Hiatus

January 23, 2015

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A slight pause. Okay… a year. But, I’m back!
I plan to publish once a month.

Upcoming topics:
Demographics
25 years in a box
Dark side of the moon
Have we lost our minds?
High Expectations

Thank you to those that read.  The process is motivating!

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“Cool before I knew you”

December 30, 2013

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“Ms. Watkins,  do you know any humanitarians?”

Pause.  When students ask me questions that I’m not expecting, I will wait a moment while I process the question and make sure I know what exactly is being asked. Humanitarians?

“Well John, do you mean like Gandhi or Mother Teresa?  Where did this question come from?”

John was quiet a moment then admitted, “I was reading your bio on the school website.  You talked about something humanitarians… so I was curious if you knew any.”

Now I’m mentally trying to view my bio searching for humanitarian.  The quizzical look on my face made John defend his question and admission. “I was just searching around, just looking to see about all you have done.”

Humanitarian?  Think. Think.  Got it! “Do you mean Humanities?  I received a fellowship with the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Is that what you saw?”

Mystery solved,  John and I had a conversation about education and fellowships and the definition of humanities.  I was honored that he wanted to know more about my early life.  He was interested in the opportunities I had, the education I received, and the places I traveled.   As he was leaving my classroom, he exclaimed, “You were so cool before I knew you!”

I was cool!  I did amazing things around the world and throughout the US.  I became a life-long learner and engaged in activities that kept my mind fresh and informed.  I was a dancer, a writer, and an artist.  I was involved and fearless.

Wait… I’m not cool now?

Cool before I knew you.  The teacher/adult John knows today is a summation of the past experiences. But honestly, the amazing things on my bio were nearly twenty years ago.  20 years!  I do different things now that are still amazing, but different amazing from the adventures of the early years of teaching.

I always say teaching high school keeps me young. I am young at heart if not in years.  But my students see me as a peer to their parents.  And that is not cool.  However, it is a reminder to my students that their parents may have been cool before you knew them.   Just ask!

 

 


Are the kids alright?

November 11, 2013

End of day Friday. The fire alarm starts going off intermittingly throughout 6th period and into my last class of the day. The alarm was symbolic.  For several days leading to Friday afternoon, student’s stories filled my emotional bucket with their pain and fear and stress until my bucket spilled tears from the enormity of their challenges… and my helplessness. The fire alarm represented the warning signals, the  red light alarms and in some cases, a call to arms.

There is J.G. whose dad recently lost his job.  The family was evicted from their apartment and now their family of seven is staying in a friend’s garage until work can be found.  He is getting food from generous teachers on campus.  Can I expect his homework to be turned in on time?  At all?

N.B.  admits he is suffering from depression but cannot get the help he needs because he despises judgment from his family.  His dad is in the hospital and he fears being left alone.

A beautiful, talented girl, S.E. fears  that she cannot do it all. She tears up as she tells me that she cries herself to sleep each night and wonders if anyone cares about her.

L.W. sadly tells me her cat had kittens and all but one died.  She held the kittens all night and one died in her hand.  She sent her younger siblings away to insulate them, but she recalled the weight of the poor animal in her hands and asks if she did the right thing.

A.M.  states to  me before class,  “Nothing about death today…okay?”  His maternal grandmother passed away the night before and his family was devastated. He is trying to be strong, but grief consumes him and he wears it uncomfortably.

S.B. cannot say a positive thing about anything.  Beyond just teenage angst, this student’s negativity is represented in everything she says, writes… and I fear, thinks. Her cavalier attitude masks her into a person who is not very likeable.  I think she prefers it that way, but it is exhausting to hear.

My braggart, S. J., lacks a filter for humility.  His writing demonstrates how insecure he is… but his presence and speech turn people away from him until he sits alone wondering why he lacks friends.

L.S. graduated (barely). He was in the neighborhood and wanted to say hello.  He has dreams of “making it big.” “I’m going to do my thing.”  He is a dreamer and it was great to see him and feel his positive energy.  Then the conversation changed.  “I’m struggling in school… it is just not for me.”  “I don’t have a place to live.”  “I have about 15 cents to my name.”  “I don’t know what to do.” “I can’t seem to stop smoking pot.”

M.J. held back at the end of the day Friday.  She was crying before she spoke.  She reached into her bag and handed me a ceramic tool.  “Please take this from me.  I took this from Ceramics and use it to cut myself between classes.  I don’t want to anymore.  Please take this.”

One of the thoughts pounding in my head is “Why are you telling  me this?”  Quickly followed by the thought “Thank goodness you told me…..”  Hearing student stories like these make me think of many things.  There are legal considerations;  there are emotional considerations;  there are ethical considerations;  there are personal considerations… and they bombard me on this Friday.  Every kid… every person… has their challenges.  The confessions of this week dig into me and fill my mind with sadness, concern…. and helplessness.

I believe it is a testament to my teaching and classroom environment that students feel comfortable talking with me about EVERYTHING.  I’m honored.  I know many teachers understand the weight of responsibility that accompanies this honor.

The Offspring sing “The Kids Aren’t Alright” accompanied by this video:

The line ringing in my head is “fragile life… shattered dreams.”  My kids are other peoples children.  How can I help?  How can they help themselves?

Are the kids alright?  Am I?

… and the fire alarm blares again.


The Wheels on the Bus

October 30, 2013

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The only constant is change.

–Isaac Asimov

There is a cyclical nature to each year I teach.

The year begins with hope.  New kids, new preps, and an opportunity to make the year better than the last.  That is September. By the end of October, I start counting the days to the first official holiday (13) or I make sure to take a “personal” day to rejuvenate and remind me that I will make it to the holiday season.  The holiday season provides many opportunities to rest and teaching in between days off keeps me focused and motivated.  Then we hit the long haul… the time between the last break in February to Spring Break.  The familiar sense of exhaustion settles back in until we finish the testing season and the excitement for the end of the year swells.

There are many things that remain the same each school year.

There are many things that change.

I worry about the future of the teaching profession.  We are tired.  Demands that come from the everyday grind combined with the implementation of all that is new contribute to us being tired.  I ask myself if I really am any more tired this year than in past years.  Maybe I just forgot how hard the year can get?  But conversations with colleagues show me I am not alone in these feelings.

A colleague posted a social media status about the exhausting day to day existence that comes with teaching.  I was disappointed to read the announcement because of the negative connotation I read into the post.  Several other colleague’s and teachers responded with similar sentiments and complaints.  I get that we like to vent. I get that we want to know that others feel the same way.  For me, the concerns expressed are a warning siren.

My worry is that many of the good teachers will give up… decide that this profession is too hard… consider doing something else…. Or worse, stop being a good teacher.  Teachers need to protect themselves and work smarter, not harder.  But that is easier said than done!  Right now, I just want to encourage them to stay on the bus.

I hope that there will always be dedicated individuals willing and able to live the teaching lifestyle.  I hope there continues to be curious students that want to inquire, discover and learn. Every year I have students I enjoy and those I cannot wait to move on from my class.   But all my students deserve the best of me as much as I can give it.  I want my students to continue to learn and to find inspiration beyond my classroom to keep going.

There have been years where I felt like I was the driver of the bus.  Leading, guiding, in charge.  This year, I feel like a passenger.  Holding on, strapped in, traveling but not going anywhere.

The bus may travel the same road but the road is never quite the same.   With each pass and every journey small changes are evident. You may notice a new pothole, smooth out a familiar bump or sometimes rejoice in the re-paving of the road.

Sameness. Change. Exhaustion. Exhilaration. Worry. Hope.  Teach and learn.  The Wheels on the Bus go ‘round and ‘round’.


25 First Days

September 30, 2013

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50 First Dates is a romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler.  The main characters, Lucy (Barrymore) and Henry (Sandler), find love working through Lucy’s very serious short term memory loss.   As a result of an injury, Lucy’s memory only lasts one day; as soon as she falls asleep, her brain “reboots” back to the day the amnesia began. Henry falls for her, but must continually introduce himself over and over, thus making each of their “dates” their “first date.”

25 First Days is my schoolhouse version of this movie.

This academic years marks my 25th year in the classroom.  25 First Days of new names, new students, new colleagues, new rules and new hope.  25 First Days that allow me to “reboot” and start fresh.  And, for me, this is a good thing.

Memories and experiences from all my teaching years shaped who I am as a teacher.  I would say that it is less memory loss and more about learning as an educator.  Just as I encourage my students to do… I work to enhance my strengths and develop past my weaknesses and constantly embrace the opportunities to be a little bit better than I was last time.  This is for each year, each day, each lesson, each class period.  The ability to “reboot” serves as a way to keep me fresh and excited about my chosen profession.  Proudly, each year I say:  I am a teacher.

In the past 25 years, I have had contact with nearly 8000 students. I have seen reform, change, gains and losses.  I personally had great years and some not so great. Fortunately, I still really enjoy what I do and it is hard to imagine doing anything else.  And while much has changed over the last 25 years, I believe much has stayed the same (for better or worse).

Things that have changed

  • Reform of the moment (seriously… 25 years of what’s next?)
  • Teachers have become the problem in education according to many reforms using modern media to bash the profession.
  • Technology and opportunities to connect with students and their families in new and meaningful ways.

Things that remain the same

  • Kids want to learn and do well
  • Teaching is a lifestyle which includes long hours and students always on your mind
  • I can constantly improve a lesson (and try each year to do so)
  • Great teachers and mentors inspire me to do more.

25 First Days is an accomplishment.  Saying the number blows my mind a bit because 25 is an adult number…many years. Lots of time.  And it may mean that I am closer to the end of my career than the beginning.  The opportunities still exist to reboot. Even if it is over a weekend, an evening or just the next class period.  Like Lucy in the movie, our brains can record new memories while still accessing older memories.  For this reason, every first day is new.   For me, for my students, and for everyone.


Teacher Inspired: A tribute to Pat Hadley

August 26, 2013
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Pat Hadley on top of the world

 

A couple of days gone, but the sadness and gravity of the news lingers.  An amazing person… woman, teacher, artist, wife, friend, mentor, climber, biker, hiker… died too soon.

News stories, emails, Facebook posts scream the news over and over. Tributes, kind words, and grief surround the empty reality that as a new school year begins, someone who was supposed to be in her classroom this week, will not be there.  Now it is memories that keep Pat in our hearts.

Pat and I started at Valencia High School the same year. We experienced personnel changes, modernizations, good years and tough years.  Throughout changes, Pat was a constant. Constant optimism, constant enthusiasm, constant joy.

Adjectives that describe her flow easily: vibrant, kind, adventurous, passionate, loving, creative.  One key description is that she was an outstanding teacher! She earned the respect of students and colleagues and operated with an ethic of care.  Reading the kind words of my colleagues and of Pat’s former students demonstrate over and over the impact… the impression she leaves in our hearts and minds.

She made people better. Better artists, runners, and students.  She saw potential in people even when they did not see it in themselves and she worked to bring it out.  She wanted students to believe in themselves as much as she believed in them. I hope those students who worked with her continue in her honor. Desire better, keep running, push into possibility.

I have some favorite memories.  One is a Halloween costume (probably ten years ago), when she showed up at the faculty lunch with cereal box tops attached to her clothes.  “I’m a cereal killer!” she exclaimed.

We shared a love of chocolate.  We used to compete for the dark chocolate on the principal’s desk.  We both sifted through the treats to find our favorites and if they were gone we knew the other showed up first.

At department chair meetings, our administrators kindly placed chocolate in the middle of the table.  Pat would place her empty wrappers in front of me and make comments about how much chocolate I needed to get through the meetings.  Her eyes twinkled as we pushed those wrappers back and forth between us.

She lived around the corner from me. Every year Pat and I would catch up at an event and say to each other, “We need to get together with a good bottle of wine!”   We never did.

Numerous memories and stories are being told this week. As we all process the loss of a person we loved and respected, I am one of many people weighted by sadness.

Now the consummate teacher is teaching us to deal with life and death.  What are the lessons learned?

The school year still begins in a week. The loss is real and devastating. No doubt there will be more tears, tributes and memories on a common theme: Pat lived inspired.

We love her and we miss her.

Teacher Inspired

Teacher Inspired

 

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.  ~Kahlil Gibran



Why I’m a Bad Ass Teacher…

August 13, 2013

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Offended by my profanity?  Truly… I’m sorry.  But certain words have a power that simply captures an essence.  In this case, badass works.  I’m a badass teacher.

How do you define ‘bad ass?”  Need help?  There are plenty of sources to define it for you.  Check Urban Dictionary .  Or the Oxford Dictionary

Personally, I think Navy Seals are badass.  I think we see badass literary characters (Beowulf, Katniss), badass movie characters (Trinity, Batman), badass business successes (Branson, Oprah) and badass activists (MLK, Jr., OWS) that provide a glimpse into what is possible if we are willing to do something.

Bad Ass Teacher?  Sounds a bit oxymoronic.  Not according to a fast growing group of teachers linked together by social media with a clear message: Teachers Need To Talk!

Created by Priscilla Sanstead, a parent activist in Oklahoma, Dr. Mark Naisson, an African American Studies professor at Fordham University in New York and Marla Kilfoye, a teacher and parent activist from Long Island, Bad Ass Teacher’s (BAT’s) stated mission is:

To give voice to every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality. BAT members refuse to accept assessments, tests and evaluations created and imposed by corporate driven entities that have contempt for real teaching and learning.

The Facebook group grew to 24,800 members in less than two months.  There is a Twitter feed and a large number of teachers who blog and re-post about BAT.  Mainstream media nodded at the group with articles on Yahoo  and  the Washington Post.  Even Diane Ravitch addressed the group: on her blog and directly.

I joined the group. I do not agree with every part of the manifesto and every teacher who posts. I enjoy this group because they are not afraid to have the conversation.  I am excited to see what happens next.

Grassroots activism from an unlikely group… a group of teachers.  But this group of teachers recognizes that standing together, raising your voices and fighting for change is important.

To be considered badass, you have to change your attitude.

I think I am (a little) badass.

  • I recognize my voice and I am willing to have the difficult conversations about education and educational policy.  It is time to turn dialogue into action.  I want to be in the conversation.
  • I do what I do each day and after 25 years still love it!  High school teacher, three preps, variety of students, some challenging colleagues, and new roles.  I want to be involved because I want quality education for my children and students.
  • I am willing to improve, learn new technology, and change my lessons to best meet the needs of my students.  Can’t we always get better?
  • I stay involved and participate on multiple levels including my site, my district, and my state.  Teachers need to be involved.  We need to be seen, heard, and active.

 What to be Bad Ass?  Here is a starting point:

  • Say what you mean, mean it and follow through.  Don’t we want this from our administration, colleagues, students and ourselves?
  • Ask questions, both of your administration, your colleagues… and most importantly… of yourself.
  • Assert yourself.  When something is wrong or can be made better, do not wait for someone else to take care it. Jump in and ACT!

Bottom line: Bad Ass teachers have an attitude and behavior that is admirable.  On the spectrum of badass, I’m still defining where I fall… but I am on the spectrum.   For me, this is not a revolution but hopefully a revelation that teachers have a voice, teachers know some things, and teachers are willing to share.

Be Bad Ass!