Common Agreements

I had the opportunity to provide a workshop at another school several hours drive from home this last week. I’d been giddy with happiness when the Director approached us to start with, and as we worked together to prepare a workshop that would meet the needs of her staff, my excitement grew. There’s something wonderful about that feeling of anticipation mixed with what-if-based fear and the happiness that you feel once it’s confirmed that what you had in your head was what they had in their heart.

A component of the workshop was designed around the idea of common agreements among staff. Mike Schmoker wrote a book called Focus some time ago, and in the time I’d devoured that version and we’d worked two years with it, another edition and a book for school leaders has been published. In all three books, he talks about what educational researchers like Robert Marzano and Rick Stiggins and others have learned works well. The beauty of the Schmoker books is that it takes all of that very dry research and puts it together in a way that describes the things that have the largest effect size and why they work. It’s a no-nonsense kind of book. Do these things; you will see improvement.

But all of that potential improvement hinges on one thing: Common Agreements. Those practices, routines, and expectations that everyone agrees to implement for the greater good, even if they aren’t everyone’s preferred way of doing things.

When we embarked on our book study of Schmoker’s original book years ago, it was fascinating to see how everyone’s educational philosophy came to the forefront of our discussions. Some were very much stuck in the middle to high school and into college mindset of “I assign-you do-I grade-there is no further discussion.” Others were more flexible in their comments, considering project and problem-based learning opportunities to be the way we should do things to allow for student choice, part of gifted best practice. And still others called on their own experiences in school and their own preferred way of learning, feeling that lecture and note taking using one particular model had to be the way in which we provided content to our students. And others felt strongly that everyone must be doing the same assignment, the same way, at the same time because then we could ensure that all children were experiencing the “consistency” that they felt we so lacked. And some felt strongly that we should consider a mixture of everyone’s ideas–there is a place for all of those things for a child while they’re learning, after all. Everyone agreed we needed to see growth in our students and that changes in our practice needed to occur, but common agreements were difficult to come by.

As the years have passed, we’ve determined that some of our common agreements need to simply be directives: We will use this resource in this way and everyone will do it….full stop. Those are compliance based and are honestly quite difficult when you take into consideration the artistry that teaching involves–when you can see the bigger picture, however, you can help a teacher to understand that he or she doesn’t have to lose the artistry to implement what’s being required. Other aspects of our work toward common agreements involved lead teachers and committees of teachers who gathered for a specific purpose–those with many years of experience among them who have watched pendulum swings that educational practices often go through or have practical knowledge of the impact a particular practice will have later on. We revisit common agreements every year it seems, particularly when new staff joins us, and it’s one of those pieces of our culture that is really critical–making sure that everyone is on the same page, understanding our goals and roadmap to get there. I won’t lie and say there isn’t pushback every year on some level, but often in retrospect after the initial conflict, it’s more questioning to understand than “I’m not gonna and you can’t make me.” Education is dynamic, not static, because the needs of the stakeholders change over time. For instance, eons ago we had no idea that tech addiction would be a thing, but now we definitely have to address it in how we handle it for our population of learners. We can’t go back to typewriters or further back to dictation necessarily, but need to figure out how to get kids the skills they’ll need while addressing potential addiction.

In working with someone else’s staff to begin this process, using our story as the framework for how it might go, has been interesting. The discussions with teachers who have a passion not only for teaching, but also for what THIS building does and who they serve have been wonderful. Watching body language and noting “thinking faces” vs. “confrontation faces” is definitely a necessary skill, and in a way that’s similar to teaching kids, being able to adjust and modify as you go is critical. The best part though, is seeing teachers get excited about doing this work, this BIG WORK, with one saying she’ll pull last year’s data so they can review it to see where their growth areas are, another saying she’ll put together what a portfolio might look like so the staff can talk about it, another offering to create a spreadsheet to use to collect data, and another hunting for possible writing rubrics for each level that are already out there or that some have been using that can be tweaked so that their staff is more aligned in their grading practice. Teachers want to grow and learn, and it was wonderful to see that some were ready to take action to do it.

While it’s great to have total buy-in when making a change, it’s rarely what happens. Change is scary. I read somewhere that you can’t wait for 100% to be on board with a decision to make a change. You simply get some who are ready to take action on board and the others will follow. It’s not easy, particularly when you do truly care about your staff and the kids you serve, and want to allow for all to have a voice in the decision. There comes a point though, that a Fierce Conversation might need to happen. We know that teachers care about kids and want what’s best for them, but more often than not, there’s fear behind a refusal to comply, not simply defiance. Working through that fear is what’s most important, even if common agreements are still a struggle.

This is Big Work I love. This brings me joy. This is work I want to continue to do more of because I think it’s important. It creates a sense of community among teachers and a shared vision for the work they’re doing with and for kids. And THAT is why we became teachers–not to do it alone.

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But how are the kids?

When I went to that conference in Minnesota in June to present, our keynote speaker was an educator who had moved up through being a first year teacher, a master teacher, a coach, and into administration. She’s not one local to me, but rather well known up der in the cold, cold, Nort. She connected with all of us, even me as the foreigner, on a heart level–one of the first things she did was share her first few days of teaching. Like most of us, they were horrible, exhausting, confusing, frustrating, and utterly deflating. We’ve all felt it. We’ve all considered Trader Joe’s as an career option. We’ve all wondered if we were really cut out for this. The women I sat with were simply fantastic women–one teaching in Kuwait and considering moving back to MN to marry and begin work in more traditional schools, another couple with several years experience just looking to learn and grow–because we never stop doing either one.

The keynote speaker shared the story of her first few days, how deflated she was over how things had gone and how none of it was what she imagined–she ran out of plans before 2pm every day and went into “What the hell do I do now?” mode–because that’s what you do when you are just starting out. She cried about how the day was not how she imagined, and her work wasn’t how she envisioned it, and the connection to her co-workers wasn’t what she hoped…she was the newbie and everyone could tell. And she talked to us about the exhaustion…the utter exhaustion that was unlike nothing she’d ever experienced. The dragging her teacher bag home at night with all the best intentions of grading All. The. Things…and then falling asleep with them around her on the floor of her apartment. And she cried. But then her mother asked, “But how were the kids?” And she was able to reframe all of the frustration, sadness, disappointment, and this-is-not-what-I-signed-up-for-ness…because the kids were wonderful and amazing and beautiful and perfect. Joey was such a kind-hearted child. And Sarah was struggling something fierce but wanted to learn. And Amir was just learning English and was eager to learn both the language and the content and figure out his role socially with all these kids who couldn’t understand him that he couldn’t understand either. And all the others…their stories… The kids were amazing.

I spent last year creating systems and processes and trying out some things, learning to set boundaries and grow areas that I felt needed growing. And I loved the majority of it. The thing I lost among all that work, however, was the kids. I saw them, and got to work with them some, but it wasn’t the same as it had been in years past. And at the end of the year, a soon-to-be-graduate left me a note in the middle of all my plans on my whiteboard.

Love note from a kidlet toward the end of May 2019…
They know not the tears of joy I shed that afternoon when I found it.

As I listened to the keynote speaker, she noted that we do what she calls Big Work. This is Big Work, she said. Nothing about what we do in education is small–not for any of us, from the custodial staff to the Superintendent. It’s all Big Work. The prep, the planning, the compassion, the collaboration, the advocacy, the frustration, the learning. All of it is Big Work. And every bit of it is for the kids.

I have a lot of projects on my plate and I kind of prefer it hat way. It gives me a sense of autonomy and flexibility in my day that I wouldn’t get if all I did was discipline and attendance. I get to work with teachers through coaching and induction development, create workshops, presentations, and do conference planning, provide service in support of families, dabble in marketing, work to support those who can’t be with us just yet so that their hard work doesn’t get tabled, experience a new role as SAC, and work on other opportunities and my own professional growth as an educator. All of it is Big Work…every bit. But my purpose in doing is the same…the kids. The note left by my sweet kidlet, who will forever be mine, even when they are out in the world doing their own Big Work, reminded me of why I do this work at all.

So this school year, this year’s Big Work has a theme to it.

But How Are the Kids?

What’s your theme this year? What Big Work will you take on? And after the first few days of school, be sure to ask yourself…but how are the kids? Schedule time to reflect on that all year long…because we do all of this Big Work for them…

What Do You Want, Friend?

A friend posted on social media that she was talking with her BFF one night and the BFF, after listening a while to her concerns and worries, quietly said, “What do you want, friend?”

This question got me thinking. In education, we spend an awful lot of our time doing for others, making sure others have what they need and want. We make sure our students have what they need in terms of supplies, solid, well-planned lessons, and emotional and social support. We make time to chat with each one of them at some point, building relationships and trust so that our community of learners can run smoothly. We make sure their parents get what they need, everything from communication about upcoming projects, learning opportunities, behavior or areas of struggle to happy notes and phone calls home about something great their kid did that day or a shoulder to cry on when they’re frustrated with “Why can’t my kid just..” We’re not always successful, and some will feel we didn’t do enough. But we try. We make sure our teammates and co-workers have what they need–coverage for duties so they can make copies or call a parent or have a break, a shoulder to lean on or cry on when things get tough. Here too, some will say we didn’t do enough to make their jobs easier or make them feel appreciated.

We work so hard, and often they get the short end of the stick, to make sure our families get what they need and want too–dinner made, laundry done, bedtime stories read, cuddles and chats and quality time together being “just us.” A friend mentioned that her kids wondered during the school year when “t-shirt mommy” would be back. Pretty sure her heart broke. Mine did. I doubt the kids were being nasty about it, rather simply wondering when she’d get to take off her educator hat and put her mommy hat back on. We all do it–every educator I know has a really hard time switching those roles, even those of us who aren’t parents struggle with it.

But we rarely ask ourselves what we want.

I’ve been asking myself what I want for my life for well over a year. It used to be simple. I wanted to be a teacher. Done. Except, as I grew into that role, what I wanted changed. I wanted to improve in this area or that, or take on this role or work with that committee or organization. Gradually, I wanted to have a larger impact beyond the classroom…which led to the role I’m in now and the presentation opportunities I’ve taken. I was talking to a student last spring and my job description came up in conversation. I noted that I got to write my own, really, because my role hadn’t ever really been defined beyond some basic things. He thought that was pretty cool–not a lot of adults get to do that, settling quietly into a description created for them instead.

There have been more days than I’d like to admit where all I wanted was to go back into the classroom, into a familiar space that the kids and I created together, do the things I knew I was good at and the things I could do without thinking that led to praise instead of fierce conversations that made my heart and head hurt. All those things had, over time, come quite naturally…when to give The Look, for example, and when to stand next to the child who is friends with everyone and can’t, for the life of them, stay quiet…when to celebrate a lesson gone well and when to bail on one that is going not at all the way the movie of it you made in your head last night did. I look back and now those are the easy things…the familiar things…the comfortable things.

Growth and change are hard and often quite scary. In gifted education, we talk a lot about universal themes or “big ideas” and generalizations and use them to help kids make connections between ideas and concepts. We share them with kids when we start units of instruction to give them a foundation to begin the work of learning. In looking up generalizations for another big idea for a project I’m working on, I found these for the universal theme of “change” and thought they applied quite nicely:

  • Change is inevitable
  • Change can be either positive or negative
  • Change is generates additional change
  • Change is necessary for growth
  • Change can be evolutionary or revolutionary

I think my friend’s BFF is incredibly wise. In asking ourselves when we feel uncomfortable “What do you want, friend?” we can acknowledge that we’ve grown a bit and started the process of change. We get to make choices in our lives about what we want and who we want to become. We get to decide the kind of educator or business owner or parent or friend we want to be. We get to write our own job descriptions for each of these things–how cool is that?

So friend, what is it you want? Think on it. Roll it around in your head a while and then on paper and eventually, on your tongue. Say it out loud, more than once, and create something that illustrates what you want so you don’t forget. Remember, it can change, of course, but it’s good to have a first draft. đŸ™‚

Adventures…

I was given the opportunity to present a session at a conference out of state last week in beautiful Moorhead, Minnesota. I’ve spent months going rounds in my head over the logistics of it, my reasons for wanting to go at all and whether or not they were the right ones, who would be adversely impacted by my leaving and how everything about this adventure would be perceived by others. In the mind of a gifted adult, these things matter greatly.

I use the word “adventures” with intention. I’m the type who has been quite afraid to do anything different the majority of her life. I was taught early on that the purpose for travel was to get to a new place to live where a job existed. There was no room for adventure or travel beyond the type that led to gainful employment. Exploration of a new place had a purpose–to locate the grocery store, doctor’s office, mechanic’s shop, bank, and going beyond a five mile radius was just silly because everything you needed was right there–that’s how cities are set up. I grew up walking to the grocery store because we didn’t have a car, not because it was nearby and it made more sense. When you went outside, it was to get somewhere specific and rarely for fun. You parked near to where you were going and didn’t “wander.” You got in and got out. Hiking or traipsing through the woods was silly–it accomplished nothing and was a waste of time. Even going to Denver, which is 45 minutes away, is seen as silly to my family–why go there for anything? So I have had an anti-adventure story in my head for a long time.

I felt ridiculous asking questions like “What the hell do you mean I have to fit my hair and beauty products in a quart sized bag and how on EARTH do they think any woman on this planet can do that with only ONE and what is the rationale behind it? Why does TSA get to decide how I pack?” I felt silly asking what going through TSA was like–the last time I was in an airport, TSA didn’t exist and your people walked you to the gate and waved from inside as you took off. (This was back when peanuts were still provided to all passengers and you hoped you got the dry roasted ones and not the honey roasted ones and kids got wings from the airline.) I felt stupid when I did finally buy my tickets and realized a $173 fare is actually $307 because you need to bring a bag with you and now you get to pay for the privilege of having luggage. I am pretty low maintenance, but I am not capable of living out of my tote-size purse for two days no matter how intentional and minimalist I am with packing.

The drama in my head over the GETTING to Minnesota expended more energy than actually going.

People gripe about air travel fairly often. Long lines, rude TSA people, being stuffed much like sardines into winged tubes capable of flight because science. Horror stories are shared on social media like sixth-grade girl gossip. I found parking in the cheap lot at DIA. I rode the shuttle without much drama, connecting with a woman who travels often for work and was headed to St. Paul for a wedding on the way in and a sweet man who was on his way home from a two week business trip in Atlanta only to be unable to find his keys and a family with two very unamused littles who still had a four hour drive to Wyoming to undertake once they found their car. TSA out of Denver was business-like, but not rude, and out of Fargo was kind and funny.

“You’re just a girl, standing in front of a TSA agent, wanting to go home, aren’t you?”

Clearly, I am an easy read.

My flights were uneventful beyond sitting with someone who knows the man I love more than anything and his shop. We talked fishing in Elevenmile and Catholicism (and recovery) and kids and hot dish. Two hours went by quickly. The captain warned of turbulence both ways, but I didn’t notice any–at least not the kind I remember from when I was young. Planes were landed like warm butter on toast–clearly all those “How to Land a Plane” YouTube videos paid off.

Leaving the airport to meet the lovely woman who would drive me to campus and dinner, I noticed how absolutely breathtaking somewhere different can be. Fargo isn’t a traditionally beautiful place, but the difference between what I’m used to and what it looks like to an outsider makes it lovely. It’s like the morning pictures a friend posts from out east every day–we are looking at the same sunrise, but her view is quite different from the prairie than mine is from inside the city. The green in Minnesota is different. It’s just more vibrant and their trees are fuller and more varied in size and type. I’m sitting on my deck and I have some fairly decent sized pine trees and some thinned aspen (snow destroyed many of the branches in May…) and a few cottonwood. That’s kinda it for my five mile radius. And it’s familiar.

The conference was held on the campus of Concordia College, which is kind of in the middle of Moorhead from what I could tell. You have to remember that I didn’t attend a “real” college so this was very different with lush trees, a pond, old buildings with a history that didn’t involve tuberculosis, benches and chairs outside surrounded by sculptures, and updated buildings complete with local art celebrating the area and purposeful seating. UCCS was four buildings big with no dorms and I lived in my parents’ basement. I went to work and class and sometimes out with friends, but I didn’t hang out there much unless I was between classes. I’ve often felt like I missed out on what college should have been…and yes, as I walked back in the rain from the building the conference was held in, I let tears fall and meet the raindrops on my cheeks.

The conference itself was wonderful. The keynote speaker, a local education celebrity, was incredibly inspiring and brought us all to tears more than once. She gets it. She understands why we choose to do this “Big Work” and to keep coming back year after year to serve kids. I’ll write more about her soon–still so much to process.

The people attending and presenting at the conference were mostly alumni of Concordia, which I found fascinating. Most of them lived in or around Moorhead, serving kids in schools within a few hours of there and had grown up nearby. One teaches in Kuwait at a private school, but comes home every summer and is getting married next month, and then she and her husband will decide if they want to keep teaching overseas or come back to the US and settle in. Their philosophy of education wasn’t too different overall from our teachers here in CO, but the resources they used and how they used them were different. We talked about strikes and reasonable pay and teacher shortages and snow days (or lack thereof) and where we get ideas and how we implement them in the classroom.

I was, again, the only speaker advocating for gifted kids and their needs. In my session, I had about 20 people, and though few identified as teaching gifted kids in their classrooms, as I described the variety of gifted profiles, I saw heads begin to nod, and pens furiously jotting notes. As we talked about the short piece that I’d brought to share and discussed how to go from “What’s the setting and who are the characters” type of questions to “What current events might the author be alluding to in this piece” and “What does this writer intentionally do in this piece to help you identify with it?” and “Why would she bother to write such a piece? What message might she be sharing?” I saw lightbulbs… They got it.

Gifted kids need different questioning and discussion and opportunity to explore a piece of literature in a way that is inherently more complex than the typical kids you are serving…but all of them benefit from being a part of this work.

I had a few stick around after my session was over and ask questions and request copies of my presentation. I found emails in my inbox later from others asking for support in getting their administrators to allow for a class for THESE kids…something that addresses their need to explore literature and write at a more complex level. A member of the faculty asked for my presentation as well–that meant so much. Clearly, there’s a need beyond Colorado’s colleges and universities for gifted education in teacher prep programs.

I spent most of the day after the conference in deep reflection. I walked to a coffee shop about 15 minutes away, explored parks on the way there and back, admired flowers and beautiful homes, and wandered a bit, just to see what was there. This wasn’t a traditional adventure with lots of sightseeing, but for me, it was a chance to reflect on what I want my life to be and how I can fulfill my “Why.”

To engage in work that impacts the world around me positively so that others can grow, learn, and honor one another.

This adventure fulfilled my “Why.” I wonder what the next one will hold.

Kidlets…

I have been trying to write this piece for several days. The words get lost in the emotions and can’t find their way out–kind of like they’re stuck in an escape room with clues laid out that may or may not be meaningful or purposeful, all the while growing more exhausted and frustrated that they’re stuck. I have an ache in my head where the tears are stuck. There’s something to be said for writing that happens organically, while the emotions are fresh, but…yeah. That wasn’t going to happen this time.

Wednesday night a group of kids graduated to high school. I’ve watched several of this group grow up from itty bitties just starting Kindergarten. We have a photo of one being held by her dad, looking at him as if to say, “Hey Daddy, it’s gonna be just fine.” One helped me paint what would eventually be my classroom. He did the low parts of the wall back then and he’s now almost a head taller than I am and beats me in Exploding Kittens often. Others spent two years of our language arts class together whining about all the writing I “made” them do, while others devoured grammar and writing like a teacher at the end of the year consumes coffee and donuts she finds in the lounge. Still others joined us along the way, finding a home in our school, a tribe in which they could be themselves, figure out who they wanted to be, and learn about who they were as learners and thinkers and people.

They’re definitely not adults, but also not completely children anymore, having grown up into simply amazing young men and women who will begin the next phase of their journey, high school, in a few months. Many are old souls and have been their whole lives…and each shows it a bit differently. They’ve grown so much in nine years…and I’ve enjoyed watching every moment of it. They’re wonderful human beings, and each of them has taken up residence in my heart: From the one who shared a long list of what she wanted to be when she grew up, to dancers who cultivated their activist leanings, to the writers and poets (the reluctant ones, too), to the young rocketeers and scientists, to the artists and adventurers, to the future lawyers, to the one who had found her BFF in the first four seconds of the first day of third grade, the leaders and doers, and to the quiet ones with eyes that took in everything, the old souls, and the deep thinkers who said little but felt much.

This batch of kids shared with me memories of our time together over the last few days. One shared that she and a new friend weren’t sure where they were supposed to go on the first day of third grade and decided my classroom was a good spot to land–they knew me from our intro conferences and felt at home enough to stick around. I vaguely remember counting heads at one point and thinking, “Hey…I have two extra,” and figured out where they should actually be. I love that they made themselves comfortable that morning…and that she remembered the story. So many of them had stories like that. Moments we shared, things they remembered. Others were just teary all over the place because they’re sad to leave this place they’ve called home for so many years and heading off into a new adventure, which is probably seeming a little scary. Some have simply said thank you over and over again the last several days…recognizing that our time together is precious, and they didn’t want to move too fast and forget. I got pretty teary several times, holding each one a bit tighter, a bit closer, a bit longer as we said our goodbyes, remembering days when they didn’t stand a foot taller than me.

The first group of kids we sent off into the world came to us as eighth graders for a reason that first year. They graduated college this year. They knew what we were about and they helped us build the plane as we flew it. Those who came after had big shoes to fill, but still managed to understand our “Why.” This particular group of graduates understood our “Why” better than all those before them. They knew they were getting a different type of education from the first day of kindergarten. They understood, particularly those who joined us after kindergarten, that they needed something different, that they learned differently, that they were just inherently different than other kids. They left us understanding a bit better of who they are…with all their glorious quirks and asynchronous bits. They left us knowing how to ask for what they need, how to set boundaries, and that their passion is the most important thing. We helped them learn that…and it matters.

Last night, we had an alumni event with ice cream and schmoozing. A few recent graduates joined us, and the others are from a variety of periods with one or two who left to do other things but still call this place home. A few graduates come to several events a year, living nearby or having siblings still with us, to see what’s going on and how things have changed…if things have changed. It’s good for current kids to know that there are graduates about–it lets them see that there is life beyond the 8th grade, and they’ll find their tribe even after they leave. Some of the kids who came last night came for a particular purpose, because someone they wanted to see might be there: an old friend, a teacher, or just a familiar face. Some of these were mine…and it was so good to share in their successes, their challenges…and to get to watch them be kids for a while, remembering what it is to be little while their six-foot-plus sized bodies squeezed into kindergartener-sized swings and to play four-square and chase and slide down a slide tucked into the side of a hill.

For those of us who come to these end of year evening events, two graduation ceremonies and a social, it’s a long week and our feet hurt and we’re tired. But it’s important that we show up. The kids need to know we’re still there. And for us, it’s just as important. These kids remind of us of our “Why” every time. They remind us that we choose where we teach and we choose the impact we get to make. They remind us that kids need advocates and to have someone in their world at school who really SEES them for who they are, not for the work they do or the scores they produce or the progress that makes it looks like a lot of growth on paper for a teacher evaluation or an award given to the school by the superintendent. These kids are more than all of that. They’re why others and I choose to do this work. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. And sometimes it’s all the emotions…all at once while you’re standing in your office with the last remaining tissue box.

Go off and do good, sweet kidlets… Go off and do good. Come home once in a while, though, wouldja? We’d love to see you.

Change and Resilience

As a staff, we’ve been doing a book study on Onward by Elena Aguilera. This month’s chapter has to do with change and how we handle it…from the things we can completely control (how we plan, how neat (or not) our classrooms or offices are, how we react to situations that arise throughout the day) to the things we don’t have any say in at all (choices made by others, both those on our behalf and those that have nothing to do with us directly).

I binged a little on BrenĂ© Brown’s Netflix special yesterday (fine, I watched it three times in a row) and it tied really well to this month’s chapter. She talks a lot about being vulnerable, putting ourselves out there and taking risks both personally and professionally. Accepting and handling change is a big piece of “Daring Greatly.” As I listened to her, I realized that so much of what I’ve chosen to do in my job, and in my life beyond it, has been daring greatly. I got into the arena. I got bloody and hurt. I felt humiliation created by my own mistakes and by the criticism of others…especially those who just don’t understand. They seem to have the most to say. She said a couple of things that really hit home:

“If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked daily, I am not interested in your feedback about my work.”

“You cannot take criticism and feedback from people who are not being brave in their lives.”

Both of these resonated with me so much as I was reading April’s Onward chapter too. So often I’ve encountered the “backfire effect” Aguilera speaks of, and having to determine which fight is the good fight. I’ve rode the wave of change all year, and at times, I’ve wondered if I’m resilient or confident enough for this work at all.

As educators, we’ve all had to think of change as opportunity at some point in our careers. For some it was a question of what else is out there. For others, it was escaping somewhere that simply wasn’t a good fit. I knew in my gut my first year of teaching that where I was wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I desperately wanted it to be. I adored my kids, and loved that I was seen as a leader in our building. I still had a lot to learn about teaching and the district I was in offered fabulous professional development opportunities. But I knew in my gut once things got rolling that it wasn’t where I was meant to be forever. I told myself I’d stick it out three years, and then if I still felt the same, I’d at least have three years of experience under my belt. And the second year, I still knew…and the third, the Universe screamed at me that I needed to listen now… And my current school was just in the beginning stages of being “born.” And between the people and the ideas, I knew I found my home.

I think back to when my current role became an opportunity for me. I loved being a teacher. I loved my kids and the community we created and I was unsure about how it would go…whether I’d earned the right to be in this role at all. I’d already gone to half-time in the classroom, teaching language arts and math, spending afternoons trying to find quiet space in our building for gifted testing and paperwork, developing presentations on NWEA MAP testing and how to use it with gifted students and a few other beginning level presentations, and going to district level GT meetings. I’d ended up also being another available body when kids needed breaks outside of the classroom or somewhere else to work, or parents needed to talk, or teachers needed a break or coverage when they couldn’t come in or had to leave early. But I was still very much a part of my classroom. Going from full-time teacher to half-teacher-half-GT hadn’t been too hard. I’d asked how I could impact things on a larger scale and this was a need that was available to fill.

It wasn’t a big change for the kids, since I was still in the classroom a lot of the time when I wasn’t testing someone or in a meeting. They could ask questions of me and I was still a resource for them even if I wasn’t teaching the lesson. I tried to stay out of lessons though–there was a perfectly capable teacher in the room that wasn’t me.

I remember being excited about the possibilities it held. I’d get to create my job description because the wonderful, brilliant woman who held the position before I would had only held it a short time before going back into the classroom–it hadn’t gotten fleshed out completely yet. I remember making lists of things that this role COULD entail… And I remember thinking about how I’d tell the kids I was moving into this role, how to word it so they understood that I wouldn’t be in our classroom next year–but still in the building down the hall a bit. And I remember how most responded “Eh…ok.” and how one in particular went to the back of the room, sobbing, refusing to come out. I remember texting her mother “I think I broke your daughter…” And I remember how all the happiness and excitement I felt about the change drained away when I realized that I would lose that part of my identity.

This time of year I wrestle with how my role should change. I’m confronted with others who tell me what they think I ought to have been doing all year, comments from parents and others outside about what they wish my role involved, as well as my own hopes and dreams for it. I was talking with one of our kids and noted that I got to create my own job description pretty much–he thought that was pretty cool. So do I. I still have so much to learn, both about gifted education and administration, and so many ways this role can grow and change. I keep seeking out information as I find I need it, clarification so that I can make decisions that will impact others, and support as I continue to grow. Even the lobster looks to the rocks for support after outgrowing one shell while the next develops.

“If we find a way to coast through tumultuous moments, if we cultivate trust in others and in uncertainty, and if we stay calm and focused, we might experience grace and joy while we’re riding the waves of change. We might even find that we are drawn to change when we feel confident in our ability to navigate its waters, and that we are happier and more resilient when we return to dry land. ” – Aguilar, Elena. Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators (Kindle Locations 6292-6295). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Priorities…

A teacher in a group I participate in sent along a Facebook post that her local university was hosting a literacy conference and she noted that people in the group had valuable knowledge and expertise to share–would they consider submitting a proposal to present a session? It’s a smallish school, but the conference has been well-received in the past and thought members of the group might be a good fit.

I submitted on a whim one night thinking surely they’d reject my proposal. It would address giftedness, which most education conferences aren’t interested in–their participants want remediation strategies, curriculum and cross-curricular ideas, and tips and tricks for typical or kids with special needs. In all the conferences I have gone to that were not a gifted focus to begin with, there were perhaps 2 or three gifted sessions out of several hundred others. It’s important that teachers get the opportunity to learn about these kids, and many won’t be provided much in the way of professional development otherwise.

I was thrilled to get an email from a sweet woman at the university inviting me to present a few weeks ago. I started looking into the cost, and she offered a number of options that will save me a little money. I still have to figure out the flight, but other logistics fell into place well and her kindness will be remembered. I hope I can pay it forward someday for another teacher.

There’s research to suggest that attending conferences, particularly education conferences, is the least effective way for teachers to get professional development. I understand and have overheard lots of conversations among teachers about how they feel about conferences. Teachers are overwhelmed by the number of sessions, unsure as to which they should attend. They go in with little to no forethought as to what would be useful and end up choosing sessions based on other’s suggestions or they simply guess that something might be interesting. Others fixate on what their administrator told them to attend, but don’t understand why they’re there, so they furiously take notes in the hopes that it’ll be what their admin wanted. Some bail completely and use the time away to catch up on grading, emails, and other projects while sitting in the common areas of the hotels. Others spend it in their rooms, watching the cable they can’t afford at home and taking some well-deserved time for self-care. While these last two are definitely not the norm, overall, conference attendance provides a few takeaways, but nothing that is able to be implemented in their buildings beyond their classroom or within their team.

Presenting at conferences isn’t a moneymaker. Generally you not only pay your own registration to the conference, but you also pay for the hotel and other related expenses. They’re not cheap, often charging $200-$400 plus the cost of the hotel, which is in the neighborhood of $200 itself. Some are kind enough to offer a small discount on conference registration and/or the hotel. Even staying off-site is difficult, because surrounding hotels raise their rates knowing the group rate at the sponsoring location. You aren’t paid, but you do get to meet some lovely people and make networking connections, which often matters quite a bit–education is all about knowing the right people, and sometimes you can find them in a presenter or attendee.

In my last post, I worked my way through finding my “why.” I’ve been thinking long and hard as to whether what I choose to participate in fits with that statement:

To engage in work that impacts the world around me positively so that others can grow, learn, and honor one another.

I brought up this opportunity to a friend in context with my why and she had some good questions. She came at this from a very different perspective, having a role other than teacher in a school. After we chatted, I tried to hide my hurt for a few days and wasn’t really successful–it hurt a lot to have someone say essentially that the thing I enjoy most in my role isn’t worthy of doing because it takes away from what others feel I should be focusing on. She noted that I ought to rethink about my purpose in presenting at conferences or even attending them at all since they do cost so much and research shows they aren’t worthwhile anyway. She questioned: am I doing it for the good of the school and our kids or for me personally? The latter is incredibly selfish, and in either case, why should a school pay for it if I benefit from the professional development? How do any of the conferences I plan to attend or have attended in the past align with the priorities of our building, our initiatives, our work? What benefit does the staff get if I go? Why would we bother to send me, who is no longer in the classroom, over other staff who is? Why should a school pay for any professional development for teachers as a whole if they, personally, are the only ones who are benefitting from having gone, and even that’s a stretch because no one ever knows what they learned from being their or how it will be implemented? No other industry pays for professional development–why should a school when those funds could be used for something more worthwhile?

I gave all of this a lot of thought. I wrote out my thinking, sharing it with a few who could help. My friend’s comments were hurtful in the moment, I won’t lie, but they did get me thinking, so were ultimately helpful. Why do we offer professional development to teachers and how can we make it more “for the good of all”? How can we make it affordable for teachers to go, while at the same time providing relevant and useful information that teachers can use and share with others in a format that is worthwhile?

Thinking beyond, if this is my why, “To engage in work that impacts the world around me positively so that others can grow, learn, and honor one another” how does my work as a presenter, a teacher, fit in to that? I find I keep going back and forth about it, from backing up altogether (“I won’t bother presenting anymore since too many are adversely impacted when I do”) to doubling down (“No, I ought to continue presenting and create a more diverse offering of topics as well to both meet my own need to learn and that of others.”) What other pieces of my world do I need to change or remove myself from in order to continue to honor my Why? Which organizations and obligations grow my Why and which am I participating in out of obligation?

I hope you’ve been thinking about your Why… And now that our school year is drawing to a close, what opportunities can you change in your world to better suit your why or your school’s why as a whole?