It came to me as a sleep-filled message.

One of my current charges is a real behavioral headache. This child has witnessed more trauma than anyone should, let alone anyone who is just 9 years old. And, as you might expect, the child has many behavioral tics that get in the way of his — and everyone else’s learning.

Even when he has taken medication, prescribed for ADHD and PTSD after behavior modification just didn’t seem to be the answer, he has difficulty knowing boundaries and behaving within our classroom norms and ground rules. If one student gets some attention from me he immediately seeks the same. He is an intelligent student, one for whom mastering third grade standards is not a problem.  Yet this need for validation  is exhausting for both of us — for him, to constantly feel the need to find validation from his teacher.

With just two days left until the school year begins again, I have started churning what I can do for my students to redirect them, to make our classroom engaging. For this student, I already felt the dread and pressure of continual interruptions for me to drop everything and give attention – something that needs to be resisted. And the answer came to me: with firmness and consistency, teach the student to self-reflect, to look at his own work and decide for himself if it is his best.

If I can do this, and I must succeed to really be this child’s teacher, he will take with him wherever he goes. We all need to learn self-reflection; we need to look at what we’ve accomplished and decide for ourselves if it is or is not our best effort. And isn’t that a lesson far more important than anything else I can give him?


A Time to Take Stock

I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. In fact, most years, I just blow them off — why does one day signify the starting point for change more than any other?

During this vacation – yet another perk of working in a school system is the week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day – I’ve begun to read Eat, Pray, Love. Even after finishing just half of it, I’m finding a real connection to this book. Although much older than the author, I’ve felt the same, wanted to search for the same inner peace.

During last month of school, both student and professional demands made for a very stress-filled and difficult time.  If you’re in education, you know what I’m talking about and if you’re not, you’d probably not understand it anyway, so I won’t waste energy on a list. Less is more. Worrying, wondering how we’ll meet our financial obligations. Adjusting to life as a almost-retiree (5 more years!). All of it has taken a toll.

Yet, when I look back on 2010, while I am “done” with it, I still feel fortunate. Just breathing is a victory. There have been moments when the opposite seemed a desirable alternative. So I celebrate that I am here and I get another opportunity to set things right.

What kinds of resolutions do I hope and pray for? For one, I want to be less OCD about my professional life. This week, I’ve awakened several mornings at the late hour of 7 am to find that there actually can be daylight. In place of leaving my house at 6 am, would the world be any less well off if I left at 7?

What to do with that “extra” hour in the morning? I keep reading about the effects of  sleep deprivation – which has been a way of life for about 5 years now. Maybe I’ll just sleep. Or meditate. Or do something entirely selfish like read a book or listen to music. Or exercise.

But maybe I’ll just sleep. That’s a place to start.



Thanks But No Thanks

It happened that I was sitting at my desk during my lunch, reading the local newspaper, when I spotted an article about new ethics requirements for teachers who receive gifts from students. How ironic that this discovery was on the day before our Holiday break — and that 5 students had given me a Christmas present that very day!

The new regs seem like a knee jerk reaction to some larger issue, and far removed from the tokens that kids bring to their teachers. It’s not as if the students I have from families with limited monetary resources are buying me a day at the spa. The geniuses behind this regulation  can make all the noise they want about “bribery” and undue influence as evidenced by a present for teacher. If a good grade or college recommendation can be “bought” with a $25 Dunkin Donuts card, image what $250 could buy.  Valedictorian?

So this morning, in addition to handwriting thank-you notes — because THAT’s the polite and accepted social norm  I want to model for my kids — I dug through the website and found the form I need to complete. I’m including the link here for anyone else teaching in the Commonwealth’s public schools (hmmm, do Charter School teachers need to do this too?).

Despite my appeal for no gifts (I have a treasured collection of notes from students),  some parents and students still give gifts at certain points in the year,  Christmas being one of those times. I dread Valentine’s Day — I’ll have to refile this form for every cardboard box of candy a student brings.

So here’s what I’ve needed to declare in order to disclose “the appearance of a conflict of interest” (I kid you not, this is the title on the form!):

  • 2 packages of Ferrero Rocher chocolates
  • 1 Country Apple bath set
  • 1 Cherry Blossom bath set (hmmmm, are the kids trying to tell me something?)
  • 1 dozen butter cookies in a ziplock baggie
  • a 2009-2010 calendar (priceless!)
  • hand lotion and a jar candle
  • handmade eggrolls to share with the class and 1 chocolate homemade cupcake

I might add that, in the spirit of not allowing presents to impact my professional decisions, I did complete a behavior report on one of the gift-givers after the students aimed a pencil at another student in the classroom (missed!) and used inappropriately foul language.

Good grief!

Following Your Bliss

This morning’s Boston Globe contained an article about a (former) software engineer who had recently turned teaching yoga full-time.  Struck by similarities to our circumstances, got me thinking about my own career.

It is not a secret that recent developments in the field of education are not all that enjoyable for practitioners. We worry if our next false step will lead to public reprimand, or worse. We deal in the complexities of humans, not in the predictability of widgets. Those who think we can easily apply all of the manufacturing or business principles – the very ideas that make for successful businesses – need to consider the human condition more seriously. There are just so many things over which a teacher has control and that is what makes education interesting.

In my 20s, I was at turns a bookkeeper and a customer support person. I held a dream of getting an MBA and making my fortune. It was, however, not to be. The software company for which I worked went belly-up leaving me – and many others – without 2 months of pay and with no job. Without the credentials of a B-school graduate, I was left at a crossroad: either accept a secretarial position and start again, or really start again – find what makes you happy.

It took several years of introspection to get me to the point where I yielded to the draw education has for me. But, once the decision to return to school was made, I never looked backward. Awkward moments at corporate gatherings aside (at that time, educators were leaving teaching to carve our a career in corporate), a career in education has been for me, the bliss I was seeking.

I tried those private sector career moves before I came to teaching. The pundits and politicians can try to erode the enthusiasm and wonder with which I approached teaching from a start now more than 20 years ago. Following the one thing I was meant to do has been a joy a privilege, worth more than the tangible trappings of a more lucrative career.

Without regret I have, and continue to follow my bliss.

What the Tour Bus Would Miss….

Junia Yearwood is quickly becoming one of my favorite Boston Globe reads. The article, “If Only Visitors Could See My Students“, provides insight into an urban classroom — and warns of the dangers of believing what one reads or learns via the fifth estate.  So, here is what visitors might miss in my classroom.

The quiet girl who transferred in about 2 months ago. Homeless, her family had been living in a local hotel until recently. She is an accomplished reader and is becoming an accomplished writer; a sadness envelopes her most of the day. She write poetry and song lyrics in her native Spanish – and then translates them for all of us to enjoy when she musters the courage to open herself to sharing. In her journal she writes about her father who died suddenly in hospital. If a classmate is in trouble, she is the first to help or provide support. While her mother works the night shift, she watches over a school-age younger brother and 2 twin babies. In her eyes you can see the strain of having to be responsible beyond her chronological years.

Engaging and social, nearly always the center of things, the student sitting next cannot read. Oh he tries, but the brain connection between what he sees on paper and what he is able to do disconnects. He has no IEP, yet struggles to read at a beginning grade 1 level. The process for getting him evaluated for special education services may take an entire year of data collection. Meanwhile, he and I do the best we can to make the connections.When he is working with me, he is serious. He wants to learn to read but is terrified his friends will find out that he can’t.

The next student is a better-than-average third grade student with the potential to be brilliant. He has told me he wants to be a scholar and a scientist. He is a big boy – as wide as he is tall. Though he is often in someone’s personal body space, he cannot help himself. Oh how I hope he comes back to visit when he grows to be comfortable with himself! And how I hope he’ll hold on to that dream of becoming a scholar and a scientist even when so many temptations surround him that would take him off the path to his goal.

Another nearby student exasperates with his absent-mindedness. His brain is working all of the time, though,  and when he expresses an insight into reading, it is mind-blowing. He is convinced he is bad and talks about how his “bad” alter ego needs to take a hike. He is the only student I’ve ever taught who was convinced he was on Santa’s naughty list – and gave detailed reasons why and how he was planning to change the situation. Here is child who is used to people who expect little of him. He hoards food from our breakfast program and from the cafeteria at lunch. Is his family unable to put food on the table? My guess is yes.

So many hardworking, complicated students. It is not simply the academics in an urban classroom. As Junia Yearwood points out, a visitor would witness the will of the human spirit to overcome what life has dealt. It is the spirit of my students that inspires, that keeps all of us coming back to work another day.

The Infamous 3N8

It is my — and their — nemesis:

3.N.8 Select and use appropriate operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) to solve problems, including those involving money.

My students can perform computation into the thousands. We are pretty darn good at it. But toss a word/story problem in their direction and everything falls apart.  Why can’t these kids figure out an appropriate equation and operation from the words? It is really quite a pain.

Remembering the challenge of second language learners — and the nuance of the English language — partially explains why these kids have such a tough time deciding what operation and equation makes sense. I’ve resisted the urge to teach key wording because it doesn’t always fit the situation. And the standardized testing we foist on these kids often doesn’t follow the “formula.” Besides, I want them to think and to know what they need to find a solution.

So this week, I’ve started applying a teaching strategy we used to teach in another school for visualizing. Explicitly teaching students to visualize seems to me like the only way they are ever going to figure out if the answer – the result – should grow or shrink. Which I hope will lead the students to a reasonable equation for that computation they seem to do so well. It just so happens that the students are not very strong visualizers when it comes to reading either.

What I do know is that unless I can convince the students to thoughtfully consider the action in a story problem, to visualize what the situation is, all the computational skill that they have acquired will mean next to nothing.

Where the responsibility lies

Junia Yearwood wrote in an OpEd piece in the Boston Globe this week that it takes a culture that values learning to educate a child. I couldn’t agree with this more. What is valued in our culture? I don’t believe it is intelligence and learning if pop culture is any indication.

What struck me as poignantly true was this quotation found in the middle of the piece:

Blaming us, the teachers, absolves all others of their complicity in the failure to educate our students and relieves them of all responsibility for solving the problem. It’s expedient. Yet until we accept collective responsibility for the problem and for finding a permanent solution, progress will remain an elusive phantom.

It is indeed easy to blame educators for our students’ failures. It makes closed minds feel much better because there is someone to blame for the failure of education. Even when the elephant in the room can no longer be ignored, politicians and leaders find it more to their liking to blame the practitioners and look for a quick fix. I am not saying that there aren’t areas where education and educators can improve. Of course education is not perfect and neither am I. Nonetheless, the truth is that it is far more easy to blame teachers for all the ills of education when the problems affecting student achievement are far more complicated.

How many times do we have to show our children that learning is for nerds and eggheads — even those terms are a pejorative. What stereotypical imagery do we employ when referring to females who go into mathematics? When our society as a whole changes from treating intelligence and high achievement in learning as something to be valued, we will have made a giant step toward a permanent fix.