Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Break Thoughts on School

The clear blue sky gives way to a more appropriate grey-colored hue on this cold winter morning.  I was actually hoping for tons and tons of snow, until my wife kicked me and reminded me that we are driving to Colorado in just two days, and to please keep my selfish thoughts to myself until we get there.  I oblige.  My thoughts turn, instead, to other things - this is not hard for me to do - and end up where they usually do.  For anyone working in schools, this is always where our thoughts end up: in our classrooms, offices, hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds.  I received a call yesterday from a teacher, who was supposed to be on winter break, telling me that the lights which are supposed to be illuminating the school at night were apparently not on.  I reminded her that, although it was a dismal day, it was still day.  Those lights do not come on until dark.  She gave an uncomfotable little laugh.  I asked her what she was doing at school and reminded her that she was supposed to be taking time off to rejuvenate.  She said she was doing this - at school.

This is typical of many teachers, of many educators, and although I, myself, don't go in over a holiday break, I find myself constantly thinking of school.  I can't help it, and I share this story today.  Because I can't stop thinking of school...

Walking the hallways one day, I happened upon an unusual thing.  It was after making my usual morning rounds up and down the halls, in and out of classrooms, talking with kids and the occasional teacher if I happened across one on her way to the work room.  Most of the time I will stop in a classroom if I see or hear something cool and exciting going on and I want to be a part of the action.  It is the best way for me to know what's going on with kids and with teachers.  I need to feel connected, and I can't think of a better way to do this than by being out and about for a good portion of each day. 

On this day, I happened upon a classroom where I didn't hear a thing.  Not too unuusal; I mean, the kids were in there, this much I knew for sure, because I had already made a pass on my way to another room and I saw them in there.  And I saw the teacher.  And you could hear a pin drop.  I thought maybe they were taking a test, or someone was dreaming up an answer to a question posed just the moment before and I hadn't heard.  So I moved on, not being one to interrupt in serious moments of thought like what was certainly happening here.  I stopped for another visit on the classroom across the hall, where these kids and their teacher were dancing a Mexican Cumbia.  Very typical in this classroom, these kids were intensely focused on their maestro, as he moved with them through the steps in this dance.  I joined in and everyone laughed at my two left feet.  After breaking for a few hugs and some discussion on the history of the dance in this very important culture at our school, I bade them goodbye and returned to the classroom across the hall. 

From the moment I stepped out into the hallway, I could hear only sounds wafting from the lively room I had just closed the door on.  My heart broke as I moved into the doorway of the quiet room across the hall and witnessed the students sitting in perfect quiet (minus pencils scribbling) at their desks, their teacher staring out at them from her perch at the front of the room.  Books were open on each child's desk and they were furiously scribbling definitions from the vocabulary section of a basal reader.  I cautiously made my way about the room, attempting to engage the eyes of at least one child.  No one would dare look at me.  The teacher made no attempt to rise from her desk, if only to look over the work of her pupils, ensure that she was checking their understanding (although I cannot answer what it is they are supposed to glean from simple copying)... something.  At least something in the way of engaging these children. 

There are two ways of responding in these situations - the right way, or the way I wanted to respond.  The way I really wanted to respond would have caused serious repercussions for me, in the form of low teacher morale and feelings of inadequate self-worth. This is not something any principal needs when the education of children is at stake.  Everything we do translates back into the classroom.  The way I did respond is undoubtedly the right way. It is not always the easiest, of course, as tough conversations never are, but the results are definitely worth the planning and preparation that go into having them.

As I spoke with that teacher in the privacy of my office later that day, sharing with her the notes from my reflections that day, and asking her direct questions about the teaching practices and techniques I witnessed, some genuine, reflective conversation around pedagogy ended up taking place.  I understood but disagreed with her on some issues, and she with me.  That was okay.  The important thing is that she felt comfortable disagreeing with me, which was why we were able to come to some mutual understandings on my expectations for how things run in this school, while still allowing her the creative liscense she desires as an educator.  She agreed to try some things, and I agreed to be patient and help her along when I noticed her getting stuck in old ways that come from years and years of doing things the same way.  The status quo. 

I, by no means, rule with an iron fist.  I like to think I treat adults like adults, and that I have no need to look over their shoulder all day long.  At the same time, there are certain things I am responsible for, and the bottom lines for me are student achievement and social well-being.  This begins with relationships, but that is the subject of another post... 

Outside, it has started to snow.  Much to my wife's dismay.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This Christmas

On a gloomy Wednesday afternoon, no sun in the sky to speak of and a few hours of Christmas shopping under our belts, my son and I plop down in the living room and breathe a sigh of relief.  It is over with.  Or so I think.  For there always seems to be yet one more person to buy for, one more gift we "should have bought."  I start to get nervous and my head starts to pound.  Did we buy enough?  Is there someone we forgot?  Will the kids be satisfied?  Always there is this nagging thought that lingers until the day has passed.  And I begin to find myself hoping for it to pass.  That is the shame of it all.

My thoughts turn to the kids at school.  The ones in my school and so many others like it.  The ones who don't get Christmas, who don't look forward to two weeks off.  For these kids, this is two weeks away from perhaps the only caring, stable environment they know.  These parents don't worry about how much money they will be spending on their kids because there isn't any extra money to spend.  And the kids know that.  And they are okay with that. 

Let me repeat the last line.  They are okay with that.  This is an important point because this is, possibly, the biggest difference betweeen the so-called "haves and have-nots."  These kids don't need us to feel sorry for them; they don't need hand-outs, as so many people are quick to think.  Poverty is a horrible, ugly thing.  Kids and families who are living in poverty wil be the first to tell you that.  But they have learned something that many others have not.  Family is everything.  Relationships come first, and when the chips are down, family is what matters most.  Not worrying that someone will be happy with the gift we bought them at Christmas.

This Christmas, let's not worry about the things we don't have.  Let's not worry about the last-minute shopping we should be doing.  Because what we should be doing is counting our blessings and spending these two weeks we are fortunate enough to have off, with our families. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Funeral in December

Today was a day to remember, for all the wrong reasons.  Adults and children alike were crying - sobbing - into each other's shoulders, holding onto each other, coming together as one in a way I have not seen in a while.  Over the funeral of a child.  She was a 6th grader who had just left us last year; so recent I still remember that she did not show up for the 5th grade graduation ceremony we hold every year for our students, and the time I spent with her in the office, patiently discussing some of the choices she had been making, the grandma she loved so dearly and who would be so disappointed to learn of her poor decisions if I had to call her.  We talked of her father, and how he had died a few years ago, how she made bad decisions sometimes because of her anger over him not being there for her, how he would definitely want her to do the right thing. 

As Christmas fast approaches, I think of the family and the horrible timing of this event.  I think of how stressful holidays can be for many families, and how hollow it will be for this particular family.  At the same time, I think of how proud I am of my teachers who attended the visitation with me today, of how strong they were, of my health clerk who stayed the whole day with the family, and with 6th grade girlfriends who needed a familiar face, and who had so many questions about death and about why and about how, and who wanted someone to buy them lunch later on in the day... which she gladly did. 

Sometimes life does not go as we plan.  Sometimes we struggle to understand the whys and the hows and we can't comprehend that there just are no earthly answers to so many of our questions.  It is even harder when something like this so unexpectedly happens to someone so young, someone who had so much to give and so much more time on earth.  And how to explain all of this to children when we don't even have the answers ourselves? 

Later today, I discovered a few teenagers back at the elementary school where I work.  It was late afternoon, many teachers had gone, but many were still hard at work and would be for another few hours yet.  Teachers are, by far, the hardest working people I know.  These teens had all gone through our elementary school and were all at least a year or two into middle school.  A couple of them were at the funeral earlier today.  They had come back to a familiar place, a place they knew they were welcome at any time, a place they had grown to love because of the people inside - the people who had spent so much time with them over the years, the people who treat these kids as if they were their own.  There is only one thing that I hope children leave our school with, above all else - a sense that they are important, that they have purpose and that they matter in this world.  They get this from the adults who care about them, and if they have that, they can get through anything.  Even a funeral in December.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Thinking

As I sit here thinking about this blog, which I haven't updated in months, I decide to come up with a list of reasons that I can go to when I need to make excuses.  So here goes:
  1. Too many books to read
  2. I don't have any ideas to write about
  3. It's too much work
  4. My dissertation takes up all of my time (I haven't written a word in two weeks)
  5. My wife's to-do list for me is too long
  6. I'm depressed because I have to put up the Christmas decorations
  7. I have teacher evaluations to write
  8. I still have teacher evaluations to write
  9. Too many emails to answer
  10. My kids won't turn off the TV and it is OH SO distracting....
I could go on.  Really, I could.  There is always so much to do, and I am really, really bad with managing my time.  Many of us are.  And I think blogging is important, it is good for people, and it keeps people together - a community sharing ideas and learning from one another.  And so I will fire it back up again, get the juices going.  Because I have a lot to say.  Whether you want to hear it or not.