My mother has served on the school board in the grade school district I attended as a child for many years. Far more years than anyone else on the board, actually. (She wasn’t on the board when I was a child, though. I think she first ran for, and was elected to, the board in 2000 or 2001.) In her many years on the school board, she has had the chance to attend the Joint Annual Conference of the Illinois Association of School Boards, the Illinois Association of School Administrators, and the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. (I have had the opportunity to attend with her as a guest for several years now and have blogged about my experiences.) This conference, often called either the Joint Annual Conference or the Triple-I Conference, is an amazing experience, with speakers and presenters and vendors who inspire and invigorate school leaders.
One of the years that my mom went to this conference without me. she got a copy of a book called What Every Superintendent and Principal Needs to Know by Jim Rosborg, Max McGee, and Jim Burgett. She didn’t read the book, but she gave it to me because she knew that school leadership was on my radar as a possible future option for me. (More on this at a later date.) I honestly don’t remember if she told me anything about the authors or not, but I think that Dr. Burgett was a keynote speaker at the conference and she was impressed by his message.
Jump ahead to a few months ago. I was listening to a podcast series on educational leadership and heard a two-part interview with Dr. Burgett, who mentioned writing this book. I found him to be a captivating speaker and was excited to read a book to which he was a major contributor. I could tell that he had had plenty of experience and developed a considerable amount of expertise in school leadership. I also vaguely remembered that I owned this book, so I dug it out and threw it onto my To Be Read pile at home.
This book isn’t bad; it just wasn’t great. I wasn’t excited to turn the page to see what other wit and wisdom and research and expertise the authors had to share. Much of it seemed commonplace; other points are outdated; others I vehemently disagree with (especially their take on standards needing to be entirely local). The advice was sound; I just don’t know if it was groundbreaking. Maybe it was when these gentlemen wrote this book. From the podcast interview, I got the impression that school leaders weren’t trained very well in the day-to-day operations of schools. So maybe I felt like this was commonplace because I have been blessed with great school leaders who model these practices.
There were some points in this book that struck a chord with me. One of them was a suggestion on how schools can be more active as community centers. As I read a chapter by Dr. Burgett, I had this idea: What if school districts partnered with local businesses to hold an annual job fair open to the public? The key would be that businesses would not have to pay to use space or tables; if they are interested, they are given space in the gym and potential applicants can meet with managers or HR personnel, fill out applications, even have on-site interviews. And, of course, there would be information booths about the district (including any adult education opportunities), transportation, housing, parks, service organisations, etc. I could see this as a way of promoting employment, connecting business and school leaders, and generally improving the quality of the community. And it would be all free of charge.
Another point that struck me was how Dr. Rosborg described the role of the school administrator:
“Your job success will be evaluated by such subjects as physical facilities and equipment; the effectiveness of teachers; the school’s curriculum; test scores; public relations; your effectiveness with the media, stakeholders, and politicians; collective bargaining; diversity; changing demographics; school safety; the perception of school discipline; and the monies available to fund programs. Add to this your need to have specific knowledge about transportation, special education, technology, buildings and grounds, food services, diversity issues, union organisations, health issues, and personnel…
“The good administrator helps teachers incorporate a significant range of strategies and a vast array of resources to help each individual child. The administrator helps develop a team spirit among the teachers. The goal is to create an attitude where the entire school exudes a zealous commitment to reach each and every child.”
I have struggled to come up with a good explanation of what it is I think my job as a school leader will be and why it is so important. Dr. Rosborg put it perfectly, though. Being a principal or a superintendent isn’t easy and it isn’t for the faint of heart, but that zealous commitment to reaching each and every child is what makes it all worth while!
Even though I wasn’t super impressed by this book, I am willing to give all three of these authors another chance, but I think I’ll seek out books written individually instead of collaboratively. I think all three authors have a great deal more to share that can influence others, including me, for good and I hope to tackle some of their other works in the future.
For now, though, I think it is time I take a break from the school leadership books and read something delightfully absurd. I’ll be back with another professional book soon enough, though!
Approximately 16 weeks ago, I began hosting a student teacher from Eastern Illinois University, a man I will call Mr. G (it is what the students called him, too, since his last name was much longer than even mine). For 16 weeks, he was in my classroom every day, working with students, getting to know them, and, only a few short weeks into his placement, teaching them all day every day.
This made my job much different than what I had been used to doing for the previous five and a half years. More specifically, my job went from teaching my class directly, with all of the thousands of decisions involved in that process, to sitting back so that Mr. G could teach while I gave him feedback and support.
At about the same time, my classroom became even more crowded as I welcomed in a team of five pre-service teachers from the University of Illinois who were in a collaborative placement. I rarely had all five of them in my room at the same time, as I shared the placement with the other fourth grade teacher and our reading interventionist, but it meant that, on any given day, I could have had up to six extra adults in my room (including America Reads/America Counts tutors, Vis-a-Vis tutors, and other volunteers).
For the past four weeks, the U of I students were in a full-time placement, and we all got very used to have lots of adult support in my classroom. We were able to do a wide variety of group work, targeted instruction, and one-on-one work.
But, as with all good things, an end had to come, and that end was last Friday afternoon. After four weeks of an abundance of teachers, we are now looking at the final four weeks of school with just two of us: me and my amazing aide.
True, we still have the tutors and volunteers who come in at different times each day, and yes, the reading interventionist and special education teacher are both able to push in at times, but brief push-in is a huge difference from full support all day long.
Today was the first day with just the two of us. The day started strong. The students were introduced to our next short inquiry unit on Westward Expansion, they went to Music, and then we did our Reading Workshop. Reading Workshop was interrupted by a tornado safety workshop we attended, but then we got back to work and ended the morning reading more of The Lightning Thief.
After lunch, however, was a bit of a challenge. The combination of warm air, lots of sunshine, playground disagreements, and plain old fatigue resulted in a loss of focus for many of my students who are wondering if they are really going to be able to make it through the last month of school. (Spoiler alert: they will.)
I’m excited about the final month of school, though! My aide and I are going to be doing great things with my class, we are going to be doing great projects with Miss C’s kindergarteners, and this last month is just going to be fantastic!
I have a confession to make: the reason I haven’t been blogging nearly as much as I used doesn’t actually have all that much to do with time constraints, although graduate school definitely did contribute to the issue. I haven’t been in graduate classes in 11 months, and yet I still haven’t been blogging all that much.
No, the reason is much simpler: I have spent too much time staring at blank pages and simply walking away from the computer.
I have been blogging for over six years. I love talking about education. I love sharing what I do and why I do it. I have been fortunate to have so many amazing experiences over the years, whether it was attending conferences and workshops, presenting to colleagues, leading professional development, reading phenomenal books, collaborating with other teachers and, of course, simply teaching in the classroom every day.
And yet I’ve been in a slump all year long that I just don’t seem to be able to break out of. I feel like so many of the things that we are doing in my classroom are things I have already blogged about. I have a constant fear that my blog has become stale and uninteresting. After all this time, I still don’t know who actually reads these posts. I certainly don’t get that many views and I get even fewer comments.
Of course, I don’t blog for the page views or the comments. In fact, I blog for myself: to give myself an outlet for reflecting on my professional practice and to keep a record of positive events in the classroom. But somehow I find myself opening a new blog post page and then… nothing.
Just a blank page.
So what should I do? What do I write about when I have nothing to write about? What I have been doing is walking away, thinking I might have something else to write about later. But, clearly, that hasn’t been happening. That’s how it has been a couple of days since my last post.
So today I decided a new strategy. I was staring at a blank page for a few minutes and then I just started writing. I wasn’t worried about the topic, nor was I worried about what others might think about my stream-of-consciousness blogging. Instead, I just started typing.
And this is what happened. Four hundred words later and I haven’t really said anything about my classroom or my day, but I have written about what I do when I find myself staring at a blank page.
I feel like I have heard that advice before.
Oh, that’s right, I have.
When my students tell me they don’t know what to write about them, I tell them to not worry about it and just start writing. The most important audience we ever write for is ourselves. Then we eventually think that someone else might want to read what we wrote. I suppose it is time I start taking my own advice. Instead of thinking, “I have nothing to write about that others want to read,” I need to start thinking, “I need to just start writing and let the ideas flow together.”
The funny thing is that, about 200 words ago, I realised that there were things I could write about regarding my classroom and my day, but now that I have committed nearly 600 words to this topic of dealing with writer’s block, I feel like it would be silly to delete it all to write about something completely different. Instead, I will save the idea for Monday.
What do you do when you run into writer’s block?
On October 14, 2010, I started a new blog which I somewhat randomly called “Adventures in Substituting.” It was started because some of my friends had no idea what a substitute teacher actually did, even though all of them had experienced having a substitute for at least one teacher at least once in their school experiences. (The blog then became “Adventures in Teaching Fourth” when I got hired to work at Wiley.)
That first blog post was entitled Why I Teach, which was based on a paper/short essay I wrote for an early college class. While you can click on the link to read the entire post, here is an excerpt that still rings as true today as it did 2,365 days ago when I first published it online:
Rainer Maria Rilke, an author of the early 1900s, published a series of letters he wrote to Franz Kappus, an aspiring poet who wanted Rilke’s advice and approval of his work. The work is aptly and simply entitled, “Letters To A Young Poet.” In the very beginning, Rilke suggests to his young friend that the only way to know if he [Kappus] would know if he was to be a poet or not would be to examine himself in the middle of the night and see if there is anything else he can think of doing other than writing poetry.
Although Rilke’s advice was offered in the context of writing, I have found that it has many applications in my own vocational goals. I have often asked myself, “What do I want to do with my life?” When I wake up in the morning, I know that answer. I want to teach. I cannot think of doing anything else with my life. A student once asked me why I wasn’t a lawyer, or a doctor. I responded, “Because I am a teacher.” It seemed self-evident to me that that was what I would be, because it is what I was (and still am today).
Teaching is so much more than presenting information from a textbook. It is also more than creating a classroom that is open to diversity, although these are both important aspects of it. The best descriptions of teaching I know comes from a movie I saw some time ago: “A teacher has two jobs. To fill young minds with knowledge, yes. But also to act as a compass to give those minds direction.” The true teacher is one who guides students to a personal, life-long quest for knowledge, so that some day the student can, as Elbert Hubbard once observed, “get along without his teacher.” To “get along” is to be able to learn, to appreciate, and to understand the changing world in which we live, and it is my hope to be a part of that process.
That is why I teach.
In the nearly six and a half years since then, I have blogged about my experiences teaching at all grade levels and in dozens of schools across East Central Illinois as a substitute teacher, about my experiences as a fourth grade teacher for almost six of those years (my substituting career actually started two years before I started blogging), things I have learned at conferences and workshops, books I have read, and memoirs and introspectives related to my career, my vocation, my calling, my passion. I have tried to keep each post unique but there have certainly been times when I wrote about something and then a year later wrote about it again.
Each experience has been valuable and important in its own unique way. I know that my blogging frequency has decreased rapidly over the past two years. I used to blog every day I worked (as a substitute), and then I blogged every school day (plus some extra). My frequency started to decrease during grad school when, instead of taking time to write about my reflections for the day, I would use the time after work and before class to read assignments, write assignments, or work on projects. I felt like I was in a rut this year, with my blogging, and so I gave myself permission to not write every day, which turned into sometimes a month or more without a post.
But I have never stopped reflecting, pondering, and evaluating my day. I have never stopped worrying about my students, about my colleagues, about my district, about the public education system in general. I ask what I can do to make things better, not as a comparison to others but as an internal comparison. I ask myself the same three questions I frequently ask my students: what worked well? what didn’t? what can I do better next time?
And now, at the conclusion of my 1000th blog post about my adventures in teaching, my answer to Rifka’s question is still the same: I am a teacher because there is nothing else I can ever imagine myself doing, whether that teaching is of 23 fourth graders in a classroom or 40 adults in a building. It is what I do because it is what I am.