Wednesday, June 18, 2014


I’m weary this morning after listening to storms rage through the night. Rain always reminds me of home and at some point in the small hours I found myself thinking of my lovely St. Anne’s in England and a wonderful guest teacher we had.

The first time George came to our school we were in a period of unrest. Our principal was on long term medical leave due to stress, an OFSTED inspection was looming and our staff, consisting of six ladies from the ages of twenty two to fifty two, was feeling the strain. George was older, retired and completely awesome. He knew what he was doing, needed little direction, he was wonderful with the kids, and more importantly he was wonderful with us. He was the consummate gentleman, ensuring each of us had hot steaming cups of tea waiting for us in the staffroom, and once we were all settled in he would entertain us with tales from his long career in education. He quickly became a favorite and was a regular visitor; he somehow brought stability during that uncertain time.

During one lunch break I asked George why he had retired as he obviously had a lot more to give as an educator. “I couldn’t hold up my umbrella anymore,” he replied quietly. I was obviously confused so he explained that when he retired he was a principal. He expected his teachers to be like umbrellas to students, shielding them from educational storms and reforms, protecting them from scary unknowns so that under their care, children could learn and grow safely and happily. He perceived his own role as an umbrella for his teachers, shielding them from similar storms so that they as educators could learn and grow safely to better serve their students. The school board was his umbrella; theirs was the local education authority and theirs the legislators. Each umbrella protecting those below so that at all layers of education people could feel secure enough within their realm to take risks, fail forward and ultimately do their best to ensure quality learning was happening.

“At some point,” he said, “the umbrellas above me began to collapse. The storm became too strong for me to withstand and when I couldn’t hold up my umbrella and protect and shield my teachers, I had to leave.” I don’t think I ever saw him look so sad and then understood why we were all so drawn to him; he had made us feel safe. I also felt the true weight of my own responsibilities as a teacher, seeing clearly for the first time that a classroom simply has to be a safe and happy place for students to realize their true potential.

Summer is a time for educators to mend holes in their umbrellas; to recover from the storms of the previous year, to reflect on their effectiveness, to follow their own learning journeys, to restore their sense of self. When we take time to re-evaluate and care for ourselves over the summer, we can ensure that as umbrellas, we return to school robust enough to weather another year. I hope the umbrellas above me are taking the time to do the same.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Flip Your Mindset!

Several weeks ago classroom conversations included ways we could finish the year strong. One of my students asked if we could have a party if every student achieved an A Grade by the end of the quarter. I told him no, but said that we could push the boat out if my gradebook showed no missing assignments, as that would indicate to me that everyone was engaged and invested in their learning journey-and that would be something I would be more than happy to celebrate!

While I thought I was offering a much better deal, several students groaned and eye rolled. When I asked why, they insisted that it was an impossible task because there were always some kids who didn’t complete their work. Sensing defeat before we had even started I asked the class why they thought that was the case. I invited them to question why assignments did not get completed. The responses were diverse and enlightening:

I forget to finish assignments

I sometimes don’t know what I’m supposed to do

I don’t want to do homework

I have no access to technology at home

I can’t get organized and lose papers

I have so many after school activities I’m overwhelmed

I don’t know when assignments are due

I need help but don’t like to ask

I need help but have nobody to ask

The list goes on but as we recorded responses on the board I began to see some of my kid’s faces reflect surprise and revelation. One student summed it up perfectly when he said, “Wow! I just thought people were slackers!” Now that we had gained some insight, I charged the students to generate solutions to these barriers and they have astounded me with their commitment to help each other through these final weeks of the school year. They have been calling and Skyping one other at home to pass on reminders and guidance. Students have asked for sherpas and many a lunch period has been foregone in the quest to support their peers. They have been tweeting, emailing, taking photos and I was thrilled when a parent told me she was pleased to see her child engaged in conversations and conferences about assignments with kids in the class he had never mentioned before.

I reached a landmark today, closing my gradebook for the first time with every single assignment turned in and accounted for. My students not only finished strong but engaged in some of the most important learning of the year. When we put aside our own assumptions, when we flip our mindset and actively listen to each other, we can generate successful, user centered solutions. Tomorrow I will be sad to say goodbye to my sixth graders, but look forward to my fifth graders returning next year, armed with some powerful tools to help them embrace our new team members with empathy and compassion.