Failure is Not an Option!

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Well, I’m through my third week of school. Things are going well for the most part. Probably one of the best starts to a school year that I can recall. I have 20 WONDERFUL scholars who, in these first few weeks, have reminded me why I remain in the classroom.

Initially, I had 18 scholars on my roster. I had looked over my roster prior to the first day of school and was excited to see that I was apparently receiving a break this year from some of the customary behavior challenges I’d been used to. After working with some very challenging children in the recent past, including a visually impaired child with a sharp tongue and a tenacious attitude, I welcomed the break. Educators working on the front line will be able to relate to my exaggerated exaltation. However, as expected in the world of education, things change ever so quickly and as such; I received my nineteenth scholar on Meet the Teacher night. He is a returning student who is extremely excited to be back with us! He shares his love of school and especially reading with me on that evening! This is too good to be true!! I have to be the luckiest teacher of the year!

My twentieth scholar arrived bright and early Monday morning just after I began my introductory instruction. He is also a transfer from another school in the district. I have not received his permanent records as of yet, which is not uncommon with transfers, but in conversation, he shares with me, in a rather boisterous voice, that he is not good at math and he is very shy! This statement left me looking confused since he is far from shy and has displayed some mathematical problem solving skills. Yet, these observations, coupled with his over activeness and frequent off task behavior had now become an all too familiar scene to say the least. A prologue to the main event if you will. As the saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. This scholar requires a lot of time and attention and I slowly realize, HE is my purpose this year.

On the first day of school, I read a book to my scholars, entitled “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day” by Dr. Seuss for our first morning meeting. I used to read this book to my own children when they were younger. I found it appropriate for my fifth graders because every year, a handful of scholars enter my class claiming they don’t know anything, much like my twentieth scholar. The story is about creative teaching and thinking. The tale celebrates originality, differences, and uniqueness, but also reassures that each of the scholars in the story has everything they need not only to be successful when taking high stakes assessments, but also to be successful in life. What an amazing way to begin the school year! We acknowledged each other’s differences but I also assured all of them that they too are bright, intelligent scholars that can and will be successful, but they had to trust me, trust each other, and most importantly, trust themselves.

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In the days to follow, we would talk a lot about our school “PRIDE” (that is, Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Empathy) and our Scholar Statement. We would discuss in great length each attribute of PRIDE and each line of the Scholar Statement. This is my second year using the statement and I have found it to be a great guiding principle in my classroom. The statement reads as follows:

I AM A SCHOLAR!
I can DO anything, LEARN anything, BE anything.
I CANNOT fail and WILL NOT fail,
because failure is not an option.
I am in control of my future and my destiny.
I AM A SCHOLAR!
I AM THE FUTURE!

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I had no idea what a powerful impact this would have on my scholars. I mean, last year, we (my colleagues and I) always spoke of the attributes of our PRIDE principles, however, most of us assumed our scholars inherently knew them, especially by fifth grade. We were very wrong in our thinking. This year, our PRIDE principles are more visible around the school and in each classroom. The attributes are discussed and modeled frequently throughout the day and school year. I have noticed this year that the school wide PRIDE attributes, coupled with my statement, had begun to do something amazing to my scholars. Something I didn’t see or hear last year and something I hadn’t seen coming this year at all. They instantly began holding each other accountable for displaying PRIDE and never giving up. I was in absolute awe the first time I heard it. Let me frame this for you by offering just one example.

Every afternoon, we do a spiral math review. This review is a culmination of skills previously learned and some newly introduced skills as well. Because math is so intimidating to most of my scholars, their initial reaction to any questioning of their knowledge results in a shrug of their shoulders and the response “Um, I don’t know.” Oh no. Here we go again! I think to myself, “I just wish these children would believe in themselves the way that I believe in them.” I proceeded to respond encouragingly when from the back of the room, I heard, “Don’t give up! Failure is not an option. Persevere!” I stopped in shock as I slowly looked to see who was speaking. Someone heard me! Someone understood me! It felt like for the first time, my scholars got it because they all chimed in to encourage their peer! Since that moment, when anyone gets stuck, including me, and we feel like giving up, we support each other by saying out loud…”failure is not an option”! This has become our daily reminder to keep trying.

This was a powerful moment for me. There are so many times I become discouraged concerning whether I am making a difference in the lives of my scholars. I wonder whether my expectations are too ambitious for them and whether I am doing everything I can do to help them succeed. How many times a year do you do the same thing? We do this all the time because we are passionate about what we do and we believe in the capabilities of our scholars. We don’t wake up in the morning thinking about who’s life we can screw up today. That is not the case at all. But on this day, at this moment, it was that voice. It was that very moment when that young scholar’s voice in the back of the room reminded me why I am still in this classroom. I actually knew exactly why that Monday morning, when that twentieth scholar entered my room. I still have some lives to change. We ALL have some lives to change! Our scholars believe in us and they depend on us. No matter what the obstacle, we need to remember not to EVER give up on them because their failure…our failure… Nope! Failure is just not an option!

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The 27th Line

Ben Lewellyn-Taylor

Tomorrow my students will take their first round of STAAR testing in Writing, a subject I teach twice a day. The test is scored by their responses to 40 multiple-choice revising and editing questions along with 2 essays—one narrative and one expository.

Although the Writing test is one of three they must pass in the 7th grade (along with Reading and Math), it was important to me to communicate to my students that it doesn’t mean that much to me.

Allow me to explain. I have known my students for 8 months. I spend more time each day with them than with anyone else. I teach some of them for 3 hours a day (the lucky ducks who have me for Reading, AVID, and Language Arts).

They are more aware of my quirks than anyone else (including myself—apparently I have an “about-to-go-off” face). They have taught me more…

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“My Wife is a Lazy Liar” (a reblog by smithdeville, the spouse of an educator)

My husband asks me all the time about all the meetings and paperwork I do. I just tell him, “Sweetie, I do more than just teach!” This was a great read! Thanks for sharing and for the chuckle. 🙂
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Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

morning. What a surprise.

November 4, 2013…the day I published my introductory blog. It’s been 7 months since I decided this blog would be the way I would impact social change in education. Eight months after I successfully defended my doctoral study and 6 months after I was conferred my degree in Teacher Leadership, I wrote that very first blog. Contrary to what some may believe, a principal or superintendent is not the dream I pursue. Instead, I would rather find a position working in curriculum/professional development in which I could work with teachers in and out of the classroom or in a higher education setting teaching pre-service teachers. However, that is currently a dream deferred and I am okay with that because I have since been led in another direction. I have prayed for direction. I have prayed for God to order my steps.

Allow me to take you back to the months preceding the inception of this blog. At the beginning of the school year, I was very much out of sorts. After finishing my degree, I was confident that I would receive the position I desired whether it be in my current district or an outside district. I had applied and interviewed for many positions. Rejection is ALWAYS difficult to deal with, but the one that was most upsetting for me was the one I received from the very district that helped me complete my doctoral degree. When I received the news that someone else had received the position, I was crushed! Not because of who was chosen, but because of who wasn’t! What in the world?! I knew there must be something else for me to accomplish in the classroom, but I certainly didn’t like this fate set before me. As a result, I started the year filled with anger and resentment. I wanted no parts of anyone or anything! Everyone felt the disdain expelling from the air around me. My grade level team especially. Very unfair, I know, but I didn’t know how else to deal at the time. Somehow, I had to find a way to release and regroup. So, in an effort to keep myself immersed in leadership roles, I chose to fill my plate with leadership opportunities. I thought it was a good idea at the time. Yeah…it didn’t quite play out the way I envisioned. Not at all.

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It probably took me until early October to end my itty-bitty pity party. I was helping my sister in law develop a blog for her early education class when it hit me like a ton of bricks! That’s it!! It was at that moment that I decided I could do what made me happy whether I was in a desirable position or not. It was at that very moment that my blog was created. Shortly after that, in December, I made the decision to work towards starting my own business and in January, 2014 with the support and encouragement of my husband, my family, and some great friends, the foundation was laid to establish Transitions Educational Consulting, LLC, dedicated to providing professional development for all educators by focusing on current issues in education and school improvement. Maybe this was what I was intended to do. The problem would lie in the fact that developing the business would be especially difficult while working in a classroom. None the less, there had to be a reason that I was still in the classroom and developing a business at the same time. God has a plan, right? So, I continued with my plans and took on several leadership roles in an effort to continue obtaining as much leadership experience as I could. In return, I would share my many experiences (highs and lows), my lessons, and my reflections with other educators across the nation! At the risk of exposing my imperfections, flaws, successes, and/or celebrations, I became transparent in that moment, in every conceivable way, in order to help other educators, like myself, grow. I have to say, this blog has been the major high point of my school year. I enjoy sharing with you all, learning from and engaging with so many of you about our profession. It is what has kept me going.

In an effort to further grow my leadership skills (probably more so to sooth my aching ego), I volunteered to sit on the Building Leadership Team, the District Leadership Team, to lead the Climate Committee and to be a Resident Educator Mentor for two first year teachers! Yeah, I pretty much took the plunge! In hindsight, I’m not sure what I was trying to prove or better yet, whom I was trying to prove it to, but this is the road I chose to travel. With my plate filled to capacity, it ultimately became more than I could handle. As with any full plate, some things receive more time and attention than others do and some things simply get left behind. But, I chose to do all of this, so I had to continue to try to manage it all. The one thing that I claim as my passion, educating and developing effective teachers, became my greatest let down of the year! Of course I am my biggest critic, but it is what it is. I found that, while working with teachers is exactly what I intend to do with my future, it turned out that it was not my current focus. It’s difficult to explain or even understand how that could be. I just knew that I had to release something, and soon! Next school year, something has to change in order for me to continue to reach other educators.

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The year has been filled with vicissitudes, as is every year. I’ve made great strides and I’ve endured some intense disappointments. I’ve been told I was unsupportive on the low end and awe inspiring on the high end. I’ve heard that I take things personally and am sensitive, but also have been acknowledged for my strength, courage, and reflective insight. I have even been told that the completion of my doctoral degree would elicit appreciation from some while others would do their best to depreciate it! I have let a few down, but have lifted and motivated SO MANY more! This year, there have been a whirlwind of emotions and changes! All of which, I might add, have made me MUCH stronger and wiser.

As with everything, I have learned a few things along the way. I cannot even begin to share the number of applications I have submitted, the number of interviews, and the number of rejections I’ve received. I know there have been many, MANY jobs. JOBS! Let me pin this here for clarification purposes. A job is a noun, a thing. In particular, a job is defined by the qualifications someone else determines and is subject to change based on someone else’s needs at that time. Let me be clear in saying that this is my perception, my personal reflection, my personal experience with…jobs. A job may or may not align with one’s long-term goals or passion, especially on paper, but because other people determine what “the job” is, there seems no certainty that one will ever truly be a good fit for “the job”. What a profound realization that is.

I have learned that even though I have made mistakes, I am not lacking in knowledge, value, or worth. It amazes me that once you receive a doctoral degree, some expect you to be omniscient in knowledge. When, in actuality, it is my opinion that this degree has made me more willing and open to learning even more than ever before. A doctoral degree is not the cake topper of education. On the contrary, it uncovers an unyielding need to explore the depths of all there is still to learn. Knowing this, I will not allow anyone or anything devalue my worth or my degree another day! No way!

Lastly, I acknowledge that change is ALWAYS occurring and I know that change is difficult. It seems that this year has been filled to the brim with change! I have learned so much about myself as a person and as a professional. I know that I will no longer allow “jobs” to define my future. I have committed to continuing to create my own opportunities through Transitions! It may take longer than I anticipated, but I am pressing on. I AM the creator of my future! I will make adjustments where necessary and changes when needed as I continue on the path that God has set for me. I have come to realize with each new understanding, each opportunity, and every new day…nothing changes, if nothing changes.

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From Deliberate Ignorance to Intentional Awareness

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The bottom line is that most U.S. schools have no plan to provide the sorts of classroom instruction that at-risk kindergartners need. Neither high-quality, extensive professional development for kindergarten teachers nor expert tutorial instruction for at-risk kindergartners is on the agenda at this point. This means that most schools deliberately create a pool of students who will become struggling readers. I say deliberately because, unfortunately, that’s just what it is— deliberate ignorance of what we should do to address the problems of at-risk kindergartners. (Allington, 2011)

In a recent staff meeting, we read the article “What At-Risk Readers Need” by Richard Allington. The above quote stuck with me and elicited some great discussion among a group of us during the meeting. The article discussed the lack of instruction at-risk readers receive within the classroom. Allington asserts that children leaving kindergarten not knowing their letters and letter sounds will more than likely become struggling readers. In fact, at the time of this research, he stated that 66% of students were reading below grade level. Take a moment just to consider that. That means, two out of every three students in your classroom, are reading below grade level! Astounded by this realization, I had to stop and consider my own students and actually found the statement to be consistent with what is happening in my classroom!

My thoughts cling to these two words, “deliberate ignorance”. Who, in their right mind, would practice ignorance, on purpose?! Well, according to Allington, many of us tend to fall prey to this particular form of ignorance. You see, when we know that we don’t know a particular instructional process or strategy, we choose to deal with our ignorance by purposely overlooking those struggling students and focusing on those we know we can help instead. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to do! It’s just as compelling as it is true, isn’t it? It was for me and, after some thought, I found, and consequently owned the fact that I, myself, have apparently been practicing this “deliberate ignorance” for much of the year!

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Okay, so, what exactly does this “deliberate ignorance” look like? I’ll explain by sharing my personal experience and perception of what it looks like in my own classroom. Earlier in the year, I acknowledged my fear of literacy instruction and development. I mean, I have enough knowledge of how to teach reading and comprehension skills to get by, but, when it comes to grammar, spelling patterns and conventions, this is a struggle for me. It has been for some time now, and although I continue to seek help and guidance, the mere thought of being responsible for the facilitation of my students’ literacy development, scares me to no end. If I fail, they fail, right? Well, with deliberate ignorance, that is exactly what I have already done…failed my struggling readers by providing surface level intervention.

Additionally, when it comes to guided reading groups, although I know and agree with the differentiation of instruction, the actual process of implementing 3-5 small reading groups a week, AND attending to my most bottom three readers, five times a week, during a separate intervention time during the day, along with collecting weekly data for all, has proven to be very overwhelming for me. Because of my overpowering insecurity, rather than attacking the issue, rather than researching, watching, and working to implement a new process, a new strategy, a new routine that would benefit my students…I did what benefited ME instead…and deliberately ignored the developmental needs of my lowest reading students. Listen, ignoring it was a lot easier than addressing it, so, I did what was comfortable. I KNOW I’m not alone in this, so I’m okay with this public admission. In fact, for me, this public realization and disclosure signifies my personal commitment to transform my deliberate ignorance into intentional awareness.

For me, choosing to become intentionally aware is a resolute, determined, uncompromising shift in paradigmatic thinking which will help me truly attend to the individual needs of my students. That means being intentionally aware of how students acquire and develop language, being intentionally aware of how students construct the meaning of vocabulary and being intentionally aware of how students construct meaning from what they are reading rather than simply labeling this with a quantified number or test score. It means tackling the areas of my practice that I fear so much with confidence and purpose. It means getting beyond the surface of my students learning and putting their needs ahead of my own, even when it feels uncomfortable. As I sit and reflect on my students and this year, I believe that becoming intentionally aware will do nothing less than further align my passion with my purpose. My students deserve nothing less than my all, especially when they so often feel that no one else will.

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Well, there you have it. That’s my take on deliberate ignorance. What about you? Is there an area in your practice that you can admit to being deliberately ignorant? If so, turn it around, become intentionally aware instead, and further align your passion with your purpose. Two-thirds of our students depend on it!

Know That You’re AMAZING!!

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Some months ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Matrix”. In it, I share the struggles my oldest has experienced with reading fluency and comprehension. I know I’ve spoken of him a great deal, but I am in absolute awe at the progress he’s made! I just can’t help it! All of my children are making great gains academically, but he truly exemplifies perseverance and hard work! He’s the one that has to work harder and longer, but he does it and he has proven to himself that it pays off!

He is now in the 6th grade and even though it takes him a little longer to do some things, he has demonstrated to himself that he does have the ability to achieve. He has made the Honor Roll all this year! Even with that, he has remained in disbelief about his Honor Roll status.  He didn’t believe it because he has doubted his capability for so many years! So much that he has stated, out loud, “I can’t get good grades. I’m not smart.” My husband and I looked at each other with astonishment and then came my response, “WHAT?!! Not only are you smart…you’re amazing!!”

A couple of days ago, he made a profound statement after taking his Reading OAA. He had been quite anxious about it to say the least and understandably so considering the difficulty he’s experienced with standardized testing thus far. In a concerted effort to boost students confidence, the school asks that parents write their students a note of encouragement for test days. I wrote him the attached note, not realizing the true impact it would have!

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When he called me after school, the first thing he said to me was he thought he did really well this time! He has NEVER sounded more confident and sure of himself!! It was a profound revelation from he who thought it to be impossible. I was filled with so much joy! I told him that was AWESOME! He continued by saying, “Yeah, I did slack a couple of times, but then I read your note and it helped me get focused!” I said, “Well, you DO know you’re amazing, right?”

I’ve said it before, there is power in words.  We all want our children to reach higher and go farther.  You know the saying, “if you can believe it, you can achieve it”. It is vital that we continue to instill in our students the importance of hard work and the diligent commitment it takes to succeed.  Come on, really. You do know they are amazing, right? So, no matter what it takes, we need to keep telling our children that they have a gift to share with the world, that they are capable of anything,  and just how absolutely amazing they truly are.

Be Attentive, Be Supportive

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In the now 14 years I’ve been teaching, I’ve never been told I was unsupportive and unavailable…that is…until this week. OUCH!!! It hurt me to the core! But, being the reflective person that I am, I had to take what I was given and respond to it. I had already been thinking that I’d dropped the ball; that I didn’t do everything I could have or SHOULD have, but I still found comfort in the fact that I had NEVER heard those words spoken to describe ME…until this week.

I am a leader in my school and in my district, I serve on several committees (all voluntarily), I am the identified grade level chair for my team, and I am a resident educator mentor. Quite a bit to handle in a year, but I thought I could handle it all. In fact, I needed every single one of those things to continue to build my leadership skills and in doing so; I probably neglected the most important responsibility of the year, the development of another educator. The exact place that holds my inner most passion at this particular moment in my life, I have fallen short. I came to the sudden realization that I may have taken on too much. I bit off more than I could chew. My plate is full. My cup runneth over! Well, you get the point. Nonetheless, I’ve been given this bit of information and now I need to do something with it!

I am not sure really, where this suddenly came from, but it didn’t matter at this point. All I knew was that I had to respond to it. It’s apparent that none of us is perfect. We wouldn’t be human if we were, right? But, I honestly believe that a sign of a great educator is to acknowledge his or her shortcomings when presented with them and then doing whatever is necessary to change them. When someone else points out a flaw in your leadership and/or your practice, if education is your true passion, it behooves you to correct that flaw. Assess yourself. What have you done well? What needs personal and/or professional attention? Did you contribute enough? Did you contribute too much? Did you ask enough questions? Did you ask questions at all? What will you do differently next time? In answering these many questions, maybe you will find that it means looking at your list of responsibilities and re-prioritizing them. Maybe it means clearing your plate. Maybe it means searching out professional development opportunities. Or, maybe it simply means being attentive and supportive…for someone else other than yourself.

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