First Days

IMG_1586 (1)It is back-to-school time here in the City in which I taught for nearly 30 years. You can sense the anticipation in the  breezes that flow down the Merrimack. There is  an almost unidentifiable change to the air. We are changing seasons; we are changing routines.

I loved the first day of school when I was teaching. Make no mistake about it, those first days – and oftentimes weeks – are exhausting as teachers and their new students work to find common ground and to build a community. The first day, the day when everyone wears a little vulnerability in anticipation of new things, the first day is special. And for every teacher who starts rebuilding a new community of learners today, I wish you the best.

My mind floods with the memories of some of those wonderfully special students who made the 30 first days that I was privileged to be part of special. So many unique personalities! You kids have enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined.

In 1990, I was returning to the classroom after a summer of health crises. I remember the exhaustion that year was not from teaching, but from treatments. Dragging my sorry self into a classroom filled with second graders was not only teacher-exhausting, it was physically and mentally exhausting. Yet every single morning, one of my bubbly, precious second graders, Anita, would throw her arms into the air and tell me “Mrs. Bisson, you look mahvelous today!” Now I know the reality was, I didn’t look even close to passable most days. Some mornings, Anita’s greeting was the one thing that kept me moving forward. A few years later, this special girl lost her own battle with cancer – and took a piece of my heart with her to heaven.

All of “my” kids whether you are grown with your own children or still in the middle of schooling, I am grateful to every single one of you. You challenged me to do better, to figure it out, and yet, every day you taught me something about making the most of our time here in our classroom community and on this earth. All those times when you thought I was teaching you, you were really teaching me.

Students are meeting their teachers once again today. May you all have a year filled with precious moments and memory-making. Cherish each moment as you build a lifetime of memories.

What If Miss Parker Hadn’t

I was in the seventh grade when Miss Parker told me, “Donovan, we could put all your excess energy to good use.” And she introduced me to the sound of my own voice.

In five minutes, Donovan Livingston the Student speaker at Harvard Graduate School of Education 2016 Convocation and Ed.M. candidate uses his voice to remind all of us of why education is powerful. His voice reminds us that equity in access to education and educational possibilities cannot and should not be restricted.

The reason to be an educator is embedded in his poetry.  A number on a test does not define a person’s worth. Invest in five minutes that can reaffirm your resolve to be an educator.

Use this link from Harvard GSE to link to the text.

To whom are you accountable?

We were asked that very question during a faculty meeting presentation yesterday.  Oh there are layers and layers of accountability in the education world in which we live: administrators, students, parents. Yes, we are all accountable to them. Family members, significant others? Those people too.

My answer? I am accountable to me.

I am accountable to me for what I do in my profession. And for acting to improve those things that need fixing in my own practice. If, on reflection, a lesson fails, it is on me to figure that out and fix it. If the students “don’t get” what I’m teaching, I am accountable for finding another way for them to access those skills or that knowledge.

If I disagree with how I am being told to teach or even what to teach, I am accountable to me. I need to read and research and seek out those who are expert so that I can persuade or disagree or (heavens!) go against the directive and do what is right. Even when it is lonely.DSC_0107

Oh there are some “experts” who have the bully pulpit these days who would tell me that my job is to follow directives. Like a sheep.

But sometimes I cannot do that.  I am accountable to me.

Change is good

Like lots of teachers, I am burnt to a crisp mentally by the time June arrives. Some years, this happens sooner – usually those are the years that can be identified as curriculum change years.

This year has been a particular challenge. You see, this year, everything was new again. I have been teaching for a l-o-n-g time and while I never teach the same things the same way twice – which makes sense, the kids are different and have different needs – one would think there would be something that would be connected to prior years.

Not true of the academic year that has just ended. We were charged with changing our math curriculum, our science curriculum, and our English Language Arts curriculum. The level of discomfort with curriculum was pretty high.

The amount of time preparing was off the charts. Why? Because anyone in the education field can tell you that those Grade 3-6 materials suggestions are often (mostly) directed toward students in the middle of that grade span.  In other words, we – my grade level team and I – spent inordinate amounts of time trying to find comparable materials to teach our students.

My husband tells me that I’m a “magic bullet” kind of person. I am continually looking for the just right solution.  To this end, I discovered a great book by Mike Anderson and published by ASCD: The Well-Balanced Teacher.  If you are a study-guide kind of person, here is a link you might enjoy. FB fiends (guilty!) might like this page.

It has been an eye-opening read. And somewhat comforting to know that there are plenty of other educators feeling the same way I do about the need to work smarter and be more balanced.  Ten months of 10- to 12-hour days does not make for a happy, creative teacher.

Summer is a time of renewal. A time to reset those parts of my life that have gone out of balance. It is time to make change good.

The End of a Year

“My” babies are ready to fly to coop. In just 2 days my third graders will bump up to fourth grade.  We’re both nervous I think: they of the unknown, me of  fear that the preparations we’ve made for this day haven’t been enough.

It has been a privilege to work with these kids.  At times challenging and other times a cakewalk, we started the year as strangers and little-by-little have grown into familiarity.

For some, all I can provide is a temporary haven. School should be a safe place, far removed from domestic issues like hunger or poverty or violence.  That has not always been true for all of my children this year, and when the ugliness of  socioeconomic traumas become apparent, words fail. A hug, a quiet word. The ache and worry that this child has been left behind to float through whatever safety net our society provides is overpowering.

There have been good times. Last week we looked at a text and the depth of the students’ discussion was simply amazing. After a year of hammering students to do something more than retell the facts or plots of a story, it was an exquisite, if momentary high.  They can do it, they can cross over to a real literate life.

This week, our last together, has been spent remembering some of the fun and some of the hard work that has been part of our time together. I am not looking forward to the last day with the kids this year; I know it will be a bittersweet day. A day when we all celebrate making it to that 180th day, but also a day when our paths diverge.

A Life on the “Outside”

Often I excuse my compulsive need to read and research all things educational with “I don’t have a life.” It is true that my child has long grown past needing me as a parent – I no longer do homework or nag to complete projects or carpool to sports. So I don’t have obligations or promises to keep in that regard.

So why don’t I live a “normal” life – one where you leave things at work, not to worry over them until the next day?

Teaching, believe it or not, is an insane profession. Piecing together the puzzle of why one child masters a topic while the other struggles – and what to do about that – is a riddle I not sure I’ll ever master. Twenty-five years later, I continue to struggle with delivering lessons effectively, lessons that children enjoy and connect to other learning. That takes research. Thank goodness for the World-wide Web or I would need a cot set up in the local library.

Lately, I’ve begun to wonder about what life will be like for me outside of teaching. I have two – or three if our investments tank – years left in the classroom before I feel financially secure enough to back away from a “regular job.”

I know I’d like to travel. I know I’d like to explore a book writing idea that Adrien and I have had on the back burner for several years. Throughout my life I have done something in the arts, I enjoy cooking and gardening and reading and knitting. But mostly what I’ve been for nearly half of my life is a teacher.

I regret the lack of balance in my life. That my profession overwhelms and consumes me most days. But I am hopeful that I can find my place in the world – my life on the “outside”.


Hello, Noah

I realize that this reference to a classic Bill Cosby routine makes me one big, giant fossil, but I can’t resist making a connection after this week.

Six foot fence near back door.

First of all, is should we all be building arks here in New England? Around my house we have 7 foot snowbanks created after the nonstop deluge of snow “events” which began in mid-January.  There seems to be no end in sight. Today, forecasters are calling for rain and possibly a finish of snow.  Once this stuff begins to melt, we’ll be floating.

I thought of this routine again yesterday when we were having our Morning Meeting.  One of my students, who has pretty much perfect attendance, did not come to school Thursday — we had snow cancellations on Tuesday and Wednesday. As he is a bus student, when he didn’t come to school Thursday, I didn’t think it was too remarkable.  The school buses that day were late – some by hours – city streets are clogged with snow and no place to put it.

However, this student expressed surprise that we had school on Thursday. He claimed to have gotten the robo call from the school-wide information system canceling school. This led to quite a discussion from my students; some get the calls and others do not, usually because they have no working phone number or because the phone number that was shared earlier has been changed (and changed, and changed).

But what really made me laugh was the insistence of one of my students that God called her house to cancel school. In actuality, our Assistant Superintendent for Business initiates the call.

And while he does have a deep voice, I’m sure he’s located in Lowell not in some more heavenly environ.