Monday, September 1, 2014

Are you who you were a year ago?

Funny how small things like a question posed
at Abercrombie and Fitch in a mall
in Albuquerque, NM can spur your thinking. (2014)
It's been said that challenge spurs growth. New situations shake us out of our routine, and lend us new eyes to see things anew. Once in a zone of comfort, though, it can be more than a challenge to shake out of it or take that step into The Unfamiliar.

Those of you who know me will not be surprised to learn that stepping out of my comfort zone is precisely what I've done this school year. After 13 years in either an elementary or K-8 setting, I am back to my "roots" of teaching--at the highschool level. (Having K-12 TESOL licensure allows you to experience this wondrous dance.)

Change? You betcha.
Growth? In an almighty sense of the word.
A step out of the Comfort Zone? Neil Armstrong ain't got nothin' on this step.

One thing that is extraordinarily different for me this year, or at least this semester, though, is the fact that this is the very first year in 18 years of teaching that I do not have my own stand-alone class of students. I am co-teaching in all of my classes---and although they're similar thematically, it's a heavy content load for me. Not only am I learning how much content has to be covered in a single semester--Paleolithic Age through WWII in 80 days??? Wha...????---but I am also going to be uncovering and learning the ropes of co-teaching partnerships with a range of experienced and successful teachers.

Another distinctive gift is the fact that I am now working with many of my former students, ones I had taught during their elementary years. Some have changed mightily, while others are eerily reminiscent of their former selves, only bigger and with hormones. (Sigh.)

Needless to say, this semester will bring about myriad insights, so expect them to surface in this blog. Thoughts on co-teaching, differentiation strategies that can fit into well-established routines, having tough conversations, prioritizing skills and knowledge, balancing best practices in spite of testing rigors, and maintaining high expectations as part of a direct team will be on my mind. We also have several newcomers who were/ are directly involved with the immigration crisis at the border--yet another avenue of understanding. And of course, there will be thoughts and learning around opportunities for our language learners as older students preparing for their next level of life post-HS.

 I don't know about you, but I do love the opportunities brought on by change, and I'm pretty excited to be in this position. There are so many challenges, but so much to be grateful for. I didn't realize how much I needed a change in perspective, a different kind of push to my thinking, and how detrimental a comfort zone can sometimes be for one's creativity and lens.

As I filled out my self-assessment for our teacher evaluation last week, I was disheartened. Being honest with myself, I leveled my skills and abilities at "developing" (which is the lowest level) in the majority of areas. I had been increasingly successful the past few years, and had my routines down to achieve at much higher levels. I have much work to do--and while disheartened, I am also trying to be gentle with myself, remembering that we have only been in school 5 days. I have much growth ahead of me. And that also energizes me.

I will be reaching out to you, my readers, during this semester and year, and look forward to your suggestions, input, and advice. And as I do, ask yourself that question: Are you who you were a year ago? If not, good for you. :)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Six Signs of—and Solutions for—Teacher Burnout

As we begin a new school year, I realize that myriad tasks loom large as I make the move from working with elementary to highschool students. I've revisited some thoughts to help me stay focused on what matters most from the start of the year--being proactive rather than reactive...I doubt I'm alone with demands tugging at me from all sides, so I'd like to share these thoughts on dealing with burnout. Before it happens.  I'd love to know how you handle the many pressures of teaching--please comment below.

(this article is cross-posted from EdWeek:

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at home on a gorgeous Carolina blue day. It was spring break—and I was in burnout recovery mode.
I felt it consciously, deeply. This year has been oh-so-tough, for myriad reasons.
I also found myself wondering: Is burnout contagious in schools? Because it certainly seems pervasive. As we head into summer, I know my colleagues are feeling the strain of testing and staying motivated for themselves and their students. I'm far, far from being alone.
Let's take a closer look at this phenomenon that every teacher suffers—and rethink how we approach burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Teaching is one of the most visceral jobs I've ever experienced. It's emotionally, physically, and mentally consuming. I often find myself worried about how to reach every student, or wracked with guilt because I've let my work/life balance shift in favor of work.
I know what needs to be done to be successful, but there is simply too much to do. Still, I keep clawing my way back. Because in teaching, you can never do enough.
But that kind of constant, intracranial hammering is not sustainable. In order to address it, we have to define what burnout looks like. Then we can attack it.
Recognize these signs?
  • Exhaustion. This is a fatigue so deep that there's no way to "turn it off," no matter how badly you want to. It's deep in your bones. The kind of tired where you just want to ooze into your bed and disconnect from life.
  • Extreme graveness. Realizing you go hours without smiling or laughing, or days without a belly laugh.
  • Anxiety. The constant, nagging feeling that you can and should do more, while simultaneously realizing you need to unplug and spend more time with your family. But there are so many things to do.
  • Being overwhelmed. Questioning how they can possibly add one more task, expectation, or mandate to your plate. Compromising your values of excellence just so you can check-off 15 more boxes to stay in compliance. All the while knowing it still won't be enough.
  • Seeking. Losing your creativity, imagination, patience, and enthusiasm for daily challenges. Craving reflection time and productive collaboration rather than group complaining.
  • Isolation. Wanting to head for the deepest, darkest cave where no one will see your vulnerability. A place where your limits are unseen and unquestioned and all is quiet.

Emerging Stronger

Burnout has visited me in full force twice this year. It's brought me to the edge of my sanity, wrenched emotions out of me when I felt I could give no more, and sapped energy from the depths of my bones.
But guess what: I'm all right. I'm still here. I'm learning as I go—and learning as I let go. And I'm actually thankful for its visits.
Here are a few lessons I've learned from dealing with burnout in the past few months.
1. Sfumato. One of Leonardo da Vinci's seven essential elements of genius is known as Sfumato, Italian for "smoked," or "going up in smoke." This principle is the ability to embrace uncertainty, the unknown, and the unknowable. In my interpretation, it's also an ability to "let go" of everything that's left undone when you know you've done your best. Embrace Sfumato.
2. Balance. In yoga, those lithe bodies in stretching poses are beautiful to behold—yet the beauty stems from a tension of opposites. In yoga, muscles compromise to support others, meaning that balance is not a matter of symmetry as much as support. That's a lesson we can extend from our internal selves in order to seek out a supportive community.
3. Self. I'm human. It's not selfish to address my own needs or say "no" once in a while. My job, as much as I love it and thrive upon its challenges, is not everything I am. I am more than my job. I need my creative outlets—drawing, nature, reading, writing, and playing—in order to be whole and wholly present for others.
4. Relationships. Friends, family, and faith are critical. Time away from work is best for me to recharge—without distractions of work staring at me from home. Small adventures with my family and friends, exploring new ideas and places, writing notes, and sharing acts of gratitude are things that I need regularly. I'm also learning that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
5. Gratitude. Being present and intentional with your days, even for just a few breaths at a time, can give you a survivor's lens for managing the problems at your doorstep. For me, it's about having gratitude for the people in my life. Embracing the questions that underlie my curiosity. Remembering the passions that have driven me to and throughout my job. Holding a clearer vision of what it takes to make and keep me well.
6. Healing. Here's my biggest takeaway. When I lift weights, my muscles undergo tiny tears, with temporary pain—but the subsequent healing leads to stronger muscles. And the next time, I can handle a little bit more.
With these strategies, I've learned to view the challenges of burnout through a new lens and rethink the "gifts" it's brought me.
Burnout has allowed me to emerge in a stronger form—to be more determined and focused on what's most important to me in my relationships and my work. Now I see burnout as a reminder to address the things that my soul needs. And, although I'm far from perfect, I can now teach and lead others through these same feelings from a place of recognition and understanding.
For all of that, dear burnout, I am grateful.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Little More #Edugood in the Name of PRAESPERO

Last week I posted about the first recipient of the inaugural new mini-grant program called PRAESPERO. Today I'm writing about another recipient of the mini-grant, challenges she faced, and her lessons learned.

Glad you're here for the journey of this little girl who wanted to "help children in need" by creating school-related goodie bags. Initially she wanted to take them to the hospital, but our local hospital doesn't have many kids--they typically travel to another one about 30 miles away. Because of logistics, she decided to create the bags for students who are without homes, for whatever reason, and we enlisted the Salvation Army to help.

Unbelieving after her phone interview, she was an excited
bundle of nerves!

With her partner, we celebrated the day she received her grant.

Being silly and serious--the girls hold up the
academic goodie bags they created for kids in need.

Shy, but ultimately proud of her work, she displays
her first bag of goodies.

Spending their early mornings planning and putting it all
Our local Salvation Army director gratefully received the
goodie bags and answered questions about how the gifts would
be used and distributed. Ms. Wrenn also taught the girls about
all the different resources the Salvation Army provides for those
in need in the area.
Unbeknownst to them, local Salvation Army rep,
Jane Wrenn, had also planned to bring them a
token of thanks for their work. So, yes, the girls
received their own little goodie bags.
Karmic cycle indeed. 
When asked if she would do this again, our recipient said absolutely. She wants to continue to "help kids who are in need", even if it's a little at a time. Her biggest lesson was that planning how to use a limited money is "so hard". It took a lot of time to complete her application because she struggled most with determining how best to use the money. She needed adult help for this part.

The biggest positives she gained? She feels like she "knows what she's doing more" now. So, there's a much-needed boost of self-confidence that we weren't anticipating from this normally very very hesitant girl. She was also thrilled to have the chance (via money) to help other kids who needed it. (Keep in mind that our school is high-poverty (95%), so she and her friends are no stranger to what it feels like to need something.) The third aspect was how she collaborated with others. She invited friends to help--and although many said they would, only a couple kept their word. She had also secured donations from the local dentist to include in the practical goodie bags. 

Time and budgeting--such great lessons to learn, and ones that we are always challenged with, right, adults? Self-confidence, opportunity, and collaboration to solve a community problem she had determined herself? Priceless. Worth every penny of the mini-grant. And then some. 

It was a blessing to be involved with Praespero this year, and we're anxious to watch it evolve and grow in new ways this coming school year. Mini-grants will be available this fall, specifically for younger students, and the primary stipulation is that they must use their resources to help someone else. Pretty broad, but then, we want them to "Believe Big".

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Little #Edugood Can Go A Long Way

This year, there were two recipients of the inaugural Praespero grants for goodness, and I want to honor their efforts.

First, a little about the idea behind Praespero. "Praespero" is a Latin word that represents the idea of nourishing hope, of anticipating good things to come. It also represents a new program which awards grants to elementary students who want to do things for others. Simply stated, the program's goal is:

helping create the conditions for students to help others in their own way 

Our first recipient was a 4th grader whose goal was to create programs for her brothers' first grade classroom. A creative and caring student, she wanted to provide games for younger students, create activities like scavenger hunts and crafting for younger classes, and also raise money for a school in Nepal. Her project request for the grant was money to buy beads and supplies to "make bracelets or any jewelry from different cultures". She planned to teach first graders how to make them with her, then sell them during Cultural Night "so with the money we can help the poor in Nepal or somewhere else." 
Selling multicolored bracelets representing different
countries' flags. 

She said prior to starting her project: 
"this project is important to me because theres many people out there who need help."

Her reflection after the project was complete?
She enjoyed making the bracelets, and her favorite part was teaching the first graders how to make them. She sold them at the Cultural Night, as she had planned, but didn't make as much money as she had hoped. (She also learned a valuable lesson about many hands in the money pot.) :(

Instead of donating the small amount, she decided to reinvest in more jewelry making supplies to try it again. She figured out that rainbow looms are popular: "for sure the first graders loved it" (making rainbow loom bracelets). "Whenever I came into their class, they would whisper 'when are we going to do the bracelets?'" She said,
"I am really glad to be with them. They are little cheeruppers when I see them."
 They donated the money they raised from the new bracelets to help build a handicap ramp for one of our school's students. They kept it local, and it wasn't according to her original goal, but she learned about budgeting and planning. Most importantly, she continued to demonstrate her ability to pursue a vision to "help people who need it."
She also created a puppet theater for the younger kids, and
games with prizes to win--all from cardboard. This girl is
full of wonderful, thoughtful ideas.

Love people around you and have a kind heart. 
What more do you need?
We feel that she definitely made use of the opportunity to help others in her own way.

I'm sure you can think of your own students who love to pass along the goodness. How can we support our students' spirit and desires to help even more?

The next post will be about our second recipient of the Praespero mini-grant. Stay tuned.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

How My Students Rated Me This Year

End of the year reviews from my administrators? Yep. They matter. I've gotta say, though, I'm a pretty reflective teacher, and I inevitably end up with an entire page of things on my own that I'd like to improve upon in the upcoming year. Chances are, I will have beat my admin to the critical punch, but I appreciate the insights from another lens.

What really have made a difference for me are the reviews from my students, which I will share in just a moment. First, I'd love to send a shout-out to a virtual colleague and mentor I admire: Larry Ferlazzo encouraged me years ago to take my year-end student feedback a step further, which I did. This year marks the first time I'm taking it public, though!

With elementary students, it's a fine balance to encourage their critique without feeding them ideas. The relationships built with them throughout the year helps them understand the need for honesty, too. We do several mini-ratings throughout the year, when they have the chance to practice being honest with how they are feeling and the extent to which an activity was academically useful. Of course, they are 8 and 9 year olds, so while they have a knack for keeping things real for you, some of their answers will delight and entertain you.

If you ask for, and encourage honesty, you should be ready for it. ;-)

So, here's how the feedback form is set up: (Again, thank you, Larry, as several of these elements are modified from your ideas)

  • A list of activities that are common in our class (differing each year)--rated on a scale of 1, 2, or 3, with one being the lowest, and 3 the highest. 2 is obviously in the middle. 
  • The first time these activities are listed, students are asked how much they like them. 1=hated it, 3=loved it. Examples include: reading in class, when Ms. Wendi does interactive read-alouds, writing extended responses to questions, meeting other students via technology (Skype, hangout, blogging, etc.), reading at home, playing games, drawing visuals, and when Ms. Wendi creates visuals.
  • The second time these activities are listed, students are asked how much they learned from these activities. 1=you didn't learn much from it, 3=you learned a lot from it.
  • They were then asked to rate me, again with 1, 2, or 3--1=ooh, needs some help, 2=alright, 3=awesome ;-).
  • Other questions asked about the pace of the class, whether they would be interested in having me as a teacher again, and 2 things I could do to be a better teacher next year. 
Results: (drumroll!) (Donning thick skin!)

(I feel it is useful to read it all aloud because of my students' language proficiency levels. Of course, you may choose not to.)

The least liked activities were: reading at home, writing extended responses, and reading in class. Other activities that had a handful of 2's: games and drawing visuals. 
All other activities were rated with 3's.

About half responded with all 3's for how much they learned from the activities. Those who claimed otherwise, rated reading at home and playing games (surprisingly honest!) the lowest. Writing responses to questions came in a close third. The plusses and smiles came with their ratings for when I create visuals!

The areas I need to work on most? According to my little experts, I talk too much and need to work on class discipline, although the pace of the class is "just right". Points taken--although this is where the proof  lies for me in the value of these surveys--it really makes me think of when I talked "too much" and how to tweak my instruction and management accordingly. Makes for far deeper reflection than any administrative eval, at least for me. 

A couple of other 2's told me I could be more patient, fair, and friendly. At the same time, I also had notes in the margin for "be more nice", "asome saus", A-, and "All 3's". It's helpful to know they believe I know what I'm doing, am organized, prepared, and work hard. But I know I also need to work on getting to know them better, earlier--and yes, I need to temper my expectations in a friendlier ("nicer") way, and express frustrations calmly. (which I thought I tried hard to do--but like I said, kids will keep it real for you!) 

And the final question? 2 things I can do to be a better teacher next year? Well, let me give you a sampling. :-)
  • give more hugs more often
  • keep trying good
  • don't be mean
  • make them all read
  • be nice
  • do better in writing, reading, "tung twisted"
  • do more activities
  • more poetry and nice
  • learn from kids
  • give more things
  • love more people
  • be nice and keep help people
  • read us more books
  • teach us Spanish
  • give us free candy
  • give us lots of hugs
  • read better (hmmm?)
  • she so cool
  • she can be cool and happy
  • shut everybody's mouth
  • how to talk in Spanish
  • give us notebooks 
  • give us free pencils
So, you get the idea. Honest, and although basic, you can see where the concerns of the kids lie. And again, their comments get in my head to serve as superior reflective catalysts. 

But, the kicker this year? Apparently I was focusing my efforts in the very wrong place, as evidenced by some final pieces of advice. :-)

And yep, definitely saved the best for last here:
  • "geting new shose"
  • "find a men"
  • "put make up"
Kids, thank you for definitely keeping things real for me!  

Don't forget to be awesome this summer!
Ms. Wendi