Retired & Expired & Letting Go

For the first time since 1974, I no longer hold a teaching license. I decided not to renew my licenses (I have three), and that is something I am discovering to be a source of some apprehension. I retired several years ago from active teaching, however, my identity for most of my life has been, and I imagine will continue to be, synonymous with education.

I’ve wanted to be a teacher since the second grade – which oddly was my favorite grade level to teach – and despite a few detours, that is what I’ve done with most of my working career. But like most things, it is time to officially bring that to a close; my time has passed and it is time to officially let some things go.

Throughout my years of teaching I experienced, as you might expect, good days and bad days, but, as with most who enter the field of education, I wouldn’t have traded for another career. Working with children and families and learning from colleagues has been a rare privilege.

I was fortunate to re-enter education when teaching was, I think, at its best. I think it is difficult to describe that to people. There was a level of collegiality between administrators and teachers based upon mutual respect and trust. And it was that mutual respect and trust that made the hard work of education exceptionally rewarding. We worked hard, the children worked hard, we all learned. And still we had fun.

My principals were exacting and their expectations were high, yet I never felt that I couldn’t try new ideas for reaching students. I trusted my administrators and colleagues, but more importantly, they trusted me.

As I move into this next phase of my life’s story, I do know that I am not leaving education far behind. I have a granddaughter who will be entering school in the next few years, and thus, my interest in education is changing focus a bit.

The paper proclaiming my legitimacy as an educator may have expired, but there is still much to think about and speak up for. And that is what I will continue to do.

Teacher

2014-11-25-lincoln-024I started reading Meditations from the Mat this weekend. The writings are daily practices in mindful meditation written by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison and had come highly recommended by a group of yogis I’ve encountered in an online group.

In explaining his own yoga journey, from a weekend retreat at Kripalu to yoga teacher training, Rolf Gates relayed a story about an encounter with Baron Baptiste, renowned yoga teacher and author.

…”Are you a teacher?” I said I was, but the words didn’t ring true. I taught classes, but I was not a teacher.

For a while I puzzled over how that could be true; if one taught, one must be a teacher, right?

As Rolf explained, the act of teaching is the act of drawing out. In yoga, that means drawing out what the student may already know about breath, alignments, and postures.

In education today, do we have the flexibility to draw out of our students what they already know and can connect to? Can we lead them to knowledge without having to force it in before the students are ready for it?

Standards in a general sense, are good end-goals for education and educators. Where standards and standards-based education go awry is when those end points are unreasonable or developmentally inappropriate or, in some cases, designed to foster failure. The purpose of early childhood education should not be a dress rehearsal for intermediate grade level standardized testing. Yet it sometimes is.

As an example, I have heard from participants in the graduate level literacy class I led tell of kindergarten students writing or keyboarding.  This is wrong. Forcing young learners toward skills that are outside what is developmentally appropriate for them is a disservice to them.

Teachers want to teach, to draw out, what their students know to make connections. We want learning to be relevant, to spark curiosity and to stay with our students. We want to teach.

 

Two Tales in Education

Author collectionTwo stories from the education world caught my attention this week, and I feel that both are worth the time to read. The first story, Why Teachers Quit by Liz Riggs, is a cautionary tale from 2013 about teachers and burn-out. The second, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues is by Natasha Singer of the New York Times. It is a warning for anyone who worries about the possible effects of corporate America’s influence in schools and school materials.

The Atlantic recently reposted Liz Riggs’ 2013 article Why Teachers Quit which was originally printed in October 2013. Even with a 4-year time gap, this is an article that is relevant and worth reading for anyone interested in retaining educators. The turn-over rate cited in the article, 40-50%, refers to the numbers of teachers leaving the education profession within the first five years of their career.  While I believe this attrition rate to be lower in 2017 thanks to strong induction and mentoring programs available to beginning educators, many beginning teachers continue to leave education for other fields.

Although many of the teachers Ms. Riggs interviewed were from charter schools, the conditions which lead to decisions to leave education are often some of the same expressions of discontent heard now from both novices and experienced teachers. The responsibilities of educators don’t end at the dismissal bell. Planning, assessing, writing reports – those workloads are often overwhelming and makes for an unhealthy and out-of-balance life.

Even when one goes into education for all the best reasons, the reality of the profession can become overwhelming. With all of the emphasis on teacher quality, there continues to be a need to ensure that the extracurricular demands on talented educators are not overpowering.

The second article, Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues, was recently published in the New York Times and describes a new trend in education: recruiting teachers to promote edu-products. While understanding that obtaining “free stuff” is a way for classrooms and educators to afford enhancements and the latest in bells and whistles, I think this pathway is a very slippery slope. It makes me more than a bit skeptical about the motives of corporate American forming relationships with educators to obtain favorable product placements.

As a retired educator, I can still recall the disproportionate amounts of time spent each evening writing plans, pulling together materials, researching, contacting parents, and grading student work. I am not quite sure how Kayla Delzer, the third grade teacher chronicled in the Times article finds enough time to attend to teacher responsibilities; blog, tweet, and post on Facebook; and sleep. I wonder about the cost to her students.  Is her objectivity in evaluating appropriate materials compromised? Are her students missing out when their expert teacher is away to promote these materials?

Two tales for the week, both cautionary. Anyone out there listening?

 

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 Defines A “Good” School?

2016-Mar-01_0051Recently, the Boston Globe published a letter from Joy Robinson-Lynch positing that if Boston needs more available spots in classical education schools (like Boston Latin), the school department might consider creating them.  After all, Boston Public Schools certainly know how to run a successful classical education institution – they’ve had years to practice and refine that.

Framing that thought in terms of Lowell’s local school issues, I wonder if in Lowell the same thought should apply. Looking at the Wait Lists for our Lowell Public Schools also indicate that some schools in Lowell are more sought after than others. If there is an abundance of students waiting to attend a middle school like the Daley Middle School, shouldn’t there be some thought into why that one school is in high demand? What is it that makes the Daley so desirable? Is the the leadership at the school? The culture? The academics? The staff?  Or is it something else?

I taught for 5 years at the Cardinal O’Connell School when it was a Pre-K to Grade 4 elementary school. As an older school, the building itself had some charming quirks, but it also had a great leadership team and a caring faculty who, because of the small size of the school, really knew each and every student. What it didn’t have was a cafeteria.  Sometimes when a family left for the (new-at-the-time) Lincoln School, that would be the reason given for transferring. Fortunately, not everyone valued separate lunch space as a deciding factor in a child’s educational success.

Is it just a perception or is there something tangibly identifiable that sets apart the schools perceived to be desirable? That’s something that may be explored further under a new assessment model being considered by a consortium of school districts from across Massachusetts. Measuring positivity in a school’s culture may be more difficult to quantify, but it is equally important to the overall picture of whether or not a school is a success. What are those factors that families value that fall outside of numbers and test scores?

Are we ready to use more measures to define good schools? I hope so!

 

 

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.

The Other Growth Our Students Need

2013fielddaybAbout 10 years ago, I was introduced to the Responsive Classroom, a program that was highly supported in the school in which I worked. There are many principles of Responsive Classroom that not only make for good classroom management, but create an environment of communal trust within a classroom and a school as a whole.

The first principle of a Responsive Classroom has always been important for me, a foundation of my career as a teacher: The social and emotional curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum. 

Recently, Edutopia and other education news sources carried the tale of how student “grit” is a key to student success.  What is grit? Self-perception, the ability to overcome inner obstacles, persistence, resiliency, self-regulation of emotions – in short, as Carol Dweck has written, it is a Growth Mindset.

These ideas are essential to a child’s education. They are the social and emotional curriculum that form the foundation for academic growth. And they are often missing in classrooms jammed with test preparation and curricular standards.

Sandra Dunning, the Principal who introduced me to Responsive Classroom, believed in the importance of developing a community of learners. Each morning, a 30-minute block of time was carved into our schedules for the community-building of Morning Meetings, Greetings, collaborative activities that fostered this development in each student, teacher, and classroom. There was a calm, purposefulness to our classroom in those days, and when things went off the rails, as sometimes happens, our group was able to process together and resolve whatever issues had preceded it.

Sadly, under the guise of “raising the bar” and increasing “rigor”, by the last few years of my teaching career, the daily activities that had created and fed my students’ social and emotional growth were undermined and replaced by time-on-task schedules, test preparation and packed curricula. Most mornings, we could squeeze in a Morning Greeting between breakfast and leaving for Allied Arts classes; some days we could not.

Responsive Classroom Principle 4 reminds us that To be successful academically and socially, children need to learn a set of social and emotional skills: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. We are short-changing our students’ education when we can’t attend to emotional and social growth.