Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Reflection

The following is a piece written by Daniel Collins in fulfillment of course requirements.

The Power of “Mr.”: How a Teacher’s Identity Impacts Students’ Well Being

I feel almost unqualified for the title of “Mr.” The thought of being called Mr. Collins irked me completely, probably because I didn’t know whom that person was, yet. That person would soon become a reality, as I stood in front of 30 students who all now knew me as my title and last name, only. I remember the first time a student raised her hand and actually said it: “Mr. Collins I’m not sure I understand…” I laughed. Right in front of the entire class, I could have been watching a broadcast of the Colbert Report and no one would have been able to identify the difference.  Over the course of the next twelve weeks, my alter ego defined himself in this urban central New York High School, where I would be undergoing my first semester of student teaching. It’s rather exciting to see yourself, even as a person of minor reverence, be defined, redefined, and redefined again. You come to school with a new mindset each day.

The school environment that I was enveloped in, for lack of a better word, was digressive. The relationships between teachers and students carried no amount of personal matter, almost to indicate a lack of appreciation for what the other has to offer. Doing just enough to “pass” seemed to be the norm. The students’ incompatibility between their teachers and their understanding, was only too noticeable. I needed to change. In some way, I needed to change my perception of how a teacher should interact with his/her students. I needed to change my students’ perspective of what having the title of “Mr.” meant. By not changing, I become part of a trend of teachers that potentially seldom create levels of trust between their students.

I began to develop as a teacher, both in my pedagogy and my idea of what a teacher should represent. Student support, became the mantra of my teaching and interaction. As Bell Hooks states: “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” Despite of this, so often do we dispose inherent problems with our nation’s Educational system onto the inadequacies of our students. Even as the young, naïve, and righteous college student, teachers are often told to: “leave the cape at home”, for a reason.  Teachers can, however, change the daily interactions and conversations that we choose to have with our students.  The acceptance of diversity as well as the promotion of student well being and potential, embodies a teacher’s ability to create a supportive teaching identity. Not only has my experience taught me the value and necessity of providing effective support to my students, but also what constitutes as a supportive environment. 


Redefining What is Relevant & Student Assets:
One of the primary purposes of reading traditional texts, from the Cannon for example, is so social inadequacies may be brought to light, rationalized, and discussed. As James Baldwin states in A Talk To Teachers: “precisely at the point when you begin to develop consciousness, you must find yourself at war with your society. It is your responsibility to change society if you think of yourself as an educated person.” In an English class, students should indeed have opportunities to be exposed to social problems and constructs through text, it’s interpreting the relevance of that text, and student assets, which provides a foundation of support.

But isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird relevant? Yes.  However, reading this text to a class, of predominantly African-American students, perpetuates minimal change unless they can conceptualize it through familiar lenses. Such lenses include the facilitation and implementation of hip-hop in the classroom: “Hip Hop is an area where we might see theory and practice coming together . . . where we might see an attempt to develop innovative approaches to using Hip Hop as a method for organizing African American youth around issues that are important to their survival.“  (Akom) From my own teaching experience, hip-hop texts enable students to bridge mediums of leisure and familiarity with traditional texts that encompass similar objectives. More simply, it creates a “fun” environment. By providing an outlet of entertainment while simultaneously discussing content, students will not only be able to show understanding, but will want to.

One could argue that rap lyrics don’t contain the same literary merit as traditional novels. By redefining relevant texts, as teachers, we must also redefine student assets. The incorporation of hip-hop into my classroom was entirely justified by the class demographic. In having predominantly African-American students present in my classes: “popular culture texts provide a powerful window through which to view young people’s understanding and responses to this reality… it creates possibilities for students to recognize the commonality and distinctiveness of their conditions.” (Lamont-Hill)  Asset based learning not only gives students reassurance in their ability to understand texts and assignments, but also enables them to interact with more challenging texts, given that their background understanding is acknowledged and validated. As previously stated, too often students and teachers lack a sense of trust within the classroom, a trust that encompasses a mutual respect to put forth each other’s best efforts. The shaping of my identity as a teacher, in accordance with these practices, reassures student ability and also provides a learning environment that is conducive for the discussion of relevant social issues.

The Alternative:
It was not until this semester I was able to conceptualize, what I consider to be, the most effective way to interact and promote student education. A teacher that places his/her willingness to support its students above achievement creates a better opportunity for students to succeed as a member of a community. According to Hooks: “Engaged pedagogy… It emphasizes wellbeing. That means that teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students.” That’s just it. Schools, similar to my placement, are making attempts to prohibit, expel, and suppress student behavior, which is seen “unsuitable” for a school’s climate. It seems almost silly to ask, how can students become empowered citizens when the schools that they occupy, prevent growth in certain aspects of their school day?

 One would hope that a school is a space that promotes creativity, individuality, and expression. Too often do we experience, what appears to be, a lack of understanding between faculty and students. Such misunderstandings, often perspire the use of authoritative action. In an interview conducted by CNN, in regards to police presence in schools, Morehouse College professor explains: “That is the problem. We are outsourcing classroom management to police officers.” In promoting the policing and monitoring of students, students are not exposed to learning environments that are conducive for learning, nor set a positive precedent for our expectations of them as members of society.

                  During my time as a student teacher, I hope I at least called to question, my students’ perception of what a male teacher is. It is not until you are able to position yourself as an educator, does one realize the learning potential in another human being. Reaching such potential may only be attained through a teacher’s willingness to support, understand, and sacrifice, for the betterment of their students. As a prospective teacher, I will be the first to admit, I have much more to learn in regards to the profession. However, I have learned that the identity a teacher chooses to construct has immense impact on the well being and learning of his/her students.

 Sources:

Akom, A.A. "Critical Hip Hop Pedagogy as a form of LIberatory Praxis." Equity and Excellence in Education 42.1 (2009): 52-66. Web. 

Hill, Marc Lamot. "Using Jay-Z to Reflect on Post-9/11 Race Relations." English Journal 96.2 (2006) 23.Web.

Hooks, Bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Lamont-Hill Marc, "New Day." Violent Classroom Arrest Sparks Outrage, CNN. 27 Oct. 2015. Television.
A

Monday, July 6, 2015

L is for Leadership



What makes a good school leader?
I've been thinking about this question a lot over the past week or so and I've come to the conclusion that it depends on who you ask.

As a parent my view of what makes a good principal has changed over the years.  When I was the parent of a kindergartener I just wanted to know that my child was safe and happy. I wasn't so concerned with his academic achievement at the time because I knew that would eventually take care of itself. I was more concerned that the school was locked during the day and there was enough coverage at recess. As my children moved up through the grades the quality of the education they received became more important to me and I needed to know the principal was overseeing that. However when I think back on the principals in each  of the schools my children attended I realize something, there was trust between the principal and the teachers in the school. Teachers had some autonomy in their own classrooms and although the newest program or philosophy would make its way into the classrooms it was the teacher who was mostly in charge of what happened there. As a parent I was fortunate to have children with few behavior or academic issues so my relationships with the various school principals was one of collegiality. However, when an issue would arise I appreciated it when a principal could be fair and listen to all sides of an issue before making a decision. As a parent I needed to know that my children had a principal that would listen to me as a parent of a child in his school and that my opinion mattered even if we weren't in agreement.

"If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader."
~John Quincy Adams

As a teacher my view of what I believe makes a good school leader is very different. As a teacher I realize just keeping everyone in the building safe is just one part of a very complicated job. I believe that a principal should be child focused in every decision. Education has become a business and unfortunately very much about data and "moving the needle". Data of course has it's place as a valuable tool in giving children the education that best suits their needs,  but it's important to not lose sight of the fact that we are in the business of children. As a teacher I want a principal who takes the time to know the children and their families, who understands that school culture is the foundation to build upon and a good school culture and climate is why kids want to come to school and makes families feel welcome as part of the school community. A good school principal is involved in the day to day happenings of the school as a whole, but also involved in what happens in the classroom and playground and cafeteria.

"Leadership is diving for a loose ball, getting the crowd involved, getting other players involved. It's being able to take it as well as dish it out. That's the only way you're going to get respect from the players."

~Larry Bird 

As a teacher I want a principal who will be fair and who will view education as a collaborative effort between families, teachers and administration. I want a principal who holds us as teachers to a high standard of excellence but is willing to offer support when necessary. I want a principal who is open to new ideas and strategies. I want to work with a principal who shows and interest in her teachers  their interests, strengths and struggles and one who is trusting of the teachers  in his building, one who views us as experts in our understanding of how children learn. A good principal views his staff as colleagues, partners in the education of children.  A good school leader  is willing to teach and guide to help teachers improve but is also willing to learn from her staff too.

"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."
~John F Kennedy 

I can't pretend to assume that it's easy to be a principal that encompasses all these qualities. I do know that any successful principal that I've worked for or have known have many of them. These were the school leaders who's vision I could believe in. It was apparent in the way they embraced the school as a collaborative community of learning. They were present leaders, present in the lives of the children they served, because when all is said and done, the kids are what matters.

"A person's a person, no matter how small."

~Dr. Seuss




Sunday, May 10, 2015

R is for Respect

When I began teaching in my current district ten years ago I was excited at the prospect of working in the only school where I ever wanted to teach. This particular school was where I student taught and where I chose to send my children. It is my neighborhood school so when I walk down the halls I'm not only greeting parents of the kids I teach but my neighbors too. There is something to be said for working in the community in which you live. I'm vested in ways that others may not be and I feel everyday that I make a difference in the lives of children and in many ways making my community a better place to live.
In my classroom each day we talk a lot about respectful behavior, how to treat each other in the way that we would like to be treated. We talk about being bucket fillers and not bucket dippers by putting good feelings in the invisible buckets of others and not taking good feelings out by being mean or disrespectful with our words and actions.

Although sometimes it's a struggle to teach our smallest students what the word respect means, we try everyday by being good models about what it means to be respectful. They show us respect when they listen intently to a focus lesson, follow directions, are silent during a fire drill or remember to walk quietly through the hallways so as not to disturb other kids who are learning.
This past week was teacher appreciation week. We have the most wonderfully appreciative group of parents heading up our PTO. They feed us, pamper us, and generally make us feel valued by their words and actions. They appreciate what each of us does to educate their children, understanding how much time and effort goes in to planning for the lessons that will help their children grow into successful little humans. They appreciate that we are not only teaching their children how to read, write and compute but teaching them how to empathetic, how to share and to respect each other. They appreciate that we are the ones giving their child a hug when they are sad, providing a Band-aid for an invisible paper cut, washing chocolate pudding off the little faces and keeping them safe and happy when the are at school Not only do those parents make us feel appreciated, they respect us for the hard work and difficult job we have.

We teachers respect and support each other. When one of us is feeling defeated or overwhelmed we are there with a hug, with a listening ear and sometimes a shoulder to cry on. We plan together, we share ideas, we cover each other's classes when we need a breather and share a laugh or two when we most need it.

Lately however, respect from our school district is not so easily found. With all our hard work and dedication, with all our own money spent on supplies we have been made to feel that what we do is just not good enough. The words and actions of those not in the trenches are actions that are disrespectful of our time, our expertise, our wallets and our families.

We are given tasks that rarely have any direct correlation to educating young children, paperwork that bogs us down and takes time away from planning developmentally appropriate lessons that foster creativity and social well being. There is a general feeling of distrust that we are able to teach in the way we know how.  Although we hear the words, "we know you are working hard" the actions of those saying those words speak differently.

Everyday I hear of another teacher who is "getting her ducks in a row", working on his resume, gathering letters of recommendation and references, opting to find another district to work in, a district where the actions and words of the administration  are words of respect, a district that understands those of us on the front lines have a pretty good idea about how young children learn.

I don't know a single teacher who does not  believe that there is always room for improvement in our teaching practices. We are our own worst critics. We know when a lesson fails and we make mental notes about how we can make the lesson better next time.

We know and respect the children in our classrooms. We take the time to get to know them, their likes, their interests, their needs. We take the time to get to know their families and their struggles. We understand that every child in the school is ours even if they left our classroom years before and even if they never learned within the walls of our rooms.

We understand the need for data and we understand its value, but we also understand that data is only a small part of knowing how to best reach our children. We understand that we need to educate the whole child, their musical abilities, their creativity in art, their social needs. We need to respect each child for their individuality and not disregard that to concentrate solely on their latest reading level and whether they score proficient on their latest math assessment.

Just as we attempt to respect each child as individuals, teachers need to be respected for their individual teaching style and expertise. It saddens me to see the best teachers I know ready to leave our school and district because they just can't be disrespected any longer. This is not about not wanting to work hard it's about being recognized for the work we are doing.

I don't pretend to know everything about turning around a school district, but there is one thing of which I am certain, disrespecting teachers will never raise achievement, it will only drive us away.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tt is for time.


If you ask a teacher "What do you need more of?" you might hear some say glue sticks, chart paper, crayons or pencils (pencils seem to disappear without a trace overnight!)
But more often than not, what teachers really want more of is time. I'm not talking about extending the school day, or adding more planning time, although that would be great! The kind of time I'm talking about is time to teach the things we know kids want and need to learn in an environment that has some time flexibility. 

Our schedules have become rigid and overloaded with data driven instruction. Yes, we teach the basics, math, literacy centers, reader's workshop, guided reading, writing and science. We TRY to find time within our schedules for social studies...social studies is usually the first to go to make room for the other subjects.
There is barely time for a quick snack. Lunch and recess time is shorter, and don't even get me started on making time for play...although I do my best to make sure that happens in some way everyday.

Teachers know that often times learning opportunities just present themselves, those teachable moments that you just run with. It usually happens with a question from a student, or an incident at recess or something touched upon during a read aloud. A lot of these teachable moments revolve around social issues and as a teacher I truly believe it's important to find the time to address them. It's our job as teachers to turn our children in to good citizens. Students who are socially aware, can show some empathy and who understand why it's important to apologize when we've hurt someone's feelings.

Unfortunately, many of us are afraid to run with these teachable moments because there isn't enough time. We hear all the time how important it is to stick to the schedule but what I've come to understand is that the schedule isn't necessarily about cramming as much learning into those little brains as possible, but more about being on schedule when someone walks in for an instructional round or observation...if they come in to observe math, they want to see math.

This very thing happened to me recently. My kindergarten students were in the middle of snack time when an instructional posse came into my room during math rounds (think of it like interns making rounds in a hospital). My first thought was panic that my kids were still eating snack when it was officially math time, but then (call me a rebel) I let them finish their snack. I gave them their five minute warning and let the posse wait.

Part of me was a little afraid of being caught in a "gotcha moment" as we've begun to call them, but most of me thought of those kids needing to finish their snack because I know as a teacher that they were going to be a lot more ready to learn about three-dimensional shapes if they had snack first. They finished, cleaned up their messes and sat down in the circle ready to learn. It was great interactive lesson and not once did I hear "I'm hungry, when can we have snack?"

We need the time to address the needs of our students and sometimes those needs are not determined by a schedule. We need to have the time and flexibility within our school day to run with the teachable moment whenever those moments occur and even if it's just because a child needs a break because his tummy is hungry or he needs to refocus with a few yoga poses.

Was I going to change the world by letting my kids finish snack? No, but it felt good to do what I knew was right for my kids. 


Thursday, September 18, 2014

N is for Numbers

Kindergarten by the Numbers 




 
11...days of kindergarten 

2...amazing kindergarten colleagues

24...pencils sharpened

2...parents reassured

6...milk cartons to open

1...late slip

378...cheerios to sweep

12...shoelaces tied

3...band-aids.

3...boo-boos kissed

2...go-gurts openend

5...straws in juice boxes

1...banana peeled

1...missing glue stick cover

1...bathroom accident

3...teary cheeks wiped

3...books read aloud

2...notes written

3...emails answered

1...fish fed

4...plants watered

too many...times I heard the word "rigor"

11...little girls

9...little boys

20...smiling faces

a lot...of laughter

another...day done.





 

Monday, September 1, 2014

C is for Culture


It’s been a very long time since I sat down to write in this little space of mine. I’ve been wanting to for a while now, but just couldn’t find the inspiration. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just get started, let’s see where this takes me.

So here I sit about to start another school year. It’s usually about this time of year I start to feel ready to be on a schedule again, to feel productive and get back to work but this year it’s different, maybe because we had such a short summer after a long winter of snow days, or maybe because last year was a really tough one with a lot of new initiatives and challenges. Whatever the reason I’m not feeling quite ready. However, ready or not …here they come!

I’ve been thinking a lot about school culture. I’ve read quite a bit on the subject, mostly articles written by other teachers and administrators. I’ve talked about it with my colleagues, and as I write I'm talking about it with my best friend too. I've even gone so far as to do a little informal research by polling parents but more about that a little later.

Let me start by saying my school is a special place. Most school’s are, but to know Horace Mann is to love Horace Mann. It has a feeling. It’s not the most beautiful of school buildings, it’s old, it's in serious need of updating and it has its limitations but people walk in and it reminds them of the elementary schools they attended as children. We have no gym and our cafeteria is tiny. Despite the limitations, learning happens here. We are a dedicated bunch, working tirelessly to educate children and we know it's not the physical building that's important but the people in it.

It’s not easy to be a teacher these days, “work smarter, not harder” is something we hear often. We have curriculum maps to follow, trajectories and lesson plans to write, the word “rigor” is becoming a regular buzzword in the halls of public schools everywhere. As a teacher I know it’s important to challenge the students in my class, to teach them to think for themselves, ask questions, and be inquisitive. I know it’s important for them to achieve academically but I also know if a child is not enjoying school, learning isn’t going to happen. This is where culture comes in.

My fear is that with all the pressures from politicians, the business world and administrators who are concerned with test scores and keeping up with the rest of the world, the culture of community in my little school and others across the country will be disregarded as unimportant.

Of course the primary purpose of a school is to foster a culture of learning and student achievement, but as educators it’s equally important to foster a culture of community where administrators, teachers, parents and students work together.
Parents first and foremost want their children to achieve academically, but they want something more from their school. Parents want to know their children are learning, that they are being challenged, they want them to succeed both academically and socially. They want their children to feel safe, happy and loved. They want school to be a place where their children want to be. I know this because I’m not only a teacher but a parent too. It’s what I want for my own kids.
I know this because I asked parents what they thought of our school. I heard words like, “respect”, “family” “home away from home”.  They said things like “dedication” “perseverance” “warm” and “friendly”.

I know those are all feel good words, but it’s what makes school a special place. Those teachers, parents and students who are or have ever been part of our community know it. It’s important that in these days of high stakes testing, data, and assessment that we don’t lose sight of what makes our community special. 
The people, traditions and ideals that make kids want to come to school.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

P is for Perseverance

Social Media these days is inundated with article after article written by teachers who have decided to leave the teaching profession. Just Google "why I'm leaving teaching" and you'll see title after title written by teachers new and veteran.

These teachers site many reasons for leaving; unfair evaluation systems where teachers are judged by the test scores of their students, lack of support from their districts, unions or administration, increased and unrealistic class sizes, more and more demands being put on teachers with less pay, inadequate facilities, materials and funding. The list goes on and on. 

It is becoming increasingly more difficult to balance teaching and family life, the demands of our profession cross over into or homes having not been given adequate time within our school day to accomplish all that needs to be done. " Work harder, work smarter, of course you are expected to work at home, hang in there."

The teachers I am so honored to work with ARE hanging in there. 

Teachers are easily the most caring and hardest working people I know, and I know a lot of them. They are not afraid to work hard, or to find a better way to reach a struggling child. The teachers I know are always thinking with their hearts doing what's best for kids.

For me this year, that's what I find most difficult. Being asked to teach in a way that I don't think is best for kids. Asking the youngest of our students to learn a curriculum they aren't read for. That's what I struggle with. That's where my tears came from. 

If I were to leave the profession, it would not be because I'm afraid to work hard, it wouldn't be because I don't want to bring work home. It wouldn't be because I spend too much of my own money on my classroom, or that I'm afraid of being judged on my students' performance on the latest math assessment. It would be because philosophically I struggle with what I'm being asked to teach. I struggle with knowing deep in my heart that we are putting too much pressure on our youngest students all in the name of high stakes achievement.

I'm not going anywhere. 

I'm not going anywhere because if I do, I'm giving up. Giving up on the hope that things can be better and will be better. It's my job to do what's best for kids. I'm not against teaching a kindergartner to read, or asking them to understand how numbers work. I'm not opposed to asking them to work hard to reach their potential. What I am opposed to is not giving them enough time to play and be the little kids they are or have the right to be. 

I'm not walking away because they deserve better, and if I can somehow find a way to balance academic expectations and creative play, then I will. I am not going to walk away from my philosophical beliefs about what I know is right. I'm an early childhood teacher it's my job to be an advocate for them when they are unable to advocate for themselves. Perhaps things aren't going to change right away, but with a little perseverance from those of us who work with the littlest of our students thing can be different. 


I'm going to stick around and find out.