The Last Lesson Plan: On Losing a Teacher

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What lesson plan would you want written in your memory by your school community?

That question was framed for me in the most recent of many losses of a school community member across my career. If you work as an educator, eventually you will lose a colleague or a student. Sometimes that loss comes unexpectedly and sometimes it’s drawn out through the agony of time. In either case the loss represents tragedy.

I talked with our leadership team yesterday about the loss of a younger generation music educator, Eric, killed in a car accident the evening that Thanksgiving break began. I asked two novice principals affected by this teacher’s loss to share what they had learned about leading as they supported their communities to process this loss.

The high school principal said that as they returned from break that opening the music room for kids and staff to drop in and talk with each other was critical. “More than anything else we simply needed each other. The teachers came to the room with our students almost as if it was the home where everyone gathers after the loss of a family member.” He described the quiet conversations of sharing that occasionally shifted to notes from the piano or voices lifting in song, capturing the spirit and spirituality of Eric, a remembering that allowed their common grief and railing at his loss to turn to celebration of his uncommon joy in being a member of two of our school communities.

The principal of the middle school where this music teacher also taught commented simply that she had learned as she called every single staff member how important it was for them to hear her voice as a personal medium for sharing Eric’s loss with each of them individually. They needed the timbre of her real voice — not an email or a voice message.

As these two principals spoke, I was reminded of a similar time when as a young principal my own school community lost a novice kindergarten teacher. More than anything in my career, leading a school community through that loss, and subsequently many others, taught me that principals are ultimately tribal leaders, looked to for their voices, care, guidance, and skill in bringing people together to make sense of and respond to the needs of the community as a whole and its members as individuals.

Death is a test of our school communities. It halts time. It presses us to remember that we are a gathering of people who feel loss communally —  even when we didn’t know a person as well as another student or staff member did. Death teaches us that learning is truly about life and not about passing tests. It reminds us that what people take away from those we memorialize in our stories, eulogies, and music is emotional in tenor and social in context. As tears flow we push aside our hurried lives of covering content to connect with each other. We are reminded that what we think is the most important work we do may actually be the least important. That’s why in my district as we build our school communities for learners and learning, we prioritize building relationships first before we focus on creating relevance and rigor in the work our young people accomplish.

Relationships are foundational to all we do as educators. Last Sunday, Eric’s students described why he made a difference in their lives first as a caring adult and then as a music teacher. Who he was as a person mattered the most to them as they turned memories into narratives about their teacher.

“He would make waffles for our class at the end of the semester and when he found out I was gluten-free he made special waffles for me.”

“He always said hello in the hallways. If he knew you he wouldn’t just greet you by your first name. He always used your first and last name.”

“He would smile at everyone. He would wave at every one of us when he passed us in the halls.”

“When I lost my father, he helped me so much. He spent time with me to support me through that.”

“He was surprised that despite my outgoing personality, I was terrified to sing on stage. He worked with me to overcome that. Just before he died, I tried out for a solo and even though I knew I wouldn’t get it, I like that he got to see me do that.”

“He was funny. He wore funny ties and suits. He made class fun.”

“I learned so much from him and I will take those lessons with me for the rest of my life.”

“He inspired me to be a better singer but, most importantly, he inspired me to be a better person.”

Eric was one of those teachers who engaged the world around him through his love of hiking, apples, music, and people. As the winter concert service planned and shared by his young musicians and community peers unfolded last Sunday, we participated in a well-designed last lesson plan crafted carefully and purposefully by Eric.

He wasn’t physically on stage for his last concert but he was there in spirit and everyone had one more chance to participate in learning from and with Eric.

Teachers are lost but their teaching never dies, and in this there is immortality. When these children are old many of them will continue to recall what this man gave them at that vulnerable moment in their lives. Some, on their path to old age, will become teachers themselves, multiplying Eric and the work he did.

His music will play on.

Beyond the Sky: Imagine That!

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Beyond the Sky … 

When kids get passionate about learning and they ask me to join them, I have to say yes. Even at 7 am on a Saturday morning.

It’s why I found myself getting up early to head off to a local park on a misty morning last June. When I arrived, the kids, a team of middle schoolers, were already there along with their teachers, the school principal, their parents, the media, and … me.

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Why? Because two eighth-grade girls decided they wanted to fly a high altitude balloon to the edge of the atmosphere. They’d enlisted adults, their teachers, and other interested students in their project. We were all gathered to see what would come of this year-long project.

I watched with my camera, capturing video and photos, as they worked to put all the final pieces together; the go-pro camera, an arduino-driven tracking system, and the balloon. They checked their tracker app on their cell phones and installed it on my phone, too.  Finally, after their final check, they called 4 different air traffic control centers from Charlottesville to DC.

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We adults stood back and watched the kids position the balloon and let it go.  It rose, and cheers went up. Then, in silence, it glided back to earth. Shoulders drooped a bit but the kids got to work. They figured out what parts of the apparatus could be ditched to lower the balloons weight and then they let it go again … this time it rose and rose –gliding out of sight and we all cheered.

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They checked their cell phone tracking apps over the weekend and into the early days of the week. These modern-day rocket kids began to wonder if their balloon had wandered too far afield and all their work was now lost. Then – an alert triggered. When the call came to central office that they were off to collect their balloon, we all cheered again. Our balloon chasers found it on the other side of Lake Anna , more than fifty miles away, and secured permission from a farmer to retrieve it out of a wood-lined pasture. Guess what?

 

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The go pro footage showed Mission Accomplished!

 

 

Who wouldn’t want this kind of learning passion for all kids? As superintendent I find my own passion in the work I do comes from helping educators create multiple pathways to learning so that all our young people find their way to pursuing hopes and dreams, to have as many choices as possible when they move into adulthood, and to gain an equity of access to rich, experiential, creative work that educates them for life, not school.

droneclubI think Julian captures this vision in his passion for making and flying drones – and through what he’s learned as he’s participated in the maker movement that brings passion alive in young people in our schools today. What started as an isolated passion in a library maker space while making drones took Julian one day into the school cafeteria with his drones to see who else might be interested. As a result of Julian’s leadership, he’s now surrounded by a score of middle and high school student who share his interest.

That passion also resides in Ayoade, a high school senior, who believes that engineering is fun and a great career choice.  However, Ayoade believed that many young girls might not know that. So as a sophomore she took a startup idea to her engineering teacher who said, “why not?” Abridge-girlss a result, she became a social entrepreneur, creating not just a bridge-building camp for middle school girls but one in which participants give back to our community by creating bridges that make our local walking trails accessible.

 

courtney1And, there’s Courtney who isn’t just a fabulous actress, choreographer, and dancer in her school’s drama program but also a script writer who just had her own award-winning, one act play performed in state competition. What makes Courtney’s work unique? She believes that arts are a path to teaching communities about issues of social justice and her most recent script, Necessary Trouble (taken from a speech quote by Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis) pushes audiences to engage in discussion about what rights mean to students who find themselves on different sides of a civil rights issue.

Josh1.jpgFinally, there is Josh, a tenth-grader who speaks to his tough life experiences –foster parenting, many transitions in homes and schools, and his challenges with the greatest frankness. He has shared on the national stage how engaged, hands-on, project-based learning, along with support from his Team 19 peers, teachers, and his principal has changed his attitude about high school – going from a kid who thought he might not graduate when he entered high school to now dreaming of becoming a tech engineer. You might ask so how did Josh get to a White House podium? Last year, he participated in a focus group at his high school led by a member of Student Voice and Josh’s voice, filled with passion and authenticity, was noticed by the facilitator leading to an invitation to speak at the White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools.

These stories don’t happen by chance. They happen when educators see the future as adjacent to the possibilities we build inside our schools today. Courtney, Ayoade, Josh, Julian, and the balloon kids represent every child inside our schools – classrooms filled with poets, engineers, artists, nurses, programmers – and yes, I hope, future teachers, principals, and maybe a superintendent or two.

We don’t find our children’s passions or talents when they sit in rows facing a dominant teaching wall, listening hour after hour, day after day, year after year, taking test after test to prove what they know-  but with little chance to show us what they can do.  Yet, when our young people get hooked on learning and take that passion into life along with a sense of personal agency, their voices will influence first their schools, and then their communities, the nation, and the world.

Unleashing the potential of our young people so they can build agency as learners and find their voices through experiences that plumb their passions means the sky is no longer the limit. Beyond the sky becomes possible.

Imagine that.

On Patience and Empathy

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I remember a day many years past when a teacher boiled over with frustration with a six- year-old child who routinely sneaked snacks from other children’s lunch boxes. The kids were angry. So was the teacher. She’d tried a variety of strategies including buying snacks to keep in a closet for him.At the end of the day she sat down with a team of teachers and me as the principal. She sighed and said, “I need help.”

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What do you say to a young child bounced from a single mother to a grandmother and eventually to a foster home? A child who gave his own food to a younger brother so he wouldn’t go hungry at night and then learned to hoard other children’s food during the day to assuage his own hunger? What do you do next when no response you make seems to impact a child’s behavior?

Questions of Empathy

A couple of weeks ago #satchat participants considered questions of empathy as a critical point for dialogue among PLN participants. Tricia Shelton (@TdiShelton) shared a Brene Brown RSA short on the Power of Empathy. At the end of the video, Brown comments,  “rarely can a response make something better .. what makes something better is connection.”

Response and connection aren’t one and the same. We often are at a loss for words when a child’s needs overwhelm us. When we just aren’t sure what to say or do, we may fill in the silence with the first words that come to us – words often used in frustration by adults – words that likely won’t change anything about a child’s behaviors.

Planning a good lesson is the easy part. Connecting is often the challenge.

Connecting demands that we see, feel, hear, and experience to truly understand the narrative of a child. Sometimes, we might hear from a peer or a principal “you just need to connect.” It’s not that simple. When a child differs from us – in background, gender, color,  disabilities, personality or a variety of other ways – hearing and feeling his/her story can challenge us to find connections.

Overcome with our own emotional response, we often respond with “the rules” when a child spins out of control. His/her behavior makes it hard for us to even want to connect. Yet, for such a child to feel safe in our community, we have to sustain a commitment to connecting. We can’t walk away from the hard work to make that happen. It takes patience as Luann ChristensenLee (@stardiverr) said in this #satchat tweet.

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 Patience breathes life into connecting. Connecting builds bridges to empathy.

Despite the pressures of our teaching lives, how can we not be patient with our children? Patience is core to our work to tease out what motivates a child’s anger, frustration, pain, or grief. It gives us the time to figure out how to connect with the child. Those connections help us find the empathy we need to remember that children need us to care first and teach second.

Learner-centered Principal Leadership

Empathy reminds us to pause and make the time to look a child in the eyes so s/he simply knows we are there. It creates the moments when we make ourselves stop and just listen. It helps us check our words and offer our silence. It gives us the few right words we need to help a child stop spinning and the permission to grieve or even anger at their circumstances of life.

 How do we find the empathy inside ourselves so that we can extend it to our children?

Over a long career, I’ve spent time with children dealing with life’s challenges – death of siblings, parents, grandparents and teachers and … pets. I’ve talked with teachers and parents about children lost to grievous illnesses, accidents, and at their own hand. I’ve worked with teachers and principals to find solutions to help children of all ages suffering with pain from abuse, dysfunctional family breakups, and intense rejection by peers and family. Their emotions – adults and children alike – have run the gamut from deep sadness to full-blown rage.

What do you say to a child who experiences life’s challenges in such a profound way that in the moment it feels as if those challenges will never end?

What about the children who bring handicaps with them to school that impact their capability to succeed with the ease of peers around them? The children who don’t have the family resources to pay for field trips or to obtain help with science projects to be completed at home? The left-out children who envy the popular kids who get invited to birthday parties? Or who never will have a family vacation or piano lessons or attend summer soccer camp? What do we say to help children live in an opportunity gap that won’t close for them?

IMG_7945Luann believes we must work hard to be patient as we come to understand we can’t fix the world, but we can be present today for a child. We must be patient in realizing that other people’s agendas don’t account for the child who needs you to stop, listen, and do what’s right in this moment to connect. Patience reminds us to put a child first and the rules second.

Life will never be perfect for any of us who choose to teach. Children’s lives aren’t perfect either. We can’t control either. But we can choose to be still, be patient, and connect. That’s the space where we discover empathy within for those who need us the most.

Oh yeah  – and the kid in the intro story?

When I was a young teacher a mentor once said to me about a hard-to-reach middle schooler, “You are going to spend time with this student. How you choose to spend it is in your control.”

We kicked into a Glasser approach with our first grader and went back to square one to ask “What are we doing and is it working?” We realized we had work to do.  The teacher started with simply giving this little boy time every morning to share anything with her he wanted to share – every morning this happened – his time. She worked hard to be patient as Luann advises. The counselor created a plan with him (not for him) to connect at snack time with a small peer group and to give him the chance to “snack shop” in her office so he could be in control of choosing snacks to put in his backpack. She gave him choices that put him in control, something with which he’d had little experience in his short life. The grandmother continued to struggle with him at home and we tried to help her with a plan for there, too. The child slowly, very slowly, began to connect with other kids and to realize how they felt about their snacks. Nothing about this child’s life became perfect. But we all began to understand his story. We indulged in the patience to connect and we found empathy there.

And for the record, here’s what we didn’t do. We didn’t put him on a behavior plan to work for points or rewards. We didn’t punish him with time outs or losing recess or calls home for stealing snacks. We knew not one of those responses would change anything about his behavior in the long-term. These common behavioral responses would simply reinforce that we were trying to control his actions, rather than allowing him to learn to do that.  In the end, we learned from him and he learned from us.

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Brene Brown says empathy begins with building connections. Isn’t the patience to learn that worth our time?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Ornaments

Sometimes it’s the simple things that remind me of why I continue to do what I do.   It seems as if some new uphill challenge always looms on the horizon and moving up that hill can feel overwhelming. I have come to believe it’s what we do with our challenges, not what we allow our challenges to do to us, that defines who we ultimately become as we face each day of our life.

Doug Reeves says when harmonious passion, a belief we make a difference and we can see the results of our work, exists in people we remain optimistic, despite challenges. Ira Socol speaks to the importance of courageous creativity within those pathfinders who willingly take risks to try something new to solve problems rather than continuing to sustain the schooling traditions of our past.  Stephen Ambrose describes Lewis and Clark as pushing forward on an uncharted journey into the unknown; indeed a voyage of life and death challenges. These two embodied what Ambrose labels as “undaunted courage.” And, then there’s Charley who articulates his perspective upon Willy’s life in the Requiem at the end of Death of a Salesman, speaking to the dreams that sustain us even when we feel unfulfilled and a bit lost in our careers.

“ He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine . . . A salesman is got to dream, boy.” – Charley

Adding children’s handmade ornaments to the Christmas tree each year became at some point my own annual retrospective on the challenges of life and the importance of sustaining passion, creativity, courage, and dreams in meeting and moving past challenges. The ornaments became my metaphor for why I do what I do.

When I first heard of “Joanie”, she was described as a challenged young girl who had never attended school. She was wheelchair bound with both physical and mental disabilities, including the need to be catherized daily. At age 12, not too long after the newly minted federal legislation for IDEA, her parents enrolled her in school for the first time. We teachers were all scared of what it would mean to be responsible for this child. As a second year teacher, she ended up with me.

I learned from “Joanie” what undaunted courage looks like in a child, She’d never been out of the home, experienced other children her age, or trusted adults other than her parents to take care of her. Yet, she rolled in to the school foyer without looking back at her parents standing at the door. Over months she became a part of my class, learning to care about and trust us as we also learned to care about and trust her. I will never forget the day, a friend rolled her to our newly constructed goldfish pond and she was selected by classmates to carefully place our goldfish in their new home. And, I will always remember when she came by my room with her mother and handed me this ornament, saying “thank you for letting me be in your class.” I learned from her that a child should never have to feel grateful for being included in a classroom community.

He was a scrawny little boy, “Jack.” Some days, I had to force myself to go to him to check on his work because the smell was overpowering.  No one wanted to sit near him. It was woodsmoke, clothes too long unwashed, and that feel he was always looking at other children’s food as if he was ready to fight them for it. Yet, it seemed somehow right that I would let this country kid bring his pet squirrel to school to share with the class (this occurred long before such a thing would be totally verboten in our schools.) He never said thank you, but I shouldn’t have expected his gratitude anyway for simply being able to contribute something of himself to the class.

I’m not sure where he got the glitter or the toothpicks to make an ornament for a teacher, but I do know that he probably had to build up more than a little courage to sneak the stuff home from school. Right before the winter holidays, he handed the ornament he’d created wrapped up in some toilet paper. He taught me the importance of “teacher” that year and  while every child is worthy of attention, some children need us more than others to survive life’s slaps of fate.

I loved this kid. “Bobby” couldn’t read, but since he loved science we got along well. After all, our passion for science wasn’t shared universally in our class. His enthusiasm had no boundaries  – a constant stream of questions and comments about all things science. I could always count on him to hang around after class to ask if he could help clean up or set up lab activities. However, I did have a conundrum about what to do when he failed every written test that first marking period. Somewhere inside me, I began to learn from his results what children know and understand inside their minds does not always match what they put on the paper we call tests.  Perhaps it wasn’t fair to the others that I started reading him the tests at lunch and letting him answer questions orally. No one told me to stop. And, I didn’t ask for permission.  Every time I place his ornament on the tree- made from burnt matches and an old card- I remember that everything worth measuring can’t be measured in the same way for every child.

After all my years in education, I now have a collection of children’s ornaments to place on the family tree. Each one recalls a child and reminds me that the dreams I had as a young teacher are just as important now as they were at any point in my career. I also know I’ve learned as much from children as I have helped them learn. In many ways, they have been my best teachers.

These simple gifts remind me why I keep pushing up the hill.