Friday, February 24, 2012

I'm Every Woman (Whitney Houston)

January 30-February 24

Whatever you want,
Whatever you need,
Anything you want done, baby,
I'll do it naturally
'Cause I'm every woman
It's all in me.
It's all in me, yeah!

February was a month of adjustment, no more routine here. 

     After feeling generally overwhelmed by all the events of recent months, it was great to meet my fellow STOYs in Dallas.  I was not alone, and now I had lots of ideas, and friends, to bounce ideas off.

     Ready, set, GO! Upon my return from Dallas I hit the ground running. I started with a pile of final exams I had to grade so that I could wrap up the semester.  Even after their melt down over final exams, my students did just fine like I knew they would.  They just needed someone to tell them that they believed in them and cared.  I missed my kids already.

   I did some nesting in my pink cubicle on the third floor as I unpacked my collection of historic figure bobble head dolls and tried to make the place feel more comfortable.  I had no name plate, so I brought in my giant name magnet from the teachermobile. Little did I know that I would spend more time in my car than the office.   ETS of Princeton has been kind enough to pay for my sabbatical so that I can travel the state, meet educators from all walks of life, learn about policy, give speeches and have the time to do research.  I wasn't sure how I felt about this at first, because the idea of leaving my students was hard, but that is when I realized that my own provincial outlook is the outlook of most educators.  Some never even wander outside their own classroom walls, never mind their school or district.  They only talk to other educators they know, which gives them a very limited perspective.  How do you represent a state of 110,000+ educators when you have never seen what life is like outside of your own classroom/school/district/county?  I had a lot to learn.

     I began my sabbatical at the NJ Department of Education (DOE) with a week of meetings with all of the Assistant Commissioners.  Everyone was kind as I introduced myself and we talked about the role of Teacher of the Year, I was the face of education in NJ whether they wanted me to be or not.   I had walked into the DOE thinking that I wanted to work on issues pertaining to the achievement gap, but as I talked to everyone I started to see another side of education, and it was something I thought I could help with.  There was a huge disconnect between what goes on at the DOE and what goes on in classrooms across NJ because the communication that flows either way is minimal.  This contributes to  an us versus them mentality which does neither side any good.  What I found is this, there are many former educators working at the DOE and they are good people.  Everyone wants to improve education for the students of NJ. 

     I settled in and began to do research.  I read every white paper and document I could get my hands on, including the whole of the 300+ page NCLB waiver.  I made binders for everything as I learned about the MET study, the MET Life study, the Widget Effect, Teacher Leader Model Standards, the differences between Gen X and Y when it comes to mentoring and training, InTASC standards, Assessments, PLC's, and a host of other topics all relating to education.  All this while writing and giving speeches, travelling, participating on committees and going to meetings.  Whew!

     This gave me some food for thought and I had some productive discussions about how to help with the flow of information in and out of the DOE. A group I belong to, the NJ County Teachers of the Year (NJCTY) had already started to take matters into their own hands, and that got me thinking. Especially since we had an forum in Warren County with 2012 CTOY Amanda Abbiate scheduled for February 9.

     Before that, I had a few other events.  I had also been invited to join a group called Delta Kappa Gamma, a society of professional women educators, and my initiates tea was on the 4th. The Eta chapter of Burlington County has some amazing women as members and the first time I met them all I just couldn't help but think about what a collective memory these women had about local schools.  Some started teaching in the early 1960's in the district I grew up in.  The wisdom of these women was inspiring.  They got a hold of me before I even won Burlington County Teacher of the Year and so they had witnessed my journey of the past several months.  I had my initiates tea and they revealed the secrets of membership.  But of course I am not allowed to tell!  It was a wonderful, and very civilized meeting.  Who doesn't love a high tea?

With Mary Zaccardi, Eta President

     On the 7th, it was off to Rutgers in New Brunswick to speak to the pre-service students.  I love talking to these students and so I gave them some pointers that they may not have learned in class which included, find your Yoda (mentor), take your vitamins, remember you are always both student and teacher, and be prepared to fail because it is not a matter of if, but when. 

     As you saw from the forum at BCIT in January, the point of our forums is to promote positive communication for education.  I made the drive up to Warren on the 9th and it seemed like I was driving forever.  Was that just a sign for the Delaware Water Gap?  Where was I and when did NJ get mountains? South Jersey does not look like this.  Anyway, the topic of our forum was Teacher Evaluation and we coerced DOE friend, Vicki Duff, to help us out.  She gave a presentation and then we did our round table thing.  Once again a success where people left the forum with information they could use and looks of relief on their faces. 

NJCTY with Vicki Duff

      The next day, it was time to hop on the train and head down to DC for the NEA Foundation Gala.  2011 STOY Dani Kovach was already a Horace Mann Award winner which earned her $10,000, and we would find out if she was the grand prize winner, worth $25,000, at the Gala.   It was a beautiful event in the amazing National Building Museum.  The architecture was awe-inspiring and I am sure I looked like a tourist with my mouth agape.  It was a black tie affair, (like I needed an excuse to buy a new dress) but my job was simply to enjoy the evening.  I was posing for pictures with Dani and 2010 NJSTOY Maryann Woods Murphy when I was practically tackled off my feet.  It was my new STOY bestie, Katy from Minnesota, who was one of the Global Fellows being honored that night.  I can't tell you how happy I was to see her. 

With STOY bestie from Minnesota, Katy Smith.

       The evening went on and I was hoping to talk to Maryann because she was a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow, something that I was very interested in.  Hey.....that gives me an idea....Teaching Fellow.....NJCTY.....communication problem in NJ.....hmmmmmmm.  A NJ Teaching Ambassador Fellowship!  You never know when those great ideas will pop up.  Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

With Dani Kovach (2011NJSTOY), Maryann Woods-Murphy (2010 NJSOTY) and Wendell Steinhauer (NJEA V.Pres)

     The evening was a success, Dani was the grand prize winner and exemplified grace under pressure as she came up with a speech on the spot.  Well done and CONGRATULATIONS!

      The next day, I set out on a cold February morning to check out the sights.  I would meet up with Katy and her lovely family later for dinner, but in the meantime I was on a quest to add to my bobble head collection.  BINGO!  I hit the motherload across the street from the White House.  But when I was at the White House, I took a long look and said out loud, "I'll be back to see you in April...on the other side of the fence."

A bobble head bonanza!

     The next week I was on a special mission to check out the humanities program at East Brunswick HS.  What are the humanities, you ask?  It is the ideas and experiences that make up the human experience.  According to the Utah Humanities Council, "[The humanities are] the study of what we are, what we have been, and what we can become. They are concerned with values and choices, and with making intellectual, moral, and spiritual sense of the world. The humanities help us to analyze our complex society, and to make thoughtful, reasoned decisions. The humanities help us to make connections. They connect small questions to large issues, our neighborhoods to the world, and our own experiences to other times and places."  What's not to love? 
    I was the NJ Humanities Teacher of the Year in 2010, and so I was excited to see a high school with a thriving humanities program.  The reasons I went were, first, I am a humanities girl so anything I can do to help promote the cause and help students see the connections and choices that make us who we are, I do.   Second, the supervisor of the program was my former band director from high school, Jeff Lesser, who had contacted me and asked me to come check out the program.  He hadn't seen me in years and boy was he going to be shocked.  The girl in band who had been a little mouse was now a lion.   

       In true humanities form, EBHS recognized that there are many things which make up the human experience and creativity is a key part of that.  I got a tour of the school and observed the students.  The following week, I would be back to teach a lesson on the value of the humanities.  Where to even begin?

      Before I could get back to EBHS, it was up to Newark to visit my friend Clement Price and experience the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture.  This lecture series is one of the most amazing Black History Month events in the state, and if you have never been, you need to go.  I managed to meet up with my friend and confidant, Jane Rutkoff, on the train.  She has been a key figure in my life for a few years now and her guidance has been invaluable. It was nice to catch up and have some company on the train. Clem made me promise the summer before that I wouldn't miss the lecture and I was looking forward to it.  One of the highlights of the morning was that Mayor Cory Booker would be speaking and I am a fan of his hope and optimism.  I admit, I have a bit of a Cory Crush, but who doesn't?  He is as passionate about Newark as I am about education.  Unfortunately, Whitney Houston's funeral was that same day in Newark just a few blocks away, so Clem never got a chance to introduce us because Cory came in right before his speech and left shortly after.  Rats!  Regardless, the speakers that day were simply phenomenal and anyone who does have the chance to go to this lecture in the future absolutely should.  I know I will be attending again next year.  The place was packed and I came away with far more knowledge than I had arrived with that morning.  Even better, I got to know the new Executive Directory of the NJ Council for the Humanities Sharon Ann Holt, on the train on the way home.   It was a humanities kind of month!

I was this close!

With Clement Price

It was an amazing month, and all the while I was working on this new idea for a NJ Teaching Ambassador Fellowship.  I was in contact with the original designer, the current director and I did my homework.  Maybe this could be something that left a positive lasting impact on education in NJ.  Why not?

Before the month could come to an end, I had some family business to attend to.  It was my Dad's birthday and so my brother, Rob, and I were off to North Carolina for a visit.