Last week, I joined thousands of educators from across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Singapore, and the Netherlands at the National Writing Project Annual Meeting in Minneapolis. The NWP Annual Meeting is always held in conjunction with NCTE (Naitonal Council for Teachers of English), a much larger conference with many sessions for teachers, book exhibits, and famous authors.
What I love about my local site, the Western Mass. Writing Project, is done on a larger scale at the NWP Annual Meeting. The sessions are led by teachers, for teachers. They are collaborative, inquiry-based and I always come home with great information to share with my colleagues.
Surrounded by people who spoke my "language" as a teacher was great. Over the 3 days I was there, I got to thinking about how teachers are perceived and supported vs. how professors are. Hanging out with my mom, who is a frequent conference-goer and speaker and Professor Emerita from UMass, I often get an inside view into the life of a university academic. In Minneapolis, I got to hang out with my mother a lot because she was at the conference as a mentor in a program called 'Cultivating New Voices Among Scholars of Color". Under the umbrella of NCTE, CNV is a program for recently appointed assistant professors or Doctoral students who are close to defending their dissertations. CNV "prides itself in supporting the professional, intellectual, and activist work of scholars of color by pairing each fellow with a senior scholar in the field (i.e., education/teacher education; language, literacy, and cultural studies; English). In this way, fellows are afforded the opportunity to work one-on-one with a senior scholar as well as to participate in a supportive cohort that brings together fellows, mentors, and invited workshop presenters." (from the NCTE website).
Wow. What if teachers got to do this? If we want more quality, dedicated teachers staying in teaching, we need to create more opportunities like this.
I had another illuminating moment at the conferences. I was speaking to a professor about my blog and my work in the WMWP. We wanted to connect later, and she asked me for a card. At which point I laughed out loud. "I don't have cards - I'm a teacher!" I said, cracking myself up. But this made me think - well, why don't we have cards? And not just the kind you can order at Staples, which I know some teachers do invest in. We network also, we engage in research, and we want to connect with other teachers.
At the NWP Annual Meeting, I went to a session that talked about "elevating the teaching profession". I appreciated the sentiment, but it made me think: why are we at a point where we need to "elevate" the teaching profession? Why don't teachers garner the same respect as professors? Or the same as teachers in Finland, who are reportedly highly respected AND happy teachers?
Conferences like these should be paid for regularly by schools, or at least subsidized. These experiences give us new perspectives, they refresh us, and re-energize us with ideas and strategies for our practice. In fact, many teachers pay their own way to conferences, pay their own registration, and buy their own materials for their classrooms at these conferences. Because we make so much money, I guess...We also have to pay for our own re-certification, our classes leading to the re-certification, and our own fingerprints.
At some point, the tables have to turn. Teachers need to stop getting the blame for everything wrong with education. We need mentors who are invested in our success. We need opportunities to network and share our expertise with each other. We are not in it for the fame or fortune, for sure - but yes, business cards would be a nice touch! After all, we are the ones who are teaching, guiding, and advocating for the children in this country, from ages 3 - 18. Where is our respect and support?
If you are not a teacher, take the time to thank one! It means a lot. And if you are a teacher, take the time to support a colleague who might need it - he or she will appreciate it!
"Take those headphones off, please and thank you!!!" a voice booms down the middle school hallway. I don't have to look to know who it is - my friend and colleague, paraeducator Julie Woynar.
Julie is my model for how to reach students when I am doing ELL support in various classes. She has been in our school for more than 20 years, guiding students, supporting them, and being a champion for the other paraprofessionals. She has a sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, that is unwavering. When students first meet Julie (and teachers, possibly, too), they are terrified of her. The lucky ones get to know her, though, and they usually love her and remember her for years to come.
From Julie, I learned that sometimes, students really just need to take a lap around the school with you. Maybe they need to talk about every day things, like the weather, or their weekend. And then after that, maybe they can re-enter class with more focus and a sense of calm. A few weeks ago, I took a student on a walk. In class, she was visibly upset. An extremely bright student, I got the sense that she was frustrated with what seemed to her a pointless assignment. The teacher is an excellent teacher who does her best to reach all her students. Still, this student was getting agitated. I took her out of the room and we talked about nothing as we walked around the school. She never told me what was really bothering her, but as she walked back into class, she thanked me. I realized I had just pulled a "Ms.Woynar" move.
A stickler for rules, Julie is the one you will hear asking kids to remove their hats, put their phones away, and get to class quickly. She also will bring a student a special homemade treat for her birthday and buy a student a sweatshirt because the only one he has has something inappropriate on it. She always knows the weird national days, like "National hot dog day" or "National Crazy Tie Day". When students - or teachers - are upset, she distracts them with her silly, crazy stories; soon enough they are laughing with her. I've been that person myself - many times. Sometimes all I need is some chocolate or a hug - and Julie always has both of those to share.
Julie is also the biggest supporter of her crew - the paraeducators of our school. She is the one you want on your side. She goes to bat for her teachers and advocates for them in many ways. She is the queen of random acts of kindness inside school and out. She's also a fierce, loving mom to 2 great kids and gives me advice about parenting all the time.
I always admire the patience Julie has to reach and deal with some of our hardest students. They respond to her, and even when they disappoint her, or make her mad, she is there for them. I remember last year when we had particularly challenging students. There were times no one wanted to deal with them, yet I would see Julie in the hallway with them, walking, talking, laughing, chastising, and saying, "Oh Mylanta!!" - her signature exclamation.
I'm pretty sure that every student in the middle school knows Ms.Woynar. She has subbed for just about every teacher. You wish for that kind of sub because she makes kids do their work, and she is strict. but she also jokes around with them enough so they love her. Every school should have a Julie Woynar. I know that my days would be longer and darker without her presence.
Julie, you rock!!!
Planning field trips can be a royal pain and involves lots of work. However, last week when I took my students on a field trip to the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College, I was reminded of why teachers take the time to plan field trips.
Here is a picture of our amazing guide, Fred. Fred literally got down on all fours - and convinced 8 of my 10 seventh and eighth graders to do the same - to demonstrate how a mammoth might get stuck in mud when searching for food. Fred covered everything from Pangaea to how fossils are formed to explaining extinction. He was animated, expressive, and at their level without treating them like little kids. Come to find out later that he was a middle school science teacher....Ohhhhhh, now I get it! Thanks Fred!! You were awesome!
We left school at 9 AM, and walked over to Amherst College, about a 20 minute walk. It was a mild day, almost 70 degrees - not at all a typical November day; the students made sure to walk through leaves whenever they could. Our guide greeted us at the closed museum. My pre-practicum teacher met us there. After emailing with me, I could tell Fred had clearly done his homework by preparing for the right grade and for a group of ELL students. They were amazed to see the tiny horse to the left - a little bigger than a large cat! One of my students filmed the entire tour, she was so excited about it. I am pretty certain she made her parents watch the whole thing over the weekend.
After our tour, we went on the look at the fossils and extinct animals to the gems. The students were amazed to see gold and diamonds, thought the diamonds were not as shiny as one student expected.
Since it was so nice out and we had lots of time, I took the class up to the Amherst College quad. They sat in the Adirondack chairs, they ran and jumped and took pictures of each other. Here is one student looking our at the mountain range - the same mountains seen in the painting in the first picture above.
It was the Friday before Halloween. I got to school feeling silly in my Dia de los Muertos makeup and flower headband, but as soon as I walked in the building, I didn't regret a thing. Lots of kids were dressed up. Even better, lots of teachers were! If we're talking percentages, I think more teachers actually dressed up than kids! It was awesome. There were clowns, hippies, 80s throwbacks, Thing 1 and 2, the Queen - even High Fructose Corn Syrup. At the end of the day the teaches got together for a picture. I felt hope about how things could be, a faculty united with our principal and working towards the same goal. It felt good.
That night, there was a social in the school cafeteria. A social is basically a school dance that includes games and arts and crafts for the kids who aren't into dancing. I realized that after I told someone about the social and she looked confused that this was probably one of those things we do only in Amherst.
Anyway, I signed up to chaperone because my daughter asked me to - as a member of the leadership committee she was one of the planners. We got there early to help set up. At 7, we opened the doors and kids started pouring in. Some were in costume; some were in jeans; one wore 5 inch high stilettos; a few boys had doused themselves in cologne and slicked their hair back.
I had been a chaperone at so many socials that it didn't even dawn on me that it was my daughter's first one in middle school. She appeared happy to be there, not nervous at all. The DJ, our school's own Mr.Hunter (who owns all his own DJ equipment), knew exactly what to play and when; he couldn't have been more tuned in to the age and the crowd. By 8 PM, almost every kid there was dancing. I thought back to my days of school dances, where the girls would dance and the boys would play air guitar on the sidelines (Allison and friends, remember?? Boy, things have changed). I am always amazed that so many boys at our school get right in there - and many of them have great moves!
At about 8:30, all you could see was a feverish, sweaty mass jumping up and down. DJ Hunter played song after danceable song, and when "Apple Bottom Jeans" came on, even the teachers and principal watching the crowd of kids couldn't resist the music anymore. We all got low, low, low.
As the night ended, I felt joy - Joy that my daughter's first social was a success; joy that I could be at the social with her and she actually spoke to me several times and was happy I was there; joy that kids were having good fun together, for a few hours putting aside all the issues and insecurities they have; and the same sense of hope I had felt earlier that day. It was an awesome way to end the night and the week.