High Demands & Higher Stakes.

The high demands of being a highly-effective teacher are only getting higher, right along with the stakes of being an educator.

I think of myself as an incredibly passionate person, with the very best interest of my students in mind and heart. I spend time outside of school thinking about my kids and how they can benefit from my experiences and what all I can offer them as their teacher. I long to give them the chances to think creatively and inspire them to be greater than they think they ever could be. With this dedication and drive comes time, and lots of it. I know I bring some of that onto myself, and I willingly admit that I don’t HAVE to reply to 40 reading journals a week, but I do it because I know how incredibly valuable that is. I know I don’t HAVE to scour for interesting articles about topics my kids like, but I do it because I know it will engage them in the lesson. I know I don’t HAVE to spend hours trying to come up with innovative, hands-on lessons for our project time, but I do it because I know that’s how my kids will learn best.

With the additional time it takes to do this myriad of extras, I wonder how long a person can go on being a truly great teacher.

The highest demand of a highly-effective teacher is time. There’s never enough time to make all the copies, print all the report cards, schedule all the conferences, reply to all the emails, attend all the meetings, write all the lessons, test all the kids, all on top of actually TEACHING.

I told someone last week that I didn’t spend four years of my academic life at UNC to get an education degree so I can sit in a plastic blue chair in the hallway for a cumulative nine weeks testing children on an iPad.

I’m here to teach. To motivate. To challenge.

If you know me, you know I’m a list-maker. I love lists. I love color-coding. I love color-coding lists. I’m an organized, efficient human being. Every day though, regardless of how much I cross off my list, more always seems to be added to it by the hour. Meetings pop up or emergency copies need to be made. I like to think I’m fairly good with prioritizing what needs to be done, but the problem is that with teaching, no list is ever complete.

How long can a teacher go on in a profession that gives so little time to process and reflect and, if I may be blunt, PEE? My lunch block shouldn’t count as a planning block, and I shouldn’t have to sit through meetings that have nothing to do with what goes on in my classroom.

The stakes are high for keeping good teachers. If teachers are continually treated this way, how can anyone expect them to stay in the profession? How is it possible to choose what “gives” when it comes to being a teacher? Isn’t everything we do important for the learning of our kids?

I spend so much time making sure that I’m prepared and that my kids will have a positive learning experience in my classroom each day. I do this because they deserve that from me. I work this hard because those kids deserve my best, and in turn, I expect their best. I spend so much time because that time pays off and makes this job so much more rewarding than I ever could have imagined (honestly, there are few more fulfilling moments than hugging a child and hearing him saying, “I miss you” in the most sincere way after you went to his little league baseball game on a Saturday morning).

The time is worth it for the kids, but it’s so important to remember that you can’t neglect yourself along the way. Balance is a battle, and we’re all fighting the good fight. I hope the high demands to be a highly-effective teacher continue to be high so that we, as professionals, can strive to collaborate and push ourselves to be better; however, I also hope that these demands don’t drive more to the higher stakes of leaving the teaching profession as a whole.

Wait, It’s Over?

Seriously, that’s what I’m thinking — how is this year already over? It’s way past my bedtime but I can’t stop replaying every day of this past year. Tomorrow (well, today) is my last day with my third graders, and I truly can’t believe that my first year of teaching is coming to a close.

It’s been quite the year. It was a big adjustment not having any help (like, a really big adjustment), and some of the students in my class were incredibly difficult. I saw behaviors that I didn’t expect to encounter and there were plenty of times when I doubted myself. Despite the tears and the copious amounts of coffee, I can easily say that I’ve learned from every moment this year.

To be quite honest, I feel like now that I’ve finished this year, I can do anything. I feel empowered knowing that I wasn’t at the easiest school and yet I still did a darn good job. I did the best I could with what I had, and I think I can safely say that all went well and my students achieved some form of success.

Just thinking about tomorrow makes me feel a million emotions. I’m happy that the year is over (especially that report cards are done!), I’m excited for the summer, I’m sad to see my first class go — needless to say, I’m sure tears will be involved and unfortunately my mascara isn’t waterproof.

Who knew these kids would have such a profound impact on me? I hoped that I’d make a difference to them, but watching them mature and seeing what some of them go through has been so humbling. Throughout the year I’ve seen every student in my class grow, and while I watched them I noticed myself grow, too. I’m definitely not the same teacher I was in August, and I think that’s a good thing. I’m so glad I got to be their teacher this year — I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many hearts or received so many hugs in my life!

It feels good to have this year done. Like I said, it’s so nice knowing that I can do this — this year has been challenging, but I’ve enjoyed the challenge and will continue to accept even more with each new opportunity that comes my way. It’s so reaffirming to get to this point in the year when everything comes to a close and you feel like you’re doing what you’ve been called to do with your life.

Showing Appreciation.

Last week, the third grade team put together our bi-monthy newsletter to go home with students. We always have a little “upcoming dates” section in our newsletter, and we realized that next week is Teacher Appreciation Week.

This evening I’ve had the time to sit and think about how grateful I am for the teachers I’ve had in my life. I probably wrote a post similar to this at some point, but I feel like as I draw nearer to the end of my first year in this profession, showing appreciation to those who have taught me means so much more.

I watch this video and feel so much emotion. It reminds me of how much my teachers had an impact on me throughout my education.

Julie was just the coolest professor I think I could have imagined. She’s feisty and always full of love. She taught me about literacy, and how it’s so much more than just reading from a book. She let me babysit her son when he was only weeks old, and I had the absolute honor of reading him what I call baby’s first poems (Billy Collins, so quality). The greatest thing about Julie is that I know she believes in me as not just a teacher, but as a human being, and that means the whole world to me to know that she’s behind me 100%. Thank you.

I attribute my love for writing and my blogging success to Mr. Mace. He always pushed me in Honors English 2 to be the best writer I could be, and thanks to his meticulous comments on all the papers I turned in, I made a perfect score on my writing test in tenth grade (I think you still owe me a steak dinner for that?). I truly felt like I could write whatever was on my mind in that class, and my creativity was always encouraged. Thank you.

History has always fascinated me, but it really latched onto my heart when I took APUSH with Mr. Drake. The class was extremely rigorous in comparison to all of the other high school courses I had taken, but I willingly accepted the challenge (because I’m your classic student/LIFE overachiever — show me the gold stars!). I’ve never been more driven in a high school class, and his extensive readings and DBQ gradings truly helped prepare me for college. What’s even better is that now he’s my neighbor in the Triangle and we’re friends — TEACHER FRIENDS. Thank you.

For a really long time, I wanted to do something science-related with my life. Actually, I think for the majority of my life I always wanted to pursue a career in science. Mrs. Hurley made me love chemistry so much that I didn’t just take her Honors Chemistry class, but I also took AP Chemistry with her, too. The class was hard, but I have some of my favorite high school memories from her class — I don’t think I’ll ever forget the time when I accidentally made something shoot out of a test tube, consequently breaking the test tube. Thank you.

Sanchez taught me what it meant to be a leader. Leadership is a lifestyle, not a title. It’s about what you do, and good enough is neither good nor enough. I spent hours upon hours investing my time into bettering my school, and that taught me a lot about what it means to be a servant leader. I also started watching The Office during my time in Leadership, which has been pretty crucial to my development as a person. Leadership isn’t about speeches and dances and rallying the troops at home football games; it’s about relationships. Thank you.

It wasn’t until middle school when I really started finding my way musically. I took chorus for two years with Mrs. Skeen and really found my passion for music and singing. It was her who got me to try out singing the National Anthem in seventh grade for our basketball games, and almost ten years later I’m still singing the Anthem anywhere I possibly can. She taught me that it’s okay to not be a soprano, and I’ll never forget how affectionately she spoke of us altos — we’re sultry and often the comic relief of the show, so how could people not love us? Thank you.

In 1st grade, the teacher seed was planted. I remember always wanting to pass out papers and help Mrs. Cropper, and I thought she was so pretty with her cute teacher clothes and so nice and just the most wonderful person imaginable. I also remember cutting my hair and making bangs because RJ dared me to…ah, to be young! Mrs. Cropper proved to be a great example of what a teacher should look like in my mind. Thank you.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget anything about fourth grade. I remember my first big crush and having code names for him that changed every month and my teacher dropping those code names in casual class discussions (all the girls freaked out, of course). She would spend afternoons just reading to us, and my favorite book she read was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (who soon after became one of my favorite authors of all time). I read that book to my third graders this year, and now we’re reading our third Roald Dahl book — per their request! Math wasn’t my strongest subject, and I remember hating long division. Ms. Siefring actually took time to sit with me at her desk and go through problem by problem on a worksheet — step by step. I taught a remedial group of my fourth graders last year about long division, and it was such a neat experience coming full-circle and sharing my struggles with the topic with my students. Her patience was incomparable and she truly taught me how to problem solve, not just in math but in every aspect of my life. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t know half of what I know about North Carolina history since we did the coolest project about the state. I also wouldn’t know about plagiarism (I still feel awful that I copied and pasted so much on that project — I’m glad I’m aware of the repercussions of poor research!). Thank you.

You know, if I’m being honest I think I could write a book chronicling my experiences with every teacher I ever had. Teachers are so important, and I don’t say that because it’s my current job — I say that because it’s true. They’re invaluable. A teacher is a game changer. Every teacher I had shaped me in some way, and I can look back and see how I have evolved as a learner throughout all these years. I’m so eternally grateful for that.

To my friends and peers who dedicate their lives to living in classrooms and fostering out-of-the-box thinking, thank you. The path you walk is not easy, but know that this is a gift. What you’re doing matters. What you’re doing makes a difference, whether you see it or not. This profession is not one of instant gratification, but rather of lifelong application. Stop for a second and think about why you became a teacher — think about how the teachers you had changed the way you thought about problems or breathed new life into a subject you thought was dead. You have so much power.

So, to all of my teachers and every educator out there — gracias, merci, شكرا, danke, ありがとう, спасибо, gràcies, 감사합니다, obrigado, dziękuję — thank you.

Reminders.

At this point in the year, I will be very honest: I’m struggling. My motivation isn’t very high and I’m getting a little worn down. We have been doing test prep at my school since spring break (which was about a month ago) and I’m getting bored with it. I’ve never really been a huge fan of direct instruction, and going through these test prep workbooks every single day is getting so monotonous.

Let’s be real here. If I’m bored with this test prep I’m teaching, I KNOW my students will be bored with the material, too. I feel like I’m almost stuck in some kind of bubble-sheet-number-two-pencil-EOG rut, and I’m trying my hardest to make class fun again; however, lately it has proven at times harder for me to remember what got me so passionate in the first place about this profession.

While I have been doing test prep, there has been a small team of resource teachers pulling third graders in the afternoons to conduct reading tests. We are blitz teaming these end of year tests so we don’t have to drill testing more than we already are, which I can appreciate.

The librarian is one of the teachers who is testing some of my kids, and she pulled one of my hardest working students yesterday for his test. This student moved from Honduras to the United States when he was in first grade, and entered third grade at a reading level K. For any non-teachers reading this, that puts the student at a first grade reading level. I watched this boy soar as the year progressed, and was thrilled when January came and he was reading on a level M (this is the level on which students should enter third grade) and I referred him for AIG math services. His hard work and dedication have been a breath of fresh air, and his love for learning has been so evident as we have maneuvered through the various learning targets and standards for each subject.

Yesterday, this child was pulled for his reading test. I have been excited (and honestly kind of nervous, too) to see how my students have progressed, but I was especially intrigued by this particular student. He was gone for a long portion of the afternoon and he returned to class saying that he “passed the P.” Now, what does this mean, you ask?

In short, it means that this child is on grade level. My sweet little Honduran nugget is a rockstar and he’s reading on a level Q, which is bordering above grade level reading.

Summary: he went from a level K to a level Q in a year. This is incredible.

When he told me about his final results, I teared up. He hugged me and I told him how proud I was of him and reminded him how hard he’s worked this year to get to where he is with his reading (and math, too!).

I pulled another one of my ELLs out into the hallway this morning before class started. I wanted to tell her that she passed both her reading and math practice EOGs and congratulate her on her hard work that is now so obviously paying off. When I told her, she started crying (which obviously then made me shed a tear or ten with her) and could only say, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy!” This girl has done extra work in workbooks at home, she’s one of the few who knows the majority of her multiplication facts by heart, and she’s always trying to push herself to learn more. She asked if I would write a note to her parents, and she said, “I can’t wait to tell my mom — she’s going to be so proud of me.”

(Insert a break here for a moment of tears — it’s okay, just let it all out right now.)

These anecdotes of achievement and hard work make my heart the happiest. I literally could not be prouder of these children. I am thrilled to see what their educational future holds, and I’m so honored to have gotten the opportunity to be part of their lifelong learning experience. When I think about Teacher Appreciation Week coming up next week, I can’t help but stop to wonder how appreciated teachers would feel if they’d focus on positives. I often think to myself, “Hey Allison, you work really hard and you spend hours outside of school working on lessons and other things for school — does anyone care or really even benefit from it?” Taking time to reflect on my year, especially in lieu of the progress that these students have made, it’s just so obvious to me how much it does matter and how much my students do benefit from it.

I find it imperative to be reflective in this profession. I truly don’t know what I would do without my amazing third grade team and all of the priceless friends and family I have who support me, and everyone’s encouraging words throughout this year have meant more to me than you’ll probably ever really know. It’s so easy to burn out, but if we take the time to remind ourselves of why we do what we do and how much even the smallest things impact our students, I think we’d all get a new perspective to see how much we make a difference every day.

Unimaginable.

Throughout this year I’ve experienced plenty of things here in Durham that I wouldn’t have ever imagined seeing elsewhere. This week especially has brought a lot of stress to my heart.

Monday afternoon an emergency staff meeting was called to inform everyone that a fifth grade student passed away over the weekend. It was so surprising to hear, and I can’t even imagine how the teachers who knew him or had him in class felt. I can’t imagine how these students feel, this child’s friends — or how his parents and family members feel.

All of this is just unimaginable to me.

I didn’t know this particular student personally, but I know a few other fifth graders who help out in the library or at recess with the younger grade levels. I was walking my class to lunch today and we passed the fifth graders going to recess and one of the students I knew just came up to me and gave me a hug. As soon as I got my arms around him, he just started sobbing and didn’t say a word the whole time. I could feel this pit of jumbled words rise in my throat and tears hang on my lashes.

This is what it means to be a teacher: you are more than just a teacher.

I’ve always known this and I am frequently a mom, a nurse, an animal expert, a nutritionist, a coach, a librarian, a storyteller, a lawyer, a female Bill Nye (direct quote from a student), and almost daily I’m a counselor. Today more than ever I realized how crucial that is to my job.

The students I teach have so much going on in their lives — some don’t have homes, some don’t know their dads, some aren’t treated lovingly at home, some have parents who tell them that they’re stupid and won’t amount to anything (I don’t know how you could ever tell a child that, but people actually say that to their kids — it disgusts me). I feel like I’m counseling in some way or another every single day, but in this moment on the sidewalk en route to lunch where words were superfluous just really drove this home for me.

I know I teach students according to the Common Core and Essential Standards and that’s what they’re tested on, but more importantly I teach students things like mediating situations and working together and this week, coping with loss.

The amount of respect and admiration I have for the faculty and staff who had to tell those fifth grade students that one of their classmates passed away is huge. If it were one of my students who passed away, I truly don’t know if I would be able to stay composed and strong like you for my other students. Thank you for your poise and dedication to those students, and your understanding of their emotions.

All of the heartbreak and tragedy that I’ve seen manifest in the lives of some of these kids is simply unbelievable. I’m constantly reminding myself how desperate they are for consistency and unconditional love, and to me those are things that get kids (and adults) through times like these.

It’s All About the Data.

At least that’s what it seems like.

I swear, I feel like my whole year has been centered more around data than around building relationships with my students. It’s all about how the district is doing and how the school is doing and how my class is doing.

I’ll be honest, statistically speaking my class isn’t doing so hot. Guess that means if I was being paid on merit I wouldn’t be making too much (or I’d probably be fired).

To me, this is absurd. Not because I would probably get fired if I was getting a merit-based paycheck, but because none of this focuses on the students, and they are the reason I chose this profession.

I didn’t want to be a teacher because of the bureaucratic politics or the disengaged (or overly-engaged) parents or the piles of paperwork. I wanted to be a teacher because I wanted to inspire kids to become lifelong learners and to love every minute of it.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how inspiring I am when I have to give my third graders bubble sheets every nine weeks to test their “skills.” Multiple choice tests aren’t even developmentally appropriate for third graders if you asked me, and frankly I care more about whether or not my students fully understand a concept rather than if they can just pick a letter to color in on a scantron sheet.

I want my students to be able to explain to me how Roald Dahl develops his characters in his books, and then compare the characters to one another. I want my students to explain to me step-by-step how they were able to divide 13 brownies between 3 people so that each person gets an equal amount. I want my students to explain to me how the human body works interdependently.

Is any of that going to fit on a bubble sheet?

I just had my reading groups read through a recent TIME For Kids article called “The Future of Testing.” It discusses that their tests will one day be taken on tablets and computers, and not all of the questions will be multiple choice.

I suppose that could be seen as a step in the right direction, but why is everyone so focused on all of this data?!

Yes, data can guide instruction, and that’s great. I want to know what my kids are struggling with so I can create engaging lessons that will meet their needs, and I see how this data does that, but everyone just seems so concerned with data that they don’t care about progress.

For my class, progress is a pretty big deal. One-third of my students do not speak English as their first language, and all of those students came to me reading below grade level. Another one-third of my students come from difficult home situations and have outside hindrances affecting their education, and they came to me reading below grade level, too. The final one-third of my students came to me reading on or above grade level.

So what’s a teacher supposed to do? I work hard and I’m a good teacher, but my students aren’t performing. Am I supposed to work a miracle and take a child reading on a first grade reading level and get him on a fourth grade reading level by June? Is that even possible? No wonder teachers and administrators cheat! Look at Atlanta — how sad it is to hear about so many educators fudging numbers so they can look better. And how about the alleged test scandals during Rhee’s administration as chancellor of DC Public Schools?

I can personally say that this strong push with data has hurt my self-esteem as a new teacher. I look at my data and see red and orange and I see failure on my part as a teacher. I see that I’m not doing my job well enough to get these kids to where they need to be.

Is that what we want? Do we want to be so focused on merit-based pay and good numbers and more tests that we crush the spirits of bright-eyed new teachers and demean the job of educator to pencil sharpener and paper-passer-outer?

To be honest, I’m tired of hearing the word data — I want to hear people talking progress.

I have a student whose first year in the United States is this year. She came in speaking very little English and was only reading 13 words per minute with 65% accuracy. I progress monitored her last week, and now she’s reading 65 words per minute with 98% accuracy. How hard she’s worked and how far she’s come since September! Unfortunately, that doesn’t get to go on her report card.

All of my students have made some kind of progress since they came to me in August. Each one of my students is a higher reader now than they were at the beginning of the year. They can do multiplication and fractions and they know about plants and the human body — they’ve been incredible! It just breaks my heart that I have to quantify their achievements with a number that isn’t a true indicator of their progress as a learner.

As my first year of teaching begins to close and the End of Grade tests draw near, I can’t help but contemplate these things. My hope is that as teachers, we’re able to come together to encourage one another in our endeavors so that we do not become faint of heart — this is a battle worth fighting.

Reading Groups.

Real conversation, and I promise that I’ll post something more thought-provoking and substantial soon:

Me: Your new reading groups will be named after the 2009 UNC National Championship Team!

 

Student 1: What? No way, I’m not doing reading groups.

 

Student 2: Our reading groups are named after The Heat!?

 

Me: …no, they’re named after the 2009 UNC National Championship Team! So cool!

 

Student 2: The Lakers?

 

Let it be known that Student 1 is an NC State fan, and Student 2 is, well…I don’t really know. All I know is that this actually happened yesterday and I will do anything in my power to convert all of these non-sports-watching students into die hard UNC fans.

Here’s to a terrific Tuesday back from spring break!