Memoirs from a Groupie

In February I attended the Wisconsin State Reading Association Convention, and had the honor of introducing Sam Bennett.  Truth be told, I was at the November Leadership Meeting in Stevens Point and they were looking for introducers.  I noticed Sam’s name still had a space for an introducer.  I bowled three people over to get to that sheet of paper and write my name in that space!

Vocabulary by Mom

I think my mother, Jean, always envisioned herself as a writer.  She wrote for her high school newspaper, “The Patriot,” and was the star editor in ’45.  She understood the significance of a strong vocabulary and how words could persuade, shape or change attitudes, emotions and values.

However, the death of her father and the necessity of work did not allow my mom to pursue her hope of a writing career. 

We’ve Only Just Begun!

We often think of ‘retraining’ as something mature workers have to do to stay employed.  Their careers have come to a crossroads: get retrained or get fired.

Yet, retraining is not just for the veteran worker anymore.  In addition, it doesn’t have to be a dismal fork-in-the-road event, either.  Retraining or relearning can give any professional the opportunity to reinvent his/her skills and share those skills with a brave and brand new world!

Parents, We Teachers Really Want to Work with You!

I wrote this article almost 9 years ago (reprinted with permission from JSOnline, August 27, 2005), and I believe it is just as timely now as it was then.  With Common Core, standards based grading and an onslaught of new initiatives, I hope you feel this advice is practical for everyone involved in education!

This is an exciting, almost anxious time as your son or daughter enters high school or begins another year of academia.

Agendas: Hidden, Personal and Otherwise

While we would all like to think that education is agenda-less, in that we are all working toward the same goal: the continuous growth and success of our children; there are, unfortunately, agendas.  However, it is vital to make sure that the only “agenda” is the one that solely focuses on the educational excellence of our kids.

A Hidden Agenda according to Merriam-Webster Online, is an “ulterior motive,” and the definition for “Personal Agenda” is “. . . someone having his own plans for what he wants to do, most likely for his own benefit.”  Ninety-eight percent of teachers don’t have “hidden” or “personal” agendas; rather, they are collaborative professionals who search for research-based opportunities to give their students the best possible educational experience possible.  However, the other 2% are looking for ways to further their careers or pockets, sometimes using their colleagues as stepping stones.  My advice, especially to novice educators, is focus on being a part of a team; join a supportive group or committee who partner for a singular cause – the growth of our children.  Be aware of the continuous use of the word “I” from those around you.  They’re probably not looking out for the greater good, but for their own inauspicious interests.

This summer I had the good fortune  of being a part of several committees that focused on initiatives meant to give students the chance to challenge their own definition of rigor and metacognition by self-assessing their skills, and the opportunity to examine their conduct by modeling positive decision-making and problem-solving behaviors.

There were three specific features that made this work so engaging, enlightening and endearing:

1) Common vision:  Every member of each committee understood and embraced a singular vision: raise ACT scores while encouraging our students’ individuality and uniqueness.  Whether we worked together as whole committees, or smaller sub-sets, the common vision did not waiver.  In addition, the common vision spawned common language.  Common language is vital to the understanding of the goal.  Members of the committees used the language frequently and utilized that language with other colleagues so all of us would be able to communicate accurately and positively.

2)  Mutual respect:  Everyone on the various committees had different skill sets.  Due to these skill sets, we deferred to those who had the knowledge, expertise and experience.  This kind of mutual respect allowed all of us to share our ideas; brainstorming lists on poster paper that caused those ideas to blossom and transform.  This safe environment encouraged members to go beyond the routine repetition, and instead focus on creative, resourceful possibilities.

3)  High Expectations:  Honor time and talent by having high expectations of individual product and group work.  Each of us was tasked with various pieces of the work due at the next meeting.  Not only was all work done when expected, it was anticipated that it would be reviewed and revised.  Again, due to the common vision and mutual respect, the committee work was accomplished and initiatives were created supporting the intellectual and behavioral growth of each student.

Last week, we began presenting the initiatives to the faculty.  Several faculty members asked for clarification and many had questions.  We sincerely appreciated their review of our work.  In addition, we were most grateful for their desire to want to do the work.  While we on the committee valued the common vision, and embraced the mutual respect, it was evident that high expectations were encouraged and envisaged from every person in the room.  In other words, even though we were a committee presenting to our colleagues, we became a team with one singular agenda – the educational excellence of our kids.

What’s Your ‘Feedback Loop'?

While I don’t pretend to know much about business, I do know something about education.  Since we’re nearing the end of the typical school year – what, maybe two, three weeks left for most students? – I thought this post should focus on the value of feedback.

Feedback is critical for the sake of a business to continue building, growing, creating and prospering.  Take a close look at the label of any product.  It asks us, the consumers, for our comments, usually encouraging us with a 1-800 number or an address.  Businesses want feedback, they need feedback; heck, it’s what keeps them in business.  So I thought I’d see what Forbes.com had to say about feedback.  What I found can easily be aligned to our classroom and our students.

According to Forbes.com, the Feedback Loop goes something like this:

The work of companies like Yelp and Amazon has transformed the world of business through the creation of an ongoing process of dialogue and response. These “feedback loops” empower consumers and enable companies to innovate, allowing them to constantly provide new and better products and services that directly address consumer interests. Well-functioning private markets excel at meeting customer needs based on their continual feedback.

“We’re in education, not business!” You might be justifiably wondering.  “We work with children, not companies!  How can any of this possibly relate to me in my classroom?” Actually, all of this relates to education and in a neatly wrapped package.

Take a look at the bold language used:

  • We want an “ongoing process of dialogue and response” from our students, our colleagues and our administrators.  Without that continuous conversation, we cannot differentiate lessons, we cannot support our colleagues and we cannot improve student learning.
  • We want “empowerment” for our students, colleagues and administrators.  We look forward to when our students are able to find the main idea on their own; or when our colleagues model the lesson we coached; or when our administrator entrusts us with a project because he/she respects our expertise.  We are the “company” to empower our “consumer.”  Let’s give them the tools to be successful!
  • We need to “provide new and better products and services” for our students.  When lesson planning, don’t you search for just the right strategy to fit the skill you’re teaching?  When I want to teach a questioning technique, I’ll go to Raphael’s Q-A-R or if I want insight from my students regarding their choice book, I might bookmark Gallagher’s One-Pagers for student connections.  I am always on the lookout for “better products and services” to support my students, my colleagues and my administrators.
  • Finally, take a look at the loaded language:  innovate; well-functioning and excel.  This is what a classroom based in best practice looks like:  the teacher uses innovative techniques in a well-functioning space to create excellence.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

According to Yelp and Amazon, their Feedback Loops:

1.  Create pathways for broad-based feedback.

We want our students, our colleagues and our administrators to be able to share with us the successes and challenges of an assessment, a lesson or a project in a mutually respectful way.  Therefore, be open-minded to their comments and use your coaching language to hear what they’re saying.  Creating these “pathways” will keep you open to new ways of learning which, in turn, will benefit all stakeholders.  After all, who wants to work with someone who’s not interested in growing?  Since you want to be the one to initiate the feedback, I’ve created for you a Coach's Feedback Form (found under “Resources.”)  Feel free to revise for your specific situation.  Remember, you want to demonstrate the value of feedback by asking for it!

2.  Combine the wisdom of the crowds with the knowledge of experts.

Since collaboration is the key to success in any classroom, it makes sense that as professional educators we are humble enough to realize we don’t have all the answers and are smart enough to seek those who do!   Begin with your students.  I always give my students an opportunity to share with me not only what they learned, (see Student Feedback Forms under “Resources”), but how they learned it (can they metacognitively verbalize their learning for you?  If not, why not?). 

Next, seek assistance from your peers.  Often, teachers are afraid to ask for help from fellow educators.  We are concerned it might be perceived that we don’t know our content or best practice.  Trust me, not asking for help will solidify those fears.  Asking for help makes you look brilliant.  Finally, seek out your trusted administrator and explain that you need some support.  A little encouragement by the boss can give you the wisdom you crave!

3.  Build strong incentives to act on feedback.

According to Forbes.com, Feedback Loops should result in “altered” behavior.  You want to reward your stakeholders for giving their feedback to you.  You want them to know that you not only graciously accept their feedback, but will indeed, act upon it.  Therefore, (and I know you know this is coming) a little baked treat goes a long way!   In true Peg form, it was important for me to thank the staff for their kindness, hospitality and courteousness in welcoming me to their community, and embracing my experience and expertise. Therefore, I baked!  I offered the staff an “affirmation” for all of their feedback throughout the course of second semester.

Begin crafting your own “Feedback Loop” to create the fulfilling and inspirational relationship you want with students, colleagues and administrators.  Remember the language? Innovate, well-functioning and excel.  Use these words as guidelines as you challenge yourself to ask for feedback, and embrace it!

To Market, To Market . . . and Who Do You Know?

Let’s face it, teacher’s really aren’t very good at marketing themselves.  As a matter of fact, “marketing” is usually done in the business industry; selling products and services, not an educator’s expertise or knowledge.

However, in the current world of education, that has changed. Most recently, I’ve changed my current reality and created a new one.  Okay, I quit my job and got another one.  But, instead of a lateral move, it was all about the marketing and networking.

Let me explain . . . .

In 2005 when I left the private school, I knew I didn’t want to be a traditional English teacher anymore.  For those of you who teach English, you’re nodding your head because I don’t even have to explain why, you just know.  From 1993-2005, I taught freshmen English.

Initially, I was up for grading nearly 170 essays (and the revisions) – taking work home and planning my life around grading (again, for those of you who know what I’m talking about, I even played the “How Many Essays Can I Grade in an Hour?” game).  My entire life revolved around grading papers and homework.   I creatively planned lessons focusing on analysis and critical thinking.  Heck, I even tutored students in the summer so they would be better prepared come fall.  The last straw for me came when I had decided to splurge one Sunday afternoon and treat myself to a pedicure.  As I was having the pedicure, I was grading the last dozen Romeo and Juliet papers.

Relaxation?

What relaxation?

I HAD to get these papers graded and returned by Monday!!  That’s when it hit me – I cannot do this anymore.

So, I quit.

Without another job.  Without prospects.  Without marketing or networking.

But, instead of marketing myself as an English teacher, I decided to market myself as an alternative education instructor.  I had the license.  As a matter of fact, when I earned the license in 1995, the president of the private school said (and I quote), “Why did you get an at-risk license?  No one is at-risk here.”  No comment.

I revised my resume focusing on my #952, alternative education licensure.  I revised my appearance, getting rid of the themed jumpers and concentrating on classic business attire.  But most importantly, I revised my mindset.  While the English teacher in me was definitely still there, the struggling student emphasis took over and I began to read books by Dr. Anthony Dallmann-Jones (Shadow Children) and read articles by Carolann Tomlinson about differentiation.  I knew the subject matter, now I wanted to know the student.  Who was the at-risk student and how could I make a difference in his/her life?

In August, with school starting in just days, I got a call from a suburban school to interview. They were looking for an alternative education English teacher.  Really.  No kidding.   The interview went very well, but when it was over, the principal confided that he had already heard a lot about me.  His niece attended the private school and I had been her 9th grade English teacher, and here’s the best part, she loved me! I was hired.  I started in August of 2005 and it was fabulous!

However, in August of 2013, I earned my Reading Teacher license.  In December of 2013, I earned my Reading Specialist license.  I knew I wanted more.  I wanted to be the Reading Specialist at the high school; planning professional development, guiding teachers in best practice of literacy and most importantly, assisting new teachers in reading interventions and strategies.  I wanted to share the latest literacy research and be the go-to person for reading academics.

Unfortunately, the district couldn’t make that happen.

Time to market myself again. I revised my resume focusing on my administrator’s license in reading.  I revised my appearance, concentrating on subtle make-up tips (remember, this is from a gal who wears only moisturizer . . . big step!).

But most importantly, I revised my mindset.  While the reading specialist in me knew the subject matter, now I wanted to know the teacher.  How could I support the teachers and make a difference in their practice? I began interviewing last summer because I wanted to see what was out there and what the world of reading looked like.

In late August, I applied for a position with a major school district but hadn’t heard anything.  Most recently, they called, I interviewed and the rest, as they say is history. I am now an Instructional Coach where I will be planning professional development, guiding teachers in best practice of literacy, and assisting new teachers in instructional interventions and strategies.  I will be the go-to person for reading academics – that means ALL of reading academics – math, science, social studies and English.  Now here is a caveat: a former administrator from the suburban school is an important person at the district where I was recently hired.

However, (and here’s the best part), she opted out of any type of vote regarding my hiring; in other words, I was hired solely on my merit.  After I was hired, she spoke volumes to her superiors about my worth as an educator and as a professional, but again, only after all was said and done.

So, in the world of business, marketing and networking are everything.

And, in the world of education, marketing and networking has become nearly everything.  We all know that our students must remain our focus; however, in this new age, it is critical to market and network so the most knowledgeable educators continue to grow and within that growth, continue to motivate our kids. Market, network and motivate!!