Why I Lead. #SAVMP

Stephanb, wikipedia.org

I started teaching back in 1992 as a substitute. I had graduated college the year before and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my Bachelors in English. I fancied myself a writer and applied to grad school for creative writing, only to face rejection. I got a full-time job in a local company to pay the bills and I waited for something to happen. Nothing really opened up and I found myself missing being in school, being in a learning environment. I put my paperwork in with the School Board of Broward County, FL to become a sub. I had an agreement with my boss to allow me to take a day off once a week to explore teaching as a sub. It was exciting from the get go. I would be called at 5 in the morning and offered an assignment in any of the high or middle schools in the county. I couldn’t be picky. They would call and expect me to accept the position, otherwise I would run the risk if not being called again. One of the jobs was at a middle school run by more former 7th grade science teacher who had “moved up” to become a principal. I always remembered him fondly because he was the kind of teacher that was very personable and he got students interested in science by being supportive and not jamming content down our throats. I still remember being encouraged by Mr. Friedman to explore how crystals grow and it became my science fair presentation.

I digress.

I subbed a couple of days for Mr Friedman and soon called me down to ask if I’d be interested in filling in for a teacher who would be out for a long-term illness. I agreed and took the position and said good-bye to the other job. Just like that
I was teaching an 8th grade business course. I didn’t know much about business but the classroom was equipped with a dozen or so PCs and so we focused in keyboarding, writing business letters, and doing simple spreadsheets. Because we were doing lots of hands on activities in which students were building very concrete skills, the students behaved well and it became fun for all of us.

Because I solved a problem for Mr. Friedman and seemed to be good at directing groups of 8th graders through skill-based activities, he encouraged me to apply for a position that would be opening up mid-year due to a maternity leave. I followed his advice and was hired as a 7th grade Language Arts teacher. Just like that, I was now responsible for 150 seventh grade students. Even though the numbers were intimidating, I felt capable thanks to my degree in English, a supportive team of teachers, an encouraging principal, and an expert mentor. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with teaching. Nova Middle was a great place to start my career.

But the key to my story comes a year into this job. I was 23 years old and still had dreams of seeing the world. When an opportunity arose for me to go to live in Italy thanks to friends I had made while working summers at a sports camp in Switzerland, I began to consider leaving this wonderful job for a year. My dilemma was that I didn’t want to seem ungrateful to the team that had taken me in and given me so much encouragement and support. I didn’t know who to talk to about this idea. I second-guessed myself, thinking that maybe I was just running away from hard work. My parents were quite happy that I was earning good money and paying off my student loans, and I couldn’t see a scenario in which they would support what would have seemed like a rash, fool-hardy decision. I was stuck.

After keeping quiet about this wacky idea for a month or so, I decided that I needed to get some advice from someone I trusted. During a prep period, I walked down to have a chat with Steve Friedman. I told him that I needed his advice and that I had an opportunity to follow my dreams in Italy. I had once again secured the summer job in Switzerland and then I was thinking of taking over the lease on an apartment that a friend was vacating in Bologna in September. I understood that this was not a decision to take lightly and I needed to know from him if I should banish this crazy thought and continue to do what is practical.Nuptune statue Piazza Maggiore

So Steve’s job as principal required him to make decisions to ensure that all students had highly qualified and prepared teachers and to maintain the culture of excellence at the school. He also was in charge of leading teachers in growing professionally. He had to answer to a community of parents who demanded highly skilled and professional teachers. He had already invested quite a bit of time and human resources into helping me establish roots at his school. I could understand how he would see the issue through the lens of manager and advise me to count my blessings and stay put. But Steve wasn’t just a manager. He was a leader. He looked me in the eye, smiled, and, understanding how much this opportunity meant to me personally, told me that he thought I should do it. As he went through his reasons–that I was young, already a good teacher, with a whole career ahead of me, and that I could get a teaching job anywhere I chose–I felt the confidence within me welling up. For the first time in my professional life, I felt empowered, capable of doing great, difficult things. So, with the full support of my principal and former 7th grade science teacher, I took what would end up being one of the most important decisions of my life. I resigned my teaching position.

I lead today because education is about people. All people have things in common but each us deserves to be treated as an individual. Every individual is unique, like a crystal.  What works for one, doesn’t work for all. A leader has to have the courage to make decisions that are in the best interest of the individual student or employee, even if that decision causes the organization a little discomfort.

Thanks to Steve Friedman I went to Italy. Thanks to Steve Friedman I stayed in the profession for my entire life so far. Thanks to Steve Friedman I learned how to trust my instincts. Thanks to Steve Friedman I learned how to trust in leadership.

(Re)Collections #1

itunes9iconLots of career teachers look at technology with a curious fear.  They would like to try out a new technology in the classroom, but they fear not being in control or being the expert that their students, parents, and evaluators expect them to be.  We who have been teaching 10+ years might look with a bit of fascinated envy at our newer colleagues as they seamlessly integrate the latest and greatest apps and websites that the internet has to offer into their teaching routines.  We mistakingly think that those newer colleagues were born so skilled and that we missed the boat.  This is not the case.  It is never too late learn and if you don’t believe that then, well perhaps you should take that sabbatical leave that you have been thinking about and get yourself enrolled in a good graduate program.

Remember when iTunes was new and all the rage?  The icon spoke to people of my generation who had painstakingly collected our music on CDs.  The wizards at apple had to concoct an incredible potion to get us to use iTunes, first by allowing us to rip our CDs into the player, and then enticing us to purchase new music from their store.  Because my first Apple product was my school issued laptop, I experimented with iTunes on my work computer.  I invested hours of my nights and weekends, probably procrastinating reading & grading the piles of student essays that weigh heavily on the minds of English teachers everywhere, ripping my music CDs into the application.

Looking back, I never thought that doing this would make me any kind of innovator in the classroom.  As a matter of fact, I probably considered myself a bit of a slacker for doing this instead of using the school-issued laptop to do something more “productive.”  I did it because I loved music and I wanted to be able to listen to any song in my collection during passing time, during advisory period, during my preps, or before/after school.  It was a completely selfish move.

But in looking out for myself and experimenting with a new technology, I began to feel more confident with other applications on my mac and I began to open myself up to my students so they could get to know me better.  Giving my students the chance to see and hear my own personal music collection, they found ways to connect with me and began to see me as someone more like themselves.  My students used to hurry to my classroom well before the late bell so they could listen to the song I would be playing, and eventually, I would let them peruse my collection and choose the songs that they wanted to hear.  Because of this little bit of personal use of the work machine, I saw one of my early classroom management problems–getting kids in their seats and ready to learn at the start of the period–melt away.

I had one really close call with my administration early on.  It was the after advisory period when our schedule permitted students a ten minute passing time to get to their third class on Fridays.  The year was 2004 and it was my second year at Newton South.  I had survived the first year, but the second year is key because in Massachusetts a new teacher has three years to attain Professional Teacher Status.  I had just finished teaching two blocks in a row of rambunctuous freshmen and after advisory, I hurried down the hall to refill my cup with some hot coffee that I knew I would need for my most rambuctuous classes which was on their way to me after advisory.  During advisory, I had allowed my students to choose songs from my laptop-based iTunes and pip them through the little speaker in the overhead LCD projector.  (Yes, I was fortunate to work in a district that invested in early in the kinds of technologies that we all take for granted now, but I assure you, then, the overhead projectors served mostly as high tech chalkboards.)  Because advisory was a very well-behaved group of about 11 students, I was very comfortable allowing them to listen to my music while they relaxed for the 15-minute period.  When I said goodbye to them, one of my favorite songs was on, so I just let it play, at a pretty good level of volume, as I walked out coffee cup in hand.  I thought I could beat my next class back.  My rookie mistake was thinking that there would be fresh coffee in the communal pot by the end of second period.  Of course, it was empty, so I had to make a new one, which took up most of passing time.  I waited and poured myself a fresh cup and walked back down the hall to my room.  As I got within earshot of my room, I heard music blasting from my room.  Next time, I resolved to shut down iTunes before leaving class during passing time.  As I entered my room with about a ten seconds to spare in passing time, my third period class was in full attendance and not one of them was seated.  My class looked like a mall on Saturday afternoon, with freshmen being freshmen in all their vocal splendor.  I made a beeline to my laptop and quickly killed iTunes, as I cursed myself for loading The Cult on my work computer.  Turning to face my class, all of whom are out of their seats talking, I notice that there are two people seated near the back of the room–my principal and his guest for the day, the superintendent of schools.  Gulp.  Don’t lose your cool I tell myself.  It’s not the students’ fault that the room is so disorderly, it is entirely mine, so I’ve got to rectify that immediately.  As the bell sounded, I sat calmly at my usual place in front of the room, smiled, and asked my students to take their seats and come to order.  I’m not sure if any of them noticed the visitors, maybe they did, but I like to think of this story as my discovery of my teaching mojo, because they all did exactly what I asked them and within about eight seconds, I was beginning my lesson.  My students continued to wow me with their focus and their enthusiasm for our subject, which was a new unit on writing a literary analysis paper on Romeo and Juliet, which we had just spend the last six weeks studying.  About half-way through the period, satisfied with what they came to see, my visitors quietly exited the room.  The following school year, I was granted PTS and I had the superintendent’s son in my class!

Our main goal in the classroom is to increase student engagement.  Technology will not do that for us by itself.  We have to be ourselves in front of our students.  So if you desire to try out a new technology in your classroom this coming school year, I suggest using that technology for your personal use first.  Get to know it, get to know what you like about it.  Use it and if you begin to like it, bring it into your classroom.  Be yourself and don’t worry about not appearing the expert in front of your class. Take a risk and just use it.

You’ve got lots of support all around you and by using that new piece of technology, you may discover more about yourself and your teaching mojo than you ever imagined.  Just take the leap.

I hope that by the end of next school year, you’ve also got a collection of new tools and best of all, a bunch of recollections that your next group of students will find endlessly appealing.