Monday, December 23, 2013

Island of Misfit TOYs

      It has been a busy autumn this year and after moving, learning a new job in higher education, having a new college class to teach and taking two doctoral classes myself, I wonder how I am actually sitting upright typing rather than passed out on the floor from exhaustion. I haven't seen much sunlight since September and some days it has been like learning to drink out of a fire hose, but I can honestly say I feel respected, heard and challenged.  In short, I am happy.

     There are certain times of the year when I feel that longing to be back in a full time P-12 classroom, and I couldn't help but feel a twinge of jealousy at all of my teacher friends who, exhausted but enthusiastic, began their winter break on Friday. I remember the time from Thanksgiving to Christmas in my classroom as one of my favorite times of year. Not only did we learn about one of my favorite times in history, but we collected food and toys for families which allowed my students to learn a little about themselves and their neighbors.  Part of the identity formation that occurs during adolescence is the ability to examine critically the world around you and figure out your place in it.  I loved watching my students take responsibility for helping others that they didn't even know because they began to realize that what they did mattered.

So what happened? Why did I move from P-12 to higher education?

     In short...transformation. My journey began two years ago when I was named the 2012 NJ Teacher of the Year (TOY). It was not something I nominated myself for and after almost a year of vetting through an extensive 9 part application with references, video evidence and an interview, I was asked to represent the teachers of NJ for a year. What I didn't know then and probably would not have believed was the change that would happen in me and people's reaction to it.

     I was one of those quiet teachers in the classroom who kept to herself when it came to other adults in the building.  I always knew in my heart the responsibility I had for the kids in my class, but what I didn't realize was the responsibility I would feel for the profession. Being named as TOY transformed me.  Once shy outside the classroom, now I was booked for public speaking engagements all the time and my confidence began to grow. Overnight, I was looked at as an expert on all things education and so I learned all I could. After not knowing much about how education policy was formed and what it was all about, I became fluent and realized that there were not many practitioners working in policy.  After not knowing much beyond what went on in my own classroom and district, my blindfold was removed and now I had access to teachers across the country who were just as passionate as I was. Together we made one powerful problem solving group and the energy in the room when all the TOYs gathered was palpable. I saw this transformation happen to many other TOYs as the title we were given removed the constraints that kept so many of us living small lives when we were capable of so much more.   

     Back in my classroom, I was not the same quiet teacher who was content to shut her door and only teach. As a TOY there is a saying that you have one year of recognition followed by a lifetime of service to help pay forward all the knowledge and good fortune that has come your way. I wanted to take what I had learned and help my colleagues. I wanted them to have the opportunity to learn and grow like I did. I didn't walk around bragging about being a TOY, in fact, I didn't talk about it at all unless someone asked.  But I will never forget the first time someone from outside my department asked about something TOY related. As I answered the question that I had been asked, my colleagues literally turned their backs to me and changed the subject. Unfortunately, it wasn't the last time it happened. I wanted to help the district, but I didn't want to be an administrator because I love teaching. Was there a hybrid role I could fill that would allow me to both teach and share everything I had learned? Not in my district. My choice was, stay in my classroom and ignore all I had learned or leave my classroom and leave the kids.  Neither choice was appealing. Rather than be quiet and compliant, I was not prepared to maintain the status quo and remain silent any more. I left with a heavy heart and my administration never once asked me to stay.    

     I had an offer from the Commissioner to work at the NJDOE for a year on educator outreach, but if I thought the level of frustration in my district was bad, the NJDOE left me feeling bound and gagged . Bureaucracy is stifling to creativity. While you would think it is a no-brainer to have practitioners working in the DOE, or at least consulting on how to implement policy, people like me were few and far between.  Another problem with working in state government, there is no discussion of policy, no questioning  of authority and this led to me being branded insubordinate more than once. Again, everything I had learned in working with educators from across the country to find solutions was ignored. There was no crowd sourcing, it was groupthink.  While I did get two initiatives off the ground, they were sanitized to a point of ineffectiveness.  

     At about this time, I had an offer from my alma mater. "Come and help us with our program to teach future teachers," they said. "Work on policy and teach at the same time. We want your practitioner perspective." Could it really be possible that this job existed?  Most important, they asked the right question, "What do we have to do to get you here?" Asking that question was all it took. Now, when I am introduced as a TOY, people clap and congratulate me even though it was two years ago.  I am respected for what I have accomplished and encouraged to think outside the box. No longer insubordinate, I am now a positive deviant, which has a much nicer ring to it.  

     If you think about it, many of the adjuncts that work at the university level in education are practitioners.  Why couldn't districts develop a hybrid position for teachers where they pay part of the salary and the college would pay what they pay for an adjunct in order to get some release time during the day to teach at college?  It would keep the practitioners current with research and higher ed while also helping out the colleges and universities offer some dynamic courses.  Most important, it would not exhaust the teachers who currently have to take time away from their families to take on these positions outside of school time. Why couldn't an engineering teacher get release time to work for someone like Lockheed Martin in a hybrid role so that they could keep current with what is happening in the field and keep teaching?  What about someone working in a hybrid role both teaching and working at the NJDOE?  Why does all the work with teacher voice organizations have to happen outside the confines of the school day as something "extra"?  The possibilities are endless and you could have a workforce of teachers who are current, energized and respected because they would be able to take what was happening in the field and bring it right into their classroom. It is professional development in its purest form.  

     Instead, we have a static profession where you have to make a choice between being either a teacher or an administrator.  Many of the coaching positions are created with grant money and when the money dries up, the position is eliminated.  We need to get creative with how we structure careers in education, because I am not the only educator who has experienced transformation.  How many do we lose because when they grow, there is no place left for them?  Why wouldn't you want that wealth of knowledge and passion in your classrooms?  Why don't you ask them what it would take for them to stay and teach? We ask our students to learn and grow, which we know is a continual process, but we don't ask the same of our teachers and administrators. Maintaining the status quo is no longer acceptable. We are losing too many great teachers. 

    This time of year, the best analogy I can give is the from a most beloved Christmas special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Our growth and transformation has put many of us in limbo between teaching, administration and policy. Those of us who have transitioned out of the P-12 classroom will always see education from the lens of a practitioner, but now we are no longer counted among their ranks. Administrators and policy makers don't see us as one of them either, because we think like teachers. We are the Island of Misfit TOYs.    

Saturday, December 7, 2013

It's a Puzzlement- The King and I

     I love building furniture.  There is something therapeutic about taking bits and pieces and combining them to form a beautiful cabinet or bookcase.  This is probably why I also like jigsaw puzzles and unraveling anything else that is tangled. In my eyes, Alexander the Great was a punk for slicing through the Gordian Knot rather than trying to untangle it.  Although I would never consider myself overly organized, making order out of chaos requires focus and patience, which I find soothing.

      I have friends who hate to build things, but I find that this is mostly because they don't follow the directions.  I am a visual learner, so when the directions for assembling something are written in Chinese, it doesn't matter much as long as there is a picture of what needs to be done. With puzzles, you have the picture on the box as a guideline.  

     Lately, I feel like I have been given a beautiful cabinet to build, the first of its kind, but the only directions I have are in Chinese (or Klingon, or another language undecipherable to my ears) and there are no pictures.  Being new on the job will do that to you. I am required to learn a new language, but it is often frustrating as I try to decipher directions and processes I don't understand. When I ask questions, I get more Chinese, or even worse that smile and nod when conversing with someone speaking another language that ends a conversation but makes you feel like a total idiot.  I know this requires putting the ego in check for a while and working on my patience, but I wish that I were faster on the uptake so I could spend less time deciphering Chinese and more time building that cabinet. A hard truth is that just because you have mastered one thing, it does not mean you have mastered related fields.  

      I am not the only one learning something new this year.  In my conversations with teachers across the state, they feel like they have the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but no picture to follow and in many cases they don't even feel like they have all the puzzle pieces. With so much reform and change happening at once, no one can agree on what the picture is supposed to look like. In New Jersey, thanks to local control, all 640+ school districts operate under their own set of rules and guidelines and the differences I hear from district to district about SGOs and evaluation are frightening to say the least.  If the goal is to create a more uniform way of determining effective teachers, the State has failed miserably.  Evaluators cannot agree on what good teaching practice looks like.  One teacher I know was downgraded for having kids working in groups who did not speak one at a time, even though they were on task.  What the evaluator failed to realize is that it was a miracle these kids were speaking together at all because over half the class were ESL or bilingual students.  Another teacher panicked when her kids asked about local NJ history, but pursued it as a teachable moment because the kids were hooked. The reason she panicked was because if her evaluator had walked in, what she was teaching was not in the lesson plan and she would have been downgraded. Rather than take the time to change the lesson in the computer, she actually took the time to design the resources she needed for class.  Another special education teacher with 15 students has to write an individual lesson plan for each student and log it in the computer for each subject she teaches. As an elementary teacher, if she teaches four subjects a day, that is 60 lesson plans! Some SGOs are written with such low standards that if students show any improvement, teachers get high marks.  With others, if 100% of the special education students to not make double the progress of the regular education students, the teacher is rated ineffective. I have heard of kindergarten teachers who tell the class there is no more play time because they have too much to learn. Those same kids are being sent home with 5-6 pages of homework when they are still having trouble holding a pencil. What the hell are we doing?

     Evaluation was piloted for two years, but the first year didn't use SGOs and some districts did not include SGP in their final evaluation. This means that it was really a different animal because it focused only on the observations.  Also, many of the pilot districts would have done well regardless of whether or not there was a new evaluation policy in place. The idea that the evaluation process gets better with time, especially in districts that do well already, is a no-brainer.  This leads me to the question, what is the purpose of this whole evaluation reform movement? I thought it was to improve teacher effectiveness for all students, but most importantly, to help close the achievement gap so that our most struggling students (often those living in poverty) can succeed. Social justice is always a cause I can get behind. 

     So here is what I would like to know. We know that SIG schools were required to participate from the first year of the pilot.  If AchieveNJ was designed to help low performing schools, where is the data on the SIG schools from the two years of the pilot program? Did it increase teacher effectiveness and help those students? We hear repeatedly how the teacher is the most significant factor in student achievement, so after two years are things improving for the SIG schools or are there pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that are missing? My guess is that there is a reason we have not heard about them, and it is not good. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Road Not Taken

I am a teacher.

These past few years have been an incredible journey, both personal and professional.  Looking back now, my growth seems like it has multiplied exponentially and I wonder what might have happened to me if I had not been plucked from my comfort zone and forced to create my own path.

I was very comfortable in my classroom, almost too comfortable. Routine had etched itself into my life and like the conditioned response of Pavlov's dog, I was trained to adhere to the bell. The students were what kept one day from looking like the next and within the classroom things were never boring, but I had ceased to grow. I was able to get out and learn in the summers through travel, workshops and conferences, but from September until June I was so busy helping kids that I found myself without the time or energy to put up much of a fight against a top-down administrative structure that didn't make much sense to me.

I had to surgically remove my school keys from my hands and retrain my body to work without a bell schedule in my educator outreach work with the State this past year.  I knew it would be a challenge, but I also knew it would be temporary and the payoff in terms of teacher voice might be huge, so I didn't mind the risks of being a gadfly. I soon discovered that few policy makers had any classroom experience beyond a few years, and practitioner perspective was lacking.  I pushed boundaries, which always got me in some trouble, but I didn't mind because if it all went wrong I  knew there was always the safety net of my classroom to catch me. What I did know was that I missed the kids terribly during the time I was gone, and that kept me focused. I was doing this for them, and for the profession.

What I discovered is that growth means that you can't go back. Not to the way things were, anyway.  I learned too much to simply ignore the policy and advocacy work I had done and lock my classroom door, but I was torn because I love teaching. Would I have to put aside my passion for teaching or my drive to help improve the profession?  It was an unfair choice to have to make. The ideal job would allow me to combine my passions and continue to grow, but without a viable career continuum that unicorn didn't exist where I was. I could teach and work with kids, become an administrator and lead, or leave altogether to work on policy, but I could not do all three. Or so I thought.

I have recently accepted a new job in the education department of my alma mater that will allow me to teach, lead and work on policy. With echo's of TNTP's The Irreplaceables report floating in my mind, the deal was sealed for me when the college said, "We want you. What do we have to do to get you here?" They love that I question the status quo and desire my practitioner perspective to help improve the teacher preparation program.  They even want me to continue to advocate for teacher voice and wrote it into my job description.  It is a dream job. So why am I so scared and why do I feel so guilty? 

The fear is the great fear of the unknown combined with the idea that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.  I can't wait to get my hands on a class and teach again, but college is different than P-12.  I almost feel bad for my students, who will probably think I have done several espresso shots just before I come to class just because I will be so happy to see them. I am excited about the material I will be teaching and the people I will be working with, who have all been incredibly supportive and welcoming so far. I am even moving to a new place closer to college to help me simplify life, but the devil is in the details. After living with a routine for so long, when I think about all the change that is about to happen and the lack of a safety net, waves of nausea set in. While looking around in a furniture store yesterday, I had to sit down and put my head between my knees because it was getting a little difficult to breathe. What happens if I fail? Even worse, what happens if I don't try? The thought of letting anyone down is almost more than I can bear.

The guilt comes from the feeling that I am abandoning my P-12 students. Some look at me like I am selling out because I have left my classroom, but I am looking at it as being able to affect change on a different level. The existing structure of schools, where you either teach or lead, has created a climate that largely defines what we and the public consider "normal." Just because it is something we have always done doesn't mean it is right. Habits are not always good, and accepting them without question is a problem. Teachers leading teachers should be a collaborative way to drive instructional change from the inside out, but petty jealousy often leads to a feeling of resentment among colleagues followed by statements like, "Who do they think they are?" Such attitudes make it easy for top-down management of schools and the silencing of teacher voice. 

In my quest to be a life long learner, I found myself at several conferences this summer. In my travels, when people ask me what I do, I tell them I am a history teacher. It is a reflex, but I have also come to realize that teaching is more than what I do, it is who I am. I will continue to grow, because I have a support system that is not content to let me fade into the sunset. I will try and I may fail, but I will learn and continue to make new paths in order to do what is best for students and the profession. Although external factors like job and residency may change, my core has not. I am still a teacher and I always will be.

The Road Not Taken

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;        5
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,        10
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.        15
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Girl from Ipanema

     As a social studies teacher, I have always believed in the power of travel as an ultimate form of professional (and personal) development. Our world is growing increasingly flat thanks to social media and a 24 hour news cycle, but there is nothing that will broaden a person's perspective more than experience. It is one thing to read about a culture or look at pictures, but it is something else entirely to be able to tell people about the sights, smells and sounds of a foreign land from firsthand experience. As a teacher, perhaps the most valuable part of travel is to try to relate the feelings you experienced to your students and colleagues as you interacted with the people and culture. Often, pre-conceived notions and stereotypes are shattered while curiosity is piqued. Students also see that in order to grow you have to be willing to try something new. 
     It is not easy for anyone to step outside their comfort zone, particularly for teachers who have a bell schedule embedded in their DNA. We teachers are used to routine and structure, even though within our classrooms we adapt like chameleons to tailor our lessons for our students and whatever fire alarm, modified schedule or other dramatic event that happens on any given day. Personally, I lose track of time in the summer without a bell ringing every so often to remind me when it is time to eat, move or use the restroom. A history of isolation also means that many of us are also used to being in charge of the independent kingdoms we call classrooms.     
    So, what happens when you take 35 teachers, each from a different state, to Brazil to study the schools and culture?  Magic.

         I was honored to be one of the Pearson Foundation/NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellows for 2013. 

     We were a mixed group in terms of travel experience. Some had traveled quite a bit, while others had never left the country and this was the first time they ever possessed a passport.  One had never seen an ocean before. The group had prepared with Portuguese lessons, insights into global issues, learning about the culture of Brazil and attending webinars, but none of it came close to the learning we did on the ground in the 10 days we were immersed in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. From the time we landed, it was clear that lives would be changed and perspectives forever altered among the 35 teachers.

     When it came to culture, the one thing that was clear was that there was no singular Brazilian culture.  There are so many ethnic groups that make up the culture of Brazil that just about any of us would fit in as natives. Whether African, Portuguese, indigenous, Japanese (largest concentration outside of Japan) or Italian descent, all were Brazilian. The way the Brazilians embrace their past, particularly slavery, and incorporated it into the culture and even children's games was very different than the way we discuss it here. Brazil imported far more slaves (approximately 38% of twelve million) than the US (5% of twelve million) and was the last country to abolish slavery in 1888. It made many of us uncomfortable that the discussion was so open and we were surprised that it was so non-controversial, but it also caused us to think deeper about our own reactions.         
     No matter what your ethnic background, the one cultural thing that the entire country had in common was soccer. Never before have I seen a country so passionate about one team. The Confederation Cup was happening during our time in Brazil and when there was a game on everything stopped. People crowded around televisions and computers in restaurants, bars, shops and some people even stopped on the street to look through shop windows at the televisions inside. When Brazil scored you could hear the cheering from the people in the streets along with the car horns and assorted noise makers that alerted everyone to the good news. People even tore up newspapers and sprinkled them out of their windows as confetti.

     Another thing that Brazilians are passionate about is the arts, and they were everywhere from the graffiti in the streets to the artists of the Hippie Market and the strolling bands that filled the air with music.  With festivals such as Carnaval, everyone learns to dance at a young age.  We saw samba being taught in an elementary school PE class and both boys and girls were learning that along with a dance/martial art called capoeira. While in Brazil, we saw dance by a professional troupe, a community group and in schools. We were even brave enough to go out and try a little ourselves.  All were inspiring and it really reinforced the idea that the arts are needed in schools to help students build confidence, find their passion, work together and express themselves. When you are a band, you are a team. 

 The part of the trip that will leave the most lasting impression on many of us is not the views from Sugarloaf or Christ the Redeemer high over Rio, but the students we met in the schools we visited.  We saw some dynamic schools in action, none of them considered "normal" by Brazilian standards, but what we teachers recognized right away is that kids are kids.  We saw two high schools, a middle school and an elementary school and the kids were what made the schools sparkle far beyond any curriculum, technology or physical structure. 




    Each of these topics deserves its own post and there is more to write about, including the protests that were happening while we were there, but I wanted to get this initial reflection out there before I started interacting with the world here at home again. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons we take back with us is the memory of what experiential education did for us. Although we can't all take our students on trips abroad, we can do more to get our students to experience life beyond their own borders. Show students how we are all connected by taking them to museums, seeing a show that features foreign music or dance, getting some global pen pals or participating in a service learning project. It doesn't matter what subject you teach, you can always connect it on a global level to art, music, environment, communication, economy, or geography . Most important, do not let your students be passive learners.  You get so much more out of learning when you have skin in the game.    


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Don't Go Breakin' My Heart

I had a bit of bad news last week which sent me into the deep end of the pity pool to float around for a while.  I managed to get it together, but knew I had to give a speech today to my local association's retirees so I used the experience as inspiration. This was the second year I have been their keynote speaker and I had lots to reflect on in the last year. This may be the most brutally honest and vulnerable I have ever been in public, but if you can't be honest when you are at home, when can you?  I knew this speech would go one of two ways, either it would be a roaring success and people would think I was very brave, or there would be an awkward silence when I was done followed by comments like, "Oh dear,...she's a Teacher of the Year?" 

I got a standing ovation. 

Thank you to all the friends and family who never once gave up on me and helped me get through this last week.  Thank you also to the Burlington County Retirees Education Association for letting me know I am on the right track today.  I won't go breakin' your heart.

Here is the speech.

You are very accomplished… for a teacher.

I am a teacher, and to look at my resume, you would think that I was some sort of educational Wonder Woman. County Teacher of the Year, State Teacher of the Year, Humanities Teacher of the Year, History Teacher of the Year, Trailblazer and Outstanding Woman awards and a Regional Finalist for a White House Fellowship who already has four degrees and currently on full scholarship pursuing a PhD. But things are not always as they appear.

I can tell you that for every award I win, I have lost at least four more. Before being accepted to my current school, a year and a half ago, I applied to a PhD program in education at the same university where I achieved a 4.0 GPA and distinction on my capstone project in my masters and was rejected.

I am a 41 year old, single woman with no kids who has never been married, or even engaged. Although my married friends tell me I am lucky, I still feel like society thinks there is something wrong with me. I live in a tiny apartment filled with more books, pictures and mementos of my travels than space. But as a single girl who likes books and shoes, I can’t afford a place on my own without being mortgage poor,. Since I am still paying my college loans for degrees 2,3,and 4, living paycheck to paycheck means I have had a hard time putting together money for a down- payment on a house. I was a B-C student in school who flew under the radar and was never in trouble but was never overachieving either; this was in part because there were never any great expectations for me. I was completely average and almost invisible. My parents were working class people with fewer than three years community college between them who struggled to make ends meet. I didn’t realize how little we had until I went to school and started to visit  my friend's houses after school, after which I was ashamed to invite people to my own house and ashamed that my parents couldn’t afford the things that other parents could. Financial issues drove my parents to divorce when I was a junior in high school and I was ashamed because of the mess my life had become.  

I don’t tell you this for your compassion or sympathy, only to tell you that the lens through which I view my life is not the same as the lens that people use when they view me. Often what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and that applies to our students, our colleagues and even the people sitting at the table with us today. My circumstances have shaped my character, and for years that has driven me to be more than what my surroundings might dictate. I have what they call - grit. Clearly, I did well and went to college not for one degree, but four and I am working on a fifth, but none of it has been easy.

I found my gift in teaching 17 years and approximately 1,920 students ago, give-or-take, and I poured my heart and soul into my work. But my background caused a shame that led me to live a small life, one where other than with my students I wanted no attention. Although I was starting to show signs of growth beyond what my classroom could hold, I kept it quiet because I didn’t want to rock the boat. You see, too often when a teacher dares to change things, they are often held back by people who are very comfortable with the status quo. The idea was if you want to lead, become an administrator, otherwise, be quiet, toe the line and be a teacher. Who are you to think you are better than everyone else? I loved my students and didn’t want to become an administrator, so I kept quiet. I knew that many of my students had shame of their own and needed someone to help them through it. We were connected and it was enough.

By 2010, things began to change. I was handed an application for a humanities award by my principal who thought I should give it a try. Never expecting to win, I filled it in and sent it. I won and a big fuss was made. A reporter asked me once, “Where have you been all this time?” because she was shocked that I had not been recognized in the 15 years I had been teaching. Surely I had not sprouted, fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. “Who, me?" I responded quizzically, "In room 517.” I was very uncomfortable with all of the attention, because of my desire to keep my small life small. Press followed, more awards followed, and the wings I had worked so hard to clip began to unfurl. So too did the nagging doubts that shame had already placed in my head, which were reinforced by some nasty comments from a few co-workers. But I wasn’t giving myself these awards, they were independent, external organizations that recognized what I was doing, and that provided some validation for me. My confidence began to grow and with the people I met and training I received, I began to fly. As I reached new heights beyond my classroom, my perspective changed because I realized I could do more and help more. I was no longer content to live a small life, at least professionally.         

My growth continued as the Commissioner of Education offered me a job last summer, placing me on loan for the year from my district. “Make up your own job title,” he said, “as long as you work on educator outreach”. Me and 110,000 teachers? Admittedly, it was not great odds. I didn’t know what I was doing and there had been no one doing this work before, but I had a vision. It has not been easy living in a pink cubicle devoid of student interaction this past year, especially because bureaucracy moves at a glacial pace that frustrates me beyond belief most of the time. However, I feel a responsibility to the profession, I know what I am doing is meaningful and there are few other teachers doing this work. I quickly realized that in this machine, things don’t change unless you are the one in charge and you are only an expert as long as you are fifty miles from home. Yes, I was very accomplished…for a teacher, but destined to stay in my pink cubicle so it was time to keep growing.

I decided to try and get some training and applied for a White House Fellowship. Started in 1964 by LBJ, it is an elite leadership program that takes the best and brightest young people in the country with leadership potential, and for a year gives them training as a fellow somewhere within the executive branch. They can get up to 1000 applications per year for the 11-18 spots.

I filled in my application, not expecting much of anything, but then found out I made the cut from 1000 down to the regional level of 96. There would be 8 panels, all in different places, with 12 candidates each. Of the 12, 2-4 would be chosen from each group for the next round. My panel was in Boston... the week of the marathon. I studied for a month to learn everything I could about everything I could. The judges and candidates met for the first time at a dinner on Thursday night. My fellow candidates were doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, military officers and then there was me. Most had gone to Harvard or the equivalent, they had worked on senator’s campaign staffs, were on the board of the AMA, had a bronze star or were feeding third world countries- and these were my fellow candidates. The judges, who knew our applications and bios inside out, were CEOs, retired cabinet officials, and leaders in their field. One was even an Olympic gold medal figure skater and one of the first women to graduate from Harvard medical school. Then there was me, and shame kicked my ass. I went to a state college, my parents didn’t even complete college, I did my MA one class at a time…in Camden. I introduced myself as Jeanne from Jersey, because it always makes people remember my name, but when I said I was a teacher, the other candidates looked at me like, 'What is she doing here?' and completely wrote me off. Once they heard my story, they were impressed and admitted I was an extraordinary candidate…for a teacher. It was almost as if being a teacher was a category of sub-human, and my shame bought into it.

The interviews the next day were cancelled, due to terrorists, but I returned the next week to finish the interview after beating myself up for a week. We were down to 9 candidates, so only 2 would probably be chosen. I was asked during one of the interviews if I would ever consider being Commissioner or Secretary of Education. Who, me? I hadn’t actually considered it, but these interviews were for that caliber of candidate. Dare to dream? After that, I did. Maybe I wasn't there by mistake.

I found out last week I did not make it to the next round, not exactly a Happy Teacher Appreciation Day. I was upset and heard myself saying that they would never let people like me into a leadership position. Only Ivy League need apply. It was the shame of my lack of pedigree, a belief I would never be good enough to be placed in a leadership position and fear of isolation that was talking. I heard from a dear friend, who said that I deserved to get it, but that the amount of educators that get in is extremely small- the odds were against even me. I know it was meant to be comforting, but all I heard was, I am very accomplished… for a teacher, but still not good enough.  

I nearly walked away from education last week. I had made up my mind that I could open a shoe store or a second hand book shop somewhere near the beach, or failing that I could work at a shop on the boardwalk making caramel popcorn. I would have to do something, but I was done with education. How good is good enough? What do we have to do in order to be respected not just as educators, but as human beings?

Lucky for me I have friends who love me… a lot. When I told them my bad news, they put on their best Jersey accents and cursed to make me laugh, or just hugged me and tried to make it better. They even laughed along with me when I mentioned the shoe store, until they realized I was serious. They allowed me to swim around in the deep end of the pity pool for a few days while they hung close by and kept watch as lifeguards armed with life preservers if needed, but never once were they willing to let me give up on education.     

I nearly walked away because of my own shame, which I am coming to grips with, but also because it seemed clear to me that as much as people talk about wanting change, they really don’t, or at least they don’t want to be the ones tasked with changing things because change is hard. Sir Ken Robinson said in a recent TED talk, that there is no school that is better than its teachers, and I agree. So as an extension, why then do we as a profession allow such a negative climate to undermine that which we believe is so important? Why do we allow ourselves to remain small? I may be a woman on a mission, but I am not a missionary and I don't ever remember taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to a system based on the early industrial age when I began teaching. Enough is enough.

Change is messy, it involves failure and it requires more than one person to be successful. As much as we like to complain about the current state of things, what are you doing to change it? Have you volunteered as a tutor? Used your expertise to help mentor a new teacher or a student? Are you working on a political campaign? Will you even vote? Do you stand up for the profession when someone takes a swing at it? Have you written a letter to the editor of a newspaper or a blog for an education publication? 

Teachers are incredibly busy, and completely exhausted most days trying to keep their heads above water, and yet if we want to see change, we can’t wait for the answers to come from the top down. There are plenty of amazing teachers who go unrecognized every day, whose lives and impact are kept small to diminish their importance. Too often the people at the top, looking through their particular lens, have no idea of what life is like in a classroom. Teaching and learning don't happen in legislative sessions or state offices, it happens in classrooms. In working with teacher leaders for the last year I have come to some conclusions about what needs to be done if we want change to happen. 

First, know your information, and by that I mean both sides of the argument. Too often, a lack of information and communication leads to rumors and resistance. I always try to remember to take a look through the lens of the opposing viewpoint because often times, both sides believe they are doing what is best, they just have different perspectives. When it comes to education, you should also know what is under control of the federal government, the state, the district and the school, because we tend to place blame on the wrong level – a lot. When was the last time you voted in a school board election, or on a school budget? Why not run for a school board seat?

Second, build consensus. One person does not make an army. One person with a vision and a plan is necessary, but any movement needs followers and those followers should be treated as equals if everyone is in this together. That means we have to talk to each other in constructive ways and do a little motivating to get people on board. Leadership is an action, not a position. 

Third, don’t complain…discuss. I find this one hardest. When you ask educators what they think and they have never been given a voice before, it is like a pressure cooker. You need some time to vent, but then move on. You can’t fix the past, but you can take a look at the present, and figure out what you are going to do to make it better and move forward.

Finally, think about solutions that work beyond your own classroom/experience. Best practices are great, but can what worked for you work for others, or will it need to be tweaked? This is a great opportunity to brainstorm and build consensus because the best ideas can always be modified and adapted. 

It burns me when someone asks what you do and the response is “I am/was just a teacher.” There is no such thing as just a teacher. In a profession where we do so much with so little, it is time to start demanding the respect we deserve by changing the way we view ourselves. We are never 'just a teacher' because we are the profession that makes all other professions possible.

One of the judges during my interview said, “Most teachers who had reached State Teacher of the Year would consider it the pinnacle of the profession.” Two years ago I would have agreed, but not now. I am not going to live a small life anymore and that means acknowledging that sometimes I feel like a loser, but not letting it control me. I challenge you to ask yourselves the same questions that have driven me these last few years. If not me, who? If not now, when? I don’t know what my future holds, and that is ok for now, but I know I must keep moving forward because I am not done yet.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Surely in the light of history it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt, nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done’.” If we are going to change the culture of education, it must be done by all of us, not just a few. Once a teacher, always a teacher…

Thank You.




Saturday, April 20, 2013

Boston Strong


 I’m not done yet. 

In the past year, many people have congratulated me on winning NJ State Teacher of the Year.  My usual response was, “But I’m not done yet.”  In many people’s eyes, I had reached the pinnacle of the teaching profession, but I was just a teacher and now I was expected to either return to my classroom to teach and ignore everything I had learned, or leave the classroom and become an administrator.  I refused to accept that there were only two options, and I refused to accept that I was “just a teacher.”

My travels broadened the lens through which I viewed education and as a developing policy wonk who speaks "teacher," I have a unique perspective and big ideas. However, in the policy world I am still seen as “just a teacher” and it is frustrating.  I feel a responsibility to the profession and believe that if we are going to do what is best for kids that we need to bring all the voices involved in educating our students to the table.  I am learning by leaps and bounds, but have found that you are only an expert as long as you are fifty miles from home.   

In January, I decided to apply for the Holy Grail of fellowships, a White House Fellowship. If I was going to make a difference I was going to need to broaden the lens of my perspective even more than I had already.  Gaining this kind of experience would be invaluable, but this would not be an easy fellowship to attain because I would be competing against people in all fields, not just education,  for one of these coveted spots.  I was thrilled that I made the first cut and would be interviewing as a regional finalist in Boston.  How cool would it be, as a history teacher, to arrive shortly after Patriots Day which celebrates both  the battles of Lexington and Concord and the marathon, named after the run of the ancient Greek Phidippides to deliver news to Athens about the defeat of Persia? 

Then terrorism reared its ugly head.

I arrived in Boston two days after the marathon.  Boyleston St. was still shut down, as was the Copley T stop, and the first thing I saw when I exited the train station was the tents that were erected to cordon off the area because evidence was still being collected from the blasts.  There was a tense atmosphere and people were demanding answers to this cowardly and heinous act that dared to destroy Patriots Day and the famous Boston Marathon. 

Needless to say my mom was not very happy about me going up to an area that was an active crime scene of a terrorist act.  She asked if I would be anywhere near the blast site while I was there and I lied, but it was for her own good.  The original hotel suggested for the interviews was the Lenox, which was located in between the two blasts and was shut down.  I assured Mom that I was nowhere near the blasts, when in truth I was only about three blocks away in another hotel. My argument was that Boston would now be the safest city on the planet for a while… and it was.

There were lots of people in Boston, including an army of media, and while many were tense, they were not scared.

Things were fine on Wednesday when I arrived and Thursday the sun came out as I sat in the park and watched the ducks and the swan boats paddle around in the park.  I understood the ducks that glided effortlessly across the surface while paddling like hell underneath.  They seemed to fit in Boston, a city full of grit and determination that would not be shaken, which was evidenced by the memorial service that took place earlier in the morning.  I needed to channel that vibe for my White House Fellows dinner that night which would be the first time I met my competition and the judges who would be interviewing me the next day. 

I can’t tell you how impressed I was with my fellow candidates.  Many were from the Boston area and they are the best of the best at what they do. If you looked up the word overachiever in the dictionary, you would see their pictures.  The bombings were a topic at dinner, especially since they had just released pictures of the suspects, but it didn’t control the conversation.  There was something in the room that evening that just would not allow fear to stand in the way of higher ideals like civic responsibility and democracy.  Clearly, the terrorists had picked the wrong city to mess with. 

Dinner was great and we said our goodbyes until the next morning’s interviews.  Just as I was drifting off to sleep there was something on the news about a shooting at MIT.

By the time I woke up the next morning the city was on lockdown.  Being a teacher, I am used to lockdown drills every month, but preventing a million people from going anywhere was impressive.  I got the call early that the interviews had been cancelled, many of my fellow candidates and the judges lived in the area that was now being searched block by block for the terrorist.  With the busses, subway, taxis and Amtrak shut down, I wasn’t going anywhere.  The streets were empty and there were no restaurants open except for the one at the hotel, so I hunkered down to watch the coverage on TV, but it was weird to hear sirens and helicopters both right outside your window and on TV at the same time.  You could hear the cheers outside later in the evening as the second suspect was caught and every time a police/fire/security vehicle drove by. 

My interview will be rescheduled, and although I have been given the option to go to other panels in NYC and DC which are closer, I will be returning to Boston.  I like the city and the toughness of its people because as a Jersey girl, I identify. I want to make a difference for our students, and that means growing and learning while also keeping that idea of civic responsibility and social justice as the goal of my actions.  I need students to not only learn content, but to build relationships and be the absolute best that they can be, whether it is as a cosmetologist, chef, nurse, firefighter or law enforcement officer.  Whether they are defending our country in the military, designing the roads we drive on, building the planes we fly in, or composing the music that inspires us, I need them, whatever their calling, to remember that we all have a responsibility for each other and a common humanity.  I want my students, like the people of Boston, to run toward the danger and help when it is needed and organize supports to help people recover because it is the right thing to do.  I need them to do all this because some day my students are going to be in charge of you and me and I need them to be resilient, determined and exemplify perseverance. I need them to see the big picture beyond their own circumstance and realize what they do matters.

The best way I know how to do that is to lead by example. 

I’m not done yet.  Boston proud, Boston strong. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Getting It Right: Teachable Moments and Education Policy

I was very happy to help out the National Network of State Teachers of the Year recently by giving a teachers point of view on education policy for the EdWeek blog, Rick Hess: Straight Up.  The original can be found at


Getting It Right: Teachable Moments and Education Policy

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week are members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). Today we're hearing from Jeanne DelColle, a social studies teacher at Burlington County Institute of Technology and the 2012 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

As a teacher, it is my job to take complex information, find ways to break it down for my students so that they understand it, and help them develop connections and discover how the content they learned fits into a broader perspective. There are many methods to doing this, but some of my best lessons have been occasioned by what we call "teachable moments." These lessons are often student driven and organically manifest themselves because of a particular catalyst. In trying to help students understand the world around them and their place in it, we make a slight detour from the day's planned lesson in order to grasp a larger concept. I see the opportunity to address cage-busting teacher leadership as just such an experience.

Writing education policy is like writing a lesson plan. As a high school history teacher, I strive to keep my lessons fresh, trying new ideas in the classroom to help my students maximize their learning. Sometimes, you spend all weekend designing a lesson that you are really jazzed about, then come into class on Monday morning, roll it out, and find that it all tanks, regardless of how much time it took you to prep, how much research you have done, or how much you have aligned the plan with the curriculum and tried to make it rigorous, relevant and fun. You know it has all gone wrong when you see the quizzical expressions as the kids just tilt their heads and say, "Ms. D., I just don't get it." Worse yet, they simply disengage. From that point you have a very small window of time to recover before you lose the class.

Failure. It's not a matter of if but when. It doesn't matter that failure happens, because you can't grow if you always do what you have always done; it is what you do when failure happens that is important. When a lesson fails you have three choices: 1. Proceed with the lesson anyway and force it down their throats. 2. Blame the students when they don't get it, give up and give them a worksheet as you retreat to your desk in exasperation. 3. Talk to your class, explain what you are trying to accomplish, get some feedback from them, adapt the lesson and try it again.

I don't suggest the first two choices because they create a bad classroom climate full of distrust and hostility and promote the idea that failing means you are a failure. Number three is always the best option for both sides, although it is not the easiest. You risk losing face because you have to admit that something is wrong. The good news is that if you are sincere, your students will often take up the challenge and help you, which creates buy-in from your students who now feel that they have a stake in the success of the lesson.

So why do lessons fail? More often than not it is a failure in communication, so you need to develop a common language with your class that everyone understands. Sometimes a step is missing; we need students to be able to crawl and walk with information before they can run.

Sometimes there is something within the lesson that touches a nerve and shuts students down. Great teachers build a classroom environment that provides a safe place in which it is okay to try something new and fail without being berated. In order to do this, good teachers need to know more than content; they need to know their students and what factors influence their perspective. More importantly, they must be aware of their own unique lens, too.

The reform policies being implemented around the country are like lesson plans in that they are crafted with research, procedure and a desire to improve education for our students. But sometimes, even with the best intentions, reforms tank, and once again you have three choices. Policy makers can force the reforms, blame it on teachers, or actually gather some feedback from educators and retool so as stakeholders, there is a shared sense of responsibility in the success of the policy.
Most states develop reform policies from the top down, and they neglect to engage teachers in the process of policy development, and gather feedback for course corrections. Any decisions made about teachers, without teachers, are doomed to fail especially if there is a lack of two-way communication, no common language, and little or no concept of the challenges faced by educators on a daily basis.

Too often, I have heard policy people across the country say, "Well it's going to be regulation, so they are just going to have to deal with it." To which my response and the response of many other teachers is, "Then change the laws." Just because something is in code is not a good enough reason for me to buy into the idea. The jam it and cram it method of learning is seldom successful and often causes much resistance; ask any student.

There are many obstacles, you can call them cages, that prevent two way communication between policy makers and teachers. Often cited are: lack of capacity, lack of time, difficulty finding a group of teachers that are willing to productively engage, lack of money and lack of trust. Instead, exemplars of a particular policy are paraded out and held on a pedestal for all others to aspire to and regulation is passed with little consideration from the field. This approach is certainly easier for those creating policy, but disingenuous at best as unequal schools are held to equal standards, and if you tried this in a classroom, the kids would call you out on it in about 30 seconds. If we want teachers to be respected as leaders, then they must be treated as such by policy makers.

There is one more reason that a lesson can fail: if the students don't do their homework, which leaves them unprepared to engage when the lesson begins. Students cannot be passive when it comes to their learning, and neither can teachers when it comes to crafting policy. It is not the responsibility of policy makers alone to bridge the gap that exists; teachers must do their research, be prepared to discuss and not complain, build some consensus among their colleagues and other stakeholders, and propose solutions that will work beyond their classroom. We each have our own particular lens of experience, but we must all be prepared to broaden our perspective if we are going to find some common ground and work together.

When a lesson tanks, there are lessons to be learned both by the teacher and the students, who, with the proper growth mindset, learn that to fail does not mean you are a failure. Policy makers should use this teachable moment to engage educators and learn with them because now more than ever, failure comes with very high stakes attached. In order to bridge the gap so policy works, both sides must make the effort. Teachers need to step beyond their classroom and examine policy from a district or state perspective, while policy makers need to become good at doing what they espouse most highly: effective teaching. It's not as easy as it looks, but it will save a lot of time and energy if policy makers view teachers as partners in crafting education policy.
-- Jeanne DelColle