For the last month, we have been in the process of moving my mom out of her house of 40 years into our home while she builds a new home here in College Station with us. A couple weeks back, we had rented a U-Haul truck and prepared to move a lot of stuff one Saturday. Between the rental of the truck and the day of moving, it rained. A lot. Between 3 and 6 inches. The morning of the move, I drove down her long driveway in the truck, and attempted to turn the truck around to back up to the house by her garage. It was not intended to take more than 10 seconds to turn around, but the empty truck just sank into the mud. We tried pouring bags of pea gravel under the tires for traction, putting boards and bricks under the wheels, rocking the truck. We would get some movement, then - we sunk again.
Here I was, with an empty truck, a full house, willing hands to help, and I was slowly sinking deeper into the yard. Finally, we got a neighbor's tractor to pull us out, we loaded and went on. Mom is now comfortably settled in with us.
But this experience enlightened to what my greatest fear is:
Last fall was a bad time for me. I had been passed over for an admin position I felt I deserved, and the job opportunities were drying up. We had put our home on the market to buy a particular house- which sold and left us still in our old home with no offers. We had had a summer with lots of unexpected expenses and no significant salary increase in sight to cover them.
I felt about as stuck as I had ever been.
I hated it. And the advice I got from well-meaning people was "It is just not the right time for _____ yet." To a person who feels stuck, those words are the rising mud around their tires.
Eventually, our house did sell, and we have a wonderful new home. I still have no admin job, but I did get a chance to develop and lead an amazing student leadership program (LEADS) that is going very well in it's first year. And as all educators know, finances are "meh."
As I reflected on my fear of 'stuck,' I began to realize that this is a healthy fear. It is a fear that keeps me moving, innovating, and trying new things. It reminds me to never stop looking for new ways to meet the needs of students and fellow educators who have become 'stuck' themselves.
Unfortunately, it has also allowed me to see that education in America is 'stuck.' Sure, there are innovators and leaders that are doing amazing things, but unfortunately, they are little more than bags of pea gravel that get momentary movement. The fear I am beginning to have is that education enjoys being stuck, and actually fears what will happen if these innovators really gain traction.
For example- we love to talk about going gradeless. Individuals will do it, but the system will never embrace it. We encourage student voice, but seem to love to still tell students who speak out what they cannot do. We complain about standardized tests and the lack of individuality in education, then make our teachers all teach the same way and call it "equity."
I am about to give my final fall final (say that 3 times fast) which is supposed to be a measure of my students' learning over the semester. Why? Because it gives them a grade that tells me manageable data. That number grade will be put into an electronic gradebook and a student will be happy or sad about their grade and then go on with their life. Why? Because that is the way we have always done it.
My other finals measured learning differently. One final was oral- my debate students answered my questions about what their greatest strengths were, what areas of growth they needed, what they learned. etc. The other was War- a game in sociology where students answered content questions while engaging in strategies (including alliances and defense vs offence tactics) which actually served as a final lesson on how war impacts sociological development. But my last final is World History, and I have to give a test that is the same as other teachers because we must be equitable. And I get that- but will my student's responses on a piece of paper REALLY tell me what they have learned? But much of education has gotten stuck in the data that tests and traditional methods of education provide.
To me, the greatest measurement of student learning is not a test grade. It is what they go home and tell their parents and friends they learned about. That is the opposite of stuck. To me at least.
So how do we get unstuck? For me, it was finding ways to pour as much pea gravel into my situation as a I could. Those innovators and leaders who are the pea gravel under the tires MUST continue to be that. But the educational system has got to start gaining on the traction they are providing. Those leaders voices must not just receive likes and shares on Twitter, they need to be given traction in classes and campuses. Campus and district leaders should actively seek to apply the principles they comment on in blogs, and look to hire educators who are the pea gravel. Teachers who prize innovation in their practice should encourage and support it in their students.
But the key for education to get unstuck is simple- stop just spinning our wheels deeper into the mud. Stop doing things the same way we have always done it when it no longer works or does not meet the needs of our students.
In 2019, let's get unstuck.
"Guys, I'm tired."
You have no doubt heard this if you are a teacher or a friend of a teacher. And today, I want to speak to my non-teacher friends. See, your teacher friends are anxiously awaiting a two week (about) break from school. And before you are tempted to be jealous of this "extended" break, let me explain why I- and many of my teacher friends- are tired.
This time of year, our days often begin before the sun starts its workday. We are the school to watch the sunrise. And often, we are there to see it set. That is a normal workday. But another part of our workday is this- we are "on" for all of that time.
Imagine arriving early to work to get ahead, and immediately a client walks in needing help. You spend a half hour helping them, and realize the rest of your clients have arrived for normal business hours. You work straight through until lunch, where you get a half hour- but some of your clients often want to stick around to eat in your office. It's back to work where you then deal with clients for another couple hours before you get your break- in which you have to prepare for the next day. After the workday ends at 4, more clients arrive to get some help. You would look forward to the weekend, but you have to take a dozen or so clients to a business meeting out of town, and will arrive at work around 5 am and not return until 10 or 11 that NIGHT.
I want you to understand that this is not a complaint- this is an effort for teachers like myself to help you understand the hard part of our job. See, so far, you just see the hours. But what occurs in those hours? A whole other level.
Imagine your clients are people you really care about- not in a "the customer is always right" kind of way, but in a "these are my kids and I want them to not only survive, but to THRIVE" kind of way. You put up with early morning clients because you know they need it to thrive- but all too often they need it to survive. They are there early because they cannot get that help anywhere else. My friend and classroom neighbor Casey Akin is one of those teachers. She is here when I get here and here after I leave most days, teaching students Chemistry. Now, I never really got or enjoyed chemistry, but Akin's students love her. And what's more, they often end up loving chemistry. She calls them 'nerds" and they smile- a genuine smile of recognition of true care and concern in that word. They are disappointed when she has to- heaven forbid- go home when the school day ends because she too has a life beyond our walls. And though she very much needs that time for herself, I see the hurt she feels because she does not want to let her "nerds" down.
See, we also have to teach our clients social skills. Teenagers have a brain that closely resembles the decision making of that of a psychopath. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/10/041030131905.htm)
We spend a good portion of our time teaching students how to interact appropriately with each other and with adults. In customer service, "the customer is always right" so you do not correct bad behavior. Correcting it is often a part of our job. One that MOST of us do not relish. We too get tired of rehashing rules, dress coding, saying "that's not appropriate," and settling disputes among our clients. My wife Kristin is a Special Education teacher and so she gets an extra dose of this. She has to navigate diagnoses, paperwork, and students who- more than their peers- need guidance on making basic, good choices. Plus, she often has to see students struggle with the unthinkable to most of us, and still press on with hope and high expectations. And she is great at it. But she also has two kids of her own- so her work and homelife overlap. Often. But she is great at that, too.
We also have our own kids, so when we do finally get home, we often have to help our kids with their homework. Only this time- we are not dealing with material we teach, so we have to learn this as well. Remember that class you struggled with in school? Now you have to help your own kid understand it after you spent all day getting your clients to understand your content. Good luck.
A lot of us take on extra projects at work, too. I'm leading a group right now that gives up their extra and "free" time to teach some students about leadership. Eric Zylman, Christie Brod, Javan Cashaw, Emily Harding, Jill Butler, Bunny Muncie, Deidre Merseal, and Amy Powell are classroom teachers that give up a half day a month to take 5th-8th graders to leadership training. They are also working extra time with these students to develop campus projects like outdoor seating spaces, walkways for students, and even community gardens. And they get no extra pay. Marina Rodriquez is another one of these Innovators (as I call them), but she is an overseer like me. She too spends extra time with students helping them learn to blog and reflect. She has students that do not know how to read or write well come to love writing. Because she loves it and loves them. And they can see that.
So, by now you probably are wondering why we do not just take a day off every now and then? Well, when most people take a day off, their project or work is exactly where they left it. Every day for teachers is moving forward, so we have to prepare lessons even when we are not there. Oh, and remember that social skills piece from earlier? Yeah, when we are out, we usually have to come back and address those things the next day. So, we play sick and injured. A lot.
You remember a teacher that inspired you? They were probably pretty relatable or had a lot of energy. My friend Jeremy Dockan is like that. He is always coming up to me with wild eyes and a new experiment that often involves explosions. He has such energy that students are drawn to him and his love for chemistry. (To be fair, the wild eyes and high energy may have something to do with me bringing him coffee every morning.) But teachers with energy also need to find a way to recharge those batteries (hence, the coffee). And that takes time.
I guess you could ask why we do this. If we are exhausted and stretched thin- and honestly often unappreciated by our clients, their parents and even our peers- why keep doing it?
It comes down to what the meaning of the holiday at the center of our upcoming break is- hope. Every day we wake up with hope that we will inspire someone. Hope that our students will make good choices that lead them to lifelong success. Hope that we educate a generation that will leave the world better than we found it.
We hope that we make a difference. For each and every student.
So when a teacher says, "Guys, I'm tired," know that it means they have cared greatly for your child and hold high hopes for their future.
For the last three years my sociology classes have designed classrooms during our Education in Society unit. In the beginning, I set no limits and amazing (impractical) rooms were designed. Now there is a theoretical $1000 limit and the ideas are much more practical.
This year, about a third of my groups built their classroom in a shoebox, and I realized the power of this idea for student voice in all classes. What if you could give your students a shoebox and have them build YOUR classroom?
For a bonus communication lesson, have them present it as a proposal to the class and teachers AND Admins!
Listen to their ideas- with your budget- and see where they can take you!