Taking stock.

One of my BFFs recently posted her highlights of her summer, most, if not all, included time spent with friends and family. Her wonderful words made me stop and think what would I be grateful for about these past few weeks? I need to step out of the mud miring the beginning of this school year, forget about all the people who say, “oh, you get summers off!” and show some gratitude and count some blessings.

Before I can get to the chewy center, though, I need to get this off my chest: teachers get the summers off because our students do. We are not paid. We are not under ‘contract.’ We are on a forced vacation. Many teachers take summer jobs. Many teachers teach summer school. Most teachers do some sort of professional development, paid for out of their time and pocketbooks. If I added up the hours I spent working during the school year, it would equal any high-level executive, including being accessible to students practically 24/7 on e-mail, voice mail, and in person before or after school (unless of course I am in a meeting, which is often the case…we have meetings to talk about how to help students while the students are standing outside in the cold, literally and figuratively). I put in my time well beyond my contract day, and I love my job, so it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice or burden. And, one of the reasons I became a teacher (as opposed to going back into a higher-paying position) was I knew the sacrifice of salary would allow me to spend time with my family, too. So, fine. Yes. I’m lucky to have ‘summers off.’ But it is kind of hard to be a teacher when the students are not there! Most schools in the United States still run on an agrarian calendar, meaning we don’t have school when the children need to be working the farms with their parents. What? You say you don’t have a farm? Oh.

Anyway, here are the highlights of my summer:

  • Meeting new friends during my three-week writers’ workshop
  • Discovering the UW campus at that workshop
  • Seeing my youngest sister and her family
  • Having our portraits taken by a talented photographer who captured a beautiful photo of me and my two sisters (my parents will LOVE it!)
  • Enjoying time in Texas
  • Being there when my grandmother had her 90th birthday
  • Getting the garage cleaned out and finding all of my Halloween decorations for a spooky October this year
  • Learning how to make glass pendants
  • Reading some great books
  • Spending time with my dad
  • Learning about a variety of good news from friends and colleagues
  • Getting some of my sleep issues taken care of
  • Spending time with my boys and my husband, and actually having time to cook meals, talk, and enjoy each others’ company (this isn’t last because it’s the least important, it is the most important one of all, and supports everything else I do)

So, it’s time to enjoy the mental ‘harvest’ I’ve collected over the summer, and use it to nourish me throughout the school year. I am honored to be a teacher, and get to meet this next group of young adults. See you soon!

Control issues.

All together now...
All together now…

So, I wasn’t surprised this morning when I woke up to read a front-page story on the Seattle Times Internet page regarding that the teachers’ union and the school district still haven’t reached a compromise. Maybe the word “compromise” is too generous. Compromise suggests that both sides are willing to give up a little bit to gain a little bit to make everyone happy, or at least satisfied. I’m getting the sense that both sides have become entrenched and are not willing to budge. This is my impression, and I don’t know what the truth is.

The individuals in groups are usually well-intentioned, caring people. And when you get them in a large group, sometimes mob rule can get out of hand, or “group think.”  As Agent Kay said in Men In Black, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

And having never been in the middle of this type of negotiation, many things have surprised me. I guess if I had really thought about it, I wouldn’t have been taken aback. (I’m building schema, making new inferences, drawing conclusions, and synthesizing information!)

When the union called for the strike and the majority of teachers voted for it, I knew from my gut and experience that it would take a few days for it to really “sink in” to feel the effects of this. Check that one off the list.

When we receive updates and new information, I knew from my gut and experience that the information presented would still be unsatisfying, emotional, full of rhetoric, both useful and trashy, and not very detailed. Check.

Detailed? That’s where my personal control issues come in, and why I’m a little emotional right now. The ‘nuts and bolts’ of what it means to go on strike were not presented in a very clear manner. I keep thinking I missed something, didn’t get enough information, that maybe somewhere, somehow, there is a clear list of what precisely happens when a teachers’ union strikes. The information presented from both groups is murky, riddled with inaccuracies, and covered in muck. My instincts are to dig deeper and ask more questions. For example, why are teachers required to belong to the union in the first place? Are there alternatives? Who decides when things have gone far enough, and in order to ‘save face’ what are the two sides willing to do? When does strength in unity become stubbornness?

Well, here’s what I do know: The only things I can control are what I’m doing today. I will move forward with organizing lessons. I will go ahead and write my congratulatory notes to some of my students from last year, and get them ready to mail. I will read more regarding National Boards and start to organize my thoughts on the portfolio entries. And, I will empty the dishwasher and fold some laundry. Check, check, and check!

And I will keep waiting for tomorrow, and what I’ll know.

Wow. That was weird.

 Well, last night I had a surreal experience. I went to my first large group teachers’ union meeting. I’m still trying to untangle how democratic the process was, what benefit it created, or detriment the outcome threatens. But before I go any further with my thoughts, I will say this: I am darn glad I know how to read. Why? Because these are some life-changing issues, and I really needed to be informed on what both sides were saying and doing about MY JOB, MY LIFE, MY PROFESSION, AND MY FUTURE.  I am not that different from many of the 1,500 or so teachers packed in that gymnasium last night. Many have my same credentials: a Master’s Degree in Education, many additional college credits, many hours of professional development classes, hours spent developing top-notch lessons, creative ways to motivate students, the latest teacher’s professional publications such as In the Middle by Nancie Atwood or anything by Robert Marzano.  I have spent a large percentage of my salary on setting up my classroom library, only to find that if a student lost or stole a book, there would be no recourse on my part, no chance of reimbursement. (But at least they have a book, right?) I am in the process of seeking National Boards’ certification to sharpen my reflective skills as a teacher, always asking myself, “How can I do better? How can I help one more student reach his or her potential? How can I motivate my students to be the generous and courageous young men and women I know they can be?”

So, last night, here’s what happened: For months, the union and the district had been in negotiations over workload, time, and compensation. The numbers are there, but they’re a little fuzzy. There’s no clear answer on what money is there. (And mind you, this is the most precious money of all: taxpayers’ money.) There were some clear cut recommendations on class size. I do think reasonable caps need to be put on class sizes, and when I say “caps” I don’t mean they all need new hats. That means a stopping point, a lid, a maximum number. (I know the adults reading this blog understand the idiom, but some students may not.) Also, they couldn’t agree on the reasonable amount of meetings. We do have too many, maybe,  but most teachers complain bitterly about them. What upset me is I’ve been in charge of many of the meetings, and I strive to make them meaningful, informative, and time well spent. I’m not going to take it personally, however; planning those meetings for the department or the school is hard work, and mostly I’ve found them fun and a good time for everyone to get together as a school. Perhaps other schools don’t do such a great job with the meetings. One of my colleagues has a difficult time getting to the meetings because of childcare issues, and when “they” take roll call during a last-minute meeting to check who’s there and who’s not, well, that might get a little demoralizing. The class size issues are valid. It is very difficult to meet and confer with each and every student if a class size is over 25, much less so if over 30. The heart of this issue is, many of our students do not have the home structure they need in order to succeed in school. In my own household, we have two working parents, and it’s extremely difficult to juggle home and our jobs. I get it. So, my job is to, before, during, and after school (when I”m not going to a meeting, running Anime Club, or trying to figure out what to make for dinner) is to be there for every student, every day, because every one of my students counts.

Now, as far as compensation goes, well, every teacher will tell you they didn’t go into this job for the money. And, I really hope that if the first two issues are resolved, then maybe they can come to an agreement about reasonable pay. Some have said we’re top heavy as far as administration goes. I also know that I know many of the skilled and dedicated professionals who have ambitiously and purposefully risen to the ranks of administration, and they are some of the most dedicated, intelligent, and creative people I know and have the honor to work with. So, the vilification on both sides is very tough to hear, too.

I wish there was a third option for public schools, where there wasn’t this “us” and “them” dynamic, but truly a “we,” a genuine professional learning community. I do think the seniority scale needs to be reviewed, meaning one doesn’t keep their job simply because they’ve managed to do it for 30 years. I also think one should reach the “top” sooner than 25 years–having entered this career later in life, there’s no way I’m going to make it for 25 years! Well, maybe I will…who would want me for a teacher when I’m 70 years old? (Shivers and horror, I know!)

All of this is my opinion. I’m still trying to sort it out. And, I feel a little powerless in the process, too. The only thing that helps me feel better is reading about it, and writing about it. Those are the only things I have true control over–keeping informed and working it out with words.

Creativity as a commodity…

Biscuits

Here’s my burning question of the day, and of my life: Can anyone be creative? It has always been my belief that yes, anyone can be creative. What do you think?

First, I think we need to think about what is your definition of creativity. It’s kind of like your definition for what you find beautiful, painful (emotionally anyway: I think we can all agree that anything that involves blood or bruising is physically painful), or interesting. Creativity comes from inspiration, from thinking, from connections, and I must say–admiration of others’ creativity. Is that mental or artistic stealing? Only if you claim the idea as your own. Would you want others to take your flashes of genius and steal them from you? (I didn’t think so.)

Moving forward – you’ve now defined what creativity means to you. Do you think you have some? How do you know? If not, why not? Creativity is another form of curiosity, of inquisitiveness, and we all know curiosity killed the cat. If you’re not a cat, you have nothing to worry about. The point is to ask questions…and then seek answers that may satisfy.

Where some of my frustration sets in is when I get jealous of other people’s creativity and their successes that go along with it – the great book that someone else wrote, the breathtaking painting that someone else produced, the movie script that is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. I think, actually, a lot of us get frustrated that we’re not rich and famous due to our creativity, so we give up, and settle for mediocrity and boring routines. If you feel yourself mentally flatlining, shake things up! Find out why others created what they did, and find your own spark. Creativity builds on connections.

I believe we all have a level of creativity to share, simply because we are all individuals that take up our own space, time, and energy. And I guarantee you, you do. Prove it to yourself.

Grog Goes Green. (Or Not.)

Read this article: For Early Man, Going Green Wasn’t Easy: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112124572

cavepainting

So, even our ancestors didn’t have an easy time keeping the planet from harm. But did they imagine, as they were struggling for survival, that our skies would blacken with pollutants and poisons, our oceans would fill with plastic islands, miles wide and deep, or the land would be filled with garbage for hundreds of years? Who knows?

Here are some questions to think about:

Who’s responsible for our futures?

Is progress always right, or always wrong?

Does technology change cultures, or cultures change technology?