Five Years Later.

Five years ago, I was wrapping up my first year teaching third grade at Parkwood Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina. It seemed like any other day — I was running copies in the morning, going through social studies lessons about different winter holidays in the afternoon, wrangling kids from recess to the cafeteria to specials. Once the last child in my class got on the bus, I looked at my phone and saw a couple missed calls and a text from my younger brother.

“hey, are you okay? I love you”

I read the text and thought, Well this is both nice and strange.

Before I could even put my phone down, another teacher on my hallway came into my room and told me about what happened at Sandy Hook.

We spent some time together processing, reading some online news articles and checking Twitter feeds for more updated information before I had to pack up my stuff and go babysit for the evening. I didn’t have cable in my apartment, so when I put the kids to bed I turned on the television. I’m not a huge television watcher, but knowing what had happened in Massachusetts earlier in the day had me wanting to turn on the news.

Every single news channel flashed faces on the screen. Photos of families, love, and unity; children with their siblings, in soccer uniforms and dance gear and smiles.

I felt a deep, all-encompassing sadness. Tears welled in my eyes and barreled down my face as I wept silently for the 20 children and six educators who were gunned down in their own school.

“hey, are you okay? I love you” had a new meaning.

It meant that my brother, and many others in the world, realized that teaching is more than just disseminating content to children; it’s also keeping children safe at whatever cost.

I considered this during every lockdown drill my school ran after Sandy Hook. There were windows by the door coming into my classroom — how was I going to cover that up so people couldn’t see inside? My classroom was right next to an external door — how could I be sure that a random person from the outside wouldn’t just enter the building? Even after I left Parkwood, the thoughts still persisted.

In my second year teaching, I taught in an old building that was constructed in the 1960s. We had a lockdown drill and the lock didn’t work on my classroom door. The handle jiggled as I sat silently with my third graders lined up against the wall of my classroom library, and in an instant the police officer applied just enough pressure to push open the door. I stopped breathing and my heart skipped a beat. I closed my eyes to pause for a moment emotionally. I debriefed the situation with my kids, telling them that it was good to learn about the lock now rather than later, that the principal would have someone come out to fix my door as soon as possible. A student asked what would have happened if that wouldn’t have been a drill.

I explained that my top priority was their safety first, and then their education, that this is why we have drills — so we can practice what would happen in times of danger. We outlined the path where we would run if needed and where students could hide. I felt cracks form in my heart with every word I had to use to reply to their questions about their feelings of safety at school.

If that would have been reality, a duplication of Sandy Hook, a repeated Adam Lanza circumstance, I would have done everything in my power to keep my kids safe. I would have ushered them outside to the field, I would have fought with everything in me against any offender, I would shield those children with my life to keep them safe.

This is my first year out of a classroom and I still feel that way about all of my students who have graced my rosters in the last five years.

With the high number of school shootings and overall violence in the United States, the cracks in my heart continue to deepen knowing that children are entering school buildings where they may feel unsafe. It is my sincerest hope that we can make good, sound policy surrounding things like gun control and bullying so that kids can feel like school is a safe place, and it is my sincerest hope that we do not become numb to these happenings.

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Sinking In.

I’m letting it sink in that tomorrow will be my final day of school in my fifth year teaching. It’s my last ending to a school year where I will be a teacher, at least for a little while.

One of my students from last year gave me a letter that moved me to tears within the first paragraph. She told me I was her school mom, that I was there for her when she needed someone, that she was grateful for all my advice this year about academics and boys, that she was sad I was leaving but happy I was going to be able to advance my career. Reading her words and letters from other students in the last week shook my heart and watered my eyes.

I flash between wondering if this graduate school path is the right one when I receive these messages from students. Students who tell me they used to dislike science but now love it; who say I helped them through their tough decisions this year; who remember our projects and remind me about why I love this job so much.

As I step back and look into the deepest part of my being, I know I’m making the right decision right now. I recognize the calling to pursue this degree, to learn more about the interworkings of education policy, to incur change at a larger scale than just my classroom for the betterment of thousands of students at a time. Despite this, it doesn’t make closing this chapter any easier.

Tomorrow, I will drink in all the moments: the chaos of a mildly disorganized yet productive classroom, the calm of the hallways right before students are released for dismissal. I will make the most of every opportunity with students, as their teacher, facilitator, advocate, pseudo-mom, and everything in between.

I’m preparing myself as the feels continue to sink deeply into my heart, my brain, my entire being. Honestly, I don’t know if I could have ever prepared for this day in full, but here goes nothing everything.

Appreciating Transition.

This week is Teacher Appreciation Week; a much awaited week by teachers everywhere, full of free food and “thank yous” from many. It is during this week, this very day, that I find it appropriate to write this.

I am finishing my fifth year as an educator this year. I have worked in three schools and districts, in magnets and in neighborhood schools, devoting these last five years of my life to teaching children in Title I schools around the Triangle. There have been times it has been thankless, times it has been overwhelming, and times when it has been inexplicably rewarding.

One day, I really do think I’d like to write a book about all of these moments, but I’m sure if you read my blog you’ll get the gist. 🙂

It is with a heavy, excited, terrified, and overjoyed heart that I share with you that come fall 2017, I will not attend Open House or spend countless hours reorganizing a classroom to house children.

I have formally accepted my admission to Vanderbilt University, and in August, I begin my graduate studies in the field of Education Policy.

I honestly don’t think I can tell you how many tears I shed over this decision — happy tears, sad tears, anxious tears. So happy that I have the opportunity to study something about which I am so passionate at a place that has the strongest program in the nation. So sad that I am leaving a place that I love so deeply; a place full of friends and family and sweet memories. Anxious that I don’t have logistics fully realized yet, like where I will live and when I will move.

It is very accurate (and mildly clichéd) for me to say that I would not be in this current position without the educators in my life. Without Sanchez Johnson telling me that leadership isn’t about titles but about the way you life. Without Alex Drake assigning a crap-ton (technical term) of Brinkley APUSH readings regularly, which probably ultimately prepares me for my moment in graduate school (hindsight is always 20/20). Without Gary Mace pushing me to become a better writer. Without Joan Gale giving me a chance to be a peer mediator/helper, equipping me with skills to listen and communicate effectively in the midst of crisis (for whatever it’s worth, middle schoolers go through a LOT of crises regularly — both silly and serious). Without Lana Siefring sketching pictures in class and reading stories, cultivating creativity and showing me what an outstanding teacher looks like and inspiring me to be one, too. Without educators in my schools having high expectations for me, there’s no way I would have accomplished half of what I have today, and for that I am humbled and grateful.

I found it appropriate to share the news of my graduate studies pursuit on Teacher Appreciation Day, for it is precisely my deep love and respect of this job that is pushing me outside of Lab 209. I love what I do too much to continue to sit idly and watch students not receive appropriate services because of poor legislation and to see my colleagues work long hours at school only to drive to a second job after the bell rings.

To my former teachers: thank you. To my current colleagues, friends, and family in the world of education: thank you. To my students and their families: thank you. I am beyond grateful for your love, your support, your time, and your dedication to bettering the lives of others. May we continue this service for many years to come, in any capacity we can.

Being a Woman in STEM

Today is one of my favorite days of the year: International Women’s Day. I love celebrating my womanhood and speaking out to advocate for my rights as a woman. It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by incredible women regularly, and it’s even better lifting up a collective voice that screams “girl power” with every breath.

On this day in particular, I think about what it means to be a woman in STEM.

No, I’m not an engineer or an astrophysicist or a marine biologist (to my fourth grade self’s dismay I’m sure), but what I am is a science teacher to middle schoolers in the greater Raleigh area.

Wake County Public Schools is the 14th largest school district in the country, serving nearly 160,000 students. 76,862 of those students are female and I get the chance to work with a portion of those students daily.

I revel in the fact that I get the opportunity every day to make magical moments of science happen for students, especially female students, every day. These moments can be as simple as looking under microscopes are stomata to as complex as using a CAD system to design a spacecraft to colonize a planet.

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Giving young girls the chance to see themselves in a STEM-filled future is such an amazing gift. I love teaching about women who have influenced the scientific community and giving girls hands-on experiences to engage in science content (also, #girlsdoingscience is only my favorite hashtag of all time — just check my lab Instagram account). I get so excited watching these students grow into confident, strong young ladies who are willing to get up and independently lead a class science review and completely OWN it.

I have girls who want to be everything from astronauts to cosmetologists to veterinarians and beyond, who never fully realized they could achieve those dreams until hitting a sixth grade science lab.

When I taught elementary school, it was maybe even more imperative that I displayed what a woman in STEM looked like.

IMG_1097IMG_1224In third grade, I had students performing soil tests on our school grounds’ soil to figure out where the best place for a school garden would be (then they presented websites they made to a panel of PTA, Garden Club, and administrative representatives to state their cause – they even stayed within a budget!). These students also designed spacecraft by taking measurements in their notebooks and noting what elements of flight were present in their craft. We analyzed weather patterns and matched those to potential rocket launch dates. We read books and articles and wrote essays about science topics, growing content vocabulary daily.

Sparking a love for STEM starts in elementary school, but ultimately this isn’t just about the beginning; rather, it’s about the sustainability.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women make up less than 30% of the science and engineering workforce (and women make up a total of half of the college educated workforce in the country!). Sure, girls might “outperform boys” on standardized math and science assessments, but this isn’t about a test score.

This is about a radical shift in highlighting the natural talents of women and honoring their words and ideas. A shift in treating women like equals and paying them as such. A shift in making STEM interests more accessible to girls of all ages and races and socioeconomic statuses.

We must be a proud community of women in STEM. We must show our girls that it’s okay to be a boss because that doesn’t make us bossy. We must demonstrate leadership, compassion, and grace in all aspects of our lives. We must continue to thirst for knowledge and be models of impassioned learning.

If not us, then who? Who will teach our girls that it’s okay to ask questions and challenge the notions of boys in class? Who will empower our girls to speak up and advocate for themselves and others? Who will ensure that women will end up making more than 30% of our science and engineering workforce?

I love being a science teacher as it is a total joy for me getting girls excited about STEM. The only thing better than teaching girls to embrace science is the waiting to see what they’ll do with their excitement, for their future is limitless.

Hypothetically Speaking…

At last week’s Education Innovation Lab presented by BEST NC, a question was posed that got me thinking —

What do you want education in North Carolina to look like?

I sit and ponder this question with great intentionality.

There would be more technological resources, as well as old school resources (because honestly, children basically eat at least one glue stick a day and take the markers home for snacks). There would be more human capital in schools to work with students, such as social workers or therapists, in order to meet the mental health needs of all students. There would also be human capital like TAs to help with daily tasks so teachers can focus on actually doing their job (which is teaching in case anyone forgot). Standards wouldn’t be so constraining and there would be a huge focus on soft skills/people skills in curriculum.

(Side note: do we even need science and social studies standards, anyway? I understand language arts and math standards need to be a little tighter based on developmental needs, but why can’t we just let kids choose which topics within science and social studies they want to learn about? This would allow for deeper content knowledge and the opportunity to put that knowledge into practice somehow with an application phase of coursework perhaps. Just thinking “out loud” here and would love to hear some of your ideas with this, too!)

Essentially, everything would be centered around a problem. Students would have to find solutions to real world problems in a PBL setting in their classrooms. Everything would be framed around relevance for students, with an emphasis on current events, too.

I’ve always been a believer that I want my students to leave my classroom better people, not just better students. I care more about them learning how to collaborate with one another than whether or not they remember how earthquakes occur — that’s why all of my projects are in a group/partnership setting.

There are studies showing that many high schoolers don’t feel prepared for ‘adulthood’ when they graduate because school didn’t prepare them for the real world. That, to me, is an extreme disservice. Our schools should absolutely be preparing students for what’s to come down the road, whether that’s college or instant career experience.

Needless to say, you can bet that I’ll ask my students this question upon our return from fall break next week.

So now I ask you, friends, both in and out of North Carolina: what do you want the future of education to look like?

Deep Gladness, Deep Need.

Last week I attended BEST NC’s Education Innovation Lab at SAS. It was refreshing to sit with those both inside and outside of education to try to solve the state’s overarching issue of recruitment & retainment of teachers. There were several keynotes followed by smaller breakouts, both of which had my wheels turning at an alarmingly rapid rate.

Andy Baxter of the Southern Regional Education Board spoke about the narrative around teacher turnover, and how ultimately, according to a NC DPI report on turnover from 2008-2014, only 1.5% of North Carolina educators leave the profession because they’re dissatisfied with teaching. Despite this small number (that has, to be fair, risen since 2008), we keep hearing about all the teachers leaving the state to teach elsewhere or exiting the profession because they’re burnt out or tired of dealing with the same problems that seemingly go unfixed every election cycle.

The point he made that resonated most with me was a quote from one of his campus pastors when he was in college.

Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

Deep gladness, deep need.

I sit and think about why I do what I do. This job is exhausting, and honestly, I have REALLY been feeling that this year. I’ve been frustrated with so many things, mostly outside of my control, and all my sprinting from these last five years teaching is finally catching up to me. I sometimes find myself unmotivated when I get home, and many nights I am just exhausted. But why do I do this? I do it because I get student feedback on projects that say “I learned that I can do more than I ever thought I could” and “I learned I can make friends.” I do it because it’s worth it when a kid comes back and thanks you for being a hard teacher because (s)he learned more from you than any of the other ‘easier’ teachers. I do it because watching students’ eyes glisten as they see their dreams 3D printed into reality is real, actual, unadulterated magic.

I do it because I find deep gladness in fulfilling a deep need: the need to invest in children and educate our society.

There is a very special happiness that washes over me when I am in my element with students, helping them learn to love stuffing their brains to the brim with knowledge. Moments where I can step back into my doorway with students not noticing I’m there, when they’re so engaged in their own learning process that my presence is irrelevant — those moments I savor. They’re moments when I remember my deep gladness meeting, maybe even exceeding, that deep need.

My focus for the upcoming quarter and remainder of the year is to make it a continued priority to stop and take pause to recall these small moments, to revel in gratitude for my passion to work in the lives of children, no matter what the circumstance. It is imperative for us all to remember why we carry on in this profession.

Deep gladness, deep need.

More Than Just Jitters.

My teeth are brushed, my hair still damp, my fan (and mind) spinning.

I’m staring at the ceiling because I can’t sleep.

My lunch is packed and in the refrigerator, my coffee mug set out on the counter, my outfit hanging by the door.

Tomorrow is the first day of my fifth year teaching.

Every year this happens — this “first day jitters” kind of deal. I’m beyond thrilled to start the year and get to know my new students. I’m always a little nervous at least, because I want to make sure I don’t forget something big to tell them or show them. The first day of middle school is huge for these kids and I’m determined to make it a positive experience!

But tonight isn’t normal first day jitters.

I’m lying here awake because I feel so incredibly grateful to be this excited about my job.

Seriously, this is like second Christmas for me.

The blessing is real, y’all — I get to go to work and teach kids about the wonders of our world. I get to show kids their own hidden talents and help them realize their potential. I get to facilitate the learning of young people who might march for civil rights, cure cancer, or go live on Mars.

I get to work with a fabulous team of human beings who are dedicated to doing what’s best for kids.

I get to wake up in the morning and know I have a job that provides me with health insurance and the ability to pay a mortgage.

I am so thankful for these things. I am so thankful for the people in my life who aren’t at school with me every day who encourage me, love me, and challenge me. I can only hope to be a conduit of blessing to those around me wherever I go.

While I definitely have first day jitters tonight, I stand in awe of so many blessings God has granted me, including the passion He wrote on my heart to educate young people.

Here’s to a brilliant fifth year, friends — full of gratitude and constant amazement.