Now wai-a-ait a minute!
I feel aaaaaaallllllright!
I feel aaaaaaallllllright!
Perceptions can be very powerful. However, it is important to remember when you have perception but no evidence, those perceptions can be wrong and should not be used as the basis of judgement. One of the first rules I ever learned in education was, don't judge...dig. I am ever grateful to master teacher Mrs. Thoren for showing me the power of that lesson. More on that later.
Perceptions formed the basis for my week which was full of new beginnings, convention politics, and illumination as I visited four different schools. While these items might appear personal, perhaps too personal to matter to others, my humanities training tells me that the choices I make connect me to the rest of the world because there are common ideas and values that we share as part of our human experience. I see the power of education everywhere, and if you believe that teaching makes all other occupations possible, then you need to pay attention to the big picture and how we fit into it.
Any teacher will tell you that although it was a short week, it certainly did not feel that way. That first week back at school brings sleepless nights, anxiety, sore feet, a reminder to take your vitamins, exhaustion, and for me a sore throat. Invariably, this happens as I emerge from my hermit-like state of quiet during the summer and my students and I are introduced, get to know each other, and begin the great adventure of learning. Typically, by the time that first Friday night comes around I feel like a big blob of jello and sound like a cross between Kathleen Turner and a frog. You see, teaching is not for the faint of heart. A typical day, if there is such a thing, can have soaring highs and soul-searching lows, and it requires you to be physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually aware and engaged at all times. In short, it is organized chaos and by far the most exhausting thing I have ever done.
My first day was different this year, as I was on the road at 6am to speak at the convocation at Hillside HS. The temps were in the mid-80s but the humidity was at 98% and it had been like this for a few days. I knew my hair was looking like something out of the Bride of Frankenstein, but after speaking at dozens of colleges, universities, and conference centers over the last year, I figured the climate in the auditorium where I would be speaking would be carefully climate controlled and my hair would behave. As I pulled up to the school, I noticed that all the doors and windows were open. No air conditioning. Did I mention there was 98% humidity?
The staff and administration graciously sat through my presentation fanning themselves like they were at a church revival, and I gave it everything I had as I quickly developed a sheen of perspiration that turned into rivulets that ran in places I will not mention. So glad I had on waterproof mascara. I talked about the realities of the art and science of teaching versus what those perceptions were by policy makers and the public. The speech continued with the importance of knowing our own culture and biases and those of our students so that we can meet them where they are and form a relationship of educational trust where students feel that they can make mistakes without being ridiculed/ This is encompassed in the idea that you can't teach them until you reach them. I talked about the importance of teacher leadership, the importance of vision and action, and warned them to stay away from the C.A.V.E. dwellers (Consistently Against Virtually Everything). Now, anyone who knows me, knows that I "keep it real" (hence the nickname Jersey) when talking about education, so I wrapped things up by warning them against negativity in schools, the dangers of gossip, and showed them my favorite Eleanor Roosevelt quote.
Ok, I admit it, I laid into them probably a little more than I needed to,but it resonated as people clapped and nodded their heads. The message was to open up their classrooms to the public and each other to share the great things going on in education every day. There are fabulous educators throughout the state who do an amazing job every day and it is time the public, and their colleagues, knew about it. The talk must have worked, or then again they might have just felt bad for me as I stood before them a melted and frizzy mess, because I got a standing ovation and many people thanking me for the inspiration and honesty in my talk. Thanks Hillside, YOU ROCK!
Leaving the school, I thought about the teachers and the challenges they would face in their first few weeks of school having to deal with the climate on top of all the other challenges educators face. Having taught in schools without air conditioning myself, I know that nothing sticks on the walls when the humidity is that bad, and the kids are lethargic at best. Open windows also lead to bees buzzing in, and we all know how kids react to that. How can you learn when you are that uncomfortable and struggling to breathe, particularly if you have asthma or allergies to things like mold which grow in those conditions? How can you have technology in the classrooms when it would be damaged because of the heat and humidity? How can you be expected to dress as a professional when it is so hot your sweat leaves embarrassing marks on your clothes? As I grew up, my own schools had no air conditioning and I remember how the temperatures put a damper on learning. Two of the four schools I visited this week had no air conditioning. If we are going to seriously address learning, then the physical buildings must be a part of the conversation because the physical structure causes us to lose valuable learning time and it sends a message. We have a problem. How do you reach 21st Century students with teachers who have 20th Century training and technology in schools whose physical buildings and schedules were designed for the 19th Century? Someone once told me that if I wanted to know who the important people were in a school, all I needed to do was see which rooms and offices were air conditioned. What kind of message does it send when the adults are given better conditions than the kids in the same building? How many people outside the world of education today would be willing to put up with such conditions?
My day was far from over as I drove to Trenton to settle into the cubicle I will call home for the next year. I got the layout of the land and began to unpack, nest a little, and try to figure out how my new BlackBerry works. (I apologize if I have butt-dialed you this week.) I am sitting in the early childhood education department (real estate is scarce on the floor), and they are wonderful people who have been very friendly, inclusive, and made me feel most welcome
Remember my lost keys?
Perhaps the most amazing thing about my first day was an email from the teacher who is currently using my old classroom. I left her a message about the fact that I couldn't find my keys and she emailed to let me know that she had them! They had been left in the room when I was showing her the hidden latch to unlock the drawers of the teacher desk. As I was unpacking at the DOE and received the email, I had Pandora playing on my computer and what song comes on? Over the Rainbow by Iz, the song I put with my blog post about the lost keys. Really, I can't make this stuff up. I took it as a sign that everything was going to be alright. Along with the wonderful morning with the staff of Hillside, I knew I had made the right decision to come to the DOE. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and an enormous smile emerged.
Remember that talk about perception in the beginning? While my year has had some amazing highs, it has also brought some perception problems by those who are happy to pass judgement, but have never taken the time to find out the facts. When you walk into a room and hear someone sarcastically refer to you as the "Teacher of the Universe" or you are greeted with "Well, if it isn't Miss America", it doesn't take you long to figure out where you stand. The truth is, I am a teacher trying to make a difference, just like so many fabulous teachers across the state every day, but unlike many others I have the good fortune to have a platform to speak from. Anyone who has heard me or visited my classroom to watch me teach knows my love of teaching and how willing I am to put other people, especially my students, ahead of myself. I have done my best and worked tirelessly to promote Career and Technical Education, my school, my students, my colleagues, and the profession to anyone willing to listen and want nothing more than to take what I have learned in this last year to help move education forward. Am I more confident than I was a year ago? Certainly. It takes some guts to get up on a stage in front of 600+ people and talk to them about education in an environment that is hostile, especially when you have been terrified of public speaking your whole life. Do I know everything? Not even close. Am I the best teacher in the state? Not a chance, although I am honored to represent all 110,000+ of us. I am not even the best teacher I can be yet because I am constantly learning and evolving. Do I have a passion for what I do? Absolutely, and I am not afraid to share that, nor the insights I have gained in my 16 years in a classroom if it can help someone else. Would you want a teacher of the year who simply maintained the status quo and didn't defend education or talk about the great things going on all over the state? It certainly would have been easier for me to take it easy, smile, and wave than put 16,000 miles on the car and maintain an insane schedule to listen and learn from people around the state. Do we really need more negativity or people who are unwilling to speak up? Michelle Obama said of the President this week at the convention, " A title doesn't change who you are, it reveals who you are." I agree, but that revelation also comes from listening to a person's message and examining the ethics and values in their work which gives insight into their sense of civic responsibility and humanity. If you haven't the evidence to back up your claim, don't judge. When it comes to education, we are all in this together.
Thursday morning found me on my way to Middletown HS South to speak to their combined staff. I met the superintendent, a man with a vision who is willing to take action, while speaking at beautiful Monmouth University to their student teachers a few weeks before. His enthusiasm was infectious as he spoke about his wonderful staff and gave me a tour of Wilson Hall, the mansion from the movie Annie that served as the home of Daddy Warbucks.
He asked me to speak about my usual motivational stuff as well as block scheduling. Hmmm....a tricky topic to make exciting, but not impossible. Like education in any subject, it is all about making connections.
What made me even more motivated was an exchange I had with one of my former students via Twitter. She had tweeted to say that she couldn't wait to come to my class and have breakfast on her first day. I didn't know how to tell her that I wouldn't be there, but I did and waited for the reaction hoping it was not anger and a feeling of abandonment. What I got instead that morning before I left was affirmation. Her reaction was this, " Ms. D, it is an awesome opportunity and I am happy you took it. Yes, we are all gonna miss your sunshine sweaters but this thing is bigger than us.Congratulations!!!! You are going to make a great difference in education, and touch more students lives than you ever could at one school." The tears just started flowing. I thought about what she said later while delivering the message at Middletown about how important the work of educators is and the importance of positive communication and building relationships of trust and learning with our students. The talk then took a segue to our 21st Century students and four C's of learning (Collaboration, Communication, Critical Thinking and Creative Problem Solving) , the new Common Core standards, and the ways that block scheduling can allow teachers to be creative in the way we teach our students so that we reach all learners. The message resonated with the staff and once again, I was honored with a standing ovation, which the superintendent said never happened before. It was all caught on video, since they were taping me that morning, so now I will actually have a copy of one of my speeches. After lunch, I spent the afternoon going from room to room visiting the break out sessions to answer questions and help where I could. It felt like I had grown wings. Thank you Middltown High Schools, YOU ROCK!
My week ended back at the DOE working on some projects to help ease the journey of the next NJSTOY, but my own journey is not yet complete. Reminded again of what a public figure you become with this position, I received a copy of my first PSA for Jumpstart's Read for the Record. Clearly, I am not designed for TV, and I wish I knew why half my face did something different than the other side, but the message is a worthy one. On October 4th Jumpstart is trying to get everyone to read the book Ladybug Girl and the Bug Squad. It, and many other books are free at www.wegivebooks.org. Read on!
By the end of the week, I had the affirmation I needed and was feeling pretty good about the direction I have chosen. The song Shout seemed to say it all.