Measures of Success

Back in the pre-COVID days when I was in the classroom, I was fairly adept at determining what success looked like in my classroom. Sometimes I used rubrics (writing or projects), sometimes standards correlation tables (usually for math), but most of the time I watched and observed the kids while they were working. It wasn’t about the assignment necessarily, but how they went about getting it done. The process often mattered more than the product.

There were those who flew through, doing everything exactly the way I’d modeled, and they might be able to speak to one or two parts of the work and explain their thinking. And there were those who took very odd routes (that worked a lot of the time) to get what they needed to done or those who used “It’s in my head” and indeed it usually was. And still there were those who got stuck, not knowing what to do next, or lost altogether because the words were different this time, the numbers different, or the work itself wasn’t something they cared too much about or were struggling to connect with. All of these things told me whether or not we were being successful.

(I say “we” intentionally. My kids being successful and growing toward greater understanding meant that I was doing something right. It was incredibly evident when I had done something wrong, both to me and to them, and being the un-filtered sweet things they were, they also had no problem telling me that a particular lesson stunk…and I was ok with that feedback–as long as they could tell me WHY it stunk.)

Because I had the opportunity to see the kids working, asking and answering questions, pushing back on strategies, reminding of format or necessary pieces, teaching in the moment with “Hey kids, let’s stop for a minute…” I was able to know in my gut, even before they finished, whether or not they’d gotten what I’d intended them to get out of the lesson. And when it was evident that they hadn’t, sometimes I’d have them finish regardless because the process of doing the work was important too, and I’d go back and re-strategize ways I could help them understand or do what would show growth toward mastery.

COVID and hybrid/online learning has changed that and now teachers are struggling to determine what success looks like in this alien world we’re living in. Teachers have had to strategize ways to measure progress differently, and they’re moving away from conversation, conferencing, and over-the-shoulder formative assessment, to Google form based quizzes, JamBoards, PearDecks, and photos of completed assignments (that may or may not have been completed by the kids on their own). Teachers can’t observe the process of kid-work from a Google Meet or Zoom Room. It’s just not possible and they are replacing observation with concrete types of evaluation to save their own sanity and lose some of the cognitive load that all of this has caused.

Parents mean well, particularly with their little ones just beginning school, when they offer to help or write for their child for an assignment, but part of a teacher’s measure of progress will always be the child’s own handwriting, coloring, words, and ideas. Part of learning involves the struggle. That’s so difficult for parents and kids to wrap their heads around–particularly the gifted ones who are working with perfectionism… watching kids struggle is so difficult, especially when you know you could make it easier for them.

One doesn’t learn to tie one’s own shoes by watching someone else tie them or switching to velcro or slid-in shoes. We don’t learn to make ramen (because we’re the only one who wants it on soup night) by watching mom or dad do it for us. No one learns to play hockey by watching Miracle on Ice. And we don’t learn to replace bathroom vanities, sinks, and faucets by watching reruns of This Old House on their own. In order to learn how to do it (and when to ask for help or call a professional) we have to actually give it a shot by ourselves.

Photo by Pexen Design on Pexels.com

The most beautiful words a child can utter are “I can do it myself!!” and even if the buttons are all wrong, the outfit is horrific (but would surely inspire some nut at New York Fashion Week), the shoes are on the wrong feet, or the writing is totally illegible to anyone but the child…it’s a win because the child advocated for their right to fail forward and make progress toward being self-sufficient.

The struggle is a valuable piece of learning…and teaching. Some say that writers, artists, and musicians are the most creative people on earth, but I know for a fact that it’s teachers. Teachers right now are doing several things at once: helping the kids in the room learn and observing their work in real time, helping kids online learn and trying to evaluate their work when it shows up in their inbox, and help kids who are trying to learn at odd hours because family work schedules and virtual learning aren’t compatible with no ability to observe or discuss much in the moment. And they’re trying a hundred different ways to do all of those things every day, and sharing what they learn with the other teachers in their world

So our measures of success have to change. It doesn’t mean working harder, longer hours, or putting together multiple sets of slideshows or finding more engaging videos for specific students. It doesn’t mean evaluating all the kids using a google form assessment for which there are definite correct answers. It doesn’t mean working yourself to death providing 47 different learning opportunities in one day and trying to grade them all, agonizing over holding Georgie accountable because they only did 30 of the 47 opportunities you worked so hard to provide.

Measures of success right now might be that you are able to identify the most important thing you want the kids to understand and grow toward mastery of in that lesson. It might be that you notice you have to change something in your presentation format because you forgot to teach how to use it…or really aren’t sure how to use it yourself but it sure sounded good in the moment. Measures of success might include that James is showing up to class and is fully present…that he’s healthy and happy and has something good to share during class. Success is that when you talk with Mary, she can tell you her story and show you with pictures (that may or may not look anything like what she’s telling you) how it goes…when before she didn’t know about beginning, middle, or end. Might be that Ciaran whispers to his mom who is off camera that he can do it himself during class and finally turns in a writing assignment in his six-year-old scrawl written at a diagonal despite lines on the page. Perhaps success is that LeDarius asked for a book about dogs to read for fun, when before he wasn’t willing to read at all, but because you gave him tools like audio books or LearningAlly, he feels comfortable asking for more…he is a reader now.

And sometimes, measuring success is simply a note from a parent acknowledging that they see what a teacher is doing and is thrilled that their child is happy at the end of each day, excited to go to school (whatever that looks like for them), and takes over dinner conversation talking about what they learned that day, or a sincere thank you from a teammate for an idea you mentioned in passing that worked really well for their kids.

Sometimes the measure of success isn’t something you can add to the gradebook that ties directly to a standard, but the little things that keep you going…the tiny bits of progress you get to see every day and the encouragement to try something else tomorrow.

Look for the little things. A flower doesn’t magically appear out of the ground one day…it takes time and noticing the little things like a bump in the earth or something green poking through is what shows growth is happening. The process of growth matters more than checking off boxes. Seeing the process play out ought to be your measure of success.

Photo by PhotoMIX Company on Pexels.com

Trust

A friend asked me to think about what the word “trust” really means. I’m presenting at CAGT on Monday (Please register here! It’ll be fabulous and virtual and you’ll get to see ALL the sessions because you’ll have access for a while after!) and really thought I was mostly done with the presentation itself, but the more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized that the work we do with our gifted kids hinges on trust and I needed to go back and revise my presentation a bit.

I am a huge proponent of teaching self-advocacy to kids, particularly gifted ones, because their whole lives their parents have been the ones to fight the good fight on their behalf. They need more challenge, not more work. They need to be in the higher level Bible class because they already learned everything taught in the one for their age. They want more time on the field to get experience vs. riding the bench every game. They’re not being bossy, but want to be heard and understood by peers and teachers. They may need to approach a project or other work differently, and need to be given space to do that without repercussions.

Every time a teacher says that all the kids have to do the same thing otherwise their work can’t be graded, my heart breaks a little more.

We really need to think about the purpose of the work we’re assigning. I’m sure that none of us assign it to give ourselves something to do at night with a glass of wine or bourbon. We should look at the work we ask kids to do not as an assignment, but as a measure of progress…and progress looks very different from one child to the next. Why does everything have to look the same? And why does it all have to be evaluated exactly the same way?

Amy McInerney got an award every quarter for her perfect penmanship when we were in grade school because she was able to form her letters to look EXACTLY like the ones in the workbook. Mine weren’t any less neat, but they looked a little different than the ones in the book. I made my T different in cursive. My Q looks like a Q and not a swirly 2. My D looks like a D without a combover. But mine didn’t look exactly the same as the book’s, so I never get the award and got a lower grade in penmanship than she did.

Because I make my capital letters a little different doesn’t mean I didn’t make progress…it just looked different. But teachers often feel that if anything looks different than the model or the example, it shows that the child should a) have to do it over b) take a lower grade because it’s not what the teacher was looking for or c) have to “let all the other kids do whatever THEY want too.”

The cry for conformity is loud…and frankly, I’m tired of hearing it. Now is an excellent time for change…since we’re revisiting what school can look like anyway.

When I talk to kids about self-advocacy, the first thing I ask them is how they feel about the adult or peer they need to talk with about something. Some are afraid, because their parents always took care of it and here I was asking that they do it themselves. They are afraid of the teacher or person saying “No” and then being humiliated. Some are excited, because they have a lot to say and would love the chance to do something the way they envision it for once. It does come down to trust though. Do they feel they can trust that other person to listen to them first of all, and do they trust them to at least consider what they’re requesting?

I had a student once who was brilliant and could talk about anything we were learning. The kid loved to be the center of attention and was incredibly creative and dramatic. The thought of hand writing an essay, or even typing one, created anxiety and the child shut down altogether. Some teachers would see this as refusal to work and give consequences like “You can’t go to recess until this is complete” or “You will have to do it for homework.”

I sat with this student one day and said, “Tell me more about how you would show what you know about the work we have done together if I hadn’t assigned an essay.” The things the child came up with! So creative and unique (and so much more fun than writing an essay)! Finally, we settled on a newscast, which would have to have a written script (which wouldn’t be graded for neatness, spelling, or anything other than content) and be recorded using a program we had on the computer. We created a rubric and specific “must-haves” for the work. And it was brilliant.

We created trust that day. And from then on, I began giving kids the option to do things I came up with or determine what would best suit their way of showing what they knew. We worked together to talk about what the most important things we needed to evaluate to show progress. Those things were the same regardless of the end result. Doing this gave them the opportunity to problem solve, back pedal, collaborate, or fail forward and reflect on the successes and what didn’t go as well as they thought. They always knew that sometimes I’d need them to do something specific because I needed something in particular and I’d be honest with them about what I needed and why (like an actual essay to measure their progress in writing an essay), but having that freedom most of the time helped them grow in their confidence and self-advocacy skills.

I think what hurt the most were the times where they were confident that other teachers would do the same as I had, only to be shot down with no discussion or support for their learning self-advocacy. More than once I watched confident and creative kids come back to my room after asking for what they needed saying that another teacher had never even let them explain their idea. I hurt for them. And I hurt for the teacher, too

Think about what that did to the student. Think about what that did to their relationship with that teacher. Think about what opportunities were missed.

Our work with these tall poppies is so incredibly rewarding, adding this layer of trust makes it that much better.

“What is a Weekend?”

My favorite line in all of Downton Abbey is from the first season, the first or second episode. The Crawleys are sitting around their dining table, and Cousin Matthew notes that he could take care of something “on the weekend” to which the Dowager Countess queries, “What is a weekend?”

Sometimes it feels as though we haven’t gotten a weekend, a summer, a break for a very long time, or have any time that isn’t spent doing work, thinking about work, thinking about planning for work, and we spend lots of time feeling guilty for doing anything that isn’t work, and hoping like crazy that no one finds out we aren’t working when we aren’t at work. And I am fairly certain that while these feelings are particularly common among educators now more than ever, there are a few other professions where they exist as well.

Teachers are overwhelmed…and that’s really an inaccurate statement. There isn’t a word that expresses what teachers are experiencing. During the course of the day, they are fielding questions from children in front of them, online, via chat, via email, and queries from well-intentioned parents on behalf of their children either via chat, phone call to the office asking to talk to the teacher while they are teaching to get clarification, or via email with a follow up several additional times because their first one clearly wasn’t seen in the moment but still requires an answer.

Between classes and after school, teachers are posting videos for kids who won’t see them until later that night or on the weekend when they can get access, calling parents back, emailing parents about young ones typing “poop” in the chat for 90 minutes because their parents were on their own meeting in the other room, dealing with their own adult versions of typing “poop” in the chat for 90 minutes… They’re brainstorming with colleagues about how to modify a lesson to be able to be done with kids in the room, kids at home on their own, kids at home with parents to help, and kids who won’t see it until late at night.

I wondered while I was working on my weekly preview on Saturday whether the posts I share on social media upset the teachers in my world, seeming rude and disconnected. I post about walks to the park, Zoom wine class on Sunday, naps while the laundry washes itself, and quick stops for beer on the way home because it’s there and someone else brings it to me. When I looked through my planner, I realized that those are tiny moments of “weekend” I’ve captured… My work right now is very slinky-like, ebbing and flowing with short spurts of work time in between coverage for this, that, or the other thing, with a few longer sessions where deep work can happen… I got better about setting boundaries and still try to leave on time, but there are meetings after 5pm to attend, work for other projects to be done, follow up that can’t happen during business hours because they’re working too, and calls from my mother at 3am, afraid and feeling dizzy, when I have to be up in 2 hours to be at school well before a 7am meeting during which I listen to understand…not respond.

Cousin Violet, a part of me wishes that I could live your simple life. But I don’t know that I would be happy doing it. I might for a while, only having to worry about local gossip and social convention sounds quite relaxing, to be honest. I don’t know how long I could last though…

You said it best, “You’re a woman with a brain and reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do.” And so I shall…and take pleasure in the small moments of my weekends.

Wise Words

Many days lately…since March, really, I have ended my day frustrated, overwhelmed, feeling useless or unsure whether or not I’m doing anything “right.” I have the opportunity to meet with a smallish group of gifted educators every few weeks and I leave every Zoom meeting feeling alive and so much better about everything after I leave them.

Last week, wise words were shared and the next day I went to work and wrote them on a sticky note and stuck it to my nameplate next to my door.

Because I have chosen to work in the field of giftedness, in collaboration with a bunch of gifted people, serving a bunch of gifted kids, these wise words are so incredibly important to remember, especially now.

We had dreams when our building remodel began. Finally, we’d have wide hallways for kids, beautiful spaces with high ceilings and storage, rooms used for a variety of purposes with furniture that could be moved and reorganized and modified as teachers and students needed. Beautiful colored walls, lots of natural light, places for kid-created art showcases, and outdoor spaces classes could use for learning on the many Colorado days that allow it. Spaces for kids to refocus, take sensory breaks, meet with teachers one on one, and for teachers to take a time out of their own when they need it, to work uninterrupted on curriculum development and unit planning. Community spaces for collaboration and discussion, resource storage, a gym and theater space that served multiple purposes from middle school sports to large audience performances.

And here we are, on the edge of October, with so much left unfinished, dedicated construction and finish workers taking care of details everywhere, trying not to interrupt meetings or classes, working around all of us who are trying to get on with the work of school. Other staff are helping get rid of or store things we can’t use right now or won’t use anymore, while still setting up the critical pieces for learning: blinds so kids can seeFamilies are deciding whether to come back at all and just homeschool or unschool, stay virtual, go hybrid, or choose elsewhere that’s in person all the time because parents have jobs and bosses who can’t or won’t grant any more grace because they have kids. Classrooms don’t look like they should with all the collaborative furniture separated to ensure 3′ or more distancing between work spaces and community supplies packed up. The question “Will the kids be allowed to borrow books from our classroom library?” hurt my heart…it shouldn’t ever be a question anyone ever has to even ask. Teachers are trying to figure out how to manage keeping kids in seats without duct tape (seems there’s a rule about that somewhere…) while simultaneously providing engaging performance theater for those attending from home and also fielding parent emails and questions about what class looks while trying to teach said class because they feel like they aren’t doing it right..perfectionism is a thing for them too. And all of those lovely community spaces…closed until further notice because people can’t be that close to one another…

The sheer number of new multi-page documents that require review, publishing, and revising is tremendous. And each one hurts a little more.

Fragility for all of us is real right now. On so many levels.

We hoped for perfect. We kind of expected it because we had worked so hard to make this happen. Perfect happens when you work hard, right? We knew there’d be snags, glitches, criticism because there are so many opinions about what all of this ought to look like and, questions because not only do things change with every exhale, but they change upon the inhale again as soon as you tell people about the new information…there’s more, or different, information.

In all of this imperfection though, Brené Brown says there are gifts.

The realization that you meant something to a child because they keep asking about you.

The understanding that process is much more meaningful and demonstrates deeper learning than product sometimes.

The willingness of people to reach out to each other, to help, to support, to “pop in” virtually so someone can take a bio break, to talk with families to try to come to solutions, to meet on the lawn to troubleshoot tech issues, to meet at night after parents are home from work to to help their child.

The new ideas that spring from all of this imperfection…

How will you see the good shine through?

Drawing by Ciera Gonzales, 2007

Anna Wintour’s Sunglasses

I’m fairly sure I know why Anna Wintour wears sunglasses all the time. Articles about her say it has to do with lighting during interviews, or eye sensitivity, or just her wish to remain secretive and mysterious and not have people know what she’s thinking. I am pretty sure I know the truth though.

School began for me about three weeks ago. Planning for the beginning of school began in March, when we closed rather unexpectedly due to COVID-19. There was no Spring break, no Summer break, and while yes, there were afternoon naps, it was a constant “on call” and wondering when the next shoe would drop–would it be a construction boot? A loafer? Or a black stiletto with a red sole? Not just for me, but for several of us, fielding zoom meetings, budget brainstorming, WebEx meetings, district meetings, watching press briefings, fielding emails, and loads of other things we wouldn’t normally be handling during the “summer” no matter what else was going on in the world.

I blogged about our Season of Sacrifice last week…or was it earlier this one? I don’t even know now. I wrote about granting grace to one another. I wrote about kindness and understanding. I wrote about frustration and sadness and overwhelm. I wrote about taking Attitude Adjustment Walks (AAWs). None of that has changed. It’s still our season of sacrifice…this one will be longer. A lot longer. And for those of us who feel all the feels, for everyone all the time, it’ll be even harder.

I take my dog to the park almost every morning and evening. Last night, I waited too long and who knew? It gets pretty dark around 7:30 now. This morning’s walk was really quite nice–still fairly dark, but calm. Tonight’s walk, while earlier and still light out, was…frantic. Between answering phone calls, responding to texts and messages, dodging kids playing baseball and soccer, kids playing unsupervised and running at all the dogs (mine included) while their parents were checking Facebook, children walking dogs bigger than they are and weren’t able to control, and a kid on a bike riding at Mach 12 trying to mow me and the dog down while grinning like Scut Farkus as he blew past a second time laughing, I finally just stopped, sat down in the grass with my dog, and cried.

I cried because of all the questions I have no answers for. I cried because I don’t have the ability to make anyone’s life easier. I cried because I can’t fix any of the things. I cried because some parents are afraid, some parents are pissed, and others think we’re just twiddling our thumbs by not being fully in person right now. I cried because I don’t want to be on the news…for anything. I don’t want a reporter saying that someone didn’t use the right procedure, cleaner, disinfectant, mop, or whatever and someone else got sick. I don’t want to have to call a class-worth of families to tell them to quarantine because someone may have COVID. I don’t want to have to quarantine myself because I screwed up and comforted an overwhelmed child. I don’t want to lose friends to aftereffects of COVID. I don’t want anyone to resign, quit, or say we didn’t do the proverbial “enough” to keep people safe or make their work simpler. I cried because I sat through an hour long meeting about procedures and policies about safety and felt horrible for the host having to answer questions that there is no definitive answer for. I cried because kids are struggling and teachers are frustrated and both sides are shutting down. And I cried because the list of all the things I love to do in my work, I can’t do…either because I can’t afford to pay for the damn conference to speak at it even virtually or because I can’t be with kids to notice what cool things they’re doing and see if my gut instinct is right or because there’s already too much on the plate of teachers for anything else resembling professional development. I cried because I’m tired…and I know everyone else is too…and we’re all worried that we aren’t cut out for any of this.

Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief, Vogue Magazine

And that is why Anna Wintour wears sunglasses. She wears them to hide the tears, the runny mascara (waterproof mascara is a myth, for the record…), and bloodshot eyes caused by carrying all the things in her heart. Keeping it all from the prying public, press, and young boys in green shirts at the park asking if there is anything he can do to help as tears fall behind the dark lenses.

Season of Sacrifice

I have had “blog” on my to-do list for almost a month, yet kept moving it to tomorrow, and then next week, and finally sat down today, my one day of weekend, to write while a Nora Ephron book plays on my phone and the laundry launders. I still feel the guilt of sleeping almost all of Labor Day, waking up to phone calls from colleagues and texts from others needing information, ideas, or support. Each apologized for texting late or early, calling multiple times, asking questions that they can’t remember if anyone asked or not already. I told them no apologies needed….this is our Season of Sacrifice.

Tina Boogren (Self-Care for Educators) talks about the “season of sacrifice” in her presentations, podcast, and books on self-care and support of teachers beginning their careers. It’s the season of the school year in which educators across the globe sleep little, getting up early and going to bed late, work longer hours than usual and forget to eat, and eat worse when they remember to eat at all–ordering DoorDash or GrubHub or running through the drive-thru at whatever fast food joint is on the way home and still open. It’s the season where teachers see few people beyond their coworkers and some seem to forget they’re married and carry parent-guilt around in a large Target-brand rolling suitcase behind them interspersed with teacher editions, laminating to be cut, a computer and tablet, gradebooks in various states of “done,” and reading material about new and improved teaching strategies.

This year’s season of sacrifice involves relearning everything, going back to our first years of teaching and feeling like failures, figuring out how to remake lessons to work in a virtual classroom AND possibly an in-person one without allowing kids to collaborate, talk, sit near one another, and still honor the fact that a third group won’t see any assignment until late that night or the weekend because they’re completely asynchronous and working on school after parents are home from work or on weekends because everyone has other obligations in the evenings.

It involves teaching ourselves how to use technology that makes us uncomfortable and angry, fielding questions from families and those outside of education about when the hell schools are going to “go back to normal” because none of this is sustainable. It involves sharing fixes or shortcuts with everyone else as we find them because none of us has ever done this before…and some are happy to experiment on behalf of others. It involves using phrases and words we hate in with the fire of a thousand suns because we can’t think of others that fit: robust, out of the box thinking, asynchronous, new normal…

It also requires sticky notes to remind ourselves not to read the comments on news stories or on social media, the ones blasting teachers for “not wanting to go back to work after a six month summer break” and demanding they take pay cuts or lose jobs altogether in favor of paying parents to be at home with their kids while teachers teach online. This season requires us to bite our tongues and not try to explain to those who can’t understand what toll this is taking on us, our school communities, our colleagues, our own families, and ourselves.

This year’s season of sacrifice means teachers and parents are asking for resources and there’s not budget to purchase it. It involves writing grants that won’t be reviewed for another month hoping that it will pay for a part of what’s needed, but not soon enough.

It’s staring at spreadsheets, data, comments, and emails all asking for more when there isn’t more to give. It’s praying that dedication to the greater good will allow teachers to agree to take on blended classes or a class they never planned to teach to accommodate cohorting requirements and hybrid in-person groupings. It’s going in on Sunday so that a colleague can find a little peace and have one day with their family before we begin again on Monday.

It’s hoping that health for all of us holds out until…until God knows when…and that we don’t lose anyone to the multitude of things that could collapse it all…everything from COVID itself to mental health needs to family needs.

It involves a lot of tears, guilt, shame, frustration, and worry whether what we’re doing is right…or enough. And it involves purposely reminding ourselves to find the beauty in small things:

poetry written by children that paints a perfect picture of who they are

teachers sharing student work with excitement and pride

square shaped clouds at sunset

art shared that excites others to try it too

books written eons ago that are still relevant

coming home to patient pets, curled up on rumpled sheets and blankets

a couch covered in furs without jobs while I work sitting on the floor

Spotify playlists collaboratively created with other teachers to share the music that brings each of us joy

sleeping until the sun is up and seeing the sun shine on the mountain during our walk to the park

It’s the Season of Sacrifice for sure, and I have no idea when it’ll be over this year. Take solace in those little things and write them down to read when you feel there aren’t any good things and everything is awful.

Odd Beginnings

I was on the phone with a friend the other night, lamenting 2020 as a whole, but specifically things school-related. When we ended mid-March, I couldn’t wrap my head around what would surely be the oddest beginning to a school year in the history of ever–starting school virtually when we are not a traditionally virtual school.

One of the parts I have always loved about the beginning of the year, aside from the smell of freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencils and brand new boxes of Crayola crayons, has always been making connections with families and kids. Seeing the excitement in the eyes of the kids as they walk into what would be their new classroom, seeing old friends in the hallway and new ones coming to the door. Chatting with kids-who-were-mine during quick breaks between conferences, and hugging siblings of graduates and kids returning to us from elsewhere were the highlights of those first days. My Facebook feed the last few days as been all about how much I love family conference days and how much I’d missed our kids and their families.

Connection is such a big component of the relationships we create with our gifted kids, their families, and one another in our building. For a gifted child and their family to see that there’s someone who will advocate for them, who understands them, and who will truly SEE them for who they are matters so much, and I have worried endlessly since mid-March about how we could make that happen for this batch of kids, those who are new to us especially, but also those we have known a long time and who we know have struggled since we had to leave each other so suddenly.

When I think about friends who teach virtually, they have such a small snippet of time to make a connection with a child that it has to be incredibly intentional–there’s no time for stories, explanations, or those conversations that take everyone down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland. Right now though, kids will need that–many may not have visited many rabbit holes or Wonderlands lately. They will need time to really show teachers about who they are, tell about what they’ve been doing and enjoying and hating about the time since March. They’ll need time to share about what they want to learn, who they need in their world, and who we will need to be for them. Parents will always have goals for their kids and all have an idea of what they think virtual or online school ought to look like, but the piece that we need them to not forget is that their kids need to feel connected to their teachers, school staff, and all the kids in the “meet” with them. Building relationships is hard enough in person for some (kids AND adults) but virtual is even more challenging.

Before anything else, as we begin this very odd school year, we need to think about how to create those connections with intention, giving kids and their families the space and time to build relationships that eventually will move from the screen to in person, where hopefully we’ll be able to hug and fist-bump and high-five and laugh together and HEAR the laughter of one another instead of just seeing “Lol” in a chat or silent laughter behind a muted screen.

Off Leash

I went hiking with a friend today and we brought the puppies (all the same age) and their granddad. Granddad worked hard keeping track of the puppies, making sure they didn’t go too far ahead, run too deep into the brush, and that they came back when we called, modeling what behavior they ought to be exhibiting out there in the world. My little red girl hadn’t ever been off leash before, except in the dog park, so this was a huge thing for her to be trusted to stay nearby and not run off into the wilderness. I was a little apprehensive about taking her leash off, but figured I had to trust her sometime.

As we hiked, she kept looking back to make sure I was still there, that I hadn’t walked off with out her, and she stayed with the others, romping in the tall grasses, running ahead and back to us, exploring the scrub oak for sweet grass, and investigating horse poop and other scat. She came when called, and was polite when we met other people on the trail.

There was something about watching the dogs run and play today that made me tear up a little. Those few hours of freedom, still under the watchful eye of both of us and their granddad, who would probably be quicker with the redirection than either of us, build up the bond of trust between us.

I remembered that feeling from the classroom. The first time I planned a unit and the kids had ideas of their own and I made them a deal–you go ahead and we’ll see how it goes; if it goes south, we’ll try my way. And it went great–they ran with their ideas, asked for help when they got stuck, and reflected intentionally on what went well, what needed improvement, and what they wanted to try next time. I gradually let go as the years went on, and we created projects together, a few playing devil’s advocate for their peers or noting that so-and-so had done X and the results were less than stellar but Y worked well. There was collaboration and discussion and the kids grew, learning by doing, with not everything dictated by me. I had non-negotiables, of course, but most of the work they did was self-directed, peer-reviewed, and intentionally reflected upon. It was in those moments that I enjoyed teaching the most.

Like my little red dog today, the kids and I grew in our trust of one another over time.

Right now, teachers are scared about the upcoming year. For their health, their coworkers health, for the health of their kids, their families, and their OWN families. They want explicit direction about what’s coming next and how this year will look, but at the same time they are afraid of losing those learning-by-doing moments with their kids because nothing is going to look normal–losing those moments that build trust in a community of learners. They are afraid of expectations of others outside telling them that things must look like this or that–especially when those others aren’t educators…everyone has their idea of what school should look like, don’t they? They don’t want to lose the freedom to be the artists using science to do this work…

I talked to a friend tonight and we agreed that “Things” should be my job description for simplicity. My role encompasses lots of things: projects, work, interactions, support, and everyone believes it should encompass the things they feel are most important or that it should look a certain way. The beauty of this role though, is that it evolves and changes all the time, with responsibilities being added, changed, updated, and delegated to others as they’re ready to grow into them. I was afraid the first year–I’d been let off leash and wasn’t sure where my support was–who do I ask for permission? for what do I have to ask permission and what can I just do? As I watched my little red dog today, it was nice to see her grow a little in her own confidence–she does know the right things to do, who to trust, who to follow. I remember when my director told me I didn’t have to ask permission for everything…checking in was fine for almost everything. She trusted me.

I hope that administrators can remember that this year can be a true year of innovation if we trust our teachers off leash for a while to do that work, using their expertise, their creativity and artistry, and their love of our kids to help them grow this year, in the face of whatever may happen, checking in as needed for direction and to make sure we’re still there and haven’t run off into the wilderness.

From left: Keeva, Cap, Trip, Delaney (front)

Limiting Beliefs

I listen to several podcasts throughout the week. Some, like Brené Brown, just bring me joy and help me know that I’m not nuts. Others, lift me up and remind me I’m not alone. And still others are more focused, such as task completion, leadership, or ideas that cater to my business-world mind. The one today was a “best of” because the hosts are taking time off (as they should). A common theme was that of limiting beliefs, and the hosts have no problem reminding one another that something they’ve said is a limiting belief…holding each other accountable.

A limiting belief is one in which you have determined you can’t see possibility beyond a particular situation.

Statements I hear a lot come from kids:

I’m bad at math.

I’ll never be a writer.

I don’t get along with so-and-so.

I don’t do <activity>.

But some come from teachers (myself included) and other colleagues too:

I never have enough time.

All I do is go to meetings that are pointless.

I shouldn’t have to <insert task or duty here> because I’m too busy with <something else>.

I only have <set amount of time> to get <task> done.

The only (or best) way to do <task> is this way, because that is the way I’ve always done it.

I can’t teach <subject> because it’s not my thing.

I teach best when I am not collaboration with others. I know my students best.

What’s interesting about limiting beliefs is that they all come from the same root.

Fear.

Fear of failure, fear of being seen as a non-expert, fear of asking for help, fear of needing clarification, fear of what others will think…fear is what drives limiting beliefs. And the more we say them, the more we believe them and the harder it is to see a way past them.

Because COVID19 continues to run rampant, with more and more cases being diagnosed every day and schools trying to make the “right” decision, limiting beliefs seem to be louder than usual.

School has always looked a certain way and we’re in a position to innovate a bit right now which makes everyone very uncomfortable. There are no right ways to do online learning, hybrid learning, or cohort-focused learning. We haven’t done them before in a situation where the stakes are this high. Even schools that have been around a long time and focused on online learning only use different models.

The most important action steps of the work we will do this school year are the following:

Serve the kids. However school might end up looking, the kids need to be the focus. This goes beyond making up for “lost time,” academics, and test scores. The kids need to know that they are part of a true community of learners and that we are all learning how to do this together. Own your mistakes and model healthy self-talk when you screw up. Ask probing questions when a child is frustrated to get at the root of what’s going on–this is just as hard for them as it is for you. Honor their big feelings and check on them later on in the day to see how things changed. Plan well, but don’t be married to your plans. Don’t be afraid to ask the kids what they need a lesson or assignment to look like if you see things are going south.

Be flexible. Flexibility is the key to succeeding in all of this. Schools will surely provide guidelines as to the non-negotiables in whatever situation we find ourselves in, everything from how many times kids need to wash their hands to how assignments are to be evaluated at each level. Your go-to might be to get incredibly rigid in the name of Holy Accountability, getting frustrated that not everyone is doing it your way, giving kids lower scores, more complicated rubrics, or shorter timeframes to complete work than you would if they were in the classroom, and getting upset when work isn’t completed at all, instead of going back to what you can do to serve the kids and asking what you can do to help. Think outside the box and see how you can make “what you’ve always done” work in another way that works better for the kids.

Communicate. With everyone. Often. More often than you feel comfortable with and in ways that go beyond your comfort zone.

Reach out to families often, sharing wins, asking for support, and asking for honest feedback about how things are going with an open mind and listening to understand, not respond. Ask about how the family is doing–your relationship with them hinges on the personal part…we’re more than teachers and they’re more than customers. If you do this from the beginning, difficult conversations end up being much easier later. Take criticism, which will certainly be a part of conversations because everyone is worried and stressed, and let families know you hear what they’re saying and will consider what they’ve said…and then actually think about how you could implement what they’re asking and how it might impact the greater community.

Reach out to colleagues and check on them. Ask them for ideas. Ask them for help or support with something. Give them an opportunity to share their expertise and collaborate. Surely their imposter syndrome is as loud as your own and having an opportunity to feel good about something would help. Ask them to check on you. Make regular check in dates.

Reach out to kids and ask how they are in ways that have nothing to do with academics, classwork, or homework. Ask about books they’ve read, games they’ve played, movies or music that makes them happy. Let them talk your ear off for a little while about the things that matter most to them.

When there’s conflict, talk to the other person or people as soon as you can to clarify the situation and fix it. This is not the time to let things fester.

Remember your WHY. You chose to become a teacher. You chose it. It wasn’t just something to pay the bills or get by–you chose this life. It’s not always easy and it’s definitely not perfect, but you need to remember why you chose to be a teacher. Why did you choose to work with this particular population of students? What brings you the most joy when you think about a day that’s gone well? What do you work on that makes you happy or feel accomplished? Write it on a sticky note and put it where you can see it.

Limiting beliefs are more difficult to cultivate when you think about these four action steps. There’s no particular order really–every situation will require one be considered before another, but take time to think about all four when you find yourself replaying limiting beliefs in your head.

There’s No Crying During Zoom Wine School

Shortly after the world stopped turning and we hunkered down at home in mid-March, a restaurant not remotely local to me began having a wine class every Sunday via Zoom. Friends shared the link with me, and I started going. They said the learning was good, but the chat was why they went. It lasts about an hour or so, and the chat was full of good people, funny people, and people looking for connection when there was so little to be had.

I started going and I don’t think I’ve missed a week since. Someone created bingo cards and there are t-shirts (I have two). Another proposes a wine school field trips when all this nonsense is over. There are guest speakers, winemakers, wine buyers, sommeliers, and other people from the restaurant world from their local area and beyond. And yes, the chat is spectacular. People worry when others don’t come or are late. I have never met any of these people yet I am willing to spend an hour or so of my Sunday afternoon with them and look forward to it every week. I learn some things about wine, and yes, that’s interesting to me, but moreso there’s connection, which many of us are lacking.

Social media right now is a hot mess. A friend deleted FB from his phone and is slowly managing withdrawal. Others have blocked friends and family because conversations have ceased to be kind, and others have simply unfollowed in the hopes that those people will stop commenting on posts to create drama and cause problems. In many ways, it’s almost as bad as it was just before the 2016 election, with outright lies, misinformation, denial of actual occurrences, unkindness, insults, and refusal to understand that behind every opinion is a human being.

A friend noted the other day that now that the 4th of July has passed, summer break is more prep than relaxation. In the before times (probably the best description I’ve heard yet), teachers spent a lot of July working on curriculum, taking PD, prepping their classrooms, supporting Target singlehandedly with school supply purchases so there would be extra just in case. This year, none of us know what to do because we don’t know what school will look like. Trump and DeVos are calling for all schools to reopen and things to get back to the way they were or else they’ll pull funding–kids don’t get sick, right? State and district-level administrators are brainstorming ways to keep kids and staff safe and healthy, while still complying with the demands of this administration out of fear they’ll lose MORE funding and have to cut even more positions, putting additional teachers out of work.

Building level administrators have it the hardest I think. While upper levels ARE thinking about kids and staff, they aren’t the ones fielding questions about exactly what the fall will look like and how their kids and families will be impacted. If you flipped through social media lately, you’d think that teachers were once again the problem and they didn’t want to come to work. But that’s just it–we do want to come to work, desperately…we miss our kids and families. Teachers are researching things on their own like face shields vs. masks, fresh air and how to get it into windowless classrooms, how to create a flipped classroom to maximize the time they get with kids, what to do when there is no AC and air recirculates throughout the building, how to have class outside or online while some kids are at home, how to create a community of learners who aren’t allowed to be anywhere near each other nor see one another’s faces, and what to do when teachers have left the building and go home to their own families, their own kids…is there a pile of teacher laundry in the garage and a shower to hose off with before they walk in the house to be with their own families?

While I was listening to wine school this afternoon, I came across a post a friend shared on her social media from someone else and I got a little teary which then involved some questions from others to just me if I was ok (Lambrusco doesn’t generally evoke tears I guess). Remember, none of these people actually KNOW me…but they could SEE me, and that mattered an awful lot.

I’m not a religious person necessarily, but sometimes, we have to pull out all the stops and call on whatever higher powers might exist. This is the post:

From Kathleen Caldwell Dial, “Wrote this today in response for a group of friends asking how they can pray for me. Wanted to share with you…

As you know, I believe in the power of prayer. Here are some ways you can pray for me, and any school leader at this time: Pray for our health, the health of our staff, and the health of our students. We love those we serve. Pray we can be innovative with safety measures given the resources we have and the mandates given. Safety is our highest calling. Always has been. Pray we can appropriately and excellently staff the array of school options we are giving families. We long to do great work and make a difference. Pray we can strongly support student and staff social/emotional/mental health and character development. This matters. This isn’t one more thing on the plate–it is the plate. Pray we can accelerate learning. Pray we can have the stamina needed for the big work and long days we have before us. Pray for wisdom. We have never done this before, neither have those who lead us. Pray for us to lean on one another, and our teams. Together is better. Relationships are central to our work. Pray for us to keep hope in the equation. It can feel like we are hard pressed on every side. Pray for our hearts. ❤️

Whether you are a praying person or not, these are the thoughts that our educators need right now. They need to know that they are supported. They need to know that you recognize that their fears are not selfish and that they’re not trying to get out of work. They need to know that their lives matter. They need to know that the things they are trying to do for the kids and families they serve matter–they’re well aware they won’t make everyone happy but they’re trying. They need to know that the public recognizes that they understand that there is risk involved in re-opening school…and that they’re scared too. Everyone from the first year teacher to the seasoned teacher and all of them in between and around them is scared too. A lot of what if’s are hanging over us, putting even more weight on our shoulders.

It was good to be seen today by those at wine school…just seen. They didn’t ask me to fix anything or go deep into explanation, didn’t make me feel bad for having feelings and showing them to a hundred plus people I don’t know, didn’t share their opinions on anything. They simply said yeah, we get it. And that was enough. We can get through this together.