Monday, June 30, 2014

Go Big or Go Home: Why I Ditched My Teacher Desk....


"The key to this classroom, if you look, there is no teacher's desk in here. Desks are for sitting, and I'm not paid to sit," Esquith says.

Teachers need to stretch themselves to keep things fresh, to mix it up, and get a little out of that all too familiar comfort zone. I am still a new teacher, and I will say that I haven't slowed down since my career began a meager two years ago.

Right now, I'm about to start a new teaching position in a new school closer to home, and that change alone is a rather large stretch. Plus, I'm teaching three additional content areas beyond what I'm used to teaching, not just ELA and reading, but also math, science, and social studies. Again, another stretch.

However, I love the philosophy of Kate White, author of the book, I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know. She states, "To me, a gutsy girl is willing to go big or go home. Often, that means doing not exactly what you've been told to do, but do a little bit more."

With this thought process in mind, what is one clear way that I can "Go Big" this upcoming school year?

To me, the teacher desk is the answer. Get rid of the desk.

I think desks risk becoming crutches for teachers, and also a bit of a worry. Teachers exclaim, "Oh the principal caught me at my desk! What if I'm in trouble?" So, why not get rid of the worry?

Beyond the politics of whether it is appropriate to sit at the teacher desk during the school day, I also will point out that two of my favorite and dearest educators don't use desks in their classrooms.

  1. My mother-- My mom is one of the most dedicated teachers I've ever known. She actually changed her bulletin board daily, just to entice her students into the lesson she was going to present. Her students would try and peek into her classroom just to get a glimpse of her board, "What is the lesson about today?" they wondered. They could barely stand it! My mom had her teacher desk for just a couple years when she realized, "This big clunky thing is just taking up my teaching space. It's outta here." The custodians cautioned my mother that she would never see a desk in her classroom again. She responded, "Good riddance." She never missed it.
  2. Rafe Esquith-- Rafe is a mentor to all teachers. He spends every minute totally engaged with his students. He doesn't want the distraction of a desk. "The key to this classroom, if you look, there is no teacher's desk in here. Desks are for sitting, and I'm not paid to sit," Esquith says. Rafe is up on his feet connecting with his students. He's not staring at his computer, checking e-mail, or planning tomorrow's lesson. He's engaged with the kids.
Now, this is one way in which I am stretching myself for the new school year. I've got plenty of space to stay organized and keep files, etc. But, I feel that this decision will keep me on my toes, and focused in the right ways. I stopped in my classroom today, and it was gone. "Wow, this is it. Go big or go home."

So, fellow teachers, I'd love to know, what is one way that you are stretching yourself for the upcoming school year? How can you "Go Big" this year?

Check out the artcle on Rafe Esquith at

Saturday, June 28, 2014

For Every Student; There is a Teacher

" A rocket won't fly unless somebody lights the fuse. " ~ Homer Hickam, author of The Rocket Boys.

"Well, how do you think the year went for you Hope?" I asked hesitently as I drove our old blue minivan down the neighborhood street.

"I think I did good," she replied in a soft, timid tone.

"But, do you think you improved under her style of teaching, did you like that she was tough on you?" I asked firmly, determined for an answer.

"Yes, but my teacher made me a better person," Hope stated matter of factly.

Happy with her honest answer, I left her alone and kept driving.

I will tell you that Hope, my now nine year old daughter, persevered through the most rigorous school year of her educational existance (at least, from my point of view). Given two to three hours of homework every single night, she cried and became frustrated by the work often. My husband and I would argue, because she was crying, and we all almost came totally unglued. However, her teacher kept explaining that this amount of work was needed to get Hope on the road to success, so we, as a family, kept going.

I'm happy to mention that by the end of the year Hope made strong academic gains, and her organizational skills improved tremendously. Most of all, her scores on the end of the year standardized tests, skyrocketed from the year before, having exceeded in three content areas. (She failed two content areas by a small margin the year before and we were thinking of holding her back a grade). In the end, Hope appreciated her teacher, and now speaks of her often, never shedding a tear. The success in the end was worth the pain of the journey.

What kind of teacher did my daughter need? She needed a teacher who was well-organized, strict, and would push her to the limits. She needed someone to believe that she could master the concepts, and not let her slide. Hope's teacher held her accountable, knowing that she could do it.

This reminds me of another story by a high achiever named Homer Hickam, the author of The Rocket Boys, which was later turned into the movie, October Sky. Homer grew up in a poor coal mining town in West Virginia. His teacher, Miss Riley inspired him to continue with rocketry, when most of his family thought it was a waste of time. Homer went on to be a NASA engineer, and this is a letter he wanted to pass on to all teachers who strive to make a difference.

In closing, as teachers, it's important to research, and learn from others, but also, we must remember that for every child there is that one special teacher. Just being who we are as educators, bringing our best selves to the classroom, may be the key to unlocking greatness in every student.

Dear Teachers,
Since the book Rocket Boys, and the film based on it, "October Sky", were released, Freida Joy Riley, Miss Riley as we students knew her, has taken on near-icon status, especially for teachers, across the nation and the world. Wherever I go, I am thanked by people of all walks of life, but especially by teachers, for telling her story because it is their story, too. At long last, they say, someone has written about a real school teacher, one who not only fought for her students, but insisted that they learn. It seems to be the latter observation that's the most important to these teachers. That Miss Riley was a teacher who insisted that it was their student's duty to learn.

In "Rocket Boys," I quote Miss Riley as saying, "All I've done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what's inside it." She said that and this seems to be the key. I have visited many schools in the last year and in every one of them, rich or poor, I have met dedicated school teachers who have given over huge portions of their energy, their very lives, dedicated to the education of the children under their charge. What is to become of our children, they worry, if they don't learn or simply refuse to learn? I believe they will face a life of disappointment, unhappiness, and, worse, stupefying dullness. What, after all, can one get out of life if one doesn't have the information and tools necessary to understand what is going on about them?

I submit to you that an ignorant child is as sure a victim of child abuse as one that arrives in school with bruises and welts. These are harsh words but necessary ones. The vast majority of undereducated people on this planet are destined to lives of misery and unhappiness. And why? Because they lacked a teacher who cared enough, or a parent who wanted enough for them, or lacked within themselves the native capacity to wonder, to strive, to need knowledge.

I have never been able to understand anyone on this planet who lacks a need for knowledge. Is it not God's greatest gift to us all, this capacity to think, to wonder, to imagine? To not have that need is a terrible, brutal thing, an incapacity that must be recognized and changed. That is the job of the teacher - your job and mine. "All I've done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what's inside it."

I only wish Miss Riley could be here for guidance. She could teach all of us, teachers and her students, how it was that she, so early in life, found the key to her students hopes, dreams, and passions. Somehow, she did. Miss Riley was not an easy teacher. She was, in fact, quite tough. She gave lots of homework and required each of us to arrive in class prepared and ready to discuss the day's lessons. If we weren't, she made certain that we suffered for it. I wilted under both her tongue and her stern gaze and so made up my mind early on to study a little harder for her classes. I learned to discipline myself under her strict guidance. Miss Riley paid attention to all her students, not just her Rocket Boys. She was fierce in her belief that going to school was the job of her students and, therefore, sacred. To do a poor job was simply not acceptable. When I got arrogant because of my rocket successes, or in trouble for my failures, she kept me on an even keel with just a few words of appropriate encouragement and a form of tough love.

Miss Riley died while I was on military duty overseas. When I found out, I wished then that I had told her how much she meant to me. I am most happy that she lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong step on the moon. I trust she thought of her Rocket Boys when he did. In very many ways, her smile now lights up this nation, and the world, with the hope that we may once again find our ways back to the old ways, the ways of duty and honor, the ways of our fathers and mothers, and our teachers.

I sense the need of many children out there desperate to believe in someone, and to find meaning in their lives. For what life is worthy if it doesn't have meaning, a larger purpose beyond the mere gratification of needs? So let us resolve always to be more like Miss Riley.
I urge you all to seek out that spark of adventure, that crying, genetic demand in every child to know about the good and right things in life. If you're a teacher, be ever vigilant toward the cynical and nay-saying students in the classroom. By their cynicism, they can and will destroy that innate desire to learn. Ferret them out and separate them from the others if that's what it takes. If that sounds like harsh medicine, I say yes it is. But I'm talking about the survival of your child here. I'll tell you something else, too, that I strongly believe. If you're a parent, and your child is of reading age is not reading at least one book a month outside schoolwork, I think you need to get to work. You must somehow find a way to make that start happening. There is nothing out there on television, radio, and film, for the most part, but stupefying dullness. To pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to you and your child. They must read! Wernher von Braun said, "All one can really leave one's children is what's inside their heads." Education, in other words, and not earthly possessions, is the ultimate legacy, the only thing that cannot be taken away. I encourage you to be tough, exacting, even in a way ruthless - like our Miss Riley could be - to ensure that education Dr. von Braun was talking about. It is on our shoulders, yours and mine, to bring this generation, and the next, and the next forward to a good life. And it is also the responsibility of the generations themselves. We have a battle before us. Clearly, we are outnumbered at present, or at least outspent, by those who would take us toward cynicism and hatefulness, who would turn us all into helpless victims, unable to do anything for ourselves, who would happily keep us ignorant.

But I'm really an optimist. I believe there are many many Freida Joy Rileys out there who are doing the same, underappreciated job she did forty years ago and doing it just as well. Because of that, I believe our nation's children are heading for the stars. When they get there, I believe they will do so with their teacher's names on their lips. And it is right that they do so.

If you have a teacher who did the job for you, who went the extra mile, who you know made you learn even when you didn't want to, I hope you will go to them at your first opportunity and tell them how important to them they are. Don't wait. They need to hear it and you need to say it. And your students are lucky to have a caring leader such as yourself - the Rocket Boys story is a celebration of people like you who make a difference to the youth of our nation. I honor you and thank you.

"All we've done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what's inside it."


Sunday, June 15, 2014

What is Success?

Everyone has their definition of success, and that is good. It's truly up to the individual to determine his or her own set of values and goals.

Personally, my vision is clear and my goals are simple.

1. I am a child of God, and a lover of Christ. I seek to listen, and follow His guidance in all that I do. In Him, and by serving him, I am a champion. Anything that separates myself from growing closer to him keeps me from ultimate greatness, and hinders the real impact that I can make in my family, in my career, and with my life goals.

2. I am a wife and mother.  My life dream is for my husband and children to wake up, and call me beloved. I'm here  to love them, nurture them, and help them to be all they can be. By doing this I am a champion.

3. I am a teacher. My dream and calling is to make an impact in children's lives. By teaching them, expanding their knowledge of content, and providing an example of excellence, I am a champion.

4. I am a writer. My writing helps me stay grounded, and nothing brings me more pleasure than helping others find their voice. This brings me joy. In this, I am a champion.

I am happy for others in their quest for greatness. We all are allowed to figure out our own way, and this is mine.

In this way, I am successful.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Everyone's a Critic: How to Receive Feedback Effectively

One topic has been rolling around in my mind lately--the vital importance of feedback. I've worked in a few different professions: public relations, ministry, and now as a teacher, and out of those none offered as much feedback as teaching. Teachers are evaluated throughout the year, and given feedback on a fairly consistent basis.

This is great for a competitive person like me. In fact, that is one of the reasons I love teaching, because I get that feedback. I always felt a little let down or even demotivated by the other professions, which didn't give formal feedback or evaluations. I just had to sort of guess, and get good at reading people. However, guessing only leads to stress.

The flip side of the constructed formal feedback given in education though, is making sure it will push the educator to grow. Evaluators, usually administrators, hold that responsibility. This can be difficult, especially if the evaluator has to navigate through a myriad of varied personalities.  However, most teachers, much like our students want the--hard to hear truth-- about how they are doing in the classroom, and desire to be stretched in their practice.

I do want to emphasize most teachers, because some do not accept feedback well, especially what is perceived as negative feedback. They might walk away from an evaluation grumbling down the hall, and decide to attack the messenger instead of looking in the mirror. This is dangerous, and actually sad, because what they may not realize is by putting up a defensive wall, they are actually hurting their own career.

Over the years, I've had my moments and that is why I recognize it so clearly in others--the defensiveness-- the inability to recognize my own part in a problem. However, after leaving the ministry for education, I took a long, hard look at myself. I realized that if I've got not one, but several people telling me that I need to work on a skill like organization or system development, then guess what, the problem is me, and I need to get busy. That is when I changed my view on feedback, and became open to it.

Today, I welcome it--good, bad, and everything in between, and I've grown tremendously as a result. I know that it is out of love, not finger-pointing that most feedback is given. Effective use of feedback all boils down to being open, honest, and constructive with what is given and what feedback is being received. Each party is responsible for doing their part, and being self-aware.

How to Receive Feedback Effectively: 6 Quick Tips from the article, "Taking Constructive Criticism Like a Champ"  (The Muse.)

1. Stop Your First Reaction

At the first sign of criticism, before you do anything—stop. Really. Try not to react at all! You will have at least one second to stop your reaction. While one second seems insignificant in real life, it’s ample time for your brain to process a situation. And in that moment, you can halt a dismissive facial expression or reactive quip and remind yourself to stay calm.

2. Remember the Benefit of Getting Feedback

Now, you have a few seconds to quickly remind yourself of the benefits of receiving constructive criticism—namely, to improve your skills, work product, and relationships, and to help you meet the expectations that your manager and others have of you.
You should also try to curtail any reaction you’re having to the person who is delivering the feedback. It can be challenging to receive criticism from a co-worker, a peer, or someone that you don’t fully respect, but remember, accurate and constructive feedback comes even from flawed sources.
 3. Listen for Understanding
You’ve avoided your typical reaction, your brain is working, and you’ve recalled all the benefits of feedback—high-five! Now, you’re ready to engage in a productive dialogue as your competent, thoughtful self (as opposed to your combative, Mean Girls self).
As the person shares feedback with you, listen closely. Allow the person to share his or her complete thoughts, without interruption. When he or she is done, repeat back what you heard. For example, “I hear you saying that you want me to provide more detailed weekly reports, is that right?” At this point, avoid analyzing or questioning the person’s assessment; instead, just focus on understanding his or her comments and perspective. And give the benefit of the doubt here—hey, it’s difficult to give feedback to another person. Recognize that the person giving you feedback may be nervous or may not express his or her ideas perfectly.
 4. Say Thank You
Next (and this is a hard part, I know), look the person in the eyes and thank him or her for sharing feedback with you. Don’t gloss over this—be deliberate, and say, “I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this with me.” Expressing appreciation doesn’t have to mean you’re agreeing with the assessment, but it does show that you’re acknowledging the effort your colleague took to evaluate you and share his or her thoughts.
 5. Ask Questions to Deconstruct the Feedback
Now it’s time to process the feedback—you’ll probably want to get more clarity at this point and share your perspective. Avoid engaging in a debate; instead, ask questions to get to the root of the actual issues being raised and possible solutions for addressing them. For example, if a colleague tells you that you got a little heated in a meeting, here are a few ways to deconstruct the feedback:
  • Seek specific examples to help you understand the issue: “I was a little frustrated, but can you share when in the meeting you thought I got heated?”

  • Acknowledge the feedback that is not in dispute: “You're right that I did cut him off while he was talking, and I later apologized for that.”

  • Try to understand whether this is an isolated issue (e.g., a mistake you made once): “Have you noticed me getting heated in other meetings?”

  • Seek specific solutions to address the feedback: “I’d love to hear your ideas on how I might handle this differently in the future.”

  • 6. Request Time to Follow Up

    Other Links and Videos on the Topic

    Get Better at Receiving Feedback
    Sheila Heen, coauthor of Thanks for the Feedback, explains why feedback is so hard to receive and how to pull value from criticism.

    Receive Feedback With Grace and Dignity

    Find the Coaching in Criticism

    by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone

    Wednesday, June 4, 2014

    Three Keys to Working Successfully with Others

    Stepping into the uncharted waters of a new job, whether as an employee or a manager, can be overwhelming. Of course, many necessary items need to be learned, but the relationships developed within a  team can be vital for long term success and job satisfaction.

    Personally, I feel that I've done pretty well in this area throughout my life whether working on volunteer teams or on the job. But, it's never easy. I've made mistakes, but I always strive to learn from them and do better next time.

    The following are a few elements that I've found beneficial in creating strong working relationships:

    1. Be Ladies and Gentlemen- I've heard it said that the definition of a gentleman is someone who has the ability to make the others around him feel comfortable. This is essential, because what team player wants to feel uncomfortable? Here are a few tips:
    • Ask the other person a question, listen well and ask more questions based off what is learned. Don't talk about yourself, or keep it to a minimum.
    • Chivalry isn't dead- Hold the door for the other person (this goes for both sexes), look out for needs by the other person and help him out.
    • Be observant- take a few mental notes on what the other person said. What seems to stand out? What is most important to him?
    • Be present while engaging in conversation, and maintain eye contact. Do not suddenly start having a side conversation with someone else, check e-mails, or do any other distracting behavior. The listener will feel unappreciated, and disconnect. At that point the possibility of a strong working relationship has been damaged.
    • Names are important. It's been said that there is no greater sound to someone than his own name. I know when someone calls me by name, I feel more included. Learning names can be daunting, especially if you are like me and struggle to recall names. But, that isn't an excuse. Check out to improve name recalling skills.
    • Don't Gossip. People talk, but don't get involved in gossip. People feel empowered by knowing something that others' don't, and it can be tempting to run and tell others the latest tidbit of news. Others will love to hear the news! Just know that the flip side can be loss of trust and a working relationship with the person you are gossiping about. Ask yourself, "Will anyone really gain from this knowledge or am I actually doing harm?"
    2. Be Direct- Personally, I've struggled with this one. But, over the years I've grown to know the vital importance of being direct. It is unhealthy to hold in feelings of frustration or hurt. Also, holding it in can lead to gossip or blame. Let's say you are frustrated by a team member, but instead of telling him directly, you choose to tell everyone else around you about your irritation. Well, what happens? Of course, someone else (not you) eventually tells that team member. Now, the team member is hurt and devastated by your unwillingness to be direct.

    Also, do not vent hurts over social media, texting,  or even a direct e-mail. Those are cowardly mediums of confrontation. I love this scripture from the Bible, and it offers me strength, when I know that direct confrontation is required. "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him of his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother." Matthew 18:15. Finally, once it's done. It's done. Don't speak of the problem again with anyone. Forgive and move on. The result will be a stronger level of trust and understanding between team members.

    3. Be Patient- Patience is love. Relationships cannot be forced. It takes time, and demonstrating the elements above day after day until trust is established and goals can be met as a team is essential. Patience can be difficult though, especially when things don't seem to be moving fast enough, and the vision seems to be at a stalemate. This is when it's important to bring your best every day, and just keeping working. Be the example that you want to see in others.

    An exercise that I used this school year in patience included the following story. It was a fantastic reminder to me throughout the rest of the school year.

    This past Christmas, my pastor gave a sermon on the importance of integrity. He had the entire congregation complete this exercise. I took it, typed and printed it, and finally placed in on my desk. It helped me to bring my best to my fellow coworkers and students so that we could grow stronger together. Here it is....

    This scripture is often heard at weddings, but this one scripture can totally change your outlook by removing the word "love" and replacing it with your own name.

    Here is the scripture....
    1 Corinthians 13:4-7
    4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    Now, this is what I placed on my desk....

    Am I Demonstrating Integrity Today?
    Laura is patient, Laura is kind. She does not envy, she does not boast, she is not proud. She does not dishonor others, she is not self-seeking, she is not easily angered, she keeps no record of wrongs. Laura does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. Laura always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

    This helped me grow in so many ways. I recommend it to anyone who desires to grow in faith, as a person, and as a team member.

    As we all reflect on the past school year, and work toward a new one, I hope that we think on these elements, and find ways to grow and improve.

    Proverbs 3:3-4         
    Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.