What If We Weren’t Afraid?

If Arizona continues to support expansion of “school choice” (charters & private), what will happen to local (non-charter) public schools? Teachers, what will happen to your jobs if it becomes widely accepted to staff schools with non-certified teachers? Support public schools and certified public school teachers!

I think that these are some pretty important questions, ending with a really important statement. I’ve had these sentences in my email signature at work for the last few months. I don’t really remember what finally pushed me over the edge and provoked this move. It was probably something on the radio, an online article, or something that someone said. I’m frankly sick of hearing people saying bad things about public schools while plugging the most recent charter or private school voucher program.

When I added these statements, I knew it was a slightly edgy decision and wondered if one of my supervisors would ask me to delete them. (I really respect my supervisors and would take these sentences out of my signature line without arguing). But none of my supervisors, who I correspond with regularly, have mentioned them. I suppose that they might not have noticed them or forgotten to mention them to me. Yesterday, a trusted colleague called me about these sentences and expressed concern. She said that she was worried they might “bite me in the butt” and that they “didn’t represent me well.” However, she added that she agrees with them and suspects that many other public school educators agree as well. This dichotomy provoked a lot of thinking on my hike yesterday.

Representing my district professionally is incredibly important to me. I value my leadership roles, the influence I have on others, and my relationships with colleagues. I want the things I do to enhance my district, school, and classroom. As a doctoral student, I have read many eye-opening books/articles these last few years that have increased my concerns about politics in education today. There are many political issues that, in my opinion, should not be brought to my workplace or discussed through any district means. (We have a strict political code in our handbook that prevents this anyhow). But political decisions are infiltrating my classroom, school, and district everyday! Where exactly is the line and why do we feel afraid as public school educators and district officials? I started thinking about whether advocating for public schools is part of my job, and whether I’m willing to risk possible problems that might come from doing so.

Here is where I am at: I think that advocating for non-charter, public schools in Arizona is a dying craft (that may have never started anyhow). And I’m really concerned about the lack of advocacy! I don’t mean to sound like a war monger, but charters and private school voucher programs are leading a strong attack on public schools, defunding our classrooms, and especially defunding the low-income Title I school district that I serve. I don’t have anything against the charters who already exist, given that they hire certified teachers, pay them fairly, and admit all students without exclusive admissions policies that prevent under-achievers or minority students from attending. (I wrote about these concerns here.) But I am really concerned about companies that are planning to build MORE charters. I really don’t think that we need more schools, and I don’t believe in the ‘survival of the fittest’ business model that is encroaching on educational policy. What I see happening is ‘survival of the most financed,’ and it seems clear that the least financed schools will soon be non-charter public schools. I think school choice in Arizona is a gimmick to re-segregate groups of students by social class and race. Recent research shows us that this is what we face in Arizona as a consequence of ‘school choice.’ And I don’t like what this will do to the students I serve in my school.

Where exactly is the line that we should walk as public school educators? What should we talk about at work? What should we include in our email signatures? And what conversations do we need to have in our community? It seems clear to me that more conversation is needed. It’s time for public school teachers to except the sad fact that there is a war going on. If we want to preserve public school education, we better start talking–A LOT!

I haven’t decided if I will delete my email signature line yet, but I’m strongly leaning toward doing so on Monday. If a person who knows me well thinks that these words ‘don’t represent me well,’ I should probably heed her caution. The next person who mentions it might speak with words of punishment instead of love. But worrying about these things has made me feel deeply sad about the fear educators face in this political landscape. As I delete these words on Monday, I will wonder: What would happen if we weren’t afraid?

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Breaking the Silence

Many apologies for the deafening silence on this blog for the last few months. Amongst the many things keeping me busy (and probably you, too!) I joined another blog team that requires scheduled postings–that are not allowed to be posted anywhere else. If it’s ever quiet here, you might want to check out the cool content on http://www.storiesfromschoolsaz.org.

For anyone reading the blog who is interested in joining as a contributor, please send me an email! I would love to find others interested in blogging about teacher leadership from IN the classroom and the difference one can make as a teacher-leader.

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Go Together

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

–African proverb

I’ve been thinking a lot about this proverb the last few days and the meaning it has to me. In my opinion, “go together” is just about the best advice I’ve ever heard for navigating this world–especially the professional world of teaching right now. It’s good advice to give students, colleagues, families, and the community. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the many things I have learned walking alongside others.

Last semester, I learned a great deal from involving colleagues in a study (as part of my doctoral work) using cognitive interviews. To briefly explain: cognitive interviews explore participant thinking and responses to survey questions in a think-aloud interview style. Rather than simply reading and answering questions, the participants talk about what they are thinking about when they read each question, specifically noting anything that causes confusion. Interview data is used to improve survey questions for increased validity and reliability. This process of “going together” with others was so cool! I was completely addicted after the first interview because I learned so much from the interviewee. With each subsequent interview, I gained additional perspectives, new viewpoints, clearer ideas, and a long list of confusions/misconceptions to address. (If interested, you can find more information about the research cycle and findings here.) The resulting survey is substantially better from the collaborative process of cognitive interviews.

Reflecting on the process, I am convinced of the tremendous benefits of consulting others–as a researcher, as a teacher, and as a person in this world. Being a good leader requires commitment to going together and seeking input. It was so interesting to think about the semantics of survey questions and the possible interpretations. I never could have understood the full picture without the involvement of others. It made me wonder if other surveys go through this process during development. Involving others made such a difference.

One driving principle of action research (and change theory in general) is the involvement of stakeholders. Essentially, it’s important to go together when leading change. I’ve been thinking a lot about the many surveys I have taken as a teacher and how those results might have been used. Perhaps I have answered survey questions that were confusing, misleading, or open to interpretation. Have some of my survey responses possibly been misinterpreted in the past? Probably so. How exactly are surveys being used in education reform? Are the questions reliable and valid? Is anyone even asking the teachers?

I hope that teachers are being sought as stakeholders in education reform, but it often feels like we aren’t included.  Regardless of whether reformers are right or wrong, I challenge teachers to seek opportunities to go together with reformers, sharing teacher perspectives. And when necessary, I challenge teachers to go together with other teachers to stop reforms that are harming our students.

If the saying above is true, the reformers may move fast when going alone, but they can’t get far when they face teachers who are going together.

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Educators: Are you talking about this election?

car signDear educators, this is just a quick post to ask the question, “Are you talking about this upcoming election in the community?” If you aren’t, I believe that you should be. The state election of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Governor, Secretary of State, and other important offices will dramatically influence education in future years. With all the hoop-la of negative ads, there are people out there who don’t know who to vote for–people who don’t know which candidates are good for education. Even worse, these people may not do the research and vote without encouragement.

As teachers, we have a special influence in the community and people do value the opinions of teachers. If you strongly believe that a candidate is the right person for an office, I encourage you to boldly tell others why you think so. I think that teachers have a challenge here because we have an inherent belief that people are entitled to have their own opinions, to make up their own minds. This value, though very noble, keeps us from telling other people our own opinions. Educators, I think that this will lead to our downfall in educational policy.

This year, I have been making intentional attempts to start conversations with people about the election. I encourage them to consider education very carefully when they make their decisions. When the right opportunity comes along, I share my opinions about the people who I believe in for this state. Despite my quickening heart and higher blood pressure in these conversations, no one has had a negative reaction (except me maybe!) People have been interested in my thoughts and shared their own. These conversations have been very stimulating. Most importantly, I remind people that it is very important to vote on November 4th. I tell them the date multiple times and ask how they vote (in person or by mail). I wrap up the conversation by quickly reminding them to think about education when they make election decisions this year.

Educators, don’t waste your influence by maintaining silence this year. There are great ways to have influence in social media, putting up house signs, decorating your car, and talking with people in person. This election counts. Use your voice.

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Teacher wellness: On the decline?

Want to know what I’ve been wondering about lately? I want to know if teacher health/wellness is declining amidst the pressure of educational reform today. A few days ago, I was walking behind a colleague and noticed that this person had gained some weight. It was nothing major–just something I observed. The observation prompted personal reflection. I thought about the changes in my own health and wellness over the past few years: the smaller clothes (now at the back of the closet), the infrequent trips to the gym, the lack of sleep, the quick meals on my way home when I’m wiped out, and the rare opportunities to actually EAT during my “lunch break” (a.k.a. more work time)! Being a teacher today is CHAOTIC! Though some of my colleagues sweat out their stress at the gym regularly, I am experiencing waning commitment to healthy outlets for releasing stress. This week, I’ve been wondering: Is it harder for teachers to find time for health and wellness given the many aspects of their jobs today?

My gut tells me: YES. I think the educational climate of “reform,” accountability, and the multi-faceted nature of the job keep educators busy long before and after the school bells. Finding balance is incredibly challenging in education today because there is a lot to do! Some SfS bloggers have offered great examples in recent posts below. I see it in my own practice, too. Every time I turn around, there seems to be a new initiative to connect with families, another way to track/report student progress, a new committee/club looking for teacher volunteers, another meeting to attend, a new form to fill out, another grant to submit for classroom supplies, and more items on the staff meeting agenda afterschool. Is this the price of being a “teacher?” I only seem to think about my health and wellness when I get to a breaking point, like when I get really sick or find myself completely exhausted. Otherwise, it’s ‘boots on the ground’ go, go, go, go, GO! Teachers are world changers, and we don’t like to stop and think about ourselves. How does that affect our health when there are so many things to do as a teacher today?

To take this further, serving as a teacher-leader adds additional responsibilities. I believe that teacher-leadership is essential in the profession, but it takes a huge toll. Every time I turn around, there is another training to plan, another teacher with a (great!) question, or a new resource I’d like to create. Of course, these duties come on top of my commitment to being an excellent teacher for my students. Good teachers who are also teacher-leaders are BUSY! Is this the price of “teacher leadership?” I can’t possibly count the Red Bulls that have kept me going with energy and enthusiasm despite very little sleep. But I’ll stop there with this one. Teacher leadership is worth it.

How does all of this affect the health and wellness of teachers? In a profession with high levels of attrition, could teachers be leaving because the stress/wellness issues are overwhelming with limited time for improvement? Additionally, declining health and wellness would be a serious concern for school districts that are self-insured. This past year, I heard about a local school district that increased employee healthcare contributions (what teachers pay to the district) by $700! A representative from that district said, “Employees need to get healthier to keep the cost down.” Talk about a double-edged sword. This profession requires more hours than other fields of work. Worse yet, many other fields have accepted long hours as common practice in the American workplace. I’d like to go on the record here: I don’t think that long work hours are good for health and wellness at all.

So what does the research say? I checked out keywords including: teacher, declining, health, and wellness in various combinations using Google News and Google Scholar. Unfortunately, there was nothing specific to teachers and their health/wellness. So does this mean that teacher health and wellness is not declining? Or does it mean that no one is asking questions or studying this topic? Sorry to say: I don’t have the answers there. But I would love to hear your thoughts. Do you think that teacher health and wellness are declining in education today? What other research/news do you think relates to this topic?

When you’re ready to share your thoughts, come and find me. I hope I’ll be at the gym.

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TYLTS Day: One day, many lessons

Last week, I had the incredible privilege of hosting Representative Jonathan Larkin (District 30) at my school for the first annual Take Your Legislator to School Day (TYLTS). TYLTS Day originated under the leadership of Bobbie O’Boyle (Arizona Education Foundation) in partnership with Arizona K12 Center, Arizona Education Association, and Rodel Foundation of Arizona. The mission of TYLTS Day is to nurture partnerships between Arizona teachers and Arizona legislators to collaboratively seek positive outcomes for children in our local schools. The experienced positively influenced my ideas about building partnerships, and I look forward to sharing some ideas here.

When I received an email asking me to reach out and invite Representative Jonathan Larkin to my school, I was really excited. A quick web search showed that Representative Larkin has a heart for public service and a commitment to public schools. I realized that a HERO was coming to our campus! I awaited the event with great anticipation, and Thursday was no disappointment.

During his visit, Representative Larkin toured the school, spent time in my preschool special education classroom, met with families, and spoke to our 8th grade students about serving others and making good choices in life. I was inspired. He was so authentic and interested in what we are doing at my school. For someone with such a busy schedule, I was amazed when he passed out business cards to teachers, reminded them that he lives right up the street, and offered to come back anytime as a classroom speaker. As a teacher, I had never personally thought of reaching out to a legislator in this way. The experience taught me to reconsider the importance of extending invitations to community leaders. What a wonderful way to work together for kids.

At the end of his visit, we had a great chat about the importance of public education and the partnership between schools and legislators. Representative Larkin offered advice to increase opportunities for collaboration. He suggested that local schools from his district could send him an annual calendar of important events like school board meetings, family outreach events, school plays, concerts, and sporting events. He said that he would like to attend more events if he had more information. I was really amazed by his interest in our school calendar. Representative Larkin said, “Anything that is important to you is important to us.” As a teacher, sharing a calendar is another way I can build partnerships.

Additionally, Representative Larkin shared a desire to help connect schools with local businesses. He explained that businesses ask for ideas about the needs of the community, so it really helps when schools let him know their needs in case opportunities arise. This got me thinking: What wonderful projects could I think of for my campus? How could contacting my local legislator bring resources to my school? Representative Larkin explained, “Companies are willing to do stuff like that…you just have to see where your resources are.” I will definitely think of contacting my local legislators next time I have a project in need of resources. Legislators can be a great bridge between schools and local businesses.

I asked Representative Larkin, “How can teachers make a positive difference in politics?” He pondered that question carefully and responded with great insight. He explained his view that teachers have a very important role to educate students in America about the importance of voting. He explained that kids need to know what their vote means. Though students seem young today, today’s students are tomorrow’s voters. Representative Larkin’s comments really reframed the importance of teachers in a different light. I reflected on my experiences learning about voting in school. I had great teachers who crafted opportunities for me to learn about voting, the legislative process, and real-life (practice) voting with “Kids Vote.” I am so grateful for people in my life that developed my commitment to vote. Teachers really do pass on the ideals of democracy. What an important role.

Finally, I asked, “How can teachers make a difference in policy?” Representative Larkin offered some advice to teachers and organizations that utilize chain mail about important issues. He shared that these letters are most effective when they are in the right format and appear personal. Here is some specific advice about chain letters: (1) Make sure your letter has a recent date. (2) Personalize the letter with your name and address instead of using terms like “your constituent.” (3) Include links and information in the letter where legislators can find out more about the issue. Further, he shared that splash pages with limited info are not very effective. Links are more meaningful when they are connected to real organizations. (4) Share how the issue affects you personally. Overall, he said that chain letters can be an effective way to mass communicate about an issue when many people are concerned. However, he added that legislators tend to overlook letters when they are not personalized.

When I asked Representative Larkin about the highlight of his visit, he shared that he really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with our 8th graders and have a positive influence on youth. He said, “When you look back on life, those are the moments that really stand out.” As a teacher, I completely agree. We have a huge influence on the youth of America. Thank you Representative Larkin for having a great influence on me. I greatly appreciate your visit to our school and your ongoing commitment to education.

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Welcome Jeannie!

Chris and I would like to formally welcome Jeannie Grochocki to Lead from -IN- the Classroom! Jeannie is a talented teacher and a passionate teacher leader. I am really looking forward to her contributions as we advance the dialogue around teacher leadership together! Stay tuned…

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