weekend was a great celebration - my friend's birthday, Father's Day, my "little" brother turned 40! There were lots of opportunities to spend happy times with people and reflect upon how far I've come personally. I'm so looking forward to continuing to grow this summer, both personally and professionally.

One of the things I read in my assignment from Unbreakable was the idea of having a mantra; something that acknowledges the challenges that you face but also reminds you of all of the positive things that you've got going on.

Even thought it wasn't remotely part of the assignment, I decided to go ahead and write my own mantra. While Watson included one in her book that was very good and definitely applied, I just felt it was important to put my own spin on it. She recommends reading it every day, and I'm thinking about hanging it on the wall next to my desk after I finish all the final touches. But for right now, here's the first draft of my mantra. What will yours say?

I have wanted to be a teacher since I was 7 years old. I always pictured myself growing up, getting married, teaching kids, and having kids of my own. While my picture looks very different than I expected, one thing is true. I have worked extremely hard for all that I accomplished, and I'm proud of myself for who I am today. 

Sometimes it seems like there are so many things out of my control, and a lot of them are. But I control how I decide to react to all of those things. Professionally I must always put my kids first and be present for them. For some, I am the most positive influence they have in their life, and they depend upon me to be in the moment with them. I will continue to do the best I can (which may not be perfect, but it's still pretty darn good) for each of them. I will try my best to communicate with their parents to show them how much their children accomplish and how much potential they have.

I'll never get away from giving tests or covering some of this ridiculous curriculum, but I do have the power to help my kids have all of the tools they need to feel like they can do their best. I'll make sure my kids know exactly how much I care about them as people, not as test scores.

And finally, but most importantly, I respect and care for myself. I am strong. I finished the Gretna Gritty! It's okay to be afraid, but I can't let fear keep me from trying new things that have always had the excuse, "That looks like fun, but...." I will be happy. I will be healthy. I have the power to do all of these things.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Choice

So it's only been 5 days since my summer vacation, and I've already learned quite a few new things.


  1. Sticking tile to a backsplash really isn't that hard. Bending to stick the tile on the backsplash yes, actually sticking it on, no.
  2. Sticking tile to a backsplash is a lot easier when you have a friend who is willing to do all the tricky cuts for you!
  3. You can rent a tile cutter for $10.
  4. Using a tile cutter in your newly sealed driveway ruins the pretty color.
  5. Scrubbing said driveway helps a little, but not as much as you would think.
  6. Going to the zoo with your mom and dad is fun, even if you're almost 42.
  7. It's WAY harder to clean the grout off the tile than they make it look.
  8. Sometimes you just have to depend upon yourself.
  9. It's always my choice.
You probably noticed a little theme through my little list of learnings, and as you probably guessed I did a little tiling for the first time. I'll be quite honest - it looks pretty sweet. It's definitely not perfect, but I did it with the help of my friends, and I'm pretty proud. While I have always been confident in my school life, I am not always so confident in my home life. There were several times while I was working that I thought, "I can't do this!" or, "This is never going to work!" or, "Oh crap - I have totally messed this up." This negative self talk has kept me from doing a lot of different things in my life because of a fear of failure. It's something that I've been working on a lot with my counselor, and tiling the backsplash was one of the goals I had set for myself. In addition to all of the little tidbits I already listed, doing the backsplash helped me with two other things:
  • It's okay to ask for and lean on somebody for help.
  • Things don't have to be perfect to look nice. 
So while I still have to finish sealing the grout and putting the covers back on, here is some of the work on the tile!




Numbers 8 and 9 probably don't make much sense in the grand list of new learnings from tiling, especially since I already said it's okay to lean on somebody for help. But last year I depended upon a friend to help me get to the gym everybody. As sometimes happens in life things change, and while I'm sad about it, our daily gym trips just aren't going to happen this summer. So hence my learning for #8. I have to do it myself.

That kinda ties in nicely to #9. It has to be my choice to be healthy, and I can't depend upon anybody else. As part of my summer learnings, we are reading the book Unshakeable by Angela Watson. While I haven't gotten very far into it (and I'll honestly say, I don't think the first assignment really goes with what I read), I can say that it has been phenomenal in reminding me that everything is my choice, particularly how I look at and deal with situations. While my required postings are very specific, I'm hoping that I can use this forum to talk about what I've learned and how I can use it in my classroom. 

So three weekdays in, and I've already learned a lot. Hopefully I will continue to make the choices that help me learn and grow all summer long.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

It's Been A While

Are you singing that song in your head now? If you are, I'm sorry for the ear worm. If it's any consolation, I've given it to myself as well, so I'm singing right along with you.

It certainly has been a while since I've been here. Being a connected teacher was extremely important to me, but I've learned over the past year and a half that it was also one of the ways that I was escaping all of the difficulties in my "real" life. While I was really hoping to find a better balance between life, teaching, and my online presence, what I found was that I just couldn't do all three for a while. Unfortunately, that meant my online presence was the one that I could afford to let slip.

So what's happened since I've been gone? Well, a lot. But in keeping with my attempts at being the bigger person, let's just say that I have definitely gone ahead and upgraded, and others have, in some people's eyes, downgraded. I continue to wish him well and hope that he finds great success. But as time continues to march on, I drift more and more away from that old life and the ties that bound me to its unhappiness.

Professionally, life has been challenging as well. I found this really great meme the other day online:




Everything certainly look and feels the same, but I have definitely changed. I am no longer the one who needs to be responsible for making other people happy, and I am no longer the one who goes along with things just because it's what I'm "supposed" to do or because it'll make my test scores look good for my evaluations. I'm doing what's right by myself and what's right by my kids. I've already been "unfriended" (and I am definitely not just talking about Facebook!), but I'm okay with that. Those seem to have been the toxic people in my life, and not having to deal with them all the time has helped me be more positive and true to myself.

But I do find myself being more and more frustrated. I'm frustrated with the testing. I'm frustrated with my kids being a number, or a set of numbers, rather than a child. I'm frustrated with teaching to the test and not teaching kids to learn or be creative. I'm frustrated people who I used to see as trusted coworkers now seeming to be in it for themselves rather than being a part of a team. I'm frustrated that so much seems to be "out of my hands" and there's "nothing I can do about it," And I'm frustrated with administrators who shift on a whim and talk out of both sides of their mouth. All of this frustration has had me looking around thinking, "What else can I do?" "How can I teach kids, but not really be a teacher?"

So as I sit here pondering the "what should I do with my life question" for the umpteenth day in a row, I heard a ding on my school messager. It was a message from a coworker for whom I have the utmost respect. Her words were so kind and so humbling. And as I sat reading what she wrote and answering her, I received an email from a student. He is now teaching 4th grade in another local district, and he just wanted to thank me for all that I did for him. It's amazing how sometimes, in our greatest times of need, just the right people pop up to share just the words we needs to hear. I guess tonight was that night for me.

Maybe, just maybe, I am in the right place. I am doing the right thing.