Last week, I had the privilege of presenting at a conference in the northern part of my state. This not only is a beautiful part of Alabama, but the schools in this area are outstanding. During my presentation I stopped several times to ask the teachers if they were involved in some of the efforts that are ongoing at my school. Their responses were no to most of what I asked. As I looked out at this very energetic group of teachers, I felt a twinge of jealousy. This group looked as fresh as they did when I spoke to them at the beginning of the year. While I on the other hand, look frazzled and exhausted and I am not alone in this. A topic of conversation in our school office this past week was our current state of exhaustion and what vitamins we all need to take. Very simply, our staff is worn out.
I am not saying this outstanding group of teachers in these highly successful schools are not working hard because it is quite evident they are. However, they have something our school lacks and that is the tradition of success rather than a sense of urgency. It must be a wonderful relief to go to work and know that you are going to be successful that day. I have not often had that feeling this year, instead I live with a burden of urgency about the academic needs of our students. In my school, we are probably on improvement plan “one hundred and one”. This year, the teachers in my school have really been troopers as we have revised schedules, implemented new programs, deleted old programs, changed instruction, followed state mandates, while continually being observed and evaluated. This is very hard work and the hardest part is not knowing if we are truly on the right path.
One thing I can say is that I am a better teacher now because of all of the training our school has engaged in this year. For instance, I thought I knew a lot about teaching reading. This year I learned more than ever through explicit training from reading program consultants and our reading coaches. There is one advantage of being labeled low-performing, you get a substantial amount of money for professional development. Our school has used this money wisely this year. I have also had the privilege of attending conferences focused on school improvement. In March, I attended the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory’s Forum on School Reform. I was so impressed and renewed as I listened to school superintendents from across our country share the reforms going on in their districts and the enthusiasm they had as instructional leaders. This was quite inspiring to me to see school leaders so involved in daily classroom instruction in their local schools and to hear them share the types of professional development their teachers are offered. Unlike the mind set that still exits in some districts that effective professional development is to bring in an over-priced, motivational speaker to give teachers an hour pep talk. This an insult to those of us who are so intensely committed to school improvement and an embarrassment to our profession. There are so many educators across our country who are engaged in significant work that is changing schools and teachers are hungry for this new knowledge.
My hope for my school next year is that our sense of urgency will be replaced with a sense of success. I see success scattered throughout our school. I witnessed this in a first grade class as the students cheered for a classmate after learning she had benchmarked on the state reading test. This was an substantial accomplishment for this student and a result of her hard work and a dedicated teacher. I glimpsed success as I watched several kindergarten students leading center time in their classroom by helping their classmates decode words and encourage each correct response. I celebrated the joy of success as I observed two teachers applauding for each other as they successfully blended words using a specific strategy new to them. Their smiles acknowledging this accomplishment were contagious. These successes are what we can build on to encourage our staff as we continue to improve our school. I do not think we will ever completely lose this sense of urgency and this can be a good thing to keep us motivated to discover the best practices. I just hope next year this sense of urgency will be balanced with the feeling of victory.
Today is Mother’s Day and I would be remiss if I did not pay tribute to the women in my family who have had such a profound influence on my life’s work. For years, the story has been told how my grandmother taught in the hills of Alabama at the age of sixteen. Her two sisters followed her into the teaching profession. They all three had to quit teaching when they married because of the regulations of the times. They continued to use their teaching skills in their church work. My mother joined their ranks as a Sunday School teacher, teaching seven and eight year-old children for over 50 years. As a child, I spent many hours attending their Sunday School planning meetings. Their commitment to provide quality and inspiring lessons in a caring environment for the many young children they taught in Sunday School greatly influenced the standards I have set for myself as a teacher. I think my grandmother and great aunts would be pleased to know where I am teaching today. This family tradition continues as my oldest son is a first year teacher at Whitwell High School in Whitwell, Tennessee. This makes me a very proud mother.
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