Thursday, August 30, 2012

Over the Rainbow- Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo`ole


I've lost my school keys.
     This is not unusual in and of itself.  I tell my students that I have goldfish brain, you know, once around the bowl and everything is new again.  During the school year that is especially true because while I am busy checking attendance, dress code, writing objectives on the board, greeting all my students as they come in the door, reading their faces and body language for signs of anything unusual,  handling requests from students for letters of recommendation or homework from when they were absent, worrying about paperwork that needs to be done, hoping that the lesson and technology will work that day and there isn't a fire drill, and praying that my shoes match (and I don't mean my outfit, I mean each other because life is rough at 5:30am),  there is a lot a teacher has on their mind as class begins. 
     My keys are not easy to lose.  They are big and bulky on purpose and they make a lot of noise. They have both Rutgers and Penn State lanyards, two big plexiglass keychains with a soccer ball on one and a megaphone on the other from my coaching days, a pen, a carabiner to attach them to anything, and a bunch of keys to my filing cabinets, desk, closets etc.  For the last 16 years they have been an extra appendage.  Every time I left my classroom I had my keys.  While on sabbatical at the DOE I lived in a cubicle and yet every time I got up to leave my desk I would look for my keys.  Old habit. 
     I knew exactly where my keys were up until two weeks ago, and now they have vanished.  But I think it is a subliminal message.  Let me explain.
     I have been putting off writing this post for about two months now because I didn't know how to start it.  I guess I should go back to the beginning.
     At the end of June, I had a meeting with the Commissioner of Education.  I had run into him in the elevator a few weeks before and he asked me what I had been up to.  I talked so much I was sure I sucked all of the oxygen out of the elevator, by the time the doors opened on the third floor he said to make sure I stopped by to see him before I finished my sabbatical.  This was that meeting. 
     In the meantime, I had been back to school for graduation and I knew it was going to be difficult going back into my classroom after all I have seen and done in the last year.  I knew I would be unable to simply stifle what I have learned because I had changed too much.  I read all the research on education I could get my hands on, talked to all kinds of people including policy makers, and in doing so found a newly awakened passion for education, and trust me, I was pretty passionate before.  I could see what was wrong in education, was determined to help fix it, and had no fear talking to people about it.  I admit, I had been in a nice, comfortable, and very isolated rut in my classroom for quite a while.  I was a very good high school history teacher and I loved it, but now I realized I was a really good motivational speaker, liked working on policy, and had some leadership skills.  In short, I developed educational swag.  There was some trepidation because I didn't know if my school was ready for the new and improved me, but I was looking forward to teaching kids again and getting some normalcy back in my life because this year had been crazy.  I knew it wasn't going to be easy.
     I approached the meeting as an exit interview because honestly, I didn't think anyone had been paying attention to all the work I had done since October.  I held Commissioner Cerf in high regard ever since he came in to co-teach with me back in December.  He was good.  Not only was he knowledgeable, but the kids genuinely liked him and were impressed with his intellect and ability to identify with them.  Mind you, they had no idea who he was, they simply thought he was my friend from Trenton because that was a part of the deal; no media, just us and the kids.  The meeting started and the Commissioner was gracious as he asked about the work I had done and my plans for the future.  I wanted to finish my National Board Certification, start work on an Ed.D., and I liked the work I was doing as a committee member with Teacher Evaluation, Model Curriculum and Teacher Effectiveness.  I was very happy to represent teachers in regard to all three and hoped I might be of some use in the future.  Explaining that the last thing he wanted to do was take an effective educator out of the classroom, the Commissioner liked what I had accomplished and then offered to extend my stay at the DOE for a year to continue the work I started and implement some of the ideas I had to get communication flowing between teachers and the DOE.  I was flattered and it was a great offer, but didn't give it a second thought and kept talking.  I had kids waiting for me, and lots of stuff I had put on hold for a year that I wanted to get back to.  I don't think it was what he expected.  We continued talking and the Commissioner made some very salient and insightful points that gave me pause. By the time I left half an hour later, I felt like something in my brain had just burst, and said that I needed to go away to think about things and talk them over with a few people.   I was confused, my world had just been knocked off its axis again, and I had to give a speech in two hours to award winning student teachers.   Wow.
     I got through the speech and knocked it out of the park, but desperately needed to talk to someone. Who on earth would understand my dilemma?  Another NJTOY, that's who.  I called the NJTOY I held in the highest regard even though I didn't know her very well yet.  This woman, the epitome of grace and elegance, was a mover and shaker with an amazing intellect and insight and I was in awe of her.  She is responsible in large part for the NJ TOY program being what it is today, including the sponsorship of the sabbatical.  She responded immediately to my email and by the time I got her on the phone I was sure I made no sense, but she talked me down and set me straight.  Evidently there had been many people paying attention to what I had been doing, but I had been so busy I didn't see what I had accomplished and didn't have the time to process any of it.  I spoke to a Jane, a good friend and mentor, and my Mom, and thought about the conversations for the next two days while in a history workshop with some of my colleagues.   My brain wrestled with ideas and possibilities while my stomach churned and my guilt complex raged.  More processing time was required so I went down the shore where my family was gathered.  I got them all together at once and explained my dilemma.  The universal consensus was, go for it!
     I had many questions, but my biggest hurdle was the kids.  I had a few that I was worried about and I did not want to abandon them.  It is a sensitive subject for me.  I managed to get a few of my kids together for lunch at the diner and explained the situation.  They gave me their blessing and told me that by making this move, I would be helping far more kids than just the ones who were in my classroom.  From the mouths of babes!  I emailed the Commissioner again and said I was interested in the offer but had many questions, including what he envisioned for me.  He responded that it was not so much what he envisioned but what I envisioned.  I would have the ability to work with any department, on any project, particularly regarding outreach to teachers.  It was a dream job, but a gut wrenching decision to make.  But it is only a year, right?
     The final few hurdles that were blocking my way seemed to disappear over the next few weeks, and now I will be the Educator Outreach Coordinator at the NJ Department of Education for the next year.  I am both excited and terrified because this is way outside of my comfort zone. I have the unprecedented opportunity to actually help get the teacher voice heard in NJ.  I made the promise to myself when I became the NJ TOY to be the best one I could be and try to leave the world of education a better place than I found it.  I was driven by two questions I asked myself almost daily.  If not me, who? If not now, when?  I worked myself to near exhaustion, and when people asked me why my schedule was so hectic, I replied that I only had a certain amount of time to get things done before my amazing and magical year was done.  Soon the glass slippers would come off, and my carriage will turn back into a pumpkin.  I can sleep when Thanksgiving rolls around!  Representing over 110,000 teachers is a big responsibility and I wear many hats including teacher, student, government employee, and union member.   While I have always been an advocate for students, I am now also an advocate for the profession.  I have learned that ideology only gets you so far, and you can tilt at windmills if you want, but the people who get things done are those that sit down at the table to work through issues, and I have been offered a seat.
      My usual pre-school butterflies have turned into bats, verging on flying saucers, as I await my first day of school next week.  I still have the urge to hit the back to school sales and stockpile pens, folders, and tissues.  Most of all, I know I will miss the kids terribly because my heart aches already.  I was asked if I will pine for them, and the answer is yes, of course I will.  I may be looking into some mentoring programs as soon as time allows.   
     Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive of my decision and my often fluctuating moods over this summer.  I have had nothing but love and support from friends and family, but especially from my STOY family across America and beyond, who realize the magnitude of the decision I had to make and the significance of my new position  I will now be able to effect change on a different level and your confidence in me speaks volumes.  I will do my best not to disappoint and keep it "Jersey".   To my STOY besties Katie and Katy, I can only say I owe you one.
       This brings me back to the case of the missing keys.  I decided if I was going to be gone all year, I should probably move some of my things out so that whoever was there could do some nesting.  I went in somewhere in mid-July and removed 16 years worth of stuff from the closets, desk, bookcases and some cabinets.  It is amazing how much crap you collect as a teacher because you don't want to throw anything away.  You never know when it might be useful.  Anyway it took a few car loads to get everything stored away in my Mom's garage, but there is still one filing cabinet I need to empty and move to complete the process.  I can't do it, because I can't find my keys.  Is it my subconscious that is still dealing with the change and doesn't want to let go?  Is it fear of the great unknown?  I will tell you one thing, there is something scarier than fear... regret, and I refuse to go through life thinking what if.   I have bought a series of big plastic storage bins so that I can get my books, posters and notes out of the cardboard boxes and milk crates they are in and keep them safe for the forseeable future.  My job for the weekend will be to reorganize what has been my life for the last 16 years. 

And I will find my damn keys....

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