On How We Should Close the Achievement Gap.

This is a tall order: closing the achievement gap.

You hear about it all the time, and it’s actually something I’m really interested in discussing with others. One of my education professors from UNC posted a Washington Post article about the topic (which I encourage you to read) and it got me thinking (and a little riled up).

Yes, it is vital to know how to read and do math to be successful in society, but what happens when there are other, more pertinent things, keeping a child from mastering content? Hunger? Exhaustion? Abusive family members? Students cannot be expected to learn and be deemed “proficient” on standardized assessments when we haven’t addressed these very serious, very real issues that students face every single day.

I teach eight-year-olds. Some of the eight-year-olds I’ve taught in the last two and a half years were homeless, came from single-parent homes (where that parent worked multiple jobs), took care of their younger siblings (yes, eight-year-olds caring for toddlers), watched their fathers get deported, lived in fear of immigration services taking them, lost parents to prison and death, and I even had a child this year get kidnapped by his own father and taken to Mexico.

That child didn’t even get to start the school year with us; his mom is still in court trying to find him and get him and his brother back to the States.

Do you think those kids have the capacity to learn how to multiply right now?

These kids don’t need more homework or another negative presence in their lives. These kids just need to be loved. We must meet students where they are and show compassion; teaching is a profession that must be rooted in love and trust. We must be champions for our students, advocating for them and showing them how to stand up for themselves. Their lives are important, and they’re the ones who will shape the future.

I promise that I understand the need to perform well on tests; I see that side of the argument. Students need to know how to decode words and add numbers, but don’t they need to know so much more?

To close the achievement gap, I think we need to take a step back and refocus our curriculum. Common Core has a lot of pros in my opinion, coming from an elementary perspective at least — the spiraling standards lend itself to strong vertical alignment, and I appreciate the depth of the standards. It’s a nice concept that there are College and Career Readiness standards, but I still think we need something more.

We need to teach kids how to be good, kind people, and there’s a lot of value in that! There needs to be a stronger character education piece in our curriculum, especially in elementary grades to lay a firm foundation of socialization and emotional understanding. We need to teach kids how to interact with others and how to be more than just book smart. I would much rather have a student be a caring member of our classroom community than be a master all of the Common Core reading standards by the end of third grade.

So I suppose the question remains: how do we close the achievement gap? Well, we should probably start focusing on the whole child and not just a smudged bubble sheet.

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.

Dear New Teacher,

You’re doing great.

Did you realize you’re almost halfway through the first quarter of your year teaching?! Time certainly flies, and it only gets faster!

You might be sending home progress reports around this time and realizing that the honeymoon stage with the kiddos is over — yes, you will have to discipline them, regardless of how cute they are, and yes, you will have to be consistent. It isn’t always fun giving kids consistency like that, but I promise you that it’s always worth it in the end.

How are you feeling with your plans? Stressed? Overwhelmed? Drowning!? Here’s what you need to do: ASK FOR HELP. You are not stupid, you are not being ridiculous, just ask for help. People will help you. Did you get that? People will help you. They want to help you, so why won’t you let them? Don’t get in so deep and over your head that you can’t see the light anymore. That will do you no good and it will do your students much worse.

Please don’t stay at school too late. I spent my first two weeks teaching last year staying for about twelve hours every day and I called my dad every night crying. It was miserable. Don’t be like me. Get home, get relaxed, do something for yourself.

“But Allison! I can’t do that! I have lessons to write and papers to grade and progress reports to finish and…”

Stop.

If you can’t breathe, you can’t teach. If you can’t focus, how can you expect your kids to focus?! Prioritize. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Papers need to be graded? Papers can be graded anytime, anywhere. It’s okay. Go treat yourself to a nice pumpkin spice latte made with 2% milk with a little whipped cream and do your work at Starbucks for a bit. It’s okay to get out of your room, you know. Sometimes we need a change of scenery to get the productive juices flowing. Fresh air works wonders for the mind and body!

Can you do me another favor? I hope I’m not asking too much of you with this letter, but don’t beat yourself up over things. Crying is acceptable. It’s happened to everyone.

Did you hear me? EVERYONE. If you don’t believe me, go find a seasoned teacher in your school and ask him/her if he/she has ever cried over this job, I dare you — just be prepared to hear stories that might sound incredibly similar to the life you’re experiencing right now.

This profession chose you for a reason. Knowing this will lead to a revelation of sorts. Maybe a lightbulb goes off in your head as to how to work with that one child who is constantly defiant. Maybe you come up with this really engaging activity to teach your kids something they used to think was boring. Maybe you finally connect with that parent who wants to get her child help but doesn’t know how.

You know how.

You know what you’re doing. There will be people who might not think you do (yourself included sometimes), but be confident in yourself. Of course you need to learn new things — there are plenty of things that you weren’t trained for in your education program, and that’s okay. Teaching is best learned through experience, and you’ll be better for those experiences. Don’t doubt yourself so much. You went to college, got a degree, and are a teacher.

You. Are. A. Teacher.

Look at your badge. Look at your keys. Look at your classroom. Look at your students.

[You might also want to look at your living space. I have scissors and glue sticks on my coffee table with construction paper all over the living room — not to mention I smell like Ticonderoga pencils almost every day and almost always have marker on my hands.]

You are a teacher.

Be proud of that!

You probably spend more time with the kids in your classes than their parents and families get to spend with them. I mean, you are with these kids for seven hours from Monday to Friday. Love those kids. Respect those kids. Teach those kids not just how to read or how to find the slope of a line; teach those kids how to be good people, responsible citizens, and caring human beings. You have that power, so why not use it to better the world?

Your job is important. It doesn’t always feel that way (especially after Christmas break when there isn’t another break in sight for months until spring break — that stretch from MLK Day in January to the end of March/beginning of April is a SERIOUS struggle for us all) and your kids probably won’t tell you enough, but you rock. Keep doing you, New Teacher!

You might be like me and really want your kids to like you. I never wanted my kids going home and telling their families, “Oh my gosh, I HATE Miss Stewart’s class, it’s SO BORING.” That’s basically my worst nightmare and personal hell. Having students like you shouldn’t be the goal — you want them to respect you. With that respect comes so much love, my new teacher friends! If you show them that you respect them and can listen to them, their love for you will compound so quickly. Strict doesn’t mean boring — it just means you get the work done before you let loose. You can have fun teaching, and your students can have fun learning. Facilitate accordingly.

When you reach this blissful state of respect and love (which, this isn’t always an easy path since you need to crack down on your rules for quite a while before they really understand that you’re doing this because you love them), they will start making you things. Maybe they’ve already started because you’re a cute new teacher who is young and excited and kind of looks like their babysitter (I say this not to offend you, but to be honest — apparently I still look 16 to some of my kids). Keep those things. I guess you don’t have to keep every single thing because I don’t want to turn on the television and see you on an episode of Hoarders, but keep the things that remind you that what you do is of great importance. I have a folder that I pull out from time to time to remind me — it’s full of letters and pictures and cards. Keep those things, because you will need them on bad days and I can assure you that they will mend your weary soul around Thanksgiving.

I write this to you to encourage you. You’re only halfway done with quarter one and I know you’ve been working so hard to make things perfect for your class. Know that imperfection is acceptable and you have to let yourself make mistakes before you can learn.

Yes, you will implement lessons that will TANK. Completely. I have done that more than once to say the least. But guess what? I learned from that and now I know better than to assume third graders know what rounding is. We live and we learn.

Don’t lose your fervor. You’re in the right place. Teaching is the most challenging thing you’ll do, but it sure is the most rewarding.

Love, Miss Stewart

My Cohort.

It’s mid-July and it’s hiring season for teachers.

This post will be short and sweet and to the point: I just love seeing that my fellow Tarheel teachers are getting jobs.

Not only am I happy to see that there is still a market for teachers (it’s very comforting knowing that you can get a job with the current unemployment rate), but I’m also just absolutely thrilled for my fellow first-year teachers (#educlove at its finest, my friends).

My cohort experienced a lot of changes to UNC’s elementary education program. Everything was completely revamped — updated classes, different requirements, new program director. Essentially, we were the guinea pigs. Some things worked, other things didn’t work; some classes were extremely beneficial, others found us wasting away on Pinterest planning weddings (some of us actually did need to plan weddings though). It was challenging, but we got through it together.

I don’t even care if you’re reading this and think that last sentence sounds lame — it’s true.

We spent more than just one afternoon venting our stresses verbally and also through the occasional cry-fest. It was a struggle, at least for me, balancing both student life and teacher life. Truly this was no easy task for any of us, but despite this we always had each other to fall back on, and for that I am beyond grateful.

We wrote lesson plans, went on field trips, laughed about our kids, cried about our kids, complained about our “useless” assignments, reveled in read-alouds, and slept our weekends away (because no one but kindergarten gets nap time during the week). I use “we” here instead of “I” because this was pretty much what we did on a regular basis. We were a unit and we shared so many rewarding experiences together.

I think that’s why I get so giddy (yes, giddy) whenever I see a Facebook status about one of the girls in my cohort getting a teaching job somewhere. I know for a fact that these beautiful people from my cohort are the best of the best, and I am so blessed and honored to say that I worked with them in my time at UNC. I look forward to hearing updates about their lives as they embark on their first years as teachers, and I can only imagine how great they will each be.

There will be a lot of lucky kids out there come August 27.

a letter of thanks.

i’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how i’m going to set up my new classroom and how i’m going to teach all my subjects and everything else in between. as i contemplate my future as an elementary educator, i can’t help but reflect on all the teachers i had who got me to this point.

i can remember the name of every single teacher i ever had. my teachers are important to me.

first grade in mrs. cropper’s class was where i got my first taste at being a teacher. i remember always wanting to pass papers out and help her with whatever she needed. seriously, i had the fastest hand raise in the whole first grade probably. i wanted to dress like her, be nice like her, and teach like her.

fourth grade is where a lot of magic happened. i met some of my best friends in my fourth grade class, and i also happened to have the best teacher. ms. siefring was artsy, colorful, and the best storyteller. i never realized it until last week or so when i was talking to her, but all of her storytelling certainly paid off — i’m so sure it made me a better writer and speaker, and i can’t thank her enough for that! she showed this amount of patience that i didn’t even know existed. i couldn’t do long division to save my life and she went through every step with me over and over and over. divide, multiply, subtract, bring down, repeat. i hadn’t really needed that kind of attention before in the classroom, and her willingness to help me makes me ever so grateful.

i was definitely able to reflect on that this year while teaching fourth grade and working with groups of students who also struggled with long division. i was reminded why i wanted to be a teacher in those moments.

middle school english was an interesting experience. i remember not being really fond of mrs. crowell’s aig english/language arts class for the three years i had her, but in retrospect i concluded that her class was pretty cool. her project-based lessons and challenging reading assignments definitely intrigued me and kept me on top of things.

i remember loving seventh grade science with mrs. ball. she paired me with the cutest boy in class as my lab partner and her hands-on approach was hands-down the best ever. i can still remember all the major bones in the body and i can never forget my excitement when i experienced my first real lab dissection (that chicken wing stood no chance). i was on-track to be a scientist because her class was so interesting — now that’s a thing of power.

eighth grade was the year i really started falling in love with north carolina history. mr. lambe’s history class was by far my favorite class and i couldn’t help but be drawn into his teaching style. we talked about history and also talked about the future, making our own “dream big” lists (yes, i still have mine, and yes, so far my big dreams have come true). he was inspiring and constantly challenging us not to just be better students, but to be better people.

tenth grade english was the best year of a class i could have imagined! mr. mace was hands down the best english teacher i’ve ever had. i was fortunate enough to have him for the whole year, and i think i learned more in that year of english than i did in any other english course i’ve taken. he made us write about oreos, film reviews, and he also had us write letters to ourselves that we will receive in 2016 (our class ten year anniversary). this is the year i found the strongest passion for writing that i never knew i had. this english class affected my life in more ways than i thought — i started blogging, i chose to do my senior exit project on the cinematography of alfred hitchcock, and i made As on almost all of the papers i wrote at unc chapel hill.

i made a perfect score on my writing test that year, and i’m pretty sure papa mace still owes me a steak dinner for that…

my junior year, i took ap chemistry with mrs. hurley. that was easily the most difficult content i was taught in high school and mrs. hurley always had her door open for help. i had the best time getting to know her as a person since i was lucky enough to have her for honors chemistry the year before. she pushed me to study hard and was one of the most organized teachers i had. she was fun when it was time for fun and she cracked down when we needed to work hard. that kind of balance is something that i found beneficial to myself as a student, and i strive to have that kind of balance in my classroom as well. she taught me to “walk with purpose” wherever i went in the school — consequently, i never needed a hall pass.

for three years in high school, i participated in leadership/student council. our fearless leader, sanchez johnson, constantly pushed me to be better. good enough is neither good nor enough. i learned that leadership isn’t just a position, but a lifestyle. i learned how to work with all kinds of people and how to give a darn good speech. the skills i acquired and honed under the supervision and assistance of sanchez are skills that i will use and continue to perfect for the rest of my life.

i also gained a newfound love for dr. seuss thanks to sanchez.

my senior year i decided to take a class for fun, which was kind of a new thing for me. i took broadcasting with mr. campbell and made music videos and PSAs. it. was. awesome. mr. campbell served as my senior project advisor, giving me cinematography tips and letting me edit my project in his classroom whenever i needed. he listened to me practice my graduation speech a million times and was always willing to listen to a story. i think it’s important for teachers to listen to the stories of their students.

the one class that was a true game changer for me was apush. mr. drake was my teacher, my quiz bowl coach, my men’s basketball game buddy (he announced and i sang the anthem — good times), and probably one of my biggest fans. he was that teacher i went to with good news, bad news, exciting news, and i’m-in-need-of-a-reference news. his class taught me what college was really going to be like — lots of reading and writing and then more reading and writing. i was lucky enough to like reading and writing and in turn fell in love with us history. today, mr. drake is now alex, he’ll be my neighbor in less than a month, and we’re teaching in the same city this fall. we will discuss teaching, get drinks, and participate in trivia. durham ain’t even ready, y’all.

these teachers influenced me such a great deal and ultimately helped solidify my  decision to become a teacher. my years at unc chapel hill also proved influential, especially in the education department — julie justice, cheryl bolick, martinette horner, kate allman, janice anderson, melissa miller. these women believed in me, pushed me, and got me to where i am today, which is employed with durham county schools. they inspired me and made me want to be better than my best as a teacher and a person, and i am eternally grateful for that.

teachers are important. i viewed my teachers not just as teachers, but as people. these people were my friends, some of which were like family to me. my fourth grade teacher and eighth grade history teacher both came to my high school graduation and heard me give the jay m. robinson class of 2008 graduation speech. another four years later, i saw my eighth grade history teacher at a social studies teacher conference and my fourth grade teacher came to my college graduation party. these people aren’t just teachers i had for a year in my life — they’re people who are continually teaching me more than just the north carolina standard course of study.

at unc’s school of education, the phrase “teaching transforms lives” is plastered on the windows in the front of the building. i truly believe that there is validity in that statement and i can’t say thank you enough times for all the wonderful teachers i had who helped me get to this point in my life. your support is unmatched, and my gratitude grows by the day.

crunch time.

friends, the time has come: i need to put on my big girl pants and make some real life decisions.

i think one of the most important, life-changing decision i’ve had to make has been deciding where to go to college. that was huge! well, college is over and now i need to make even more important, life-changing decisions such as where i will teach and where i will live.

here’s the skinny: i want to stay in the chapel hill/durham area. i love it there and couldn’t really imagine myself anywhere else. besides, if i want to change anything in education, i feel as though it’s best for me to stay in such a progressive area that is up-to-date on all of the latest pieces of information that relate to education. fortunately, this makes part of my decisions much simpler — location is set!

now, about where i want to teach. chapel hill and durham are two very different school districts, and i think i could thrive in either environment. i’m asking myself what’s most important to me when looking for a school and what my personal teaching goals are for my first year of teaching. what do i want to do with my kids? how do i want to do it? which school/district will help me achieve these goals?

seriously, it’s like i’m playing twenty questions with myself.

regardless, i feel these questions give me a harder time when trying to come to an end result. would i rather teach in a dual language setting or one that is traditional? what demographic am i looking to reach? would i prefer lower-grades (k-2) or upper-grades (3-5)?

see, there i go again with the questions!

then, aside from that, i get to think about where i’m going to live. am i going to have a roommate? how am i going to find said roommate? should i live alone? how will i afford living alone? where is the most affordable housing?

…so. many. questions.

honestly, i’m really just concerned with making the right choice. what a funny phrase — the “right” choice. despite my hatred for all of the questions i’ve been asking myself, there is one that seems very prevalent: what makes the right choice the right choice?

i’m beyond blessed to even have this problem of having an internal monologue interrogation session. i’m so grateful that i even have options right now. i’m confident that i will be happy with whatever choice i make, but i also want to be sure to make the most of this time and choose what will ultimately allow me to serve as a light in the north carolina public school system.

the eyes of a five-year-old.

tuesday, 12 july, 2011 was a good day.

there were plenty of reasons that it was a good day — i mean, i got 2nd place in trivia at buffalo wild wings, spent some quality time with an old friend, ate ice cream, went to the library, etc. really, the day was a total success.

the one thing that pushed it over the edge and into greatness was a conversation i had with my friend eli.

eli is five-years-old and will be six in a few days. he loves cars (both the disney/pixar movies and just cars in general) and has become quite the little chatterbox since the last time i saw him. i’ve babysat him numerous times and his parents are friends of mine who are also in the education profession.

i was sitting in the living room with eli and he was telling me about school. he starts kindergarten this year and friends, let me tell you — this child is excited about school. he told me all about his new gray backpack with soccer stuff on it and his matching lunchbox and water bottle. i asked him what he was most excited about for when he starts school.

“i’ll get to stay there all day!”

he’s excited about staying at school all day. he’s excited about learning. he’s excited about making new friends. he’s excited about this new experience.

honestly, i wish everyone felt like that when it came to school. if you could have seen the way his blue eyes just lit up when he was telling me all about school starting and his teacher and his school supplies!

that’s why i want to teach elementary school — they’re excited. they want to learn. they want to be in your classroom. they are little sponges just soaking up everything. i think it’s so important for teachers to really harness that excitement and, well, do something with it! get creative with your lessons and have fun — play up the strengths of your students and encourage progressive thinking.

there is so much to learn from kids. their wonderment just absolutely astounds me.

i really do think we learn some of the most important things when we’re young. the ideas are elementary but in no way are they basic. what we’re taught at a young age is foundational and we continue to build on that as long as we continue to grow and change as people.

it makes me so happy that eli is so excited for kindergarten. i told him i was in kindergarten in the spring and he got even more excited (i bet you didn’t think that’d be possible at this point) to tell me more about his soon-t0-be kindergarten experience.

i suppose my request is to muster up some excitement for your own school year coming up (that is, if you’re still in school…if not, muster some up for those who are!) — you might be surprised how much of a difference that in itself can make.