We forget, especially when we are deep in the weeds of the school year and our work and our lives, how important it is to simply have fun. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says in The Little Prince, “All grown-ups were once children … but only a few of them remember it.” And I think this is not just true of teachers, but all grown-ups? Yeah, all grown-ups.
Much of what we do as educators can quickly become laser focused on meeting curricular goals, checking off academic boxes, teaching to tests, making sure students are “college ready,” etc. In this way, school is hard, not only for us, but the kids we teach who are swamped with “stuff” to do. If you’re not convinced that students do too many school work related things, you should read my previous blogs. If you’ve been reading my blogs over the past several months, you’ve likely noticed an ongoing motif that I’ve been interested in—how we’re all jumping through hoops. So much of what students do in school, and even what we do as teachers, often feels performative. In this way, most of our students don’t have time for fun . . . unlike students, I don’t think I need to convince you that the job of teaching and adulting is full of “after-hours” work. It’s when we’re deepest in these pursuits though, planning, grading, and checking off curricular boxes, that we also fail to remember how important it is, simply and earnestly, have a good time. Which is why olympics, service days, field trips, recess, that daily, ten minute “break” period are, in my view, so doggone important—imperative even.
Throughout this post, you can see some of the joys we had at the Middle School olympics this year. Students spent the better part of this second quarter writing commercials and crafting flags for their fast food related teams. They played various games all across campus, from a trivia quiz bowl, to beach towel volleyball, to relay races, and the perennial dodgeball tournament. I know that there are those among us who might think that these days are laborious. Some even might think that activities like the olympics aren’t even “school” in the traditional sense. Certainly those of us from the South understand that there’s nothing more joy inducing that the swampy sweat and humidity of an absurdly hot day in late May.
But these are the memories and moments our students cherish the most: that awesome tag out they got their 7th-grade year playing dodgeball, the time the ran the table getting question after question right at trivia, or how they were so sweaty and exhausted after their 5th-grade olympics, but they had pure, unadulterated, fun. And If that’s not reason enough for their value in what we do, I’m not sure what is. I hope you all have a fun summer! I have had such a blast writing these blogs each month. It was work, to be fair, but the best work is the work you have fun doing, and these have brought me so, so, so much joy.
A fully dressed maypole is a stunning sight, even during rehearsals. It’s Friday, known around here as “May Day,” and the fourth grade has just completed their final dress rehearsal before this evening.
I’m standing to the left of the field next to the 70 empty fold out chairs, getting a little sad all of a sudden.
My nostalgia is hasty, a little too early, I’ve still got 2 weeks with the kiddos before they’re released to Summer, to their individual, eager anxieties for what comes next, to 5th grade prep, to family vacations, to the stilted, sleepy boredom that comes with summer vacation if you’re lucky.
I want to tell them that what they’re making right now is called a memory and that the rarest and sweetest ones come from childhood. I want to say: remember how the 9 am breeze feels on your ankles and how the blades of grass are jade-colored.
Even more so, I want to tell them to remember how it feels to be watched, to be as loved as they are in this moment. Forgive me this sentimentality–you can’t spend 10 months with seventy 10-year-olds and not feel something.
May Day was blessed with ideal weather, balmy, dusk spring temperatures, and no major mishaps.
The fourth graders were jangly with excitement and nerves.
…and many extra Bobby pins for the girls’ flower headpieces were distributed liberally.
At this age, remember, you are standing on the cusps of many changes. Physical, psychological, emotional, maybe familial, intellectual… not to mention hormonal.
It’s around this time a child gains a bigger sense of the scope of the monumental bigness of life, and that can be more than a little scary. It’s downright terrifying, actually.
When I get frustrated (and I have, many times) I have to remind myself of how brave they’re being. It helps with correcting my perspective and reactivates my empathy.
You’re old enough to have gotten a couple of scars on the outside as well as the inside but there is still innocence, a sweetness, to the way you pedestal your hopes and believe in the cores of goodness in everything, everyone.
It’s one week later…
…and we’ve just completed this year’s 4th Grade Crossing. After parent photos, we herd our students into classrooms and student bathrooms and even my office. They’ve shed their pristine whites for bikinis and bathing trunks.
Now, all five of us—Chandler Buggage, April Cosgrave, Anna Frame, Susan Pace, and myself—are standing outside and waving goodbye to them—sardined-in on the bus, grins cracking, sun-screened faces pressing against the school bus glass so that they look a little like cute ghost children. They’re being spirited away to a parent-sponsored pool party and to an afternoon already pregnant with their laughter.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–”
(Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
It’s been a long, long long year It’s been a long, long long year How did I get here?
(Todd Snider, “Long Year”)
I can’t speak for anyone else at this school, but, for me personally, this past 2022-2023 school year was awash with contradictions. Moving to this full-school role professionally was exhilarating, but it also brought with it a steep learning curve. We felt a return to normalcy in regards to the pandemic, and yet this school year I also (finally) got covid . . . while visiting my father-in-law in Indiana at his deathbed. He died the next day. I turned 40. My family took an epic trip to national parks in Utah and Arizona over Spring Break. I went on generative work-trips to the east coast, to Salt Lake City, to Atlanta three weeks in a row in April. However, all this travel made me feel disconnected from what was happening in classrooms on our campus. I missed teaching deep into my bones. (This was the first spring semester in seven years I haven’t taught at least one college class.) We looked, and failed to find (so far), a new home closer to one of the campuses. I loved my job most days; sometimes, though, I went home so drained from the problem-solving and interpersonal negotiations that I locked myself in my room and told my family I was done for the day with mediating. There were so many successes. There were just as many failures.
You could all write a paragraph like mine above. I would like to read all of them. We all are made up of tiny connect-the-dot moments in our days and months and years. They make a shape, and we tell an identity-story about that shape. But it is never really exact. And it never really captures who we are.
“You are a human being, not a human doing,” my Mom always said.
Nevertheless, I would like to end this year by remembering some of the things we all have done this past year. So in the spirit of the end-of-the-year nostalgic slideshow that people like to play at graduations (by the way, here’s a fabulous 12 minute segment on a This American Life podcast reflecting on the peculiarities of that particular genre), here are some of my own personal top hits of the year:
That time Meredith Kochtitzky invited to me to see PK4 students in centers, and I got to hang with some world-builders working out how to build a community together
2. That time Matt Hosler helped eighth graders better understand Lord of the Flies by using the modern concept of “gaslighting”.
3. That time Dalton Howard had her fourth grade students “moving around the world” in math problems. . . and I eavesdropped to hear her say to one on-top-of-it group: “Wow- and that was a tough one. Do you think your group could teach that to the class?”
4. That time Burton Inman got his 9th grade history students revved up for a robust Document Based Question conversation.
5. That time Sarah Walker had a last-minute surprise of an additional class to supervise during her coaching visit and she totally incorporated the extra 15 kids like it was nothing.
6. This blog. Marty had the brilliant idea to rebrand it from “i2” to “Our EsSAy” and in so doing she perfectly captured the heart of this blog all along. This year it felt less like “my thing” and more like “our thing” (shout out Maggie, Rachel, Dean, Marty) and that was always the ultimate hope.
7. That time Taylor Davis illustrated gratitude to her PK3 students by handing out distinct notes for each child; “let’s try to guess which person I’m talking about!”
8. That time Anna Frame somehow magically tricked her class to beg for the opportunity to write an “informational essay” so they could share what they learned with a larger audience.
9. This school year’s season of faculty-brainstormed, faculty-hosted podcasts. In the fall we hosted our first video version (thanks Josh Brister!) in “Parent Teacher Conference” and this spring we hit some pretty hard-hitting topics in “Bridging the Faculty/Admin divide.” Grateful for any opportunity to dialogue with each other.
10. That time Toby Lowe had all of his fifth graders wave their hands in the air eager to share their own word problems (ranging from simplistic to super sophisticated; the perfect differentiated activity) that would get them to the answer A=10.
11. That time Kathy Vial used (slightly spoiled) milk to illustrate magma, lava, and the earth’s crust.
12. That time Matt Luter utilized the art in his anthology to help students practice analysis.
13. That time Nicole Robinson masterfully encouraged her ECC friends to illustrate their feelings into boxes, interweaving art with SEL.
14. The imperfect construction of FAAC (Faculty & Administration Advisory Council) in hopes of fostering dialogue and increased transparency.
15. That time Dr. K helped students internalize the concept of inertia using coins and dollar bills.
16. That time that Mayson McKey wowed these kindergarteners with his charismatic Spanish teaching persona and his “magic bag”.
17. That time Mary Margaret got some shy math students to make their learning visible and audible through use of the white board space and spoken reflection.
18. That time Marie Venters got fifth graders excitedly talking about set design and costume choices by analyzing various scene snippets. . . in the middle of a monsoon. 🙂
19. That time Kerri Black masterfully leveraged second grader’s background knowledge and interests and equipped them with active reading strategies all through the magic of pumpkins.
20. That time Dennis Cranford used a particularly tricky rhythm warmup exercise to springboard into a trouble spot in a piece.
21. That (very recent almost like yesterday) time when the (probably exhausted) fifth grade team created a host of fun activities for Ancient World Days.
22. The multitude of contributions from our inaugural members of TEAM (Teacher Education, Assistance, and Mentoring): Marks McWhorter, Emmi Sprayberry, Nancy Rivas, Jim Foley, Marty Kelly, Rachel Scott, Maggie Secrest, and Dean Julius. And the many to come from the 2022-2023 cohort: Kim Sewell, Michelle Portera, Buck Cooper, and Hollie Marjanovic!
23. That time I accidentally drank a hemp-infused drink while chauffeuring around an SUV full of passengers on a really fun trip to Atlanta with lower school faculty open to dreaming of future learning spaces.
24. A record number of Summer of Excellence proposals(!) featuring a myriad of super cool collaborative projects faculty across three divisions will be busy with.
It’s been a year. (Said with a sigh of exhaustion). But luckily, it’s also been a year! (Said with a note of triumph!). May your summer bring you many more top hits. . . or maybe just some peace and quiet. That sounds lovely too.
If you really stop and think about it, teaching middle school is a pretty impossible proposition. Imagine convincing a room of 15-20 youth going through all the physical and emotional and social turmoil of puberty that complying with your plan for the next 75 minutes involving rigorous academic study is the way to go. And it’s not just middle schoolers. If you haven’t found yourself confused, stressed, uncertain, and burned out by issues related to student behavior, I can pretty much guarantee you weren’t a full time classroom teacher in the 2021-2022 school year (or really pretty much ever). This week’s grand finale of our season of “Bridging the Faculty/Admin Divide” brings together seventh grade English teacher (and host) Dean Julius to discuss disciplinary systems with Dean of Students, Jen Whitt, and Head of Middle School, Clay Elliot. Dean sets the stage below:
. .. While none of us have all the answers, I think this is an enduring, challenging, essential question that all of us are tasked with as educators and administrators: How do we create a disciplinary system that both manifests tangible consequences while also accounting for the social emotional health of our students? Discipline is challenging, and societally, we’ve been working (as institutions of learning) for decades, centuries, to figure out how to do this thing best. It seems that the more we wrestle with discipline—how to best correct student behavior, enact policies that set clear, effective boundaries for students, and develop best practices to factor in the social emotional health of our students—we realize that our old models have failed many of the children we care so passionately about. . .
Skip to what you are most interested in below:
4:07-5:25: Why a good discipline system should be based on the mission of the school, which in our case involves “respecting the dignity of every human,” and why detentions might not be the best way to get there.
5:26-6:32: How restorative justice foregrounds education, why no school can purely enact this model, and the usefulness of a graduated ladder of consequences that everyone understands.
7:15-8:45: A quick definition of restorative justice, and why it is key to find ways for offenders to re-enter the community having learned from the experience.
8:48-10:00: How this looks in practice for us at St. Andrew’s.
10:01-12:05: Jen shares what she has observed to be the most challenging part of this process and shares why being an upstander is a key piece of the method as well.
13:07-17:37: The complex interplay of teacher life reality with these restorative approaches, and why Clay says that it can take 5-10 years to really make a school culture shift in this direction.
17:38-20:58: How these methods fit our often-conservative context of the deep south, a surprising truth about Dean Whitt’s childhood, and the recognition that “it’s messy and it takes time and everyone will eventually get there, but when you’re in the moment, it takes a leap of faith to know that it is going to be okay in a few years.”
21:00-23:45 : Conversations about the need for conversation; the power of circles in restorative justice.
23:47-25:47: Clay reminds us: “[This form of discipline] is hard and tiring, but empathy is hard.”
25:47-29:00: Dean asks for more conclusive data about the way these approaches more fairly treat traditionally disenfranchised groups, and Clay shares some research on outcomes in perceived wellbeing.
29:05-30:18- Jen shares a concrete example of how this all plays out in dress code violations.
30:25-31:38: Why no single system for discipline can fix inequity.
31:40-34:52 – Is there a place for the “teacher voice” and resulting student shame in these approaches?
34:53-35:50: Why Jen likes the word “accountability” more than shame.
36:09-37:25: A surprising truth about the greatest disparity in detention-assignments.
Interested in thinking more on this complex topic? Check out some resources compiled below:
(The following is adapted from a speech given to the Jackson Area Association of Independent Schools)
(Also, I’m really sorry if you are tired of the “It’s gonna be May” meme, but I’m even sorrier if you don’t understand it because that means you missed out on the glory that was the original Justin Timberlake and you probably didn’t have posters covering the wall of your bedroom of NSYNC and BSB and that’s sad for you. And for adult me confessing this.)
As many of you already know, before I started teaching here in 2009, I actually went to St. Andrew’s from kindergarten to graduation (Alpha Omega represent, whoop). Which means that all total I have spent something like 30 years of my life at this school. In my brief St. Andrew’s hiatus, I did go off to college, where I was a classicist who double majored in English and Classics with a Latin emphasis. Doesn’t that sound fancy? My heroes are Theseus and Perseus and Odysseus and Achilles and Antigone and Hector. Pretentious right?
But before them, my heroes came from the cinematic masterpieces that made up TBS “Movies for Guys who Like Movies” (we can discuss the prejudicial gender implications of that category later). My heroes were Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris and Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal. Were these movies misogynistic? Probably. Violent? Absolutely. Racially insensitive? 1000%. Problematic in terms of masculinity and heteronormativity? For sure. The best heroes for me to have? Doubtful. But here we are. And I’d be lying if I said they didn’t prepare me for the past two years of teaching more than any class I’ve ever taken in college or graduate school.
Let’s take Bloodsport for example. Do y’all remember this movie? Jean Claude Van Damme plays Frank Dux who goes AWOL to fight in Hong Kong’s Kumite. I mean, everyday teaching is already a bit like fighting in an illegal underground ring, right? And then, stay with me here, the pandemic hits and your best pal Ray Jackson gets destroyed in his match because he was being overly confident but you vow to hang in there and not get beat down and you’ve survived virtual teaching and hybrid teaching and mask wearing and proven yourself in your own fights and you think, “Okay I’m doing this,” and so you advance to the next round… only to have salt thrown in your eyes by your nemesis so now you have to fight the last match blind and exhausted, relying on parts of yourself you’ve never had to call up before. BUT your training and your instincts and your resilience and your support group kick in and you do it. You make it to May. You win. Much to even your own surprise. Because you remained calm and persevered even when you could have or should have quit or lost or cried or complained. Okay, so that last part may not be exactly accurate. I’ve complained a lot over the last two years. A lot of teachers have complained. A lot. Nevertheless, WE DID IT! Which I say in my head the same way Reese Witherspoon says it at the end of Legally Blonde when she graduates from law school (another classic hero from another classic movie).
One of the other things my heroes, like Elle Woods, taught me that I’ve clung to (notice I did not say “perfected”) is this: be kind. Several years ago, my dad, yet another hero and the person with whom I watched Walker, Texas Ranger and all these movies (well, not Legally Blonde) retired from the insurance business after 45 years and started substitute teaching in the Madison County School District. My dad, or Mr. Hitt, who wears his cowboy boots and is deaf in one ear, has become somewhat of a local celebrity and is especially famous for the only three rules he has in the classroom: Be nice, be nice, be nice. However, what most of his students do not know is that my father is a (gasp from the Honor Council advisor here) plagiarizer of Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse. Do y’all remember this scene? Please say yes. When teaching other bouncers how to bounce, Dalton, Swayze’s character, continually exhorts them to “be nice” even if they get called names… or their mothers get called names. (Okay so eventually Dalton says, “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice,” but we are going to focus on the first part.) In fact, Patrick Swayze’s entire list of advice to the bouncer crew is so perfectly pandemic: “All you have to do is follow three simple rules,” he says. “One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside… And three, be nice.”
I know, I know. “Be nice” is overly simplistic for an overwhelmingly complicated situation that we have faced. But, well, it’s also kind of not. Because in a world where learning that we can control very little has brought us to our knees, we have also learned that we do get to control the way we respond to each other and to students and to colleagues and to administrators and to teachers and, yes, to parents. When we get to control little or nothing else, we get to control the way we treat each other. We can wake up every day and take care of what we can take care of, which may not be everything, but it’s something. Because that is what has gotten us through the last three school years and will continue to get us through life: accepting and extending grace and taking care of the things and people we can take care of. And, yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition. Remember, be nice! And also, WE DID IT!
So many of the issues and misunderstandings that arise between faculty and admin result from long histories, things that happened in the past in an institution, habits of interaction, and a lack of adaptability or willingness to change. Well what if you had a blank slate? A fresh start? All smooth sailing? We are going to have honest conversations with faculty and administrators in our fabulous new division (serving Infants-2’s): Foundations. What successes and challenges have come along with all the exciting newness?
This episode features three incredibly dedicated humans: Dr. Sheena White, Head of Foundations; Tabitha Gibson, Assistant Director of Foundations and current PK1 teacher, and Brittany Brown, instructional assistant for older 2’s and parent of a PK3.
3:45-6:02: Learn about Sheena’s career trajectory . . .and why we should all thank Mary McCall for bringing her to St. Andrew’s :).
6:32-8:19 : Learn about Tabitha’s past experiences, and how she came to be connected with Sheena.
8:20-10:30 : Take a time machine with me back to when I first went on a hunt to find a daycare facility for a six month old Alianna Rust, and listen to us philosophize about why there is such a demand for childcare centers that have lovely spaces.
11:02-13:00: Learn about Brittany’s background, why you should beg her to cook for you, and how she became inspired her to pursue a career in childcare.
14:42-16:14: Why the key to having a better community is building a better team of individuals through great recruitment, and why “willingness to recalibrate” is also essential.
16:18-17:16: Why belonging has a lot to do with setting up equitable work conditions, and how the longer hours Foundation’s faculty worked this year took a toll.
17:25-19:44 : What it was like for Tabitha entering a new division within an already-established institution after 18 years in a previous establishment, and how she felt each time someone stopped the baby buggy to see the little ones.
19:45-21:10: Why it was so important to Sheena that Foundations faculty felt part of the entire school, and not just the new division.
24:27-25:56: How easy it is for us to exist in divisional silos, and why fellowship is key to bringing us all together.
26:12-26:37: Why Brittany’s goal in the next five years is for Foundations to continue to expand.
27:08-30:42: Hear Tabitha’s vivid recollection of her interview at St. Andrew’s, the moment she went from feeling anxious to relaxed, and what this might teach us about the essential impact of sharing our stories with each other early and often.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to teach art to first graders or Spanish to seniors? Ever curious how a head of school spends their day? In this week’s episode, we share stories and lived realities from three distinct vantage points: Nancy Rivas (Co -Chair of the Department of World and Classical Languages), Jessica Farris (Lower School Art Teacher), and Kevin Lewis (Head of School). Check out host Emmi Sprayberry’s intro below:
When I was a kid, I loved the Wizard of Oz. I loved it so much that when my dad and I would go on walks we would do the hop side skip walk that they do when they are off to see the wizard. No matter how many times I watched it, Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the real Wizard was my favorite part. In that moment everything changes for all the characters and a new perspective emerges. We only can really work with the knowledge, skills, experiences, and energy that we have. Are we going to make some mistakes along the way – totally. But I think the more we know (cue the NBC star) , the better we can do in working together toward the same goals because at the end of the day we are all , faculty and admin, on the same team. Maybe if we work together to bridge the divide we can create a better community and experience for everyone. Will it be perfect – no , but maybe we can continue to strive for better and not give into the them vs us mentality. So today we are sharing stories and words, reflecting our truth and lived realities of what exactly does a day or week in the life of a teacher or administrator really look like.
It turns out in talking about a day in the life, we also hit on some pretty essential truth to building a better community . . . one story at a time. See the podcast and show notes below.
4:37-6:12: Why no two days are the same for a head of school.
6:26-7:28: Jessica shares a day in the life of teaching art: a mix of predictability and unpredictability.
7:25-9:39: Nancy describes a day in her life: punctuated with both structure and flexibility, awash with emails galore, and most joyful when she is actually teaching Spanish: “we’ve planned, we’ve dreamed about it, and we interact with our students.”
10:21-14:25: What we all learned from the past few weeks of stormy weather in relation to communication from admin to faculty.
14:25-17:42 : Jessica shares a list she imagines makes up Kevin’s day to run by him, and she is remarkably on target; Kevin shares one of his biggest challenges in this role: “being accessible and available to every individual so I can listen and learn”
17:44-18:53: Kevin’s philosophy regarding faculty support: “Stay out of your way as much as possible . . . [and] take admin things off faculty’s plates so you can do the magic you do in the classroom.”
19:25-22:07: Real talk about how time consuming communication to students, colleagues, admin is for faculty all day long.
22:20-24:02: Why Jessica thinks we could all learn a lot from listening to each other’s daily lived realities, and how co-curricular teachers at lower school recently worked to bridge the gap with classroom teachers there: “We are all so passionate, we are all so invested in care, and our days are full . . . understanding what is happening helps you be more compassionate/trusting.”
24:02-26:02: Why faculty to faculty story sharing is also necessary in bridging those gaps.
26:02-28:00: How real listening takes “putting the brakes on from ‘I just have to get things done’”; and how listening and slowing down might aid in health and wellness, not just for the individual, but our entire community.
28:26-30:30: Why taking an art class might be the key to bridging all the gaps: “You can’t solve a problem without imagination. You can’t have empathy without imagination.”
33:22-34:29: The value of time, not just chronological time but a “mental space” for creative work to go to fruition.
34:30-38:00: 3 snapshots in time that recently showed Kevin the magic of our community, and why individual interactions with folks helps him relate back to why he does what he does.
39:08-41:55: How that time Shea jumped in to finish carpool so Jessica could work on her lesson plans helped motivate Jessica to do her best for her students and team; and the vital importance of admin leaders showing vulnerability and cognitive flexibility.
We’re back, and we’ve got an incredible, honest episode unpacking teacher support featuring two thought-provoking lower school guests: Michelle Portera (first grade teacher) and Shea Egger (lower school head). Spoiler alert, I almost named this episode with various combinations of the following nouns: authenticity, vulnerability, trust and connection.
Check out snippets from host Rachel Scott’s intro below and I dare you to not be super intrigued:
When the idea for this season first came up, my initial reaction was ummmm… this could be REALLY great or could go REALLY wrong, but the topic was so real, vulnerable, and needs to happen. . . . I see articles, education comedians, memes, social media posts, and news stories about teacher burn-out, leaving the profession, and the very-real teacher shortage. There are desperate cries for support from teachers across the nation. I feel that this “education crisis” isn’t unique to certain schools, whether they are public, private, or independent. The Great Divide can happen anywhere. So what does the support that teachers and educators, both, really mean? My husband, the goof that he is, tells me he’ll support me like an underwire. Thanks dear, but I have that kind of support covered. But what kind of support do we need, and how do we narrow down and put into words and actionable things that can be done to decrease the divide, and at an absolute minimum, build a bridge? We don’t plan to solve the problems of education today, but talking about it and being able to view things from both perspectives is where it all begins. In today’s episode: Teacher Support: What does that mean? What actionable things can we do to collectively reverse the burnout?
See what I mean? Take a listen. The 37 minute are genuine, power-packed, and will fly by.
2:35-3:26: Listen to Rachel and Michelle gush about Shea’s supportive, positive, caring leadership style . . . and why sharing vulnerabilities as administrators is KEY in fostering conversations, connections, and growth.
5:18-8:20: Our panel explores why so many teachers are in survival mode . . . and the implications of anxiety, stress, and “functioning below the line.”
8:50-13:00: Teachers and admin unpack what has led to the burnout both pre and post-pandemic: teachers putting pressure on themselves, scarcity of time, a sense of being piled on, and society’s “ hurry sickness.” (See Shea’s book recommendation here: Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer.)
13:03-14:43: Rachel goes deeper into “time” as a finite resource . .. and provides some ideas for how to streamline in order to work smarter and not harder.
14:45-16:28: Shea explores some concrete strategies administrators should employ to be mindful about time for faculty: making sure any change is purposeful and done with teacher feedback and efficiently using meetings so that admin is making the best use of the time they are taking from faculty.
16:30- 21:30 : What the dreaded “you must submit your lesson plans ahead of time” move can communicate about trust and transparency between faculty and administrators.
22:25-24:23: Hear how one of Michelle’s past admin took on a strengths-oriented approach that made a real difference.
24:23-25:42: Why communication is the key to building trust and relationships . . .both giving feedback and receiving it; and hear about one of Rachel’s WORST admin wielding “lack of communication” as a “power tool.”
25:43-32:12: Why it’s worth the time for us all (but I’m especially looking at you, admin) to make connections, be in communion/fellowship with faculty, be vulnerable and authentic, own the mistakes you make, and share your values as a leader. Also the clear reminder: “we all have to play in order to be healthy.”
32:15-34:20: Self care as a practice that you do, but the equal necessity of systems that support us (e.g. SAPA dinner for faculty families to take home).
34:22-35:00: What parents can do to aid in teacher support on their end: ask them what they need!
35:00-37:35: Back to our main themes: vulnerability, authenticity, trust, and connection. And why there’s “such peace” in bringing your whole self to work. . . which can increase the grace we have for others as well.
*Final note from Shea Egger: If the ideas in this episode interested you, I recommend you check out Dare to Lead by Brene Brown. Themes that emerged in the episode are straight out of this wonderful resource, including an exercise to help identify personal and team values. This is not just a book for school administrators! Brene Brown defines leaders as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” That’s our faculty, staff, and parents, too!
Pick up a copy of any local or state newspaper across the country in the past two years, and you’re likely to find an article discussing teacher shortages, national staffing challenges, or “The Great Resignation.” This isn’t endemic to education. Fields across the country are finding it hard to fill all of their open roles—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As of right now, there are nearly two open jobs for every unemployed person in the country. Filling an open role right now is like Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to find a Turbo-Man before Christmas in Jingle All the Way. It’s a struggle, and not just for K – 12 education. There’s plenty of debate about the reasons for this rise in resignations/retirements. One article in The Atlantic from last month—one I tend to agree with—articulates it well, “the Great Resignation isn’t really about quitting jobs; it’s about switching jobs . . . the elevated quit rate is largely the result of workers swapping employers to make more money. For this reason, we probably shouldn’t even call it the Great Resignation. It’s more like the Great Job Switcheroo.” These thoughts by Derek Thompson are related to and underscore one silver lining: unemployment numbers are on the decline, with Mississippi recently setting a record low for unemployment. Clearly, workers in general aren’t quitting in mass to do nothing instead. They’re looking for greener pastures, and this is particularly true of educators.
While these current unemployment numbers are positive, since the 2000s, the number of students enrolled in teacher training programs—or enrolling in college with the intention of becoming an educator—has declined by nearly a third, according to data from the Department of Education. Additionally, as noted in an article in The 74, graduation from these programs has also declined by 30%. These future employment realities are alarming. And the pandemic has only served to exacerbate this problem. The rate of retirement in the wake of the pandemic rose sharply nationwide, in addition to the amount of teachers leaving the workforce for other reasons. It’s hard to fill a workforce when not only current teachers are leaving but also future interest in the field declines dramatically. Furthermore, while education program enrollment is declining, interest in other fields is on the rise. Enrollment in other programs outside of education within the same period rose by nearly 30% per data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. We joke a lot in this profession that teachers are “underpaid and overworked,” but there is sad truth to the joke, as evidenced by a wealth of data post the Great Recession.
College students don’t appear to be pressing their luck to become teachers because there’s increasingly no “big bucks” in their future, current teachers are jumping ship for opportunities that offer more compensation, and veteran teachers are throwing in the towel for retirement. It’s a triple whammy not only for the educational system in our country, but also the kids whose futures depend on it. Side-note, if you’re up with the Press Your Luck metaphor I’m building here, respect.
But in all seriousness, one central issue facing prospective and current educators is the fact that wages for teachers have not just stagnated since 1990, they’ve withered. As an article in My eLearning Worldpoints out, “new teachers are earning nearly 11% less than they were about 30 years ago when accounting for inflation.” And to make things worse—as if teaching all day wasn’t challenging enough—nearly 20% of all teachers nationwide (1 of 6 teachers) are working second jobs to make ends meet according to data from Pew Research. For new teachers and teachers with less experience, this number is markedly higher, “Roughly one-third (32%) of teachers with one year or less of teaching experience had a non-school job over the summer break before the school year—a far larger share than that of public school teachers overall. By comparison, 20% of teachers with two to four years of experience took on summer employment . . . as did 17% of teachers with five to nine years of experience.” And this only accounts for summer employment, not what teachers may be doing during the school year to get by. Equally as alarming is the fact that this additional employment, either during the summer or during the year, can make up anywhere from 7 – 15% of a teachers total income. That’s a significant portion of a teacher’s annual earnings coming from a side hustle.
Additionally, according to a 2017 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “While the rest of the world has prioritized teaching and learning, and is investing heavily in equity and teacher preparation, thirty-six U.S. states are spending less on education than before the Great Recession. Moreover, the report confirms the U.S. has fallen woefully behind in early childhood and career and technical education as well.” One aspect of this lagging behind comes in the form of paying teachers less. Teachers in the United States earn only around 60% of what other professionals (who are similarly educated) earn. Here’s a concrete example: a new teacher in Jackson Public Schools, according to the most recent pay scale, will earn $37,000—the national average salary for a new teacher is $41,700. According to Glassdoor, the average salary of a new hire across all professions nationally is $54,503. For a new teacher in Mississippi, that’s a huge difference in earnings, a nearly 40% difference in earnings to be precise. Granted, money and salary aren’t everything, and this data from Glassdoor doesn’t differentiate the fact that most educators are paid on a ten month schedule as opposed to a twelve month schedule; furthermore, Glassdoor is self-reported data, so it’s not as accurate a reflection of employee compensation as, say, data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics. But if a hypothetical college student—one considering education as a career—can make, on average, 40% more doing literally anything but teaching, the non-monetary incentives for being a teacher, especially one in Mississippi, need to be incredibly high to match a salary reduction of this degree. I’d venture to guess that it’s rather enticing for a lot of current educators as well to look at other options, given the numbers.
It is rather encouraging to note that Governor Tate Reeves recently signed a bill ensuring that public school teachers in Mississippi will receive a raise of (on average) $5,100. This is the first time in twenty-five years teachers in this state have seen a substantial raise and it’s one of the largest in state history. It represents a 10% or better salary increase for a lot of public school teachers across the state, and it’s long overdue. This would put new teacher pay Mississippi just $200 shy of the national average. According to coverage of Wednesday’s bill passing by Emily Wagster Pettus of Associated Press, “The average teacher salary in Mississippi during the 2019-20 academic year was $46,843, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. That lagged behind the average of $55,205 for teachers in the sixteen states of the regional organization. The national average was $64,133.” Clearly, this bill’s passing will help decrease the gap between Mississippi teacher pay and the rest of the country, on average. However, some would argue this bill still falls short of keeping Mississippi competitive relative to other states—who are also working to raise educator salaries. Wherever one’s opinion might fall on that matter, waiting twenty-five years at a time for a meaningfully significant salary increase isn’t encouraging. It’s even less encouraging considering that wages in the field for new teachers have declined by 11% since the last time Mississippi teachers saw a similar raise.
It’s also important to consider, I believe, that student loan debt for borrowers upon graduation is an estimated $31,100, close to the starting salary of a new teacher in Mississippi before the passage of Wednesday’s bill. It goes a long way, when exiting higher education, knowing that it’s possible to bring home more than what one might owe in student loans. Granted, for many, myself included, the moratorium on student loan repayment during the pandemic has been a huge relief, allowing folks to save money they normally wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. In my case, that $300 monthly student loan payment, invested instead into the markets, returned well over the 0% student loan interest rate thanks to the moratorium. I’m not a financial advisor, but personally, I found this to be a much better decision than continuing to pay off student loans. Dave Ramsey might disagree. As they say, “do your own research.”
Salary and money, obviously, aren’t everything. But again, in a time when debt to income for college graduates is high—nearly $2 trillion (with a T) in total student loan debt across all borrowers—it makes sense that folks are leaving jobs in search of higher income. Especially considering that education, as a field, has seen a steady decline in earnings year over year. And many, especially in public schools, might not see another substantive increase in pay for another two decades, if history serves.
Likewise, it takes a lot of time, patience, and the guarantee of a raise to earn more money in a career where salaries aren’t exactly negotiable, even as a private school teacher. Unlike public schools with clear pay scales—relative to years of experience and degree qualifications—it’s not always transparent how to earn more, and the means with which to renegotiate salary are often equally inexplicit. In a moment when enrollment in schools, nationwide, is increasing while the amount of new teachers or prospective teachers enrolling in programs to educate is declining, it seems important, perhaps now more than ever, to create clear, more standardized means for educators to earn wages that feel commensurate with the vital work they provide society.
For example’s sake, and because I think this is the most concrete way to explain why this issue is worth our collective attention, let’s consider two teachers. We’ll call the first teacher Eve. She earns $45,000 a year working for a private school. She has multiple post-graduate degrees, and has been teaching for a decade. We’ll call our second teacher Adam. Bible school as a child paid dividends, y’all! Unlike Eve, Adam is new, he’s fresh out of undergraduate, and this is his first year in a small Mississippi private school.
Eve, would need a guaranteed 2% raise every year for the next 10 years to make close to $60,000. This isn’t an arbitrary salary number I’m throwing around here; I’m using it as a reference, given that the national mean is around $58K according to data from The Bureau of Labor Statistics. Precisely, Eve would make roughly $56,000 in 10 years, not counting any additional duties she may earn extra for, like coaching or serving on some committee. At St. Andrew’s, for example, this would be similar, as she wouldn’t earn a raise on any stipends she received for coaching, being Department Chair, etc. Clearly, that’s a lot of time and sweat equity just to be earning—in a decade—close to the current national mean. Of course, we all understand that cost of living in this state is lower than elsewhere, but mathematically (and I teach English) the money saved due to cost of living doesn’t account for a substantial salary cut relative to teachers in other states, let alone the potential to earn 40% more in other fields.
Adam, our first year teacher, would need over two decades of service at a guaranteed 2% annual raise to make anything close to what a college graduate can make in another field in their first year alone, or what teachers can earn in other places nationwide—of course, cost of living adjustments matter when considering this reality. After a decade of service, Adam wouldn’t even earn what Eve earns currently, $45,000.
Pay clarity, clear, standardized means with which to progress in earnings, and incentives to do more would all go a long way to helping teachers here, at other private schools, and at public schools across the country not only stay, but consider teaching as a more viable, lucrative career. In fact, nearly the majority of all other schools similar to St. Andrew’s (those within the same national benchmark group) have a clearly defined faculty salary scale. According to data from our benchmark group, “Roughly half of . . . schools [47%] use a defined salary scale for full-time teachers. The criteria most frequently used in setting the scale are Degrees (80% of schools), Teaching Load (58% of schools), and Years at the School (42%). Merit is used at 32% of schools.” Systematizing salary scales and defining the means with which to earn more are bigger than one raise every twenty-five years. The data suggests that scheduled, frequent adjustments—at the very least to account for cost of living and inflation—are necessary for hiring and retention.
Some estimates from the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) suggest that nearly a third of employees in the US leave/quit within 6 months of being hired. That’s staggering. More interesting, however, is that this same survey also concludes that close to 95% of those surveyed would’ve stayed had they felt like their employer was invested in their employee’s long-term learning. Moreover, it’s expensive to hire new employees. Let’s consider, hypothetically, that Eve leaves her teaching job, and her employer needs to replace her. It could cost around 33% of Eve’s salary to replace her, considering the costs associated with recruitment, interviews, onboarding a new hire, etc. In this way, retention matters because it saves money, something all schools care about. Therefore, clarity in earnings, standardized means to progress in earnings, and incentives to try and earn more would help not only retain current and new faculty, but it would help drive interested, aspiring to teachers into the field and help dispel the misguided adage that, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t teach.” This isn’t just a logical approach, it’s sensible, and more equitable.
Lastly, and I say this again because I do think it matters: more money alone isn’t the solution, it’s just one part of the equation. But in a profession that serves as the scaffolding for our country’s future, why should we view that career choice as a personal sacrifice deserving of less compensation? Furthermore, given that new folks (and old) have the opportunity to earn upwards of 40% more in any field other than teaching, it seems like there’s an elephant in the room that merits our nation’s collective attention. Yes, there is much to be done in convincing society, especially aspiring educators, that teaching is a profession that, albeit challenging, is incredibly rewarding and worth pursuing—not simply for what it pays. However, self-sacrifice shouldn’t be treated as a scapegoat to pay teachers less.
As far as engaging learning activity tricks go, I’ve got to admit . . . . I have a soft spot for Shark Tank. Simulating this “reality-TV-meets-business-board-room” has all the stuff I love about a great teaching/learning setup: collaboration, performance, speaking/listening, competition, role play, application, and authentic audience. Typically, though, I see Shark Tank utilized in camps or classes with business-related content. So you can imagine I was quite intrigued when our fabulous Caitlin King (7th grade history) mentioned she needed some Shark Tank judges for her students. Of course I volunteered. I mean, it was Shark Tank.
Wait- what?! You don’t know Caitlin? Okay real quick- Caitlin King is one of those first year faculty whom within two weeks it felt like she had been here forever. She has one of those “let’s jump in and roll up sleeves and contribute” kinds of personalities. She doesn’t have time for nonsense. And she cares about supporting kids in a host of ways. Basically she is a CATCH and we are lucky to have her. Here’s her face. Go say “hi” if you haven’t.
Okay back to Shark Tank. So here’s the set up: the kids had been learning about the questionable trickle-down impact of diamond production, particularly in developing nations. They were asked to propose a solution, Shark Tank style. To prepare for the big day, they were given potential questions ahead of time and also watched a few episodes of the original Shark Tank.
The kids worked in jovial groups; clearly they had chosen friends to work with. They walked out to Shark Tank music (a crucial move by Shark King) and had elaborate “walk up” moves featuring scripted out rhymes and poses sure to impress. I sat up straighter in my chair. Clearly I was not prepared for what was about to ensue.
The solutions ran the gamut, from training and education to utilizing other materials and marketing them for consumption instead of diamonds. Then, follow up questions from a very tough panel of judges followed, along with allocation (or lack of allocation) of funds. Important to note: Shedrick Rodgers is a savvy shark. Don’t let his kind smile fool you. That guy knows what he is doing. Second side note: I thought I understood Shark Tank before being a judge, but it turned out I had no idea what I was doing. There is wheeling and dealing involved along with numbers. And words like “equity”, “stake”, and “contingency.” Next time, I promise to be ready.
Speaking of being ready, Caitlin King most certainly was. She sent us a rubric and questions ahead of time. Check them out; they give you some good teacher hints on how to set something like this up . . . and more importantly how to set kids up for success. Caitlin explained: “I got some questions about spending so much time making that rubric… But let me just tell you that the time it saved me grading on the back end was great! That 20 minutes of prep saved me hours grading. Plus, there was no way students wouldn’t understand their grade.”
I left Caitlin’s classroom that day with a few takeaways:
(1) I need to watch more Shark Tank before I volunteer to host again.
(2) Diamonds are evil. Good thing I didn’t have to feel guilty because I lost my engagement ring like 13 years ago in a river somewhere.
(3) These seventh graders GOT INTO this. More Shark Tank please.
This week’s episode in our season of bridging the faculty/admin divide: Greatness. What do faculty think make a good administrator? What do administrators think make a great faculty member? And is there a way we can all miraculously inch that direction together? I was lucky to be joined by three incredibly great humans to discuss these big questions: Buck Cooper, 8th grade math educator; Cassie Mendrop, Director of Human Resources; and Blake Ware, Head of Upper School.
5:27-7:15: Blake Ware’s synopsis of what makes a great teacher, which involves “a real commitment to the human side of things.”
7:30-9:27: Listen to Buck Cooper illustrate the project of school with the best metaphor I’ve ever heard: “What is school except this ongoing cycle of getting the wheels on only to have them come off only to try to put them back on before they leave us as seniors?”
10:11-11:07: Learn about the employee lifecycle from Cassie.
12:10-14:05 : Hear real talk from Blake about what it’s like to be an admin recruiting faculty in this particular historical moment.
14:20-19:13: All three guests weigh in on creative ways to approach recruitment in our unique school context.
20:30-22:14 : Buck reminisces about an administrator he encountered in his early career that personified the “north star” of what an administrator should be: “ She took me seriously enough to get past the nuts and bolts pieces . . . and engaged me at the level I really wanted to engage: learning how to think about how children think.”
22:18-23:50: What keeps Blake up at night . . . and why trustworthiness is perhaps the most central non-negotiable in an administrator.
24:45-25:36: Cassie shares what Kevin Lewis told her in her first interview that made her want to work at St. Andrew’s, and she elucidates the chief challenge of administrating: balancing the needs of so many constituencies.
26:48-28:18: Blake’s ideas on how we, both faculty and admin, can inch toward greatness: finding things that are energizing and finding ways to do those things together.
28:25-29:55: Buck describes the double-pronged power of curiosity and love in improving community and helping us inch toward a “greater greatness.”
31:20-33:15 : What Cassie has learned from exit interviews about why people leave; and why preserving relationships is at the heart of job satisfaction.
Now that we’re at the end of this series of gratitude blogs, I think it would be nice to take a moment to reflect. The thing that I’ve loved most about this Attitudes of Gratitude blog series is that it has been a constant, monthly, reminder to me to find joy in what I, what we all, do—teaching. Sometimes, this can be incredibly challenging. I think we’d all agree that teaching requires a lot of humility and patience, and it takes a lot of time to see the rewards of our labor. We plant seeds, figuratively speaking. We plant knowledge and tend to that knowledge within our students as best we can, but it can take years for us to see how that labor pays off in the kids we teach/have taught. And in a career where we’re often seen as “underpaid and overworked” gratitude for the work we do goes a long way. For me, writing these blogs has been like a lifebuoy during this challenging year of transitions from a COVID to post-COVID environment. This month, we hear from the 8th graders and their thoughts of gratitude for the 8th grade team. I hope you all find as much joy from it as I have.
“I love Dr. Kunzelman’s class; we actually learn while having fun. She is an experienced teacher, and I can tell she knows how to handle us. Plus, she’s really cool 🙂 I know that all the other students think this too. We do these really fun labs in groups, and they test us on our knowledge of the subject.”
“I like Mr. Buckley’s attitude towards learning. You can tell he is very dedicated to what he teaches. Mr. Buckly is also a really nice guy, and you can come ask him about anything.”
“Mr. Cooper is one of my favorite teachers because he is always there offering his support, and he is really good at teaching Math. He’s always checking in and asking how we’re doing, and he does his best to consider what we are going through when it comes to homework and what we do during class. Besides this, he does a great job explaining new mathematical topics and giving good ways to practice math. He is also my advisor, and I have a lot of fun being one of his advisees.”
“Señor Tokarski is just amazing; he’s my favorite teacher of all time. I don’t even need to study that much for his quizzes because of the way he teaches the material. He repeats the vocabulary over and over again, and he makes us read sentences out loud over and over again to help us learn quickly. He keeps the class busy, and he gives us assignments that make us actively use our brains and translate, and it makes us keep our mind active, so we actually learn, and it sticks. He is just amazing! I wish he didn’t have to leave. I know that he really cares for us and wants us to become fluent Spanish speakers. He is way too amazing. I know that wherever he will go, he will have a large group of fans like me.”
“Art class is exciting with Mrs. Irons because it’s fun and improves my creativity.”
“Mrs. Price is a very good teacher because she always helps us whenever we are struggling. We get lots of practice with speaking, and we get to talk about our families in French and other things about our lives. To help us memorize our vocabulary we usually work in groups, and try to say things using those words.”
“I enjoy Mr. Hosler’s class very much because he always tries to make English fun for us, even when whatever we’re learning about seems boring. He also always tries his best to make all his lessons fun and gives us a lot of class discussion time to express our opinions.”
“Mrs. Johnson is one of my favorite teachers because she is very helpful and always understands if you have to be absent from her class. Another thing I like about her is that she is a good teacher and friendly, but still disciplines people.”
“Mr. Rodgers is one of my favorite teachers because he is caring and understanding. He also interacts with all the students and makes them feel comfortable talking with him. Anytime I talk to him, whether I am alone or with friends, we have great conversations.”
“Mr. Cooper’s class is one of my favorites because he does different things to teach us. He gives us lots of examples, and gives us real word examples. Mr. Cooper is also very nice and funny, and it shows that he cares about us.”
“Señor T is one of my favorite teachers this year because he makes sure that we learn as much as we can during the school year. He makes it fun and enjoyable to learn Spanish. We learned so much from him this past year, and I appreciate all of the work that he did for us.”
“Dr. K’s class is really fun because she organizes lots of different activities for us to do. Class varies a lot which helps us learn science topics in lots of different ways. Dr. K is also really nice and helpful when it comes to Science and other things that us students need.”
I am sure you are thinking, “No way! No how!” but just hear me out.
I am not talking about real social media such as instagram, facebook, snapchat, etc. (I truly am not that crazy.), but a safe, secure environment for students to share ideas and work, collaborate with their peers, get valuable feedback from classmates and teachers as well as create their own learning portfolio or timeline.
If you were to google “Seesaw app” or look it up in your devices app store, you would immediately wonder, “What? Which one am I supposed to use?” Seesaw has two apps that, although operate similarly, have two very different applications. Seesaw Family and Seesaw Class. Think of it like two sides of the same coin.
Our Foundations and ECC families are already familiar with Seesaw Family. Seesaw Family, very simply put, is a secure way to share snippets of the day with parents. Our teachers do a wonderful job of posting pictures to Seesaw Family, which functions similar to a classroom instagram or facebook. The only difference is that the posts, pictures, and videos are only accessible by the teachers and the parents that are linked to their child’s Seesaw class.
I love that our Foundations and ECC teachers go the extra step to post moments from the school day. I really think it helps parents feel more connected to what is happening during their child’s time at school. (Can you imagine anything better than getting an alert that a new post was made to your cutie patootie’s Seesaw class, and opening it to discover a picture of your child and their classmates hard at work? Or maybe a video of them singing in music? Or maybe it’s just a huge grin that can turn a gloomy day around?) Seesaw Family does that!
Now the other side of the Seesaw coin is Seesaw Class. (Excuse me while I take a deep breath to avoid rambling on in all of my excitement and love for Seesaw Class!)
Seesaw Class is a secure, teacher monitored, and CONTROLLED environment for students to post, share, collaborate, and participate in both giving and receiving critical feedback.
Let me tell you a story. It will be quick, I promise.
Several years ago, while teaching 6th grade reading, I desperately wanted to find a way for my students to blog, comment, and discuss take-aways from their reading. I spent hours of the very limited time I had looking for a website or way to make this happen. I thought I had found the perfect site! It met my criteria for allowing me, the teacher, to view and approve the student’s work before it was viewable to the rest of the class, let all approved members post, reply, and comment, and it did NOT have a private messaging option for student-to-student communication.
I set up the classes, showed the kids how to use the site, set clear expectations, and thought we were ready to hit the ground running. The kids would be able to post a blurb each morning, reply to some of their peers, and smooth sailing, right?!?! WRONG. We got one error after the other. It started blocking the kids from posting or replying because only so many participants were allowed to post within some arbitrary timeframe, etc. Needless to say this was one of those times when technology is NOT your BFF and quickly becomes your worst enemy. (Technology is a tool to HELP, not make life more difficult, right?) Abandon ship! Abandon ship!
Available options for activities such as this have come a very long way since then, and believe it or not, Seesaw is one of those tools that can easily be used in many different classrooms and in a variety of ways. (Seesaw would have been PERFECT for that 6th grade reading activity… Snap a picture of a text, annotate with the drawing tool, explain the relevance with the recording tool, and post away!)
Seesaw Class is such an engaging way for students to share their work, develop accountability, and all while documenting the process of learning. Let’s face it, a school year is a REALLY LONG TIME for a student. It is easy for them to forget how far they have come and how much they have grown when they are in the day-to-day of school and the challenges of new skills. Creating accountability through the process of documenting and posting in Seesaw easily allows students to look back at what they have accomplished, see their growth, and easily create a portfolio of what they have learned.
There are so many ways to use Seesaw by teachers and students, that the tool can really become whatever the teacher wants it to be, and all within a safe, controlled environment.
Students can document the steps of a lab experiment in science class, document the progress of their creativity coming to life in art, record and post clips from music, practice reading fluency and post the recording with a picture of the page, ask for ideas from their peers when they are working on a engineering challenge, share their accomplishments and celebrate success with their friends, make book recommendations from the library. This little hidden gem of technology has too many cool ways to be applied in the classroom, I could not even begin to try to count.
Though my colleague and friend now, Ray McFarland was once my high school advisor who let my graduating class of seniors have a lock-in at the then brand new CPA. Talk about cool. He was also the actor that my family and I loved to watch at New Stage Theatre in Forever Plaid and The Foreigner and Hairspray and so many others. Talk about talent. As his colleague, I have been lucky enough to be equal parts hiding-behind-my-hands terrified by Ray’s performance as Krampus at the band concert and jaw-droppingly mesmerized by his singing of “Amazing Grace” in chapel. Talk about range. And for 23 years, this gem, who is both a premier do-er and teacher of his craft, has belonged to us at St. Andrew’s.
When Ray returned home to Jackson in 1998, St. Andrew’s lucked into convincing this law-degreed professional New York actor and self-professed “Sondheim freak” into helping out with coaching speech and debate (thank you Randy Patterson and his happenstance run in with Ray at a movie!). And then the next year Dave Wood hired him on an hourly basis (can you even imagine?) and then the rest is history. The opening of the CPA a few years later in 2002 made the decision for Ray about staying at St. Andrew’s for the long term. Having directed plays in the Commons for the years up to the CPA’s opening and having intimate knowledge of New Stage Theatre, Ray knew the CPA was something special. As is he. Ray is wholly responsible for the reputation of excellence that surrounds our theater: the physical space, the programming, and the productions.
Now that we have lived with the CPA for 20 years, “we often take this building for granted,” Ray said, especially because it is easy to forget how special it is and how unparalleled it is for a school in our state. When guests come from out of town to New Stage, Ray says, “I always bring them to the CPA and show them around.” Ray’s care and devotion for this unique building as well as the programs that are housed within it have made our St. Andrew’s theater department the icon it is today. Besides developing the tech program and growing acting classes across his 23 years here, I also cannot count the number of times I have watched him vacuuming the carpet in the CPA or mopping the stage or moving furniture or working lights or doing any number of tasks simply because he cares and they needed to be done. His desire for the longevity of the building and the program was clear when I asked Ray what he desires for his legacy here. Pretty simply, he said, “I want the theater program to continue. Because it’s not just me. It’s this facility and it’s the students.”
When I asked Ray why theater is so important, without hesitation he said, “It’s vital. Entertainment is a basic human need, and theater involves total communication. Everyone needs a diversion.” Especially with the backdrop of a pandemic, Ray said he always reminds his students before a performance: “For two hours, we’ve got their minds in the palm of our hands.” For those hours, people do not have to think about anything else and can devote their attention to one thing only; for that reason, theater can even become a “religious experience.” As my Classics friends know, Horace says the aim of any poetic endeavor is “to teach and to delight”; performance is no exception. One of the reasons that Ray says “without a doubt” Sondheim’s Side by Side is his favorite musical (besides the music) is that the lyrics are always a story and through them we are always learning something about a character (and then often about ourselves).
Besides Side by Side, his personal favorite musical to watch, I asked Ray which performance he directed here was his favorite or most memorable. Apparently, this question is somewhat akin to asking a parent who their favorite child is. Ray said he could name so many, but the first one he recalled, Into the Woods, had 32 “amazingly talented kids” in it. Ray also went on to say he loved the “spectacle” of Sweeney Todd. Reminiscing on building the elaborate set for that show, he said one day he brought some materials in for his tech class and, with little instruction, told them that the set needed a barber’s chair under which a trap door opened. His tech class ran with it, designing and creating the perfect chair for Sweeney Todd’s victims to fall through; the chair was apparently so perfect that it apparently lived in the McRaes’ house for several years after!
And, of course, earning a well-deserved and sentimental spot in his top three is the most recent, and Ray’s final act, Little Women. In talking about what the students were able to do with this production, Ray called it both “magical” and “astounding.” What created this magic? Besides individual talent, Ray says, “They bought into what I preach: it’s about the group.” From his perch in the tech booth, Ray said, “I missed cues because I was so wound up in it.” Imagine those of us seeing it for the first time in the audience. I saw it only on dress rehearsal night and was blown away, and my mother wept all the way through it next to me.
As expected, Ray had an elevated element of sentimentality as this was his final production. On the day of the last performance, Ray said he mopped the stage for the final time and cried all while mopping. Then he said he cried all the way through that Saturday night performance. At the end, he heard chatter on the headset saying, “turn the lights back on,” and then heard Anna Johnson say, “He’s going to be so mad,” anticipating Ray’s resistance to being recognized one last time. However, Burkitt Anderson, next to Ray in the tech booth, looked over and said into his headset mic, “Nah, he’s already crying.” So when I asked Ray if he was pleased with his last production, he said immediately, “It couldn’t have ended better.” No, it could not, Ray; it certainly could not have ended better. And for that and a million other things, we thank you, Ray McFarland.
Last month I blogged about the theme of this spring’s set of podcasts: bridging the faculty/admin divide. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, and it’s one that has produced a host of complex topics of conversational focus, thanks to the faculty planning and hosting. In this inaugural episode of our fourth season, we take on the controversy of graduation requirements with our oh-so-visionary host Toby Lowe, fifth grade math faculty, and guest Colin Dunnigan, Associate Head of Upper School and Director of College Counseling. If you don’t know Colin, let me just say . . . you should. He’s hilariously witty yet grounded in a way that makes you simultaneously think: “I’m a little scared of you,” “Will you be my best friend?”, and “I would trust you with my life.” You will be compelled and also entertained. What more could you ask of a podcast?
0:00- 2:10: Julie takes a trip down memory lane, and and introduces the point of this particular season’s theme: “Bridging the Faculty/Admin Divide.”
6:50-14:01: The (pretty juicy) faculty meeting that inspired this topic of graduation requirements, as captured by Toby and Colin’s distinct perspectives.
14:02-18:07: Colin gives his honest assessment of our fairly traditional curricular requirements, cites the importance of giving students opportunities to create with technology for jobs of tomorrow, and mentions Global Online Academy and Malone as key pathways into more interest-driven coursework.
18:10-19:40: Should taking calculus be the gatekeeper of “you are a serious student”?
19:42-20:45: The one good thing that came of Covid in relation to college admissions, very vividly described in a way that only Colin could do . . .
20:48-24:15: What students should do if they want to go to the most selective schools in the country . . . and why this particular criterion makes Colin want to cheer.
24:57-28:24: What colleges are actually looking for in admission materials, and why Colin is not a fan of the phrase “student’s passion”) 🙂
28:39-30:48: Julie chimes in with some “end goals” that she’d add to the list if she ruled the world. . . and wonders how we can design coursework that helps get students to those ends.
31:09-36:38: Can a student learn everything they need to learn by playing the guitar? Come visit Toby-Land’s version of school: “the stuff you’re interested in can teach you a lot if you follow it”; moving from content requirements to domains or habits of mind to produce lifelong learners.
38:08-45:10: How to inch our way to Toby Land, even with a fairly traditional model: identifying habits of mind that matter, incorporating programs that immerse youth in experiential learning, and collectively examining whether our current required coursework mirrors the world we live in today
45:18-46:30: Julie talks about her electrical engineer dad (because he tends to come up a lot) and his distaste of “Legos for Kids,” and she wonders out loud whether our traditional course categories are actually in practice as traditional as we assume.
48:10-48:42: Toby proposes we need a more systematic approach to revisiting our curricular requirements; are we still doing what we should be doing for students?
49:22-51:20: Colin’s final thought: We need youth to have the capacity to confront difficult material and persist.
“I’m also trying to remember to just be kind. To each other. To our students. To our administrators. Side point: there’s a toxic sentiment in schools that places teachers and administrators squarely against each other. I don’t like that. Our administrators are dealing with *stuff* too, and sometimes it’s hard to see because we don’t (or can’t) know about much of what they are handling; but I’m pretty sure it’s a lot. A whole lot. And so I’m pretty sure they are tired too. Do I complain and get frustrated? Obviously. But do I think my administrators care about me as a person? I do. Do I think that they are working as hard as we are? Yes. Do I think they get overwhelmed and frustrated and tired too? For sure.”
This is a blog in which I build excitement for the Spring series of podcasts which will be dropped weekly starting in April. But it’s really not that. It’s something much bigger to me. It’s something that’s been percolating for the 2.7 years I’ve been on this job. It’s something I feel deep in my bones:
The perception of a divide between faculty/admin breaks my heart.
In what will surprise no one who knows me even a little bit, I don’t really enjoy conflict. When I was six, my parents fought passionately about how to cook a box of mac ‘n’ cheese resulting, at one point, in my mom’s furious tossing of the cardboard box on the ground, bursting it open, pellets of tiny hard pasta flying bullet-like around the room. I am told I intervened in impressive lengths, explaining to each of them the other side with passion and a surprising amount of insight. From where I stood, both perspectives were valid, and it was ultimately quite frustrating to my six-year-old self to see two people who loved each other miscommunicating so poorly. Also I was hungry. And I needed someone to cook the damn dinner.
It’s not so much that I hate conflict. It’s just that I can always so vividly see every side to every argument. And I can also see the emotions that are really underlying the entire feud to begin with. And they almost always stem from a desire to be respected, loved, heard, and valued and the sense that at least one party (often both) is feeling a lack in any of the above categories. I feel this way about mac ‘n’ cheese; I feel this way about political polarization; and I feel this way anytime I hear a faculty member project a negative stereotype on an administrator or vice versa.
But I also am gonna be honest. When I was a full time faculty member in middle school, high school, and higher ed, I kinda saw admin as the bad guys. And to be fair one of the dudes I worked for (the one that screamed at me when I was 8 months pregnant because I had the audacity to allow my ninth graders to line up to leave right before the bell rang) had an affair with another English teacher and wasn’t honestly that nice of a dude. But even that one really really great administrator I had my first years of teaching (shoutout Julie Bowers) totally and utterly terrified me. How could those school leaders possibly know what was best for my classroom? And anyway, power always corrupts people. Even those with the best of intentions.
Well now I AM an evil administrator and it IS easy to lose touch of what’s going on in the classroom. That’s why my favorite people to talk to are faculty. . . still the smartest, most in-touch people in the room any time of day. That’s why I love my job, because teaching and learning darn better be intimately embedded in the every day of faculty: prepping the flow of a class, designing assessments, managing insanely energetic youth, differentiating what you do to meet a wide range of skill levels. It’s the hardest and the worst and the best job in the world. It’s why I want all of you to collectively slap me if I start to lose sight of the expertise of the folks leading our classrooms every day. Maybe a figurative slap. I don’t really like violence. Or pain.
But guess what? This whole “us versus them vibe” is absurd. Because, y’all (as I remind my three kids during road trips or when we are all attempting to clean the house) . . . SAME TEAM. SAME GOALS. I wish there were clearer cut villains and good guys in this life, but the longer I live the clearer it becomes: We are all doing the best with the knowledge and skills and experiences and energy that we have. Do we all make mistakes too? You betcha. Especially in schools, where the job couldn’t be harder and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
That’s why our new podcast season is dedicated to a proverbial clearing of the air. Saying what needs to be said. Sharing our experiences across different roles in this school. Because the most vicious of cycles is closing the door to your echo chamber, rolling your eyes, and making comments to your buddies about “those faculty” or “those admin.” So this season we are going to look each other in the eye, the “us” and the “them” (whichever us or them you are) and we are going to share stories and words that reflect our truths and lived realities on a variety of themes that matter to this pursuit that we share . . . educating youth. We are going to share a “day in the life of” from both vantage points, discuss hot topics like graduation requirements, debate what makes a “great” administrator and faculty member, imagine what true teacher support should look like, and outline our own perspectives about classroom management and positive school culture. We are, in short, going to talk about real stuff from different vantage points. And while I doubt we will always agree, I am pretty sure we will be the better from it. Or at the very least, I hope we can make space to see each other a bit more fully. Because from what I see out of our school leaders and faculty, there are a lot of super-smart, super-caring humans putting their all into our community. And I think we can all agree that macaroni and cheese tastes a whole lot better when it’s stirred in a pot of mutual understanding.
So I’ve got some great news. I finished that book I told y’all about that was giving me fits of guilt. That David Gemmell book about Aeneas before Aeneas was really Aeneas. It was okay. Bad news: I noticed a number of typos. Sigh.
Other bad news I didn’t talk about in the last post: I got the stomach bug over Christmas break. As in knew I was going to be sick the minute we left the school alumni party on December 23rd. (Yes, the alumni party from which the picture of my non-alum husband–with Kevin!–has been splashed on the internet and Northside Sun; where was I, the actual alum, you rightly ask. Busily working the check-in table while simultaneously trying to squelch the rising tide of nausea I felt coming on is where I was. A picture of me would have been green so it’s definitely best Matt was left to represent the Kellys. He’s an honorary alum anyway. Blair, if you are reading this, I’m not actually fussy. I pinky promise.)
So back to stomach bug. Definitely thought it would be one of those awful but 24-hour things it usually is but because this was 2021, nay. I missed Christmas. All of them. Christmas Eve. Christmas day. Christmas with my family. Christmas with Matt’s family. All.Of.The.Christmases. I was seriously smote down. But good news: I didn’t miss a single day of school. (This is where you insert that emoji where its sarcastic smile is kind of sideways.) Better news: I am thinking of proposing a school policy where we can trade days of being sick on our own time for more personal days because clearly my body is never going to let me miss a day of school for sick days, just holidays. (Update and BAD news: I played myself because I wrote the previous sentence then immediately got Covid and missed two days of school. I’m an idiot who tested the universe and lost.)
Anyway, because of my being smote with Covid on the heels of being smote with the stomach bug (clearly, I’m not living right), here’s more bad news (OR, great news): I watched a lot of television. A LOT. A significant amount. An embarrassing amount. A glut. So much that I caught up on The Witcher, Emily in Paris, The Great British Baking Show, Riverdale, Legacies, Yellowstone, Succession, probably some others I’m not thinking of, and of course some Netflix movies. Embarrassing. Or awesome. You be the judge.
So, now, back to good news and my point overall. In watching all these shows, I am more convinced than ever that what we teach matters. I mean obviously what we teach matters from a skills and content perspective, but I’m more talking about the “being a functional human being who understands allusions and has a decent range of cultural literacy” kind of matters. Which the recent Wheel of Fortune “feather in your hat/lap/map” fiasco that made me want to pass out with simultaneous secondhand embarrassment and good-ole-fashioned dumbfoundedness has made abundantly clear is more important than ever (in case you missed it: watch here).
So anyway, what I gleaned from watching a running ton of television is that even though students may not remember every formula we teach or every rhetorical device we hammer, their “maths” just might come in handy for measuring on The Great British Baking Show or their history in understanding the displacement and marginalization of American Indians on Yellowstone. Or the running thread of Boo Radley on You or the reference on Criminal Minds to Mark Twain or even the Amazon Prime commercial with Medusa in it. Not to mention almost every monster on Vampire Diaries or Legacies such as the Basilisk, the Minotaur, Sirens, the Lady of the Lake, and the Green Knight, just to name a few. Or the allusions on the new Jack Reacher series to the Hydra and to Eudora Welty (point of clarification: Welty is NOT a monster, lest I worded that sentence confusingly). Or why Emily’s co-worker takes her to Gertrude Stein’s grave instead of Balzac’s for lunch in Emily in Paris or all, and I mean allllllllll, the super clever, sometimes subtle, sometimes not allusions of HBO’s Succession. Besides the clear Cyclops mention and Oedipus cracks, there is LITERALLY a character named Roman whose nickname is Romulus.
And then, just this last week, as my students began writing their papers on a specific archetype of their choice, I started watching Netflix’s frustrating show called Maid, and in the first meeting of Andie MacDowell’s character, the main character’s artsy mother, she is flitting around her canvases and creations yelling, almost out of breath: “Archetypes! You know about archetypes! That’s what I’m representing here. In COBALT! The hero, the everyman, the mentor, the mystic! And then of course there are Jungian archetypes…” And later her character, standing in front of a very spidery self-portrait mural, references the story of Arachne and specifically mentions Ovid’s Metamorphoses. My nerdy English and Classics brain just about explodes when things like these happen. Or the first episode in this current season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel in which she talks about her deep-seated need for revenge…Medea-level revenge. Which is kind of awkward because Midge definitely has two kids. So here’s hoping we aren’t really looking at a dark turn into infanticide by the end of the season. I could, however, totally get behind a flying dragon chariot.
Now, look, I know, I know. These things aren’t *totally necessary* for understanding the plots or even for analyzing the characters on some level. But how much deeper and smarter and better does everything become when it’s multi-layered? Like cake. Especially a corner piece. So much delicious icing. So let us not be dismayed when students do not remember exactly everything we attempt to instill; some of it will stick and some of it will not. Some of it might get them their dream job or the college of their choice. Some of it will be lost into the ether or filed behind something more important like Wordle starter words. But, just maybe, some of it will prepare them for all the practical parts of life. Like lazy weekends or, gods forbid, couch-compelling sicknesses. Either way, just maybe we, the bakers and the brick-layers, will have elevated their binge watching to *almost* academic. Just keep layering. Some of it will stick. Like spaghetti on Gilgamesh’s walls.
We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw
In the World of School, recess is spoken of in reverential tones, not only by students but also by teachers. The reasons range from the physiologically concrete to nostalgic to the abstract, depending on whom you talk to. For students, it’s a 30-40 minute window of relative freedom from the mental and physical containment that the classroom necessitates. Recess is a reprieve from the redirection of behaviors: the in-door voices please, waiting your turn, walking instead of running, sitting instead of standing, Chromebook privileges. It’s a safe space for moving bodies and for letting off that excess potent kid energy most adults (at least this one, here) wishes the FDA would approve as an over-the-counter stimulant.
Maybe most importantly–at least where our fourth grade is concerned–recess is a reliable mid-marker for where we are in our day. We all need that, no matter what age we happen to be. When our days lack a center, we often feel unmoored, even a little dissociative.
Teachers view recess as anything from a time for grownup talk with their coworkers; a chance to check phone messages, e-mail, engage digitally; a time for speed grading last week’s multiple choice test for Tuesday Papers; to a built-in bathroom break sans the existential anxiety of using the restroom during a lesson, sitting on the toilet, and wondering what chaos could be breaking out in your briefly unattended classroom (?!?!).
When nature calls, she doesn’t leave a voicemail, you know?
With my daily lunch/recess classroom rotation schedule, I have a chance to spend more one-on-one bonding time with each particular class over the course of the week. Each of the four classroom personalities is distinctive–each home to several microcosms of personality, enthusiasm, silliness, sweetness, budding hormones, and TikTok references.
Back in November, I decided to take to the swing set. As I walked towards the set, I was mildly catastrophizing in my head about my weight taking down the entire metal framing, someone getting a bone broken, emotional scarring for life… But, I don’t know, something told me I needed to do it, so I did.
I’ve revisited the swing set several times since then. I’ve matched pace and rhythm with students while pumping ourselves higher and higher, and talked about all sorts of things, answered questions about my own life, and given advice that I hope was my right to give. It’s the physicality of swinging that I miss most, and the feeling of being in the air, reaching the toes of my sneakers up towards a rogue cloud. On a more serious note, taking part in play has helped my mental health. One of the things I love about engaging with children is that each interaction forces me into the present; there is literally no time to ruminate or worry too much. I have to schedule my worries for later in the day, which I find is a good thing for me. In other words, recess is a portal away from the past and future. It only exists in the present, and to take part in that as an adult, we must submit to these rules.
Here are some highlights of 4th Grade Recess, surreptitiously (or not so) captured and compiled by yours truly:
There is roughly one vending machine for every 25 people in Japan, the highest number of vending machines per capita in the world. It’s an often popularized factoid about the island nation, especially for Westerners. Just take a moment to think about what more than five million vending machines spread across a relatively small island looks like, where do they all go? It was certainly one of the more peculiarly distinctive realities of Japanese culture that I discovered while venturing around central Japan. It was both anachronistic and beautiful to walk through the woods in Nagano or the streets around a two-hundred year old ryokan (traditional, Japanese inns with tatami matts) to find, somewhere along the way, a lone vending machine with coffee, juice, and milk soda. If you’re curious about the latter, I won’t go down that rabbit hole, but you’re welcome to explore. Of course, my time in Japan was much bigger, more spiritual, and taught me so much more than what I found in coin operated machines, but vending machines are such a good metaphor for what I believe is happening, currently, in education. Insert money. Press a button. Receive.
If you know me at all, you know that I’m serially optimistic. It’s a blessing and a curse. So apologies in advance if my title seems like click-bait or this blog breaks with my typical demeanor, but I’ve become increasingly worried, in the time of a pandemic especially, that students are losing their ability to self-start. That their ability to think creatively and independently, something I believe they (we all) inherently possess, has been lost, to some extent, in the time of COVID-19, post COVID-19, and in the age of Siri, Alexa, & the Google (I’m sure he’s tracking me as I type this). Students are traversing through schools like consumers, thirsty for soft drinks.
Last week, Mr. Brister told me about a thought experiment he did in class that caught my attention. He began class as he always does, roll call, housekeeping, the usual, but on the whiteboard were a set of clear, enumerated instructions for his students. They needed to create a short skit, entirely in Spanish. They were allowed to use any tools available to them, including the internet and WordReference–a reliable, digital source for translating–to help them craft their skits. And of course, they were allowed to partner up. However, the most important caveat of this assignment was they weren’t allowed to ask Mr. Brister any questions. They needed to achieve their goal entirely alone, using only each other, their tools, and the instructions provided. For just one hour and twenty-five minutes, they couldn’t ask their teacher for help.
You might be asking, what’s the aim of such an assignment, beyond the obvious language learning outcomes. What might it prove to ask the students to work alone, without the help of their teacher? Moreover, what role does the teacher even play in a framework like this? To me, the answers are simple. Mr. Brister (and I would agree with him) wants to measure students’ independent, creative ability, in addition to their ability to complete a multi-step assignment, without needing to be given the precise means with which to accomplish the task. His goal, and invariably all of our goals as educators, are to equip our students with the tools they need, the skills necessary, to complete not just the tasks they face within our respective subjects, but more broadly–and perhaps more importantly–help lead them to finding themselves and their own capabilities. The same charge Virginia Woolf gives in her diary, “The thing is to free one’s self: to let it find its dimensions, not be impeded.” To do this takes stepping back and giving students both the opportunity to succeed and to fail.
This is no easy task. Students, particularly middle school students, are quick to seek immediate validation and confirmation they’re on the right track, so are adults. I’m certainly guilty of this. Many students will ask at the beginning of a new task or assignment, “How do I do this?” or “How do you want us to do this?” or some other variation of these questions–before even attempting to try risking failure or finding success. And though this is, I would argue, quite lazy as an approach to learning, it is also a deeply human instinct—the desire for immediate gratification. It keeps students (all of us) from the harder work of trial and error. The latter involves risk, analysis, and the potential for much greater reward.
We’re all familiar at least with the scientific method: observe/ask questions, research, hypothesize, test, analyze results/data, conclude, and report. It’s a cyclical loop. It’s keystone is built on the idea that even if failure happens, there’s always more questions to ask; therefore, more to learn, repeating the loop again. But in a moment, culturally, historically, when it is so easy to simply ask, “Hey, Alexa?” or “Hey, Siri?” when the answers to simple and complex questions alike are just a Google search away, what incentivizes students engaging in high-level, thoughtful inquisition? After all, I can quickly tell you that a chef’s hat has precisely 100 pleats or that Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart once took an aviation joyride together to Baltimore, instead of attending a dinner in D.C. because Google. And while I’ll admit that these are simple trivia factoids, students, parents, anyone with a connection to the internet can quickly find whatever it is they’re looking for, without the need for much inquiry or creative problem solving for themselves. To be fair, this is also both the beauty of our current moment in history and also the problem. The ease with which we can access information is, frankly, pretty glorious, and quite helpful. But it’s equally exploitable, and occludes us from pondering, on our own, difficult questions.
It is, I would argue, part of the reason why the news is saturated with headlines like, “Students use AI rewrite tool to beat plagiarism checks,” “NFT marketplace halts most transactions due to proliferation of fake and plagiarized tokens,” “Rand Paul admits his plagiarism ‘is my fault’.” It’s also why the Department of Justice and others in the US continue to battle with China over claims of intellectual property theft. Clearly, these few examples aren’t representative of every student or individual, but they represent a growing sentiment among teachers and leaders who have been trying to educate, work, and live in a more digitally saturated age—certainly in the midst of a pandemic that has forced life to go entirely online in a lot of ways. If you’re curious about how this fits into the metaphor I created above, you should know that the quest to “hack” vending machines is a tale as old as time. We love the idea of free munchies. You can look deeper into the realities of vending machine tomfoolery by reading this article in Slate if you’re interested, but the TL;DR is that it’s not worth your time trying to manipulate vending machines. I would also argue that it’s entirely counterintuitive to the value of education to try and cheat the systems; however, grade-based economies, like vending machine economies, do nothing if not encourage finding shortcuts to getting that delicious end goal—the grade, those potato chips.
Students are not just more inclined to academic dishonesty in this framework. They’re also struggling to trust their own instincts and find validation in their own ability to get their work done. My earlier example from Mr. Brister’s class represents this problem precisely. He found that students were unable to complete the assignment without asking for validation or feedback or asking questions. They immediately began to ask him questions within the first few minutes of the assignment. “How do we do this?” they asked. “What do we need to get a ‘good’ grade?” But none of them were asking the more difficult, internal question of why Mr. Brister might be expecting them to take on a difficult challenge alone, why his decision to not help gives them more freedom to create their own work without the influence or pressure of trying to create purely to please Mr. Brister—a chance to find themselves in the assignment. Of course, this isn’t to say that the students are the issue entirely, in fact, I want to emphasize that I believe the system we’ve created, the grade based system, incentivizes finding shortcuts. So if anything, students are doing what the system encourages of them. And this is precisely why I’d like to encourage more inquiry-based learning that is entirely devoid of numerical valuation.
Everyone wants validation. I get that. Affirmation and validation are my middle names, so I empathize on a fundamental, deep in my soul, level. It’s probably because I’m a four on the Enneagram. But so often we do things for the reward or the affirmation, not simply for the sake of doing, just like students are quick to complete work merely for the sake of a grade, an often arbitrary number. They complete work based on what they think their teacher will like, not work they’re necessarily fully invested in or proud of. This particular kind of student-teacher relationship, transactionalism, feels much more like vending machine economics and less like education. What I deeply desire as an educator, what I think all of us desire, is for students to care less about GPAs and whether or not they’re an A, B, C, or XYZ student, and more about the intrinsic value of what they do at school. Why learning matters and what they’re truly interested in. Something that is, some might argue, impossible to truly teach.
Grade-based economies in education force students to build identity around numbers, numbers that are, if we’re (educators) being completely honest, at times arbitrary. For example, completion grades, or zeroes given solely because a student didn’t do the work, which doesn’t tell us anything about their inherent ability to do an assignment–just that they did or didn’t do it. Students develop identities around these numbers. Parents and teachers communicate about students and characterize students based on these numbers e.g. “Susie has always been an A student”; “Joey was never an A student, but he’s certainly not a D student.” Likewise, when students make something, complete an assignment, or take an assessment, it often feels as though they’re engaging in a transaction with their teacher, one where they expect, in return for whatever effort they put in, a “good” grade. But if or when students are let down by the number they receive in return–like getting the wrong drink from the vending machine, or having their snack get stuck on the glass–they feel slighted, let down because, again, in an economy where they’re identities, their futures, are wedded to numbers, numbers are self-defining. Sure, having a grade creates incentives for timeliness/time management, learning to comply with rules and guidelines. But can these outcomes also be accomplished without a numerical grade? When was the last time my boss gave me a numerical grade for the work I do day in and day out? Assessment can still happen without numbers associated with said assessment, and this doesn’t take away the ability to gauge competency with skills.
Authentic learning and work in the “real world” doesn’t, by and large, involve grades. Your physician, your dentist, your pilot on this upcoming Spring Break trip could have all been C students in their fields. But it doesn’t matter one way or the other. They’re still professionals. I care less about the grades they made and more about how they’re performing the skills they need, right now, to do their job. Conversely, in the grade-based model, students are buying progress from the education vending machine. The value of learning comes from the incentive of a good grade. Learning for the sake of learning is discouraged by the nature of the pressure to perform for a number. Students put in the work/effort necessary to get the item they want from the vending machine. I want an A; therefore, I perform and work accordingly. If I know a shortcut or way to jiggle the vending machine to make that A happen more easily, I might also take that opportunity, because, after all, gaming the system is part of navigating any numbers-based economic system.
While I don’t have all of the answers, there are a few things I often return to. The idea that less is more, and that our emphasis as educators on what is deemed important needs to shift away from numerical metrics and homework to skills metrics and doing more work at school.
School should be shorter, not longer, in my view. At the very least, it should start later. There’s science behind this. Kids need more sleep and they stay up later, naturally. Here’s some brain picking from The Atlantic on this issue. Or if you don’t fancy reading more, here’s a video from the same source. More ideally than a longer day with a later start, intended to match the American 40 hour work schedule, our school days should be centered around the science of learning and best practices. The current model has little to nothing to do with the pedagogical efficacy of “teaching” students for seven plus hours a day. In the current systems of American education, students are at school from 7:30 am to sometimes 5:00 pm purely because parents need some place and someone to watch their children. I know this sounds harsh or perhaps critical, but I cast no judgment. I just think it’s an honest assessment of how the system is structured. While this idea of a shorter academic day might seem entirely unachievable, it should be seen as an aim. Heck, reduce the work week. Can I get an amen? There’s plenty of recent evidence that shorter working weeks leads to happier, healthier, more productive adults as well. Feel free to explore that rabbit hole more if you like. At minimum, we should be giving our students more free time and less instructional time. Why? Because exploration, innovation, and deep learning happens when kids are left to their own devices to explore, innovate, and play. Recess is also learning. I’ll die on that hill. There’s also data to support this, so you don’t just have to take my word for it. According to a study out of George Washington University, as quoted in this article from Time,
In 2007, the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University found that 62% of school districts had increased the amount of time spent on English language arts or math in elementary schools since 2001, while 44% of school districts had cut down on time spent on other subjects. The survey showed that 20% of school districts had reduced recess time. According to the 2016 Shape of the Nation report, just 16% of states require elementary schools to provide daily recess.
Katie Reilly, Time
We’re, across the country, taking away time from our students because we’re playing a national game of numbers chasing. Between a history of wrestling with No Child Left Behind policies and our current infatuation with state standards, standardized testing, and data driven schooling, teachers—especially in the public school systems—often struggle with this pull between teaching for the sake of a test or standardized testing and teaching what they know is best for their students. Perhaps we don’t need this dichotomy at all. Maybe the answer is simpler than we thought: let kids play. Granted, this is slightly reductive of the complexities and nuance of the broader issue, but it goes without saying that students deserve more time to explore and be children. Adulting is hard. Save it for adults, or can we also make adulting easier too? I’d like some more recess myself. . .
Again, kids are at school from, roughly, 8 am to 3 pm. Seven hours a day, five days a week.
A couple of years ago, a former colleague, Chris Harth, showed me a chart he’d plotted out (based on student survey data from high schoolers at St. Andrew’s) of how much time students spend every day preparing for school, going to school, doing extracurricular activities, and you know, showering etc. Essentially, most students at St. Andrew’s (at that time) woke up around 6:30 am to be at school by 7:45 am. From there, they were at school until 3:15, unless they had sports or extracurriculars. Most students in 7th – 12th grade do, so that means they’re busy until after 4:30 pm though many are here until 5 or later. Considering also the nature of a metropolitan area and travel to and from places, students don’t get home until 5:00 pm at best. Factoring in also that students need to eat, use the bathroom/take care of personal hygiene, and do any other non-school related chores/responsibilities they may have—sleep also has to happen at some point—this, in good faith, only leaves students with a roughly three hour window every day to get things done and do whatever it is they enjoy doing to unwind. That means that the average student from grades seven through twelve needs to complete, at worst, seven classes worth of homework in a few hours and also enjoy their evening? This isn’t always the case. Obviously some days they’ll have more or less work, depending. And many students, especially at our school, have a study hall. But the point is simple and the same one that each and every adult argues most days: there isn’t enough time in the day. Students don’t just need more time. They deserve it. Dare I say all of us humans deserve more time to ourselves to just be who we are sans a mountain of responsibilities: human. As Eugene O’Neil says in Long Day’s Journey into Night, “It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish.” Clearly, he knew what I’m talking about. Sometimes, it’s gloriously perfect to just be.
Which leads me to my last point about homework. Homework, in the traditional, take-home sense, isn’t helpful, and it often doesn’t lead to deep learning. More often, it feels like an arbitrary numbers generator. We need grades. Notably, we need lots of little grades to help students out when they don’t do well on big grades. Which means we also need a decent amount of big grades because we don’t want a student’s grade to hinge on just one or two assignments. Students know this. Teachers and administrators plan for this. It’s expressly why I rewrote my entire grading system a couple of years ago to be “big grades” and “little grades,” if only to simplify my own thinking and student thinking about how grades work. But also because I understand that the nature of our grade-focused systems forces me to give students numbers, and I know that I need to give them as many opportunities to get “good” numbers as possible within this system, otherwise they run the risk of feeling like a failure. Likewise, parents feel like their child is lacking the necessary skills to move forward. Ultimately, I feel like the whole lot of us are trapped in this cycle of thinking that because Joey only, numerically speaking, understands seventy percent of what I’ve taught, he’s somehow on the cusp of failure. However, for some perspective, Steph Curry shoots roughly forty percent from the three-point line. Drew Brees has a seventy-four percent completion rate. Ty Cobb, The Georgia Peach, the best hitter in baseball history, got a hit only about thirty-seven percent of the time he walked up to the plate. Which is to say, numbers don’t accurately represent greatness and they’re subjective, relative, and don’t accurately depict the whole child (or athlete).
These are all, to be fair, big shifts in the way we think about teaching and learning. There are mountainous obstacles in the way of implementing changes of this magnitude on a larger scale, and I’ll admit that. However, this shouldn’t be a deterrence from thinking and talking about them and aiming to overcome them. The other option, of course, is to continue munching on snacks from the vending machine. Though, as I’ve tried to highlight here, this framework is to the detriment of not just our students, but our teachers, and parents. And it’s a rather reductive way of educating. Pursue grade. Get a grade. Move on. Repeat. Sometimes the best learning comes from simply, being, existing. As Walt Whitman says,
To be in any form, what is that?
(Round and round we go, all of us, and ever come back thither,)
If nothing lay more develop’d the quahaug in its callous shell were enough.
Mine is no callous shell,
I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,
They seize every object and lead it harmlessly through me.
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I think we could all use a little of that kind of happiness. More time for that kind of being, like the quahaug, and less time jumping through hoops. And I think once our students are given more time to be on their own, they’ll learn, like clams, to live in their own shells, pearls or no pearls. Until then, they’ll keep working to make their own jewels for a system that encourages only the shiniest.
4th graders in Señora Buford’s Spanish class have spent the last several weeks focusing on creating content to share all about St. Andrew’s Lower School with students in Perú.
Maya Buford, the Lower School Spanish teacher, began communicating in the fall with teachers from Lord Byron School in Arequipa, Perú. The teachers collaboratively came up with the idea that would allow 4th grade students at both schools to practice their newly learned Spanish and English vocabulary by creating a digital tour of their schools and talking about their classes (like modern-day pen pals, but with videos).
Our 4th grade students spent some time taking and collecting pictures of the different classrooms and special places at the lower school. They then worked in small groups collaborating on the development of a Google Slide deck to present their pictures, descriptions, and new vocabulary. Each small group then recorded a unique video where they introduced themselves in Spanish, and described our St. Andrew’s Lower School and the picture slideshow they created with their peers.
Although the project had some hiccups along the way, this was such an amazing experience for our students. They learned new Spanish vocabulary, developed collaboration skills, integrated technology, and had the opportunity to further develop their oral presentations skills.