The Story of Every Great Teacher…

It’s the fourth week of school and I am completely exhausted and overwhelmed. How is this possible when this is my 20th year in education? One would think I should have this down by now, and everything should be smooth sailing. But every year brings new initiatives and additional hoops to jump through, without any additional time to adjust to and implement them correctly.  So every year I feel like a beginning teacher having to learn my job all over again.

This is the story of every great teacher…  

This is not to say great teachers are satisfied with the status quo, a perception I often hear about educators. We are just as frustrated as those who perpetuate the endless stream of new policies, and more now than ever, we want change to happen. It can’t come too soon. But it makes us sad that political agendas come before children. It makes us angry that expectations and administrative tasks take us away from the real work of teaching. Kids are our priority but I believe that in the political rush to capitalize on Americans’ dissatisfaction with our system, we have moved attention away from the basic human elements of teaching. 

Students need a safe place to take risks and challenging, engaging instruction that allows for deeper thinking and connections to real world situations. But the most important factor in a child’s success is the quality of the relationships with his or her teachers. Kids need to know that they matter AND they need one on one time to share stories, ask questions, and learn from their teachers. But teachers have less and less capacity to nurture these interactions as administrative requirements continue to mount.  

As an art specialist, I am fortunate to work with all 700 kids in my school — but  that also means I face nightmarish assessment requirements that make it almost impossible to engage students on an individual basis. Similarly, how can we justify cramming 28- 30 kindergartners or first graders into a classroom to save money when individual attention in those formative years provides the foundation for their entire education?  And educators need more time within the day to plan for the diverse needs of children.  We expect miracles to happen without providing adequate time to learn from one another, reflect on how that learning applies to the children we serve, and plan lessons that excite, energize, and fill children with a passion to learn.

Educators are expected to maintain high levels of dedication and enthusiasm —  but when they ask in return to be treated with respect and a wage that allows them to supports a family, they are seen as greedy and selfish.  However, I can’t just blame the media, politicians, and community for what we as educators in some ways have allowed to happen. Eleanor Roosevelt eloquently stated that “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”  The grave was dug for us, but we chose to lay down in it… and now, we either climb out of it or we risk being buried alive.  That’s how I felt at the beginning of this school year — like I was being buried alive.  However, I choose to stand up and speak up for what’s best for my students and myself. We don’t have to throw dirt back at the ones who have tried to bury us, but we can refuse to be silent and accept the status quo.  

As great teachers who care deeply about our students, we must stand up and speak up on their behalf, as well as our own.  We need to be the leaders of our profession and change the system from within.  This can be done, but the first step is to recognize that in order to put kids first, every great teacher needs to advocate for their own needs in order to be the best they can be. If we don’t,  no one else will.  

The Power of Education

In Peru, some new public schools exist with the best high tech equipment for 21st century learning. The schools also provide housing and clothing to the students who attend. The Peruvian government has made a committment to improve education, however these schools are only made available to the best and brightest children who score well on a test.  One might argue that this is a good start. The government has made a commitment to improve education for the children of Peru, yet it is hard to look the other way when thousands of other Peruvian children, who are just as deserving, have to walk hours to the nearest school, attend schools that are in need of desperate repairs, or don’t have access to a school at all.

A non-profit group named, Peru’s Challenge is changing this inequity in small rural communities. The organization works as partners with community members to transform their community into a self-sustaining, thriving environment that includes  homes with more than one room and running water, greenhouses to feed the community and bring in a source of income, and access to a community school- all built with pride and owned by the community.  I was fortunate to visit one of these communities called, Pumamarca.

While education is free for children ages 6-14 in Peru, more than 85% of children do not attend school in Cusco. Over two hundred families in Pumamarca have access to the community school.  Seven years ago when this elementary school opened over 80% of the students were malnourished, while alcoholism and domestic abuse plagued the impoverished community. The same government that created beautiful schools for the top students in Peru needed convincing that the children of Pumamarca would benefit from a school in their own community.

In order for the school to be built, the community members and leaders of Peru’s Challenge had to lobby the government to use the farm land to build the school. They also worked with the Department of Education to ensure that after 6 years, the department would fund all 6 teachers’ salaries at the school.  Peru’s Challenge paid for 5 teachers for the first year while the government paid for one teacher salary. Then for each year that followed, Peru’s Challenge paid for one less teacher while the government began to sustain the resources and teacher salaries one by one. (In Peru, the average teacher’s salary is between $260-300 per month.)

Today, only 10% of students at the Pumamarca school suffer from malnourishment and 100% of the students continue to secondary school. Alcoholism and domestic abuse are no longer issues for the Pumamarca community.  The children and teachers of Pumamarca School maintain the three main buildings and the greenhouses of the school.  There is no access to internet at the school and resources are limited, but that doesn’t seem to hinder the learning, growth, and pride that exists in the community of Pumamarca.

There is no doubt that Peru’s Challenge has made an impact in this community as well as others in rural Peru. The founders and volunteers believed that given the opportunity and resources, the people of Pumamarca could change the cycle of poverty that exists. Hope exists in this community. The children are eager to learn and dream of a brighter future, while their parents have learned how to better provide for their family and themselves.   A true testament of the power of education and its ability to create hope in places that need it the most.

The Children of Pumamarca School

Seven years ago, a rural community of 210 families opened their first elementary school- the Pumamarca School. It is a small school that consists of three main buildings and greenhouses that were constructed by the community members. The greenhouses which provides healthy food for the school are cared for by the children and staff at the school.

From the moment we arrived at the school, it was obvious that the community, teachers, and students felt great pride and ownership for their school. It was well kept, radiant with vibrant murals painted on the buildings, and full of energy! Some children were washing their own cups and utensils at the communal sink while others brushed their teeth.

Once we were briefed, the students and teachers came out to greet us in the open area outside. They lined up by grade levels- kindergarten (ages 3-5) through 6th grade.  While the director of the school greeted us warmly, I couldn’t help but smile as I watched the children wiggle but remain calm and well-behaved.  They were all so beautiful, filled with hope and joy!

Next, Edgar (the school director) brought out his guitar and the students and staff sang us their school song. I do not speak Spanish, but somehow understood the message of pride and the hope of a bright future. After the song, we presented the school three boxes of books for their library… it seemed such a small offering but their faces lit up and clapping erupted when it was translated that the books were for them!

When another song started, a student came up to me, took my hand, and we danced to the music.  Other students began to pull other fellows up to dance and soon we were all dancing. Something else happened that we would never experience in an American school. It was almost like a receiving line at a wedding,  one by one each student gave us a warm Hola’ and showered us in ribbons, flower petals, and hugs.

I  was overwhelmed by the genuine warmth and affection that these young children showed us. My heart was filled with pure joy… a joy that I can’t quite describe, but also a longing to do more for the children of Pumamarca. These children have so little, yet they are rich with the things that matter most- pride, respect, and love as well as family, culture, and tradition.

The children of Pumamarca could be the glimmer of hope Peru needs to break free from the poverty that over-shadows the beauty of a country rich with history. My hope for the children of Pumamarca is the same as my hope for my students here in America. I want them all to be happy, and become engaged, caring, successful global citizens.

I believe are all born with a curious nature, wonderment, awe, and love for life… but time and life experiences often strip them away.  If we want a world filled with love, joy, and peace, then we need to start by providing all children nourishment that fills the stomach; safe, warm environments to sleep and learn; and a strong foundation of learning that allows for exploration and discovery about themselves and the world they live in!

The Future of Rural Peru

Yesterday we traveled to a small  rural village outside the town of Cusco. We walked up a hill lined with small little shacks that had no windows , no access to water, and were vey small.  The homes of Pumamarca at one time were all just like these decrepit shelters.  The community of Pumamara had no hope at one time because of lack of resources.  Malnutrition, alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty were a part of the rural Peruvian’s life.  Then something amazing haapened.  A nonprofit group called, Peru’s Challenge, built relationships with members in the community.  

Once trust was established, the founders of Peru’s Challenge asked the community what they needed and wanted to improve the quality of life for the members of the community.  This  was important to make sure the community would own it and be able to sustain it. The community members rallied and worked together to create sturdier houses with windows, running water,  separate rooms, and plumbing for toilets with Peru’s Challenge’s resources  and support.

 After phase one was complete, the community came together to figure out what other resources were needed. They wanted healthy food sources In the community.  Land was available to the people of Pumamarca, but they  needed green houses to keep the animals from eating the food.  Once again the community worked together to build green houses for food and flowers.  The food went to families first but then the extra food and flowers would be taken to Cusco city to sell.   Before the green houses were built, the people only made about $3 a month. But now, the community members bring home over $60 a month and they have healthy food for their family.

Next the community built a school for the children of Pumamarca. Many children did not go to school at all while others would walk alone for two hours to get to the school.  When the children arrived late,  dirty, tired, and hungry as they had no breakfast, the schools turned them away and they were not allowed access to water or food.  It is heartbreaking that these brave children were not welcomed with open arms.  The department of education did not believe the children in Pumamarca needed a school so it was a struggle to get permission. Perserverance paid off… The Pumamarca school is now seven years old and more and more students continue to attend!

The women of the village were also trained how to use their skills to create textiles and metal work such as jewelry.  They were given a space to sell their wares and learned how to run their business.  Another positive … Domestic abuse and alcoholism is no longer an issue in the community.

The old adage fits here…  If you  give someone who is hungry a fish, they eat for a day.  If you teach them how to fish, they will eat for a lifetime.   Peru’s Challenge is empowering  the people of rural Peru how to sustain a better quality of life for generations to come.

Peru is Love

Virginia touts that it is a place for lovers…but I would argue that Peru is all about love.  It is clear that citizens who live in Miraflores and Lima celebrate their sexuality and are not afraid of public displays of affection. Throughout the city, sculptures of men and women embracing each other affectionately  and often stealing a kiss.   

When we visited the Museo Larco there was a section that was named erotica.  I have been to many museums over the years, and I have seen many fertility  sculptures or vessels.  However, I have never seen sculptures of figures having sex.  This was a whole room that many people would see as inappropriate, but I learned that love and passion are an important part of their culture.   

As we walked through the city of Cusco, I didn’t see as many public displays of affection but  rather a sense of love for their country and traditions.  Everywhere you see the Cusco flag and many women dressed in traditional garb.   The celebration – Inti Raymi- brought thousands of Peruvians to the streets of Cusco to honor the winter solstice and the new year.  

As a guest in this country I am in awe of the people.  They do not have much in way of material objects. Poverty has an obvious impact on their daily lives.  The monthly minimum wage for most Peruvians is about $300. Teachers in public schools make around $500-600 a month and the average monthly income for a middle class family is $1200.    These facts connect with my last blog when I asked what does it mean to be a Peruvian?  

The people of Peru are definitely proud of there culture and traditions.. . despite challenges such as poverty.  Yet, they are people filled with love: love for each other, love for tradition, and love for their country.   Through exploration I am beginning to understand what it means to be a Peruvian, however there is still so much to learn. I am so blessed to have this experience.

What does it mean to be a global learner? 

Yesterday began with a two hour meeting at the General Motors Headquarters. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it was suprisingly informative and got us thinking about the impact education has on businesses and the economic development of the country.  We discussed the skills that students/ potential employees would need to have to be successful.   I found it fascinating that the important skills discussed were not how many facts an employee can remember, but rather they focused on the soft skills one possesses and utilizes in the workforce.

By emphasizing soft skills such as perserverance, creativity, and collaboration, we are preparing students to thrive in their community, on the  job, as well as around the world. Global learners must understand the world we live in through exploration and opportunities to understand their own cultural biases, personal culture, and celebrate commonalities and differences.

During  my journey this week, I have been wondering about the definition of a global learner and how do we create global learners/ citizens?  How can we create a culture within our classroom that educates students’ preconceived notions?  As I travel through Peru, I see a dynamic community, rich with traditions….  I wonder what they think of Americans…would we be as welcoming to Peruvians as the have been to us?  As Americans do we only make assumptions based on the news or tv?  I think many people do and it is unfortunate.  

Our NEA Foundation leaders challenged us to consider explore, observe, and talk with the Peruvians to find answers to a question we may have about the culture, tradition, and education.  So I have figured out that I want to ask the people in the community, what does it mean to be a citizen in Peru? What traits or qualities do they have or value? Do they see themselves as global learners?  Through my training and immersion into the country I feel that global learning is a big part of who I am  now.  I have learned so much in 2 days and I look forward to the many adventures that are a ahead.  I hope I will have other opportunities to see other parts of the world because I have been changed by this country. I threw out my biases when I arrived-  Ready to learn!  

Worth the wait…

In the winter of 2014, I applied, after much encouragement from a friend,for the VEA Award for Teaching Excellence. I was so overwhelmed with joy as my friends and colleagues rallied around me to complete the application.   No matter the outcome- I felt that I was already a winner and felt blessed for the opportunity to reflect on my practice and also see myself through my peers eyes.

When I received the letter in the mail that I had been chosen,  my eyes filled with tears.  I couldn’t believe that a small town girl from WV would be honored and recognized by her peers across the state.  Growing up in poverty,  education was my way out of WV and the only way I would break the poverty cycle plaguing my family.  This honor meant so much to me then and will always be a reminder that hard work, dedication, and passion does pay off!  

Fast forward a little over a year, and much had changed!   As a finalist for the NEA award for Teaching Excellence… I was offered the opportunity to serve as a NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow.  It has been a year of learning, challenges, and excitement… But it seemed surreal- I mean how is it possible that someone who started out with so little in life, is representing their state and VEA as a global learning fellow in Peru?

As I sit at the airport waiting to board my plane for my field placement in Peru,  I am filled with joy and wonderment!  I am truly blessed and so grateful for this opportunity!  I hope you will join me on this educational and personal journey…  I hope you won’t mind grammar or spelling errors as I write on the go… But will connect with my story and share  in the excitement!  Here we go…

 

The Missing Link

Testing. Testing. And more Testing.  It seems it is all we do these days in public schools. But why?

We all know that excessive testing takes time away from teaching and learning. In addition, parents and teachers understand the social emotional toll and unnecessary pressure it is placing on our children. So what are WE, the adults, going to do about it? When are WE going to change the standardized testing craze that has replaced an authentic and engaged learning with mundane, rote memorization of facts that are irrelevant to a child’s life and understanding of his or her place in the world?

You may be thinking a number of things right now.  How can I change this? I am only a… (insert applicable role including but not limited to teacher, parent, instructional assistant, employee support professional, community member, etc.)?  You may also suspect that even if you did speak up, those who make laws wouldn’t listen.  Stop that train of thought today-at this moment- because a learned sense of helplessness  only serves the men and women in political positions who count on you to think that YOUR VOICE doesn’t matter.

Our children matter! And you know your child(ren)/students better than those who are not directly in their lives! They need us- the adults- to advocate and challenge our congressmen and women to eliminate excessive standardized testing, provide resources and flexibility to states/locals to meet children’s needs! YOUR VOICE MATTERS and needs to be LOUD!

Last night, I spent an hour listening to a tele town hall meeting led by the National Education Association (NEA).  It was both informative and frustrating. Over 200,000 members of the NEA, have been engaged in writing, calling, and visiting their congressmen and women to express concern over the reauthorization of the ESEA or Elementary Secondary Education Act.  My frustration: the NEA has over 3 million members, yet less than a third have engaged in this debate with the congressmen and women who have the power to change this law that has taken the joy of teaching and learning from our children.   We need to mobilize and engage our colleagues, friends, parents, community members, and anyone who will listen.

Today the ESEA, also known as No Child Left Behind Act, has moved far from its original attempt to provide equal access to great public schools to all children.  Instead we have a law that focuses on standardized testing and punishing teachers and schools by taking away resources instead of providing more resources to our neediest children.  We have an opportunity in the next few weeks to refocus the attention on what children really need: time for learning,  teachers who have autonomy to deliver instruction and assessment based on student needs, and resources to ensure all students regardless of their zip code have a 21st century school in which to thrive.

So are YOU ready to help lead this charge?  I know you already feel enough is enough… but will you take the extra steps to ensure a better education system in America for ALL children?

Here is what you can do today. Visit Get ESEA Right! and use the simple system set up to put you in direct contact with YOUR political leaders via email.  There are templates to use if you don’t know what to write. OR if you are passionate and have as story- SHARE it! Stories are the most powerful weapons in helping others understand the real impact and devastation of ESEA in its current form.

Second: If you would rather speak or leave a message for your political leader, use the  Opportunity for ALL hotline # is 1-866-331-7233.  They will connect you with your congressman or woman.

Last: You can receive updates and additional calls to action right on your phone. Text the word STUDENTS to 83224.  As things move forward the next few weeks you will get up to the minute knowledge to feed your power to advocate!

Yes. I have called on YOU to take action TODAY!  Lead. Share your stories. And finally, engage in this conversation with legislators, community members, parents, educators, and any one who cares about kids!.  Our kids are relying on us to lead this charge and swell up support from every U.S. citizen who feels we need to change  ESEA/NCLB!

You see, we -the adults are the missing link. Until we take action and advocate for the children we love and care for, then ESEA will continue to cripple educators ability to meet children’s needs and it will stifle the love of learning.  Are you ready? Then take action today!

Shaken, not stirred…

It has been some time since I have written and posted a blog. It has not been for a lack of inspiration, but rather a lack of time to collect my thoughts so I could put something together that made sense. The best way to describe my life the last two months is that it has been shaken, not stirred.  Shaken in a not so gentle way that has often left me breathless…

Yet, I have much hope for the future and I believe that greater things are around the corner if I am patient enough to discover what awaits.   But waiting has never been my strong suit. Patient I am… But never one to wait for life to happen. I believe life is too short not to grab it by the horns and direct it toward a goal or direction.

Things to look forward to in my next few blog posts: growing frustrations with the “systems” in my school district, an amazing professional development journey, and a glimpse of the  Grammys of Education!  Despite the chaos and all that has happened the last two months of my life, I couldn’t feel more blessed and excited for the next phase of my life.  Stay tuned…

Tapping Teachers Full Potential

What’s Holding Teachers Back? 

Teacher leadership is all the rage right now. Across the nation teachers are stepping up to lead from the classroom, serving in hybrid roles, and opening their own schools. Even Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has realized the importance of educators leading the profession and introduced a program this year called Teach to Lead. The program goals are to provide more opportunities for teachers to lead while remaining in the classroom. Partnering with a multitude of organizations, Teach to Lead is creating pathways for teachers to influence policy.  And this is a good thing- especially for students. A recent report from the Aspen Institute states;

“Teacher leadership holds tremendous promise for enhancing instructional capacity, strengthening adult and student culture, and increasing the capacity of teams across a school. In addition, teacher leadership can also increase investment and trust, empower teachers as front-line leaders, and elevate the status of the teaching profession by creating a true career progression.” (2014)

However, the road to lead as a teacher is not a clear or easy path to travel. There are major mountains to climb if you want to serve in a leadership role. The percentage of teachers who actually have opportunities to lead beyond traditional leadership roles such as team leader, committee chair, or building rep is very small. Our profession is flat with little room for professional growth unless you travel the administrative route.  So what is keeping teachers more teachers from leading from the classroom?

Silencing the Voice of Teacher Leaders

Outdated systems and regulations stifle educators’ ability to step up and work beyond the walls of their school without leaving the classroom. There is a belief that teachers cannot simultaneously meet their professional duties in the classroom and be a leader in their profession. This thinking is simply unproductive and keeps potential leaders silent and frustrated. We are told by school leadership that our voices matter, but the actions of our school systems tell us otherwise. How can we own our profession and lead it if we are kept from voicing our opinions, stand divided from system leaders, are discouraged from engaging legislators in policy discussions, and told that it is a conflict of interest to serve in a union leadership role?

I am a firm believer that educators should own and lead our profession. I see myself as a teacher leader and have worn many hats over the years. Most of these roles have meant extra responsibilities and volunteering a lot of my own time, a choice and commitment I have made because of the passion I have for education. However, as I become more involved in teacher leadership, I realize how little time is made available for me to lead and the increasing number of barriers I must overcome if I choose to grow as a leader.

The Call that goes Unanswered

There is also a fear that teachers won’t be able to meet their responsibilities in the classroom if they take on leadership responsibilities. Somehow they won’t be as focused on the needs of their students. I’ve come to realize how misguided that concern is relative to the much larger problem that characterizes teaching as a profession. Anyone who truly has students’ best interest at heart should be thinking about access to leadership opportunities that allow teachers to grow and stay engaged in the profession over the long term. The alternative is to continue have our brightest and most ambitious young teachers leave the classroom within their first few years, leaving our students left with those who are less engaged, display little leadership talent and are content to accept the status quo year in and year out. That’s the problem: how can we retain teachers who inspire students to achieve their true potential — to be the best they can be — when they themselves are denied that same opportunity?

Trusting Teachers to Lead

Teachers are ready to own, lead, and transform education like never before. In order for teachers to take the lead there must a leap of faith on the part of education systems and established leadership. Systemic change begins with trust. Trust that teachers have the skills and ability to handle doing more than just educating our nation’s children. Trust that opens pathways and opportunities for teachers to lead the conversations and dialogue about what children really need. And finally, trust that teachers can be the leaders we need them to be in making a real difference in education. Until we trust our teachers and let them lead, education will continue down a path plagued with poor policies that aren’t what’s best for children.