Posted in General Inspiration, Reason for Teaching, Reflection, Teacher Testimony

Tilted Windmills: Part II

(c)DearTeacherLT2013 (You may use the image if you link back to the blog and/or give credit to Dear Teacher/Love Teacher)
(c)DearTeacherLT2013 (You may use the image if you link back to the blog and/or give credit to Dear Teacher/Love Teacher)

Dear Teacher,

How the heck are you this morning/afternoon/evening (circle the correct choice)?  Okay, I thought that would be funny because Tilted Windmills: Part I was about my change in feelings about the results of tests.  🙂  I do hope that this reading finds you well, though.  By the way, if you haven’t read Part I, please go read that one first.  This post won’t make much sense without it!  If you read it the other day, you may want to skim it to get a refresher.

Are you back, now?  Okay, lets move on!

However, before I move further we need to talk about Don Quixote.  You know, the Man of LaMancha.  If you are not familiar with Don Quixote, you should be!  It is a great story of humanity and among the classics!  The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha was written by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.  The story is about a man who leaves his normal life to take on a life of chivalry and eventually live in a fantasy world of knights, nobility, giants, etc…

The reason that I bring up Don Quixote is that that I am reminded about a part of his story.  As he and his “squire,” a farmer named Sancho Panza, were out on their adventures, there is a time when Quixote sees windmills along the side of the road and he takes off after them.  He “tilts” at them with a spear (tilting is a jousting term…go watch A Knight’s Tale for more on that) because he thinks it is an army of giants.  “Tilting at windmills” has become synonymous with the idea of going off after an imaginary enemy or fighting a battle that does not have to be fought.

Okay, enough with the literary lesson.  Back to school stuff.

So, I told you the story about the devastating emotional consequences of grading my first test as a first year teacher (on a Friday).  Then I followed that with what happened a week ago when I graded my latest test (on a Friday).  How did, in eight years, did I get from poor results shaking me up to poor results leaving me content?

Because the test data was not much different, obviously it is not because I am a spectacular teacher that can get students to learn and understand everything the first time through.  It is also not because I got so good at helping the students learn problem solving skills and test-taking strategies that ace every test that I give.  No, the test data was pretty much the same.  The change was not in that, and the change was not in the students.

That only leaves one thing.  The change was in me.

What was that change and when did it happen?

I will be honest, the change happened slowly.  As a matter of fact, it has only been in the last two years, or so, that I have started to view test results differently.  Actually, this was the first year that I have really felt almost completely at-ease about how a test went when it did not go well.

Wait, you never said what the change is!

I am getting there.  I just need to give a little more back story.  Give me a minute!



You are welcome.

I used to view testing in a few different ways.  Tests allowed me to assess student learning (well-trained answer there, huh?).  Tests allowed me to assess how the students received and applied what I taught them.  Tests allowed me to see how well students might do on the State Tests.  Tests gave me some insight on the test-taking strategies that students have and use.  Tests gave me a stopping point to which I can move on to new content and material.  Tests judged how well my students and I did during the unit and what I probably ought to find some time to reteach.

Tests played a lot of roles in my teaching life, didn’t they?

Over time, testing became something that was make or break for me.  Therefore, test results became this harbinger of how the students were going to do during State Testing, and something that must be revered and feared for this reason.  Test data was disheartening.  It showed me the failures of my teaching and the failures in student learning.  It became even more disparaging and depressing for me as the years passed that it was that first year.

Over time I started to dread testing.

Then came school benchmarks.

My school started doing quarterly benchmarks in the core classes.  These results were as bad or worse than my unit tests.  They were rigorous and difficult, just like the State Tests.  The students hated them.  They seldom did well on them.  Because they were quarterly, and happened in every class, I started to only give these and stopped using unit tests.  The students were up to their eyeballs in tests, so I helped where I could and gave other types of unit assessments (mostly writing prompts for essay-type assessments).  Another side effect of the quarterly benchmarks is that, because of lack of time, they were results that I could not use because I could not go back and reteach anything.

I think I got “tested out.”

However, there was a positive result of those benchmarks.  My essay assessments gave me real insight on student learning.  I was able to really see what students knew, kind of knew, only knew by memory, and what they really understood.  I was able to truly differentiate and help scaffold students up to the understanding that they needed because I knew where they were with the content.  They did not have it always at the point of multiple choice questioning, and they was some of the problem on the tests.  I helped move students as far as I could in the curriculum based on what I found out from the writing.

Back to this year.  The essays taught me something.  Assessment is not about results, it is about data.  I had the two confused.  Data is knowledge, results are trying to judge success or failure.  Assessment should not be a goal, assessment should be a tool.  Assessment should tell us what students know, not know, and truly understand.  Assessment should give us clues about teaching strategies that worked and didn’t work.  Assessment should assist us in making  a plan for moving on.  Assessment should be what helps keeps us motivated to keep teaching.  We know where students are, now we can keep them moving!

The change was with how I viewed assessments and the resulting data.  They are not something to be feared.  They should be embraced.  I need to look at results more in the “why did this happen” mindset more than the “why did this happen to me” state of mind.

When I looked at my test data last Friday, it told me what I needed to know.  I knew what I needed to work on and with who.  I was able to start formulating plans for that work.  I had information.  I could use that information to push my students further on and further in to what they need to learn.  Why would this information make me happy?

Tests and test data used to make me feel bad.  But I was tilting at windmills.  I was looking at something that was mundane (I say this lightly…not that tests and data is mundane…but they are normal parts of the teaching life and not out of the ordinary) as something to cower and fear.  Data is not that.  Data is data.  It is information.  It is not a giant to fight, but it is something that can give me energy to keep on teaching and teaching better and better.

Are you tilting at any teaching windmills?  Are there things that you view as scary and as enemies that might just be the normal parts of the teaching life that can spur you on to being a better teacher?  What are they?  Tests?  Test data?  Observations?  Evaluations?  Parent contacts?  Any other menacing parts of the teaching life?  How can you change your mindset about them?  How can you use them to move on and be better without them destroying your teaching heart?

You are not alone!  We are all with you!  Other teachers do understand!  We really do!  Seek out a teacher to help you turn your giants back into windmills!  Can you help someone else do the same, too?  We are in this together and we need to help each other!

You are awesome!  You are amazing!  I know that you will stop fighting windmills and fight the real battles that we need to fight!  You can do it!  You are doing it and you are making a difference!  Keep on teaching, Teacher!

Love, Teacher

PS…I feel like I need to say this.  This post is not a commentary on State Tests.  It is about the every day teaching life.  Please do not read in to what I have said!  State Assessments serve their own purpose for who get the results.  I am not making a statement for or against State Assessments.  Sorry, but I did feel like that should be said!  🙂  Lets avoid doing this in the comments, too!  Thanks!  There are a lot of places for that debate.  Let’s keep it out of this place for encouragement.

Posted in Challenge, General Inspiration, Teacher Testimony, Theme Song

Why You and I Are Here…You Raise Me Up

Dear Teacher,

Yesterday I talked about how I was feeling overwhelmed when I looked at my goals and expectations for the new year (and all the work it will take to get there).  This morning I am feeling overwhelmed in a different way…a good way.  First of all, just a quick follow-up from yesterday.  I took my own advise and just worked in the areas I knew that I could get some stuff done pretty easily.  Throughout the day, those little things built on each other and I was able to make some great strides in climbing that mountain of preparation for the new year!  I had a few people cheering me on, and that helped!

This is not why I am overwhelmed this morning, though.  I am overwhelmed because of you!  I had more people respond to yesterday’s post than any other.  Most of the feedback came through Edmodo and the Facebook Page, and it just kept coming.  Many people shared about how yesterday’s post encouraged them and helped them to keep moving even when the task was daunting.  Along with this, many of the messages also shared what this blog means to them and how the encouragement, hope, and challenges help them to feel like they are not alone.  Knowing you are not the only one feeling what you feel and that other people are going through the same things that you are going through goes along way to renew you teacher’s heart.

These messages make me want to share, again, why I started this blog and what I hope to spark with it…and I think the sparks are flying. But before I do, I am going to veer a little off of the new normal here and have a song to listen to while you read on a Thursday (two songs in one week!  Woo hoo! 🙂 ).  Play the song and then read on.

Teacher, I am just like you.  I teach because I love it.  I teach because I want to make a difference.  I teach because I do not think I could not teach.  Teaching is in my heart, blood, and soul.  I am a teacher, just like you.

I am also a teacher just like you in that I get stressed by the expectations from others.  I love my students, but sometimes teaching them can be difficult.  Sometimes the weight of all the little things that come along with teaching weigh me down.  Sometimes those things can bowl me over and run me down.  I get tired.  I get beat up.  I get worn down.  I see the ebb and flow of the year that always wants to push me closer and closer to burnout.  I fight it off…but it is hard.  I know what you go through in a year, Teacher.  I am just like you.  I am a teacher.

(c)DearTeacherLT2013  (You may use the image if you link back to this blog or give credit to this blog.)
(c)DearTeacherLT2013 (You may use the image if you link back to this blog or give credit to this blog.)

Every school year I get to that point right on the precipice of burnout.  I can see and smell it.  I don’t get to the point of burnout every year, but I usually get close.  Really close.  Last year was different, though.  I saw burnout on the horizon, but I never really got that close to it.  It stayed in the distance, far away.

Why?  What was different last year.

I can actually point to a number of things that helped make that happen, but I want to focus on one.  Hope.  The power of hope.  The funny part is, it wasn’t hope for me.  It was hope for others.

I read through the book Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen near the end of the school year (great book whether or not you teach at a Title I school or not), and I got to a section that talked about the power that hope has on the brain and learning.  This opened my eyes.  I needed to help give my students hope and encouragement more intentionally and make it a priority.  I took on the task of handwriting personal notes to all 80 of my students.  The response was amazing!  I will write more about this another day, but the students loved getting these…I had some students hound me about it until they got theirs.  They started asking the other teachers when they would be writing notes!  Sorry teammates!  🙂

As I wrote these letters, I got to thinking how much some simple words of real encouragement (based on positive truth..the only kind of encouragement I know how to give) would make me feel and spur me on to bigger and greater things.  I went looking online for some kind of source of this kind of encouragement for teachers.  It wasn’t there.  I could not find anything like that.  I wanted something for teachers by teachers to give hope and encouragement.  I just couldn’t find it.  So I decided to create it myself!  Thus Dear Teacher/Love Teacher was born!

The purpose of Dear Teacher/Love Teacher is give hope, encouragement, inspiration, and challenges to you, Teacher, from another or other teachers (me and my Substitute Teachers).  More than giving you hope, though, the other purpose, or the sparks, is that I want to push you on to do the same for other teachers and for your students.  I want you to be a conduit of hope and inspiration.  There is so much negativity in education right now…I want to start an Encouragement Revolution.  That starts with me and starts with you.

Going back to the beginning when I talked about burnout, I think that hope giving and spreading is one of the big reason that burnout stayed away from me this year.  Encouraging others encouraged me and kept me going!

The reason that I believe encouragement is so important to give out, is that it is a part of our job as teachers…or should be.  I had you play this song, not so you could think about the people who “raise [you] up” but to start thinking about yourself as someone that others could sing this song to.  I want you to be a person that raises people (both other teachers and your students) up to more than they could be.

How can you…

  • lift some burdens from some of your fellow teachers?
  • sit a while with someone who feels alone and help them feel less lonely?
  • fill your students with wonder?
  • help students and other teachers feel like they can climb impossible mountains?
  • walk with a teacher over a stormy sea?
  • make a student or a younger teacher stronger by being on your shoulders?
  • push those around you to be more than they could be without you?

Teacher, if you are here reading this.  You understand the importance of hope.  You get the need for encouragement.  You want to be inspired and challenged.  I am glad you came.  I am glad you are finding that here.  Now go and give what you have gotten here out to others!  If you just keep it to yourself it isn’t worth as much!  If you give away all the good that you have and run out…come back here for a refill.  That is what I am here for!

You are so awesome!  I know that you will leave a trail of that awesome behind where ever you go!  You are amazing and you are making a difference!  Keep going and keep on teaching, Teacher!

Love, Teacher

Posted in Challenge, General Inspiration, Pep Talk, Teacher Testimony

Teacher Rockstar: Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante – Teacher Rockstar

Dear Teacher,

Today I want to build on my posts from a couple of weeks ago (It’s Not Me, It’s You; The Power of Real Encouragement; and Apple Influence) and talk a little more about change and the drive to change ourselves in order to spark change in others (namely, our students).  To do this, I want to focus in on someone I would definitely call a Teacher Rockstar: Jaime Escalante.

If you are not familiar with Mr. Escalante, he is the teacher portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver (if you haven’t seen the movie, you need to…great inspiration for teachers!).  He taught at a high poverty high school in a Latino community in Los Angeles in the late 70’s through the early 90’s.  At a failing school that focused on remedial and low level math, he pushed students to take AP Calculus.  The students, starting in small groups and growing in the large groups (in the hundreds), succeeded in his class and passed the AP exam.  There is much more to the story, but you can go to Wikipedia for that.  🙂

What makes Mr. Escalante a Rockstar Teacher is not his accomplishments.  The results of his teaching strategies and methods were amazing, but they are not what makes him one of the great teachers of all time.  What makes him special is his drive.  It was his willingness to stand up and do more, to be more, to expect more.  One of my favorite scenes in Stand and Deliver illustrates this drive perfectly.  It shows in what he is willing to say (and backup with action) at a department meeting.

In a school of under-resourced, overworked, beat-up, worn-out, and burned up teachers with students that have a history of being under-performing students with the threat of losing district accreditation looming on the horizon, he stepped up and said, “I can teach more.”  He volunteered to do more.  To take on more students.  To be more.  I love what he said, “The students will rise to the level of expectations.”  He looked resolutely at administration and expected more of himself and of the students.

His response to the question of what he needs in order to do more really shows his drive and why he had unbelievable success with students.  “Ganas.  All we need is ganas.”  Ganas was the key for Mr. Escalante.  Ganas made the difference.

According to Urban Dictionary, “ganas” is a slang word for desire or urge that is most likely based on the Spanish word “ganar,” which means to gain or win.  Ganas is desire.  For Escalante, it was a little more than that though.  It was desire backed by the willingness to go after what you desired, no matter how hard you have to work to get to it.

He talks about it again in another quote from the movie, and this time he is speaking to his students:

You’re going to work harder here than you’ve ever worked anywhere else. And the only thing I ask from you is ganas. Desire… If you don’t have the ganas, I will give it to you, because I’m an expert.

He desired for his students to learn, achieve, and truly be successful.  He expected his students to have that same drive for themselves.  He did what he could to inspire that in his students.  He worked hard at it.  Year after year he took a look at his students and himself, and then pushed harder the next year to improve.  He took a lot of flak.  He arguably made a lot of risky choices and decisions, but it was his “ganas” that gave him the ability to focus on his students and their future success.  That is what was in his blood.  He passed this on to his students.  So many of them went on to lead successful lives because of what he instilled in them.

I wrote a good bit and shared a lot from the movie about Jaime Escalante.  Let me let him speak for himself.  This was an interview he did while he was still teaching.  It is so inspiring to me!  I hope you feel the same way!

Now that you have learned more about this teaching rockstar, what can you learn from his example?  Can you be one of the teachers in your school, in the midst of all of the finger pointing on what is wrong in education, to stand up and say, “I can do more,” and back that up with action?  Is your teaching and relationships with students marked by “ganas” about their achievement and success?  What can you do to be different and make an even bigger difference than you already do?

You are awesome!  I know that you probably already think a lot like Mr. Escalante.  Your students and their learning and success is of utmost importance to you.  You do so much already and make a big difference!  But can you do more?  I know that I can!

You are amazing, and never forget it!  Find the more that you can do, and do it!  I know that you can!  Keep on teaching, Teacher!

Love, Teacher

Posted in Guest Post, Reason for Teaching, Teacher Testimony

Why (Did I Become a Teacher)?

Dear Teacher,

Let me introduce your Substitute Teacher for today.  I am quite excited to share his thoughts with you, because it is different than any other post I have put up so far.  It is a “teacher testimony” of sorts.  It is the back story of a teacher and why he decided to put the hard work in to become and stay a teacher through all of the ups and downs of teaching.  I think you are going to like this one!

Your teacher today is Mr. Tim Sexton.  Teacher Tim has been a teacher for the past 15 years and is currently teaching at Davidson Middle School in Crestview, Florida.  He believes that all students CAN learn and that it is our job to facilitate their learning.  He teaches students to think for themselves and be responsible citizens in the school, the community in which they live and within their own lives.

It was 6 a.m. June 3, 1994, at the end of the graveyard shift of stocking at the local grocery.  All night I was thinking of math formulas, biology vocabulary, and other items of testing interest for the second part of my day, college.  The store manager had asked me to stay later because it was the July 4th weekend, and there was still product to put out for the potentially busy weekend.  I told the manager that I was unable to stay because I had class at 8 a.m. You could see and hear the frustration as he told me to go to his office; he wanted to talk to me.  I opened the door to the office to see him standing there huffing and insisting that I stay later to help out.  I repeated, “I can’t”.  He asked, “What are you going to school for?”

I told him I was going to school to become a teacher.  As he replied while laughing, he said “you know teachers don’t make that much money, right?”  I told him without hesitation this reply, “I know, but if I can keep one student off the beaten path I was forced to walk growing up, or see the “LIGHT” come on in the eyes of a student, that is worth any amount of money you can ever pay me.”  He had nothing to say after that, and I left that office to continue my pursuit of fulfillment.

Have you forgotten your reason why you do this?  Most of us are heading into our summer break tired, run down, and ready to do nothing but re-coop.  Think about that question, “Why?”  Why do you get up early to go a place that doesn’t seem to appreciate you?  Why do you stay late trying to do a little extra for those same people that drove you crazy all day? Why do you make calls to parents who don’t care to talk to you? Why do you keep trying?  Well, we do it because we care; we do it because we are called to do so; we do it to make a difference in the lives of young ones where this may be their only chance to find that difference.  Take out those letters you have collected throughout the years from former students thanking you for being there, for teaching, for taking the time to say “HI” every day when no one else did.  Those are reminders of “WHY” we continue doing what we do.

How do you answer that question?  Whether you are a beginning teacher or 15 years into what appears on the outside a thankless profession, Look inside and remember your “WHY”.

Thank you, Teacher Tim!  I love this idea of remembering our “WHY,” especially on those tough days!

Teacher, what is your “WHY?”  Do you have a back story like this?  Do you have a reason for teaching that you can look back to?  Have you developed even stronger “WHYs” since you started teaching?  I know I have!  Please share yours with the class.  🙂  It is encouraging to hear the reasons other people teach, because it reminds you of yours.

You are awesome, Teacher Tim and every other Teacher reading this!  You are believed in.  You are amazing!  Keep on teaching, Teacher!

Love, Teacher

For more hope and encouragement: @DearTeacherLT (Twitter) and Dear Teacher/Love Teacher Facebook Page.