Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Plug for Monsters University

The Cousins from the USVI are visiting and there's been days of nonstop fun and sleepovers and what we needed yesterday was to have them together, but more like Together, the Quiet Calm Version.  So we went to the movies. 

Monsters University didn't make crack me up as much as I expected, but there were some important plot points I appreciated (I'm overlooking the fact that few of the main characters were female and those few weren't well developed and fairly stereotypical) and which defied the usual "happy ending" pattern of the feel-good children's story/movie.

(Spoiler alert!)

The movie revolves around a competition our underdog Monsters team has to win to both maintain their college admissions and earn some elusive respect.  Along the way, there's emphasis on teamwork, on the value of hard work, and on seeing past first impressions and society's definition of cool.  But when cheating is employed as a strategy to clinch the title, and our protagonists endure the dire consequences, I kept expecting the powers that be to change their minds and restore our heroes' hopeful futures.  Because that's what happens--actually pretty often--in real life, in what's often justifiably characterized as a Second Chance.

But you know what?  There was no such reprieve for our main Monsters.  The end of the movie shows them dusting themselves off, heading off to the workforce they hoped to enter at the top of the heap, and working their way up the ladder incrementally from the mailroom to custodial staff to cafeteria servers...and finally, to the positions they always dreamed of.  There are hints that they've distinguished themselves along the way by putting their humble hearts, souls, and personalities into their work to reach their goals.

Accept due consequences.  Take accountability.  Don't dwell or pity yourself.  Don't give up.  Find another way; work hard; prove yourself.

I deem those rad messages for our youth (and maybe good reminders for all of us adults, too, when we're feeling entitled). 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

List: Bedtime Lullabies

I love that Little Sis still insists on a song when I tuck her into bed.

Here's the repertoire:

1.  "Ship in the Harbor"--I learned this one at Girl Scout Camp; our counselors sang it to us...

2.  "If I Needed You," Emmylou Harris and various

3.  "House at Pooh Corner," Loggins and Messina

4.  "Arrow," Cheryl Wheeler

5.  "Ghost," Indigo Girls

6.  "Jesse," Janis Ian, Joan Baez, Roberta Flack

7.  "Diamonds and Rust," Joan Baez

8.  "Annie's Song," John Denver

9.  "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," Peter, Paul, and Mary

10.  "Desperado" and "Solitaire," the Carpenters

List: Advice for New Teachers

It's been a week now since I made the decision to take on the role of principal at our high school, and the past few weeks have been a whirlwind of mixed emotions.  The end of June, with students and most staff gone from our site, is a surreal time anyway, with a few of us rattling around the office finishing up projects, hiring new staff, and planning for next year.  I'm straddling two roles for now, anticipating the official change in my title on July 1.  I am hoping to be through most of the mental transition by then.

Last Wednesday, on the day I met with the superintendent to confirm my decision, I was scheduled to take some new San Diego Teach for America teachers to dinner as part of a TFA mentoring program for new corps members.  The fact that I would be encouraging some of the newest members of our profession at the same time I accepted a new role myself made the evening more poignant.  I was reminded to listen to myself, too, as I spoke to the nervous, excited, curious teachers before me. 

Some encouraging thoughts for new educators:

1.  Be Real:  One of the new teachers asked me if she should admit to her students that she was nervous--or if that would undermine her authority in the classroom.  Every teacher brings his/her personality, with areas of strength and vulnerability, into the classroom.  I learned early on in teaching, and again when I left the classroom to become assistant principal, that I could only be myself, and to capitalize on the parts of me that helped me relate well with others in my role.  Attempting to adopt a false persona would be too much work and lead to mistrust and wariness among students.  Being real means showing your human side to your students and colleagues.  Acknowledging vulnerability is an invitation for students to embrace their own, a key component of an exciting learning environment. All of that said, balance sharing your personality with getting down to business.  Students know--and don't approve--when teachers make it all about them.  You are not the point; they are.

2.  Ask for Help:  No one expects you to know everything.  A most reassuring response from someone who is in charge and lacking an answer is an honest "I don't know but I will find out."  Rely on colleagues and beg, borrow, and steal ideas and strategies that make sense to you.  Ask questions--you won't appear weak or clueless, just invested.  Your students know a lot too about how things work at your new school; rely on them.

3.  Throw Them a Bone:  My best teaching and lesson-planning advice boils down to this:  students are excited by a classroom which offers intriguing stimuli and opportunities to interact.  Your daily lessons should include offering something for students to chew on, explore, investigate, discuss, question, probe, analyze.  With proper planning and support, you are then in the enviable position of observing brains in action and hearing insights as you wander the room answering questions and providing guidance.  Resist the urge to make learning a transaction between you, teacher-body, and them, whole-class body.  Make it more dynamic by removing yourself one degree.  Example: you can stand in front of the class and analyze a poem with their input,  or you can hand them the poem and see what they do individually and collaboratively.  Offer additional support or challenging questions in summary.  I mean, you wouldn't lead them on a scavenger hunt, right?  You'd send them off with hints.

4.  You Can't Stay on Top of It All:  Own it.  While you owe it to your students to return work and provide feedback in a timely fashion, balancing grading and planning is tricky business and you're likely to try to do too much at first.  Remember you don't need to grade everything.  We don't get credit for everything in life; some exercises are for practice or for us to understand ourselves better.  From time to time you won't have the essays graded when you promised them; they won't have their homework.  Model for students the importance of honesty and no excuses:  I had another priority.  I didn't finish grading last night.  It's not the end of the world.  Don't make it a habit.  Be smart about your time.

5.  Remain an Interesting Person:  Maintain balance in your life by investing in your hobbies (and sharing them with students).  Mine knew I loved running, writing poetry, and Africa.  I know teachers who bring in homemade food to share, talk about the books they're reading, recommend hiking sites, and play guitar for students.  Demonstrate your own passion for your subject and pursuits.  It's inspiring to students.

6.  Earn Classroom Respect Your Way:  Capitalize on your strengths.  As a new teacher I heard everything from "Don't smile till Christmas" to "Kick the trash can across the room on the first day to show them who's boss."  Yeah, no.  Those strategies were never going to work for me, and nevertheless, I even became a vice principal.  Respect is the foundation for a safe and well-functioning community.  Establish it, demonstrate it, and insist on it, with clear boundaries and expectations.  Each teacher does this differently.  When you encounter a community breakdown or have the need to make adjustments, don't feel it's ever too late.  Honest dialogue and student feedback can help you recalibrate.  Humble yourself.

7.  Delight in the Joy and Magic of the Classroom:  You've Committed to an Amazing Profession.  As an administrator I know if I want to have a good day, the trick is visiting a few classrooms, where wise and inspiring teachers are creating exciting moments for students.  Students and teachers alike share brilliant, funny, deep, insightful, problem-solving, and provocative nuggets all day long, and you are part of the action every day.  Relationships with students and your discipline will enrich your life in ways you haven't imagined.  It's a tough, often heartbreaking profession, but it's a privilege.


Friday, June 7, 2013

Tide Tables

Today when I picked the girls up from school I paused to watch the Safety Patrol's outgoing 5th graders train the new 4th graders, carrying out their street corner duties with enthusiasm.  I listened to Big Sis bemoan the impending retirement of two of her beloved teachers, with only days left in her school year.  Summer means awesome renewal but also transitions in family routines.  I'm feeling the bittersweetness of the changing of guards and trying not to be fearful of and resistant to change.

I have deep sadness that my "Work Husband," our principal, is moving on to a new professional challenge.  We took our jobs together seven years ago, both fresh in our positions, and built an enduring trust in each other and culture we believe in at our school.  I've learned so much about leadership and ethics and personhood from him.  It's hard to imagine making decisions without his wise counsel.  

It was inevitable that he, or I, would move on to another professional challenge someday.  Sometimes big change rolls around when changes were already afoot and on the horizon, when the fog of overwhelm is visible just over the peninsula. Sometimes we have options; sometimes waves are bound to wash overhead and it's left to dive under or be knocked down. 

I've got some thinking to do.