Sunday, March 3, 2013

I Feel Good- James Brown

Well, it has been a while and I apologize for my extended absence.  The last you heard from me, I was helping with cleanup from Sandy and had just started a new adventure with a slight job detour for this school year.  I thought things would slow down from the frenetic pace of last year, but that is not the case.  Although I would not have believed it possible, my life has become busier.
Let's start with the aftermath of Sandy and the ongoing work of my friends and colleagues "down the shore." I am sad to say that things are far from fixed, and most of those displaced by the devastation that caused their homes to be ripped down to the studs, are still displaced.  The kids are still suffering both physically and mentally and it is evident in the schools. The teachers and counselors are dealing with much more of the soft skills as they address issues of grit, perseverance and growth mindsets before they can ever tackle content area information.  Besides that emotional support that schools and teachers can provide, the kids still need hats, gloves, coats, and will soon need new spring and summer clothes.  Just because a few pylons have been sunk to rebuild the boardwalk in Seaside does not mean that things are back to normal.  The people who make up the heart of these communities and live there year-round still need your help.  Thank you to my friends and STOY community for your generous donations to the schools along the NJ coast, they are much appreciated. However, major rebuilding needs to be done in people's homes and the recovery process will be ongoing.  If you would like to help, whatever your skill set might be, let me know and I will try to connect you to the schools or communities that need you. 

If you remember, this year I am on loan to my Dept of Education working as the Educator Outreach Coordinator.  I have missed the classroom and the connection to my students, but still hear from them often as they ask me for help with essays or advice or comment on my most recent adventure as they follow me on Twitter (@NJTOYMsD).  Working in a little pink cubicle is not the best setting for someone whose talents lie in working with people rather than computers.  However, things have been moving along in the world of educator outreach.  With a newsletter now going out monthly and Teacher Advisory Panels underway, communication is finally flowing and it is making a difference.

What the last year did for me, with the crazy schedule of speaking engagements, meetings and committees, was to get my foot in the door.  The question was, did I want to be brave and  pry that door open to go through to the great unknown, or was I comfortable and content where I was?  Well, it wouldn't be me if there weren't some adventure.  You never grow if you always do what you have always done.  I don't know what the future holds, but for now, I am going to go with the flow and see where it takes me. Can one person affect change on a different level in education? I don't know, but I am going to give it my best shot.
There have been a few speaking engagements since I began life in my cubicle.  After all, educator outreach involves being an ambassador of sorts who goes out to speak to people and put a human face on the teaching profession.  Two of the events had a profound impact on me.
The first was the Future Educators Association Conference that took place in January at The College of NJ.  I was the keynote speaker for a group of over 650 high school students who wanted to become teachers. What an opportunity!  The conference had been rescheduled because of Sandy, and on that cold January morning the students in that auditorium were bundled up against the chill like mummies after travelling across the state, many having left home in the very early hours of the morning to be there.  If I didn't connect with them quickly, they would soon enter the zombie-like state that happens when the temps are cold and the kids are tired.  I don't like to lecture when I speak, and find it is much better to have a conversation, although that can be difficult with 650+.  We laughed, sang, clapped, as we interacted and honestly got a little teary as I challenged them to find the person they considered to be their best teacher and say thank you.  We all need mentors who can serve as our Yoda or Zen master.  I never got the chance to thank one of my early influences who died before I got the chance to let her know the impact of the lessons she taught me in my earliest days of student teaching.  Not thanking her is something I regret not doing sooner, because thank you is a powerful statement.

With the NJ FEA state officers.

You don't often know the impact of what you do as a teacher, and when you do have those students who come back and tell you about the difference you made in your lives, it is like winning an Academy Award.  One thank you can provide the energy source to keep your batteries charged and make it through the tough times. I have a collection of  just such an assorted "love notes" from students including the first picture I ever received from a student while working as a substitute which cemented my decision to become a teacher.
That cold January morning, I expected to give my speech, have some lunch and head back to my cubicle, but honestly had no idea the impact my "conversation" would have on the students in the audience.  I always make it a habit of posting my contact information on the last slide of my presentation, and these digitally connected kids reached out immediately.  My Twitter feed blew up as students thanked me, but the best part came later.  Letter after letter came in to my email account talking about how unsure they were before about becoming educators, but now they knew they could hold their heads up proudly as they proclaimed "I am going to be a teacher."  One young lady,  even called me her Yoda.  Back in my cubicle, I cried like a baby, and hung all of the letters to remind me on the difficult days when dealing with adults is not as easy as dealing with students, that educators make a difference. 
The second event occurred just this past week, but let me give you some background first. After a competitive application process, I am now one of twelve Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellows (HSG).  The organization strives to bring practitioners together with other policy makers and stakeholders to make the best decisions in areas such as education, health care and jobs.  While the fellows focus on education only, we strive to have teacher voice heard, especially in evaluation reform.  As a State TOY, I also belong to another teacher voice organization, the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSOTY) who advocate for career continuums and distributed leadership so that teachers can lead without having to leave the classroom.  I have found a new calling with these two groups, to get teacher voice heard from the local level to the national level and  to help teachers who are great teachers become great teacher leaders.  You would think that great teaching and great leading were synonymous, but sometimes teachers don't know what steps to take to develop as leaders because there are many obstacles. 

With STOYs, Kristie Martorelli (AZ2012), Sarah Brown Wessling (IA and NTOY 2010) and Tim Dove OH 2011-12
With the HSG crew and Tim

With HSG Fellow and co-presenter Doug Hodum


I found myself at the Gates Foundation Conference Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET²) presenting a workshop on teacher leadership and representing both groups.  Our workshop was packed, interactive, and by all accounts went well.  My HSG co-presenter, Doug, shared personal stories, gave people a toolkit to help them get started no matter what their level of leadership experience was and had them all devise plans for their return to their districts on Monday.  We also had them exchange contact info with a neighbor who would hold them accountable and contact them in a week.
The next morning, I was stopped by a teacher from Pittsburgh who was in our session.  With her voice cracking, she was visibly choked up as she proceeded to thank me for the inspiration we provided the day before.  With tears in her eyes, she explained that the children of color in her district were not being heard, and although she could help them in her classroom, she had no idea what else to do.  She credited our session with giving her concrete examples of how to move forward and now she knew exactly what she was going to do on Monday.  The conversation went on, but now I was choked up too as I gave her my card and told her to keep in touch and let me know if I could help. As I wrote the story down at the airport, I am sure people were wondering why there were tears running down my cheeks. 
I realized that making a difference happens both in an out of the classroom and it is no less powerful coming from an adult than from a student.  I may not have had a physical "love note" like I often get with my students, the memory of that teacher is one I will always treasure.  In the words of James Brown, "I feel good"



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