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. ūüôā

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 clich√©d) 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.

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.

Shoutouts & Celebration.

I have always been a person who has valued words of affirmation. When we use our words to encourage others and to affirm their choices, powerful things can happen.

When I taught third grade, students engaged¬†in a Compliment Circle. Everyone¬†sat in a circle on the carpet and had the opportunity to give or receive a compliment (they were also allowed to pass). At the beginning of the year, most students wanted to either pass or receive compliments. After the first couple weeks of setting up our routine for Compliment Circle, a domino effect would occur — once one student started choosing to GIVE compliments, all the other kids wanted to as well.

This was the perfect way to end class each day: reflecting on kindness that you displayed to others or that others displayed to you.

Because of the nature of middle school, the time I have with students is significantly shorter than what I had with my third graders. Sadly, this doesn’t really allow for a 10-15 minute window for Compliment Circle at the end of each period as I’m already desperately pushing copious amounts of content into a 66 minute block.

Enter “Shoutout Sheets.”

A few months ago, I started using these handmade sheets to acknowledge students regularly in class. They’re created so that both myself and other students can give one another shoutouts.

IMG_4434

The Shoutout Sheet!

Because I started implementing this in the middle of a quarter, my consistency wasn’t the greatest. I would either run out of time at the end of class or — well, usually I would just run out of time. Let’s be honest, time flies when you’re having fun and learning in the lab. ūüėČ

I started making these motivator sheets a priority toward the end of third quarter and the kids started getting really interested (again, let’s be honest, who doesn’t enjoy being recognized for good work?).

As we kicked off fourth quarter three weeks ago (?!?!?! HOW DID THAT HAPPEN!? — will answer this question in a different blog post I’m certain), I made a concerted effort to ensure that a student in every one of my classes was being recognized every day.

One day last week, I completely forgot to stop class a few minutes early to give my shoutout. A few kids had left the classroom already but I stopped everyone else, saying, “WAAAIIIT! TODAY’S SHOUTOUT!” I scrambled to my desk to get my paper and saw students standing in my doorway (presumably my third period). I told the students to line up outside the door since second period hadn’t gotten out yet, but I quickly realized it was the rest of my second period standing there.

Well, we heard you had a shoutout, so…we came back!

As my heart grew about three more sizes in that moment, it dawned on me that these kids really care for one another and want to see each other excel.

With each shoutout given, the kids applaud and high five.

This notion was reinforced as I passed back post-assessments for our last unit two weeks ago. I told the students how much growth they made collectively and how some students quadrupled their scores from the pre-assessment they took so many weeks ago. A student raised her hand and asked if some of those kids who made a lot of growth could have their names called; the class was completely on board, so I rolled with it.

With each name called, the kids cheered for each other.

…and we’re talking legitimate hoops and hollers and claps and “good jobs!” ringing in the air.

It amazes me that¬†I get to work with kids and watch them grow developmentally to understand that the world is larger than they are alone. It’s a beautiful thing to see students so invested in one another. Just another echo of the importance of building a strong classroom community that fosters trust and compassion.

Y’all,¬†this is what it’s all about. Kindness. Helping one another. Showing genuine interest in the lives of others. There’s good everywhere — in our classrooms, in our students, in ourselves and each other — so let’s start recognizing it.

How do you recognize students (and even your coworkers!) for all the totally awesome things they do!?

For the Moments I Feel Faint.

The last couple months have been full of some of the highest highs and the lowest lows and I feel as though in the midst of all that, I momentarily lost my voice.

Keyword: momentarily.

In these moments of insecurity and jumble, I always have my kids.

Whenever I experience any negativity or frustration, I can always count on my kids to have my back, and often times they don’t even realize it. The wit, the jostling back-and-forth we have, laughter while we’re learning — all this reminds me where my roots have been so deeply placed.

My school implemented a 7 Habits lesson at the start and end of every week called HOWL University. Normally I get pretty agitated when my instructional time is taken (I am a very selfish teacher in that way), but having the chance to talk about character and good habits is easily one of my favorite things (does anyone else get super stoked when a kid asks you about integrity? Anyone? Bueller?).

Recently, our topic focused on Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind. We talked about student futures and students shared what they wanted to do when they left middle school, high school, and beyond. I posted prompts around the room, like the one below, so students could take a few minutes to reflect.

Love a good Top Ten.

Love a good Top Ten.

As I surveyed the room and made my rounds, a boy sitting at the station above called out,

Ms. Stewart, can I put “science class” for this one?

indicating that science class was one of the¬†things he loved to do. I told him that of course he could list it if that’s something he loved, and he smiled and told me it was. He said he didn’t like school too much, but he loved science class.

I’ve seen huge gains in this kid not only as a science student, but as a young adult trying his best to figure himself out (and aren’t we all still doing that anyway?).

A couple more minutes went by and I found myself at another station with a girl and the same boy I mentioned earlier. The question asked about student talents and how students are using their talents. This girl looked at me and said,

Well…what if I don’t have any talents?!

I looked at her, staring mesmerized at the paper, like she was waiting on it to give her an answer. We talked about how everyone has talents, whether that’s being a strong math student or singing or just communicating with other people. I saw doors opening in her brain when we discussed all the possibilities of talents, and I think she saw herself differently when she walked out of room 208.

These moments where I’m able to simply be real with them and help them through their lives in some capacity — pointing out their talents and giving them the space and opportunity to shine — this is where I find my voice.