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.

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.

Growing Pains & Transition.

I completed teaching my first quarter of sixth grade science on Friday, September 25.

Honestly, the transition itself wasn’t nearly as hard as I expected it to be. The first day of school I was more nervous than anything in my entire LIFE and at this point I am clueless as to why I was terrified in the first place — maybe because they’re bigger than me? Regardless, I’m realizing that sixth graders are basically big third graders with more emotions, and you know what? I love it.

The biggest and most difficult transition for me was, hands-down, the copious amounts of grading. I think in part I was overcompensating since I had zero concept of how many grades I should have for the quarter, and that ran me into a pretty deep hole by the end of the nine weeks. All I was doing in my free time was grading (well, grading and watching The Wire sometimes…) and it was driving me to tears some nights.

I’ve worked in a classroom without a TA before, but what’s different is that now I have nearly 100 students as opposed to my 26 that I kept all day in Durham. 100 students, no TA to help grade, and a desperate need for copious amounts of coffee to manage the morning after few hours of sleep the night before (because of this, I should probably invest in stock with Bean Traders down the road from my apartment).

I’m already planning my amendment of this for quarter two, and it’s pretty simple: don’t grade as many assignments. I’m also going to start using some quick quizzes with Google Forms (all hail Google) and use an app called Flubaroo to grade them for me — then, all my data is already in a nice spreadsheet that can be turned into graphs! And there’s color-coding! And YAY!

Another thing that was hard, and it was more of just a growing pain, was that I felt myself teaching differently. I still used technology and we still talked about vocabulary, but it was in a very different way than I am used to. I realized that I didn’t really read with my kids as much as I would have liked, and I didn’t focus on vocabulary as much as usual. I didn’t do TPR with them and my “word wall” was really lacking because of the wall space I have in my classroom.

#lablife

#lablife

I’m not accustomed to teaching in a classroom that…isn’t really a classroom. The wall space is limited and inconvenient for students to access with cabinets and sinks standing in their way to the wall; shelves take up nearly the entire length of one of my walls which leaves little room to hang student work or academic aid.

World, I need y’all to know that I geeked out SO HARD when I found out I was teaching in a lab, but this is foreign territory for a former third grade teacher. In my last classroom, my walls were donned with exceptional environmental print (100% biased since I made everything that went up on my walls) and vocabulary with pictorial and TPR support was abundant. I read books and articles with my students about the science topics we were learning and we had discussions about those things.

I realize that middle school teaching probably should be a little different than what I did in elementary school, but I also see so much value in holding onto some of my elementary principles for my middle school classroom.

Next quarter, I’m going to do a word wall with words/pictures paper clipped to the blinds of the windows where my students have the best access. I was initially apprehensive to do TRP with middle schoolers because I wasn’t sure if they would buy into the concept of hand motions for words, but I’m going to do it and get really hype about it, since the hype factor is a big thing for some of the kids who think they’re “too cool for school” (who even came up with that phrase? School is the coolest!). I will be even more intentional about vocabulary.

I’ve also been on a serious hunt for some middle school science books, fiction or nonfiction, to help teach our next unit concept. Since we’re studying Earth, I thought it could be neat to read through parts of Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne and kind of “mythbust” the science in the story. I see books as a way to rope students into science who might not be instantly turned on by it, especially if it’s a topic that might not interest them right off the bat.

It’s kind of strange not doing small group instruction in my former blended learning model from last year…though I’m working on that concept with a fellow teacher on my team for a little teaching experiment with our kids in November.

Planning didn’t feel too overwhelming, but then again I was teaching concepts I was already pretty familiar with. Our first unit, which lasted the entire first quarter, was about plants and ecosystems; these topics are also taught in third grade, so I was able to just scale up some activities for my middle school babies (can I still call them babies if they’re all a foot taller than me?). Our next unit about the lithosphere and Earth structure might be a little more of a challenge since that wasn’t a third grade science topic I’ve been used to teaching, but regardless I’m looking forward to brushing up on my geology skills (insert the assistance of my geology-major brother here)!

I spent a decent amount of time last quarter grading learning about this new school and how middle school works on a large scale level, but I think I kind of get it now. I’ll continue to learn this upcoming quarter, but I’m excited to implement a little more of what I know is best for kids from my elementary experience. I’m thankful for teammates who are open to cross-curricular collaboration and students who are willing to take any academic plunge with me. These kids seriously stepped up their game toward the end of our first unit with their big project and I was wildly impressed with them.

I’m so grateful for these growing pains. When I first started thinking about the things that didn’t work out the way I wanted them to, I got kind of frustrated; as I continued to think about those things, I saw a window of opportunity to learn more about a practice which I knew so much about at a different grade level. This experience is challenging me in a way I’ve longed for, and I can tell that by the end of the year I will have grown immensely, and THAT is always a plus.

What’s been something you’ve been growing with lately? For my traditional calendar friends, I know y’all are only halfway through first quarter — anything you’d like to implement before the nine weeks are over!?

To Not Settling.

Here we have an ode to not settling for average.

A moment where a student made the conscious decision that a 77 wasn’t good enough. A moment where he was frustrated and wanted to leave his paper on the table, face down. A moment where I’ve never been more elated to see an upset demeanor on a child’s face.

This is a kid who would fall through the cracks. He lives in a bad part of town, flanked by strip clubs and gang initiations. His parents aren’t in the picture, and he likes to start trouble with other kids in class. He talks at inappropriate times and flirts with girls like that’s the real reason he’s in school (but isn’t that what we all thought our middle school purpose was anyway?). His exterior says that he doesn’t care about learning or getting an education, but once you crack that shell, he’s all gooey educational brilliance inside.

I passed back the scientific method quizzes today and he got a 77. I didn’t really expect to see any kind of reaction out of him; I mean, it’s a C. It’s average. The status quo. I wasn’t sure how he’d react, so I guess I just thought he wouldn’t.

As soon as I turned my back, I heard a fist slam on a table.

He was mumbling to himself, looking annoyed. I went over to him and said, “It’s a 77 — that’s close to a B!”

He wasn’t appeased.

“You know, a 77 isn’t THAT bad — it’s average!”

Who the heck am I trying to fool here? If I got a 77 on anything, I would have definitely been feeling the same way, begging my teacher to have mercy and let me do test corrections to bring up my score. Here I was, trying to make this kid feel better about his average grade, when I should have been firmer and pushed him harder about what it was he missed. A moment of weakness on my part and he triumphantly brought me back to my center: doing what’s best for kids, and I know what’s best for kids is holding them to high, clear expectations.

His defeated attitude about his quiz score was sad to see, but it also got me really excited.

“You want to retake this quiz, don’t you?”

He nodded and looked away from me, trying to maintain his “cool” status while still attempting to show me that he was interested in academic achievement.

A-ha! I knew he cared!

We talked about when he could come to my room to start studying and showing mastery, and we both were feeling hopeful and better about the current situation.

I should note that this kid, when given the chance to use laptops in my class during homeroom time, was the only one of my students who used them during that half hour block to locate a current event article that was due this past Friday.

I am a firm believer in tough love, not so much in grades and numerical percentages.

After today’s meltdown over an average grade, my heart leaps knowing that this kid wants something better for himself. Yeah, it’s a scientific method quiz grade, but you know what? It has to start somewhere.

We have to push our kids to a higher standard and let them know that yes, average is okay, but you are capable of so much more. Can you imagine what that can do for a child in your class?

Like I said, this is an ode to not settling for average — not settling for average quiz grades, not settling for average work ethic, not settling for average expectations.

Here’s to a great week of learning and watching this kid grow not only as a student, but as a scientist and hardworking human being, too.

Warm Hearts & Good Reception.

I got to do one of my favorite things tonight: make a positive call home about a child to his parent.

I could technically do this every single day for a child; I’m a firm believer in celebrating the good that kids do on a daily basis (and there’s a lot of it). Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, so making calls home every day to parents and families is a little tricky for a teacher with nearly 100 students.

Tonight’s particular call though left me with so much joy. My heart was so warm and my message so well-received; I was pacing with glee while I was on the phone with this mother.

What made this call so special, you wonder?

Two days ago this child had a bad day, and not just any normal case-of-the-Mondays bad day. I had to have administration remove this child because he was so distracting to others in the class, even though I had given verbal and nonverbal redirects to this child. He was removed from my class on Monday, and again on Tuesday he came close to leaving again. This kid struggles with a lot going on at home, and at the beginning of this week those problems were manifesting themselves in his classroom behavior.

Because he had to be removed by administration, I had to file an office referral. I called the family that night and left a message on their machine giving them the heads up that their son had to be removed since he was so disruptive in class.

Tonight’s call was so beautiful because I got to call this kid’s mom and tell her how incredibly awesome he was today.

I told her how he followed directions in my class, how he stayed focused and did his work; how he was kind and respectful not only to me, but to his peers; how he even offered to put up a girl’s chair for her while she finished packing up.

Before he left for his electives, I pulled the boy aside and told him how proud I was at his engagement level today. I thanked him for being so helpful to others at the end of the day and we established his end-of-day classroom job — to make sure everyone is good to go, that all the chairs are up, and that the classroom is clean. As I told him these things, he stood in front of me, bouncing, beaming.

“You know, I’d really love to tell your mom how you did in class today — does she like emails or phone calls? Is it okay that I tell her how awesome of a day you had?”

“CALL HER! Call her!!!”

We smiled and the boy started to walk away and then quickly turned around to hug me.

Recounting the afternoon’s events, I could feel how happy this mama was. She was thrilled to hear that her son had such a great afternoon with me today, and she was so happy that she wasn’t getting another phone call like the message I had to leave on Monday. She was kind, encouraging, and was up front in letting me know how to contact her in the future if I needed her during the school day. She asked questions about her son’s homework for my class and how she can guide him, and she told me she’s coming to Open House tomorrow night.

There’s something really special about making positive contact with parents. So many times teachers are bogged down with grading (…speaking from the most personal of experiences right now) or planning or even negative classroom behavior that we forget how great it is to let parents know that their kids are fanfreakintastic.

Here’s to you, busy teacher — I know you’ve got a million things on your plate, but why don’t you give a kid’s family a call and let them know something wonderful about their child?

Note: This act is guaranteed to make you smile.