Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Why I love teaching middle school

Any middle school teacher can describe it for you. It's "the look." The look you get when you tell someone you teach middle school. It's a mix of sympathy and "are you INSANE?!" last night I was at a Giants baseball game. At one point, three other middle school teachers and I commiserated about "the look." Moments later, we shared with someone that we were middle school teachers and were on the receiving end of "the look." This time, it came from a high school teacher.

It may come from a fellow educator as it did for us last night. Anyone who teaches elementary or high school or college may have it. But, it is not limited to educators. Non-educators share "the look" with people like us as well. It's a "bless your heart" sort of look.

Now, I know, I have a strong admiration for kindergarten teachers (and other primary teachers as well, but especially kindergarten teachers). I try to avoid giving them a "bless your heart" look, but do not always succeed. Still, it seems middle school teachers receive it far more than any other teacher under the sun. If you teach anything between third and sixth, you likely are less familiar with this look. Somehow people do not have the same sympathy or concern for the middle grades as they do for primary nor for intermediate/middle school. The thing is that each grade presents its own set of challenges. Each grade calls a specific person to teach it. I admire those who feel called to teach what I consider middle grades. I once thought my dream was to teach fourth or fifth grade. I found out through career directional shifts that I was called to something more. My mom is a retired eighth grade teacher. She loved everything about what she did. In the meantime, she became an inspiration without either one of us even really knowing it. After my first year teaching middle school, I talked to her about how much I loved teaching eighth grade. She laughed at me. You see, at one point, I said I would never teach eighth grade. Funny thing, eighth grade is exactly where I want and need to be.


Well, isn't that the question.

Let me start with my seventh grade year. I was bullied. My best friend at the time and I had a falling out that lasted a few months. She made friends with some eighth graders. I had a "crush" on a fellow seventh grader. Turns out, one of the eighth graders considered him her boyfriend at the time. She challenged me on the playground. You know the drill. It was the late 80s, early 90s. She approached me, a large crowd gathered around. They all hoped for a fight. I was terrified. I told my parents. They called the school. Things got worse. It was bad. She challenged me to a fight. We were to meet at the elementary school by my house. My parents arranged for me to go to my brother's babysitter's house across the street from the school. So, I did. I watched intently. I had no intention of crossing the street to the school, but I watched. She never showed. Things stopped after that. Awhile later, the girl I had considered my best friend and I reunited and she told me she had smoothed things over. I'm not sure what happened, but it was done, in the past, and life went on. Seventh grade ended and eighth grade started. It was a new year.

And the new year presented new challenges. After the first quarter, my family moved to a new town. A house my mom loved, two doors up from my grandparents, went on the market. My parents bought it. We moved. Goodbye to the friends I had known since second grade, the best friend I had been through ups and downs with and recently reconciled with after a hiatus. Goodbye French class which I had enrolled in with enthusiasm and high expectations. Goodbye house. Goodbye.

And yet, there was also hello. Hello to new friends and new adventures. It was not easy, but it was something I could seemingly manage. Teachers who now instructed me knew my mom. The boy I had crushed on at the end of my seventh grade year was a year ahead of me and one of my mom's students. He was attending a high school in the district I moved to and that was kind of cool. There was a mix of anxiety and hope. Eighth grade is a really difficult year to change schools. But, there are positives to change, as well.

Turns out, the difficulties outnumbered the positives. I really struggled. I was sick, or "sick," more than I had ever been before in my life. I did not want to go to school. But, I had met a new friend. In fact, over time, she became my very best friend and is now more like a sister to me. It was far from easy, but there were teachers who made the difference. And, my new best friend made a difference. It only takes one good thing, one strong thing, to make a world of difference. I ran track and loved it. I confided in teachers. There was even a substitute teacher who influenced me incredibly positively. Over time, I came to accept this new place and these new people as home. I went on to high school with these folks. I attended that high school for my freshman and senior years. In between, I took a journey to the LA County High School for the Arts. Long story short, I returned to my "regular high school" for my senior year due to family reasons and family needs. When I returned, I was welcomed back with open arms. I got reinvolved with Whittier HS theater and even won an award for my performance in the fall play. All of it was pretty cool. Now, to reiterate, it was one friend and a couple of teachers who made the difference for me in eighth grade and that impacted my path forever. The boy I "crushed" on who was a student of my mom's, is still my friend today. We have a chance to visit every couple of years when he travels from his ("new") home in Australia back to the States. My "new" eighth grade best friend lives 20 minutes from me (we both moved to the Central Valley immediately after graduation; turns out we were destined to be "besties" for life and that's why I consider her my sister). But the difference made by teachers had a lasting impact as well.

I love being an eighth grade teacher because I know how hard eighth grade can be. When a student joins my eighth grade class, I know what to look for and how to look out for them because I once was a new student in a close-knit eighth grade class. I work in a school with far smaller class sizes, so it is a little different, but I generally can relate. I listen. I hear. I strive to do right by each student who is likely having their own set of difficulties. Some are more interested in personal relationships than others. Some have academic struggles. Some need more challenges academically. All of this is a part of eighth grade. Each student is unique. Each student has needs that I look forward to helping meet. That is my role, my job, my passion.  The greatest part of this is that I also love the curriculum.

The language arts and science are incredible and the history I get to cover with students is among my favorite. In fact, my love for "Hamilton: An American Musical" has joined with my passion for teaching eighth grade and awesomeness abounds.

Eighth grade is a challenging year for students, but it also can be very special. It takes a teacher with a heart for it all: the students, the struggles, the curriculum-- to see a group of students through the challenges and triumphs of eighth grade. While I understand "the look" when you send it in my direction, know this, I don't need a "bless your heart response" but rather, a "thank you for what you do." Still, you will look at me as you will, and that's ok. To the high school teachers, you know someone needs to do what I do. And as such, I know you appreciate what I (and others like me) do. So, thank you for "the look." To primary teachers, I know that I cannot do what you do and that I appreciate what you do. (I did my student teaching in kindergarten and third grades, and my teaching career started with second graders, so I know what you do presents its own challenges.) I thank you for sending me the students you do. To the non-teachers, I know that we all have a role to play in this world. Thank you for thinking highly of what I do, appreciating what I do. To my middle school friends and teachers, thank you for helping to make me who I am today. Thank you for showing me what helps make eighth grade awesome.

And to my eighth graders (past, present, future), thank you for being you. Thank you for the opportunity to be your teacher.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Catch your wave and ride it out

This spring has taken me for some twists and turns in all aspects of my life, but especially in my role in education. Don't get me wrong, I love what I do, where I am, and the students I work with daily. I am quite grateful for the school where I work and the opportunities it lends me as an educator.

I have long stated that I strive to be among the best at what I do. I consider myself a lifelong learner. I know that I can do more and do better. In seeking to improve and grow as an educator, I am seeking to improve and grow my students. They will ultimately benefit from the goals I have set for myself.

I want to start with what I have decided is a perfect analogy for what I am experiencing and feeling in my life as a connected educator, an edtech enthusiast, and the lead member of the EdTechFamily.

On Wednesday, we returned from the first leg of our first vacation of the summer. You see, the plan was this: Capitola Sunday to Wednesday, home for two days, then head to Eureka for three days. It didn't play out quite as smoothly as I would have liked to start, but ultimately, we are on track. The Capitola leg of the trip is the birthday present for my children, a couple of days on the coast including surfing lessons. We did not head to the coast as prepared as we had hoped, but we were open-minded and ready for adventure. My daughter has a healthy fearlessness about her that is balanced with a respect for the water. My son is more fearful but has been working diligently on overcoming his fears independently. Both had an amazing time.

Now, for the analogy. I, too, took a surfing lesson. It was a bit of a struggle between the mama who wanted to show the kids that anything can be done and the mama who wanted to keep a close eye on her kiddos at all times. My son remained on the shoreline, still fearful of what the day had in store, and my daughter was catching her first wave as my instructor said, "this is your wave, are you ready?!" "I'm not, but, that doesn't" He had pushed me off and I was riding the wave. I moved my hands to push up on the board...and....rolled, back first into the water. The wave slammed down on me, separating me from my board and submerging me in the salty ocean water. In that brief second, I knew that this is where sometimes you may not know which was up. I reached out and started for the surface of the water. My head bobbed up, I took a breath just as a new wave pummeled me below the water's surface. "Are you kidding me? Ok, I can do this." I reached out again. This time, my fingers slipped across the edge of my board just as a third wave knocked me back below the water. I could feel my legs starting to shake. I kicked and fought my way once again to the surface. I grabbed my board, looked over, and there was my instructor. He smiled. "I...can't....breathe...(pause) well, I can, buuut...." He said, "I know." I caught my breath. I got back on my board. And, with a little encouraging, I paddled back out. I wasn't quite ready for another wave, but I was ready to head back out. I needed to do that. The water and I had a new relationship. I was ready for more, but I needed to catch my breath. My son entered the water soon after that. I watched him ride a couple of waves. My daughter was beaming across the waves. We had done something awesome. None of the three of us stood up on our boards, but all three of us rode waves that day. And all three of us are ready to go back. We have a new relationship with the Pacific Ocean that will continue to grow. And, at some point, we may even stand up.

It starts with an idea.
Then there is a little fear.
Then exhilaration.
Then enthusiasm.
Then the quest for more.
The quest to do it differently. And, better.
The need to get back out on the water and eventually, find your wave and stand up then ride it to shore.

This Spring, I started to bring to life a dream for our small rural school. It started at first as a piece of my Google Innovator project idea about a year ago. I pitched it in a hastily thrown together video. I was proud of the video and I was excited about the idea, but when the decision came down that I was not to be included in the Google Innovator LAX18 cohort, I went back to the drawing board. I did not want to let the idea wither away there, but I did still have my sights set on going through the Google Innovator program. I have long-known that this is something I am passionate about doing. I proceeded with pieces of my idea focused on implementation at my school site while also revisiting my Google Innovator pitch. In the meantime, I started working closer with the third grade teacher on STEAM projects and ideas. Together, we put together a proposal for a STEAM Club for our school. In April, our school board accepted our proposal. I was on top of the world. I know our students will greatly benefit from this added investment in STEAM at our site. I am excited to have a partner in this, too. And so, a significant part of my original Innovator pitch is coming to life in the 2019-20 school year. What I found in this is that I still want more for myself, my colleagues, and my students. I was able to pair down my ideas and I got very excited at the prospect of joining the LON19 cohort. I engaged my students and my children as I put together my new idea. In fact, my two young children (then in sixth and third grades) helped a great deal with putting together my video.

I knew this was it.

I knew it only to once again have rejection look me straight in the eye. Damn. This one hurt. I thought I had done it right. I had it all figured out.

Or did I?

There were changes in the approach to the Google Innovator program that I had not fully embraced and understood at the time of applying. That would be a significant part of my "downfall." I have done something new now. I have reached out to to Google Innovators, I have done regular notes and sketch notes. I have researched and soul-searched. This summer, I will work on revamping my plan, my ideas, my big question yet again. I had a huge momentum in the immediate aftermath of rejection, but a lot has gone on since then. I do not want to lose the drive, the momentum, the hope, the plan. I return from the second leg of our first big vacation on Monday. Work on this and other goals begins Tuesday. Not that I have stopped working on it. In fact, I have not. I still have a ways to go, though. The really cool thing is that I am better connected this time on this path than ever before and I have drawn inspiration from a long-distance a colleague (if you will), a member of my PLN who applied five times and is headed to London in July. For him, the fifth time was the charm. He found his wave. He's ready to stand up and ride that wave.

I recently received a "thanks, but no thanks," in response to my Fall CUE presentation proposal. It was just like that second wave knocking me below the water's surface. I kept my discouragement to myself, not even telling my parents this time around. Then, today, I made it a part of my "failing up" story. A wonderful Central California educator and fellow CCCUE Board member, Scott Nunes, tagged me in a Tweet asking for fails.  I truly believe that the only failure is in not trying. So, just as I did not fail at surfing due to getting knocked off my board nor for not standing up to die a wave in to shore, I have not failed in other aspects of my life. I am a go-getter, an achiever. I want the best for myself and my students and I will fight to get there. Waves may occasionally knock me down, but I am never out. I will kick as I reach for the surface. I will gab the board I am tethered to that is my PLN and I will try again. And again. And again.

At the end of it all, I will be my best me to help my students and my colleagues become their best selves. I know where I am going. I see the shoreline. I just have to catch the right wave. That wave was not LAX18 nor LON19. My wave is still to come. That wave was not Fall CUE this year. That's ok, too. My wave is out there. And when it comes, you better believe, I am going to ride it all the way to the shoreline and I am going to celebrate. If I stand up on the way, even better!

By the way, I did ride another wave. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. What I have found is that I need to do a little more boogie boarding first, but we will be back out surfing again next summer. I look forward to catching the wave that helps me reach the point where I am truly "sittin' on top of the world."