Lesson Planning/Lesson Coaching as Best Intentions

This is a story of us.  This is a story of caring teachers planning the stuff students do to show their learning.  This is a story of well-meaning administrators giving advice.  This is a (yet another) story of best intentions.

Interestingly, the same very sentence (via a quick convo on the sidewalk, an email, a text) tends to preface a conversation that is either the best or worst part of my job: “Hey Julie- do you have a second?”

The crucial part on whether it becomes the best version or the worst version of my job is what those words are followed up with.  And here is where the gold is found:“I’d love to brainstorm with you about _______” or “I’d love to reflect with you on how something went down” or “I’d love to show you what we’ve been up to in my classroom.”

Introducing my buddy Monica Colletti, sixth grade English; she does that. 

Here she is! THANK YOU MONICA!

We met a few weeks ago to chat about whether or not she should assign a project to her sixth graders that they loved in the past. It involved the summer reading (Wonder) and each student choosing a “precept” (quote about life) that the English teacher in the book used in class to highlight and creatively represent using some form (e.g. art, video, etc.)  As in any pedagogical choice, there were pros and cons.

Pros: The kids loved it last year; ties to socioemotional learning; good match for their abstract development/understanding of the world; let’s them choose the quote and the creative outlet; sets the stage for similar projects to come.

Cons: Takes too much class time; exhausting to present; doesn’t really “test” the kid’s knowledge of the summer reading; kids can get stressed by open-endedness; etc. 

In the end, the joy-creative affordances won out.  She decided to assign the project.  We talked through some tweaks to make it more doable.  For example, to take up less class time I suggested rather than having all students individually present their projects, she should consider a museum/gallery walk situation. And off we go.  

Zander Rust, by the way, talked more about this assignment than he has talked about any assignment in a long, long time.  He loved every piece of it: choosing and dissecting his top five precepts, narrowing them down to one single precept, and getting to use his stop motion animation app for a school project.

Of course, there were also tears, as there are in any endeavor.  He first tried one style of video in a tedious-laborious sort of way that he didn’t love. It didn’t translate.  He got super frustrated.  He was tired from a trip.

Did I mention the irony of the quote he chose?: “If plan A doesn’t work, remember there are 25 more letters in the alphabet.”

In the end, he went with this video instead. 

Zander’s compressed video (SORRY- his original wasn’t so blurry; but you get the idea!)

He was so proud of himself.  His dad pointed out that his journey through the project actually illustrated the quote pretty darn well.  I lol’ed.  It hadn’t occurred to me.

Anyway, I saw Monica the day of sharing out. And while Zander Rust was floating high on cloud nine with the entire enterprise, she was EXHAUSTED by the end of those days.  The noise level in the room! The kids’ excitement but constant “needs”!  The difficulty of trying to both manage the class and pay attention to the projects as they were presented!

Is this a blog-warning not to listen to Julie’s advice? Possibly. At least partially.

There were other unanticipated wrinkles. (As there always are.) I met with Monica to reflect (again.)  I’m impressed she was still willing to brainstorm with me after my dubious advice.  Here’s what we’ve got:

Pros after the fact: some kids got excited by the project; socioemotional connection; forced kids to think more deeply about metaphors/figurative speech/etc.

Cons: final grade based on the rubric didn’t always reflect the quality of the project; some kids weren’t happy with their grades; the move to “museum format” made it hectic and all the grading had to be done separately; it was noisy/tricky for classroom management and was recipe for overstimulation for teacher and students.

We were still left with the big question: “Was this project worth the time and headache?”

All of that time for reflecting, all of our best intentions, and we never reached a solid conclusion.

So, like all of the best teachers I know, Monica is going back to the kids. She is going to give them a survey adapted from this to give them the dual-edged-sword opportunity of (1) reflecting on their own learning (2) giving her feedback on how to improve the experience.  

This I don’t believe: there is one best practice, assessment, rubric, silver-bullet answer to masterful teaching and if we all just worked hard enough we’d find it.

This I believe: every test, every project, every homework assignment sheet that we design is like the launch of a stone in a moving current.  There are ripples of impact.  Some are good; some are bad.  Some are anticipated; some are unanticipated.  Most often the experience wildly differs based on the kid involved.  The best work we can do is work that is responsive, reflective, and intentional based on the information we notice around us.  The best we can do is talk to our colleagues about it to hear their stories.  The best we can do is be honest and real.

This is the story of teaching.  This is the story of us. 

The One-Size-Fits-All Spelling List

Shea and I had the distinct joy this past weekend of analyzing first grader’s spelling tests.  These weren’t, though, just any spelling tests.  They were inventories designed to give educators pointed cues regarding each student’s distinct spelling developmental stage.  I’m not going to lie.  It was FASCINATING to see the range of ways that students made sense of word rules that they had explicitly been taught or implicitly absorbed from text exposure along the way.  I found myself rooting for every kid.  “I know that looks like a b but they definitely meant d . . .I know they did!” There were significant patterns of similarity, and there were also a few outliers in every class.  

We didn’t just do this for kicks, although I certainly did get kicks.  This practice is part of a new program we are piloting with 1st, 3rd, and 4th grade this year called “Words Their Way.” It begins with figuring out where each child is, and then provides them targeted practice (called “word sorts”) at the stage and with access to the skills that they need.  The program has one thing noticeably absent from its many resources: the one size fits all weekly spelling test.  It instead asserts that regular practice with immediate feedback at kids’ just-right-fit level (ahem zone of proximal development, thank you Vygotsky) is the most effective way to help children internalize and apply spelling patterns in their own writing.

Of course weekly spelling lists and Friday spelling tests have been as much a part of the rhythm of our 1st-4th graders’ experiences as Friday morning chapel, May Day, and class plays.  Though their function may not echo as romantically as our lower schools’ sweet-voiced rendition of “This is the Day the Lord has Made,” they have been a crucial lynchpin in the literacy progression our students make from their chubby-faced entrance into the first grade hallway until they wrap that May Pole as longer-legged fourth grade pre-adolescents.  And while spelling well may not be a marker of every fifth grade student that moves on to north campus, most are relatively adept at encoding words to page by the time they reach middle school. Why, then, fix what isn’t broken?

Just because something isn’t broken doesn’t mean it can’t be better.  And while all of us giving weekly spelling tests that are one-size-fits-all in nature have been operating with the BEST of INTENTIONS (subtle nod to theme), I think we can serve our children better by addressing the knowledge (and the gaps in understanding) that they bring to our classrooms.  There are also other unanticipated ripples from the weekly spelling test.  Many children see spelling as the most important part of the curriculum since it feels like the most consistent “high stakes/formal” test they encounter throughout their years.  Kids that do well can absolutely thrive with the weekly test, and they look forward to their weekly time to shine and the inevitable positive reinforcement at home they get when they bring home that “M” the following Monday.  However, some of these same youth already know the patterns of the spelling words they are given each week, and the time could be better spent challenging them at their more advanced level. Worse, our kiddos that really need the spelling instruction the most can begin to internalize the test as an insurmountable, stressful, anxiety-inducing task, and they can begin developing (negative) self-narratives about their own identities in relation to academics.  I know both versions of this story from my own experiences as a St. Andrew’s momma.  In all cases, my kids’ teachers were absolutely incredible.  They provided support when needed and challenge when they could.  But they too were operating within a system that existed decades before they began teaching at the school.  

I think we can do better, and I hope this new program is one step closer in that direction.  But I am not so naive or confident to say that Words Their Way will be our spelling silver bullet.  My guess we will fall prey to NEW unanticipated consequences, despite our best intentions in adopting the program. But I believe we will all learn a thing or two along the way: about each child, about the preconceptions we bring to instruction, and about the ways all of us fall into teaching rhythms for sometimes-good, sometimes-less-good reasons, and most usually a blend of both.

An Inside Look at Saints @ Home

This post was contributed by Saana Watson.

Saints@Home. I could write a book about this but I’ll try to keep it short! It was June 2020 when I was asked to help design and teach in this new, innovative program in which our youngest Saints (PreK3-1st grade) get a teacher to come to their house twice a week to provide in-person instruction.

At the end of summer we had an info session for parents who might be interested in enrolling their children in this new program. I can’t remember the exact number but we had about 10 families join. I remember being hopeful that this program would be successful, having already spent hours of preparation to familiarize myself with the fourth grade curriculum. It was a challenge to wrap my head around logistics that would be involved, but I was excited about this new opportunity.  A few weeks later, when the fall semester began, we had over 40 students and three teachers in this program. I think nobody had expected the program to have such a strong reception among the St. Andrew’s families. Scheduling and planning my routes from house to house took a while, and Google Maps was my best friend! 

When we got so many students in Saints@Home my main responsibility was Kindergarten and first grade even though I also taught a couple Prek4 students my experience mainly focuses on K and 1st students. During Q1 I had 20 students from Gluckstadt to Pearl, who I visited weekly, and as you can imagine I had a minute-to-minute schedule. I started teaching at the first house at 7:30am and finished at the last house around 2:30pm. I spent my lunch”break” parked on the side of the road eating my sandwich in the car while replying to a couple emails and setting reminders for myself for all the things I would need to prepare the next time I went to school. 

During in-home visits I got to see a different side of the students and build the connection to the next level going into their world, getting to know their families, pets, etc. which allowed me to tailor the lessons towards each student’s interests. This is something I carry on to my K classroom after Saints@Home as well. The students enjoyed hearing their pet’s name in a math problem or getting to read to their teddy bear. Obviously being in their home also came with challenges. Creating rules and expectations, that in some cases were different from rules and expectations their parents had, took being very intentional and explaining that during teacher visits their playroom is a classroom. Most of the students responded to this very quickly and set up their learning space, wore school uniforms and were acting just as we had been at school. 

Teacher visits weren’t just a time for the students to see us, but often it was also a special moment for the parents. Some parents took advantage of seeing their child’s teacher and wanted to have a mini conference each time, some parents didn’t have many other grownup contacts outside of their family and teacher visits were a moment to briefly chat about anything and everything!

There were many things, some funny, some not so funny that happened on the road. I attended almost all of our virtual faculty meetings in my car after driving back from the last house, I taught virtual lessons in my car at Starbucks parking lot, I spent hours after my days of teaching recording lessons to supplement for the days I didn’t see the students. I had a flat tire at a student’s house one day and my husband had to come fix it while I taught a first grader so I could make it to the next house on time. I’m so thankful for my sweet husband! I taught lessons in playrooms, kitchens, out on a picnic blanket, garages, out on a patio when it was raining sideways. I was welcomed to all these families’ homes, offered water bottles and snacks for the road, got a traditional Indian meal a mother of one student prepared during our lesson (and packed in a container so I could take it with me) and had so many sweet interactions with these families.

Someone asked me if there are elements of Saints@Home that could work longer term or if I’d do it again. Helping create and teaching Saints@Home was an extremely demanding (and sometimes lonely) experience that I could do again with some tweaks. It’d be crucial to set clear expectations for parents’ involvement. Some parents were very involved and helped their child through work through the materials that were assigned for the week and those children were thriving. Some parents expected us to cover everything during our sessions despite being asked to cover some topics and skills with their child outside of teacher visits. Those students struggled to achieve their full potential. There was no way for us to cover everything in about 2 hours that was covered in a classroom in a week.

I know as educators we all have experienced the lack of time but Saints@Home took it to the next level. At times I would have a student who wanted to show me her new bike or his trampoline. These students needed these moments with their teacher and of course I stayed an extra 5 minutes which took away my chance to stop and use the restroom or have a snack in between houses. I had so many students looking at the window to see my car pull up, running to open the door or already waiting outside when I came to their house. These visits were meaningful to the student in many ways. I believe it was giving them a way to feel part of Saint Andrew’s and often they would ask about the other students at school or ask me why some of their friends got to go to school and they stayed home. I had several conversations, especially with the first graders, about different situations in our lives and reasons why they stayed home all while reassuring them that their friendships won’t disappear and that they are an important part of our community and that they belong to St. Andrew’s.

I am grateful for the experience, it taught me a lot about myself as a person and educator. It gave me a great perspective to teach my Kindergarten class. I am proud we responded to a unique situation in a creative way. 

Best Intentions

Authored by: Hollie Marjanovic

Here we are already into one month of school and talking about good intentions.  When I heard this topic, I thought about the saying “the road to hell was paved with good intentions.”  So, I hope that the choice of this topic was not because we are all thinking that the year has already gone to hell or that we are on some collective road to hell.  Although, the last weeks of August might have felt like it.

An example of a good intention–About a week ago, I placed 10 one gallon jugs in my car to fill with water for our house in Jackson and still they remain empty in the back of my car – just rolling around and with every turn I’m reminded that they are still there…the sound of plastic crashing and crinkling.  The good intention is that I want to be environmentally friendly by filling the jugs with water at school and not consuming more plastic. I’m so thankful that we can fill our bottles at school and take showers there.  I enjoy the time I have spent standing next to other Jacksonian colleagues filling water bottles in the faculty workroom.   It’s fascinating that when people come to my house now, instead of bringing a bottle of wine, it’s a bottle of water…I could go on, but back to my intention–  it hasn’t happened yet.  This is largely because it is overwhelming to look at all of those bottles, to take the time to fill them and walk them back to the car (can we say new workout regimen!).   

This summer the TEAM group got together and we talked about a theme for the year and one of the ideas was along the lines of “keep it simple.”  When faculty arrived in August, so many of us had such fantastic ideas about what new things we would do in our classroom.  The coaches had dreams about how their teams would do this year.  The SSS people had ideas about the programming we could do in the realm of social and emotional learning. Then by Labor Day we realized that being in school actually involves these people called students who might not be  ready for our plans or have their own plans.  We realize that schedules sometimes shift and that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  Injuries and illness occur–COVID and Flu reports already and athletic injuries!  Record amounts of rain happened with leaks in so many places around campus.  Then flooding, port-a-potties at the LS (AGAIN!)….then the ongoing water crisis in Jackson became a catastrophe that caught national news.   The plans we had to start the year had to be adjusted.   The good intentions we had for lessons might have translated into having too much to grade with not enough time to set up the activities we wanted to do or maybe we felt like we weren’t living up to the standards we set just less than a month ago.  All of these thoughts mock us, just like my unfilled water bottles.

The thing about good intentions is that we often have really big and great ideas and we make a schedule to accomplish them.  Then other realities happen which mean that sometimes (most of the time, I’m finding) we need to allow for adaptation of our plans.  And, that is okay!  We are not less than amazing if we adapt!  We can work together and find ways to uphold our standards and do what might have seemed impossible.  Keeping it simple, doesn’t have to mean that we aren’t doing amazing things, it means that we are realistic about the amazing things we can do.

Back to my water story– I have a lot of bottles to fill, my plan is now to place two in my front seat every other day.  It is a lot less overwhelming to visualize and a lot more doable.  I can accomplish my goal of filling these bottles, I just have to take a different approach.  Oh, and if I don’t remember, I’m going to be nice to myself when we have to buy yet another plastic bottle.  I’m thankful to be in a community where we have access to water, even if it’s just not from our tap.

This year, let’s be good to ourselves and realize that August might have seemed like we were living in some sort of crazy hell, but we are making it and I see good things all around!  Our students are learning, our pep rallies have been so much fun, the band sounds amazing, field trips are back on again.  Keep your grand plans and continue to be as creative as you can be, but know that the lesson so far has been that our good intentions might be made even better when we allow ourselves to accept the realities around us and adapt.  We will always find our way or make one.

Reframing Student Work as Best Intentions: Reflection as a Pedagogical Tool

Paul Smith, our fabulous new Senior Level English Teacher, is the kind of new community member that so easily and quickly became a part of the fabric of our school that it feels like he’s been here forever. So it didn’t come as a surprise when he shared a fabulous teaching strategy the other day, and it became my goal in life to connect it to our “best intentions” theme  so I could include it in our September blog blast. 🙂 It may be a stretch, but here goes:

I have a theory.  Every time a student does a paper, a worksheet, a project, a performance, an art piece, it represents (at least a form) of their best intentions. (Note that I didn’t say “best work” . . . best intentions don’t always represent a living-out of our most shiny manifested hopes.)  Our feedback/critique/assessment/grade can help students understand the ways in which their best intentions measured up to the goals at hand. And most importantly, they can help our learners progress a step or two the next time around.  

For some reason, that seems like a helpful nugget to keep present in the corner of my mind as I grade tests and provide feedback on first drafts. “This represents this student’s best intentions.” 

I wish I could go back in time and share this with my dad.  In my growing up years, at certain times of the school year, I would note him scowling at the dinner table. “Don’t worry, honey,” my mom explained. “He’s in the middle of grading exams.” My dear father, who was an incredible professor and cared more about his students than anyone I’ve ever known, would get progressively more and more furious as he graded his electrical engineer students’ tests, particularly when the results weren’t what he had hoped. Maybe thinking of student work as their “best intentions” would have helped those poor marks feel less to him like a personal insult and more like a roadmap for the next few weeks of class. 

But I digress.  

Paul does NOT get furious as he grades student work.  Instead, he understands the power of feedback (in green, not red pen) and he recognizes that students need space and time to make sense of that feedback and apply it to their practice. So, he leverages a meaning-making tool (yay writing!) and has them WRITE a paragraph about their WRITING! It’s totally meta and it totally works. (Not to mention, it totally fixes the “I spent hours on providing feedback on their essays and then found them unread and crumbled on the floor” conundrum.)  Check out how he framed the assignment and how Sandra Crowder and Grant Worsley took up the invitation to reflect on their best intentions below.  Then, feel free to steal the idea and adapt it to your context!

Thoughts & Fragments of a 1st Grade Teacher Mom: A Timeline Leading Up to Meet the Teacher

Authored by Mary McCall McArthur

August 1: Check email. Read Back to School Faculty Agenda. Make childcare and meal prep plans for days I’ll work in my room after PD time.

August 2: Check email. Read they’re looking for breakout sessions. I might have something that can help?

August 4: Thanks to childcare, by 7:30 I have a full day of child-free prep in the classroom ahead of me. I’m going to get so much accomplished, especially now that the floors are clean. Before leaving for summer, we purged outdated materials and sorted them by category. What’s left is organized chaos. 

Time to begin. 

Place a pile here, stick some stuff there, create a new category. Wait, what’s this? Pull out faded, spiral bound book labeled “RANCK” and inspect copyright date. 1995!? How?

Timidly place Ms. Ranck’s “Elements of Reading” curriculum map in the large black, garbage bag to sneakily conceal the summer checklist oversight.

Look around. Piles, piles everywhere. Deep breath. Water break. Keep going. 

Soon the double cabinets are beautifully bare, sanitized, and seemingly light! I wonder how this cabinet would look over there? The class would have easier access to their materials. Quickly learn a piece of poster board underneath creates a smoother slide, preventing excess snags on the carpet. Set cabinet in proposed spot. Step back. Gaze. Nope. Scooch it over. Step back. Gaze again. Nope. This is creating less space to gather as a whole group on the carpet. I’m creating a community, not dividing it. Shimmy poster board back under the cabinets, and move it back to its original space. 

Decide it’s a better investment in the long run to pull out all of the materials stowed away in the window seats. Yes, it’s creating more piles, but it’s eliminating duplicates. One place for each category. It’s creating time in the future. 

Sort, pile, stack, mound, create more categories. 


1 empty double cabinet and 2 empty storage benches. 

That’s a good stopping place. It’s half past 4 anyway. 

Gather things, shut door behind me, and pretend it didn’t take 8 hours to clean and organize materials that won’t even be seen most of the time… No big deal. It was an investment in the future me’s sanity. 

An investment. 

August 5: Return to piles. It’s worse than I remember. Thankfully I brought reinforcements. Will drove separately with tools in tow to fix the broken easel, adjust desk heights, reach the really tall things, and help me meticulously hang new butcher paper, among other things here and there. Most of the morning has passed, but most of the heaping piles have yet to be addressed. 

(Enter Mrs. Hoppe)

She’s kindly taking a break from New Teacher meetings to willingly assist on the last available Friday afternoon of summer break, to walk in on one of the biggest disasters ever to have been created by a single person in a classroom.

“Welcome! So glad to have you!! I’m really looking forward to the year.” At least I think I said that. Goodness, I hope I said that.

What I do remember thinking (feeling?) was panic filled prayers. Prayers she didn’t go straight to Cassie’s office and quit as soon as she walked out of here. “I promise it doesn’t always look like this,” I desperately joke (OMG, pleeeease don’t quit).

She’s offering to help, she’s willing to help, I need the help, but among the now suffocating clutter, I couldn’t even form thoughts, much less a directive. If one were to have imagery of my brain, it would have been actual question marks and squiggles. No real thoughts. Just clutter. 

Spend the rest of the day placing categorized materials. It took all afternoon, and I’ve yet to address the elephant in the room: the neglected classroom library. 

The classroom library may be my nemesis. Sometimes when I’m looking at it across the room, I’d swear it’s mocking me. 

Thankfully I categorized half of the books earlier in the summer. I’ll simply pick up where I left off! Begin sorting, create piles. Ugh. I JUST got rid of PILES!!!! 

Pile, sort, hoist, dust, sanitize, repair, tape, stack. 

Realize it’s nearly silent on my end of the building. Check time. It’s 4:25 on a Friday. 

The ASC workers probably hate me. 

Where does all the time go? 

Text the number, push anxiety aside, grab belongings, calm nervous feelings, convince myself that next week will bring plenty of opportunities, walk towards the Commons, take deep breaths, spot my child, smile… “Hey Norah!!!” Crouch to accept the sweetest hug from the most petite “big girl.”

August 6: Wake to two tiny humans harmonizing “mAHHHHH mEEEEE.” Stumble out of bed, and feeling the full weight of back to school exhaustion, aches, and sinus pressure, find the Advil, take a decongestant, and start the coffee. “MAAAHHHmEEEE.”

Pour juice, open granola bars, turn off alarm, let dog out, open blinds, and wonder if the smell of coffee brewing is enough to begin combating fatigue… 

“Maahhhmeeeee… mommy… mommy. MOMMY!” 

Swallow anxiety, greet extra-energetic children, search for lost lovies under covers.

Hunt between couch cushions for remote. Click sound to minimum volume level. 

(Queue Bluey theme music)

Mindfully practice gratitude for the coffee that is slowly sipped, not speedily gulped, for the brilliance of this tender children’s show, and for the time we have together before I work in my classroom later. 

Anticipate the coming year.

Acknowledge sadness of an all-too-brief season.

Watch the sunrise.

Pull up roster to pray for each student.

Work Week Begins

August 8: Drive to school worrying about the large decomposing lizard on a sticky trap, mouse “gifts” and crumbling wall I found in opposite corners of the classroom over the weekend. 

*Shivers of disgust*

First plan when get to school: Search for someone willing to move the lizard and let Greg know about the water-damaged wall. 

Then, First Grade Team works together to:  

-Sort through dozens of shipping boxes, dividing supplies between classrooms or the workroom, cross-referencing items received with receipts and highlighting what’s missing. 

-Distribute EPI boxes with individual student supplies. 

-Distribute workbooks: three literacy, one math.

Last, try to find spaces to store supplies, but…where do I put them

To make space, the books I lugged (over the weekend) to the desks to categorize now need to move back to the shelf, but the shelf can’t be moved until the damaged wall is repaired, and it’s entirely too heavy to move when books are ON the shelf. 

What to do until then?

Refocus energy into organizing the books by labels. Print tester labels and place them on the spine of the books. LOVE IT! Now commit to doing that hundreds of times. I

It’s gonna be great. I still have time! 

Tuesday, August 9: Delayed start to the whole school meetings. We quickly make alternate arrangements for Norah to go to work with Will and since I wasn’t driving all the way to the south campus, after dropping off my [tearful] Russel at daycare, I used the extra time to shop. For pillows. And Lamps.  

Our first back-to-school COVID guidelines two years prior had given me the needed push to toss the old pillows. 

I’m so excited to start the year seeing children’s full faces and look forward to bringing back comfortable spaces. Pleasantly walking through Walmart (yes, believe it or not, it’s a very decent place to shop around 8 AM.) I imagined students growing their love for reading, relaxed in the sunny window seat, propped against the new, plush pillows. 

Locate pillow aisle. Find patterns that blend with classroom color schemes. Fill cart. Run into Sarah Walker who shows me where she found a super cheap lamp. Score! 

After whole school meetings, I eagerly unload the morning’s purchases and place them around the room. Glancing at the window seat I reminisced how a little more than four years prior, I’d sat in the same window seat as a new employee, enormously pregnant, nesting in the warmth of the space that somehow already felt like it was mine. That peace is what I wish for students: for them to feel they belong right away. 

Assemble lamps. Find bulbs. Plug them in. 

The pillows are a nice touch. 

Wednesday, August 10: After Lower School faculty meetings, the entire afternoon is blocked off for classroom time. What a relief. 

After checking on the crumbling wall repair situation, the shelf needs to remain unplaced with books still in piles everywhere. It’s fiiine. We have plenty of labeling to do, and not just books.
Did y’all know first graders begin the year super pumped about having a desk? It’s their first time without little tables! Not only are they feeling the maturity of graduating to a desk, but they feel welcomed when they find their name. A name that’s been written with a fresh Sharpie, triple-checked for correct spelling, and letters that will serve as a “neat example” when children refer to this precisely centered reference atop their desk. 

During Meet the Teacher, when they curiously explore the inside of the desk, students will excitedly announce, “My name is on here!” when spotting their personal scissors, glue stick, and other supplies. The same enthusiasm is used if they spy names and birthdays written on the cupcake chart (birthdays are found by individually selecting “view contact info” on each students MySA profile) and parents, the sweet, nervous parents give that famous, tilted head smile of contentment when locating their child’s name written in the 1.5 inch tiny space holder found above the red cubbies of the hall. Some even pat their heart. 

Realistically, we teachers don’t have to do this. We know children could easily help us with most of the labeling once school begins. But, have you ever been surprised by a gift or an act of service and exclaimed, “You did that for me?!” It’s a similar energy. It’s the unexpected joy over the seemingly “small things” such as finding their name, that sets the tone of the beginning of the year. They feel instant belonging.

On the practical side, labeling everything in advance nearly guarantees a smoother start for the already hectic first days of school. Instead of noisy, chaotic sorting, we’re calmly focused on creating a community.

So, year after year, you’ll find south campus teachers unpacking each individual box and writing student names dozens of times across dozens of materials. While there’s a consistent concern if there will be enough time, this is one thing we will always prioritize- putting in the extra hours so the children can feel “instant” belonging.

Thursday, August 11: Oh my goodness, I’m leading a breakout session this afternoon and I’ve not taken the proper time to prepare. I’m fine! The plan was to keep it casual anyway. It’s a demonstration… not a presentation… I’m fine? I’m fine. 

After soaking up the knowledge and big questions of my incredible co-workers, I leave the North Campus, gearing myself up for another evening of trying to pull the classroom together. 

Call my mom. Stop for caffeine. Text husband reminder about Back to School party tonight. Set an alarm to leave no later than 4:15.

I entered the room to not only find that Tamara checked everything off of the discombobulated list I’d scratched out the day prior, but she even sorted the manipulatives by color, a request I didn’t make, but that she perceptively did to match other components of the classroom. I feel so seen. 

Inspect the newly mudded wall. Double check the fan is in optimum drying placement. 

Disappointingly, notice I’ve neglected to frame bulletin boards. It just looks weird without it. 

Search first grade workroom for border stash, measure what’s needed, locate step stool, tack border to secure, step off ladder, back up to observe, scan for stapler, realign border patterns for continuity, staple one end, remove tack, staple other end, remove tack. Trim any excess. Repeat 20 times. 

Am I going to have this room finished tomorrow?

Work past alarm. I’m not going to make that party tonight. Text Will updated evening plans. 

Friday, August 12: Hannah asks the team if we have plans to be here this weekend: Shea wants to schedule security if enough folks intend to be here. That’s so caring. “Surely I’ll be finished today. Can we definitively say a little later?”

Check on wall status. Needs sanding. Needs paint. Can move shelves soon, but not yet. 

Tamara and I print more library labels and finish sticking each book. 

Eventually, in a desperate effort to tidy up, we move the books from student desks to the shelf. It will be more work in the long run, but moving them now is a critical step towards progress. 

Tables are grouped, surfaces are cleaned, and supplies have been moved from the floor to the inside of desks. 

It’s coming together!

After days of sitting crumpled in the hallway, the carpet can finally move back to its permanent spot. Hoping the weekend gives these creases and lumps a chance to relax. 

“Bye, Tamara! Hope y’all have a great weekend! Thanks SO MUCH for all of your help.”

Turn and stare at the calendar wall. Use all of my remaining energy and focus to place pocket charts, posters, ten-frames, etc. in a mockup on the floor.

(Enter Greg) with sander and paint! WAHOO!! Progress!! He asks if I’d like to borrow the shopvac after he’s finished repairing the wall. I graciously declined, not wanting to be a further bother. “Someone else may need it!” Hilariously, I’m sure after years of working in a school, he’s learned to “place the vacuum nearby- just in case.” Not three minutes later, I retrieved the vacuum and started cleaning behind, inside, and on top of every shelf of the library and every crumbly looking corner of the classroom. Soonafter, he’s walking by with Marvin, humbly laughing. I think he needed a win. 

Check time. It’s time for me to leave. How? Why? I have to get my kids. 

Where. Does. The. Time. Go?

Finish tacking materials to the calendar wall and plan to finish it, plus the bookshelves, tomorrow. 

Tell Hannah I’ll be at school tomorrow, in case security needs a heads up. 

Saturday, August 13: Spend the day tying up loose ends: complete calendar wall, move all books temporarily to desks, rearrange shelves. Ask Judy to come look. Not quite right. She helps me lift one unit on top of another. Woah! This is the one. Begin moving books to their new home!

(All-school announcement that security is leaving.) Decide to stay. Tomorrow will be a day of rest. 

After several hours more, the largest project of the summer is finally complete. But wait. Nooo. I was afraid of this. The shelf needs support. I unload all of the books I’d just placed, and find a sturdy crate that will hold until I can come back tomorrow. Measure height and depth of shelf to makeshift a support at home.

Plan to stinkin’ come back tomorrow. 

Sunday, August 14: Make family plans to take the kids to the park at Lefleur’s. It’s the last day of Summer and it’s important to me that we make it memorable and fun. I’ve been absent too much lately. 

I leave a few hours before my family, ensuring the classroom will. be. finished today. 

Will comes later with the kids to assist with securing the shelves.

After replacing the books to check shelf strength, it’s finally done.

Eleven straight days of work, not including the random days in June and July, the classroom finally feels inviting, warm, and kid-friendly again. 

Windows are sparkling, lamps provide balanced lighting, student materials are within reach. 

Children’s supplies, tables, and spaces are labeled. 

Books are sorted by genre and color coded for easy returns. 

Cabinets and window seats have practical storage solutions. 

These are a few of the things. 

Could I have accomplished a seemingly put-together classroom during the allotted time of work week? Probably. But would it have the same tone and intentionality? Probably not. 

None of this is a complaint, by the way. I wholeheartedly think the time spent prepping my space provides closure for the previous year’s bunch I’ve grown to love and miss, while simultaneously opening my own heart to accept a new group. 

Being a teacher and a parent has grown my desire for the classroom to be more than a space. Walking into the ECC for Norah’s Meet the Teacher days have made significant impacts on me as a parent. The fine details of my little girl’s school picture on a lunch magnet, plants near the windows, labeled blue bags hanging in cubbies.. It’s so homey. These remarkable teachers made space for my child, and they hadn’t even met her yet. One walks in and feels the love they’ve created in the space, which compliments the words they use to greet and comfort us as we embark on the new year. I want this feeling for the parents of my students and will do whatever it takes to ensure parents feel secure that their babies have a space. It takes time. Often it takes extra time. It’s straining, but it’s worth it. 

August 15: Meet the Teacher is done. Let’s eat some lunch. Oh my goodness. Tomorrow is school. I HAVE NO LESSON PLANS. It’s fine. I have time. <3

We are back and we have themes!: September 2022 we delve deep into “Best Intentions”

Our esSAy is back for the 22-23 school year, and we are fresh-faced.  Welcome (from left to right) to Hollie Marjanovic (US), Kim Sewell (ECC), Michelle Portera (LS), Rachel Scott (LS), and Brad P–. ..I mean Buck Cooper (MS). (I promise to replace this image with the real Buck ASAP!)

We are also fresh-themed.  And for the month of September we share stories from faculty and community members that all point to “Good Intentions.”  It’s an apt-theme for any school-based blog, really, because what could possibly push us more as teachers, more as a school, than our unfailing, unwavering, sometimes blindingly GOOD intentions?

In this month’s set of content we explore what good intentions fuel us, which good intentions blind us, and which ones (ahem) sometimes pave the way to  h-e-double-hockey-sticks.  We accept the fact that there is never a simple fix, a silver bullet, a one size fits all.  For those of us who tend to be people-pleasers (I mean I have NO experience with this), we may even begin the first stage of realizing . . .

And, perhaps, most importantly, we explore a oh-so-tentative but hopeful thesis that, even if good intentions don’t always equal perfect results . . . they produce something even better than pure success.  With the right mindset and space for reflection, they can result in learning a thing or two, getting knocked down a peg or two (surprisingly good for most of us), and understanding one or two more perspectives than you did before.  

Exhibit A: Our 8/11 Workshop Week Day of Incredible Breakout Sessions. (Link to schedule)

Ya’ll.  Those sessions were FIRE.  The whole day of things and people, collectively and individually, made me so proud my heart coulda burst.  

I promise you that stuff we pulled off rivaled the breakout sessions of any national/international conference I’ve been to.  You can try to convince me otherwise.  I dare you.  

Besides that, faculty as attendees were ROCK STARS.  Actively engaged, you asked probing questions, you provided super helpful strategies in small groups.

But wow that day was fraught.  Despite the fact that I built the day with feedback from faculty reps, despite the fact that faculty assured me it would be a good, practical use of their time in setting up the school year, about a week before the event, the complaints started coming in. Most of them centered around the need for more time to get classrooms set up for the school year, the sense that sessions wouldn’t apply across the board, the sense that two days together as whole-faculty wasn’t a thoughtful use of their time.  

Some, in fact, felt like the workshop week schedule was outrightly disrespectful and a flagrant disregard of their lived reality as teachers. Others were more gentle in their language. I was grateful for all the feedback in the way I am grateful for a vaccination: painful in the moment, helpful in the long run. After all,  I have never set up a classroom for four year olds.  When faculty speak, I believe them. 

So . . . men plan, and God laughs?

Let me make something visible, in case you don’t know.  The current administrators that I work with are incredibly sensitive to faculty feedback.  The pre-event outrage was enough to result in no fewer than 3 conversations with leadership and a flurried string of emails.  “Should we cancel the day? Make it optional? Tell people to just come for half the day? Explicitly tell everyone they can skip at least a session?  Tell this division it is optional and that division it isn’t?” We went back and forth so many times about the pros and cons of all of the things.  

 But I could not stop thinking about the sessions we had lined up, the faculty who expressed excitement about sharing something on their mind, and our original impetus for the day.  So many of the things that plague us in teaching/learning/setting up positive cultures are mistakes made the first few weeks of school.  Many of the topics felt urgent.  If we pushed them off to October, would it be too late? And if we told everyone to skip the sessions they needed to, would that mean none of the five presenters in the last session would have an audience? That certainly felt disrespectful to the time they had put into proposing and planning their sessions.

So we proceeded, tentatively, as planned.  But even two minutes before the morning began I was having hurried conversations with folks in different divisions about whether Kevin or  I should address the elephant in the room of faculty discontent about the day.  I feared, though, that for folks NOT feeling preemptively angry about the day that would set them off on the wrong foot. (To be fair, there were also faculty in a very different place, interested in the experiences the day would hold.)  And mostly at the center of my vision were those generous, brilliant faculty that had stepped up to be presenters. I felt responsible in some way to avoid ripping the carpet out from under them.

So we proceeded.  Maybe it was the right decision.  Maybe it was the wrong decision.  It was not made thoughtlessly.  And it was not made with a dismissive attitude toward faculty’s lived experiences of real stress that week.  

I fall short.  I fall short.  I fall short.  

Maybe it’s time to bring back that meme again. 

I will spare you the speech about how many hours it took us to shape the program for that day. I will spare you the speech about how rarely we have entire days dedicated to the art and science of teaching/learning together as a collective.  I will spare you the speech about how EVERY PD day I have ever helped organize has been filled with complaints (in August, in October, in February, in May) about how poorly timed it feels: we are working on report cards and need to do comments, we are trying to set up classes, we are planning for midterms, etc . . . I will spare you the speech about the fact that admin are not evil people trying to ruin lives, but we are most certainly imperfect and sometimes miss the trees for the forest. (On the other hand, I suspect sometimes faculty miss the forest for the trees.)  I will spare you the speech about the wild sinus infection I developed that week and how badly I felt throughout the day racing from session to session.  

Whoops. I guess I didn’t spare you the speech; sparing people speeches is not one of my fortes.

I sent out a feedback form.  I knew it was gonna be ugly, but usually it is just those hunches that mean the information will be valuable, will teach me something. 

Lemme be real for a minute: I cried all weekend. Like, faucet tears every few moments.  Like, Alianna Rust sitting beside me on the couch rubbing my arm asking me if I was okay and I may have said at some point “I ruined my life when I stopped being a professor.”  Ya’ll I was a GREAT professor.  Like a really good one.  I promise. People loved me.  I loved being loved.

It was irrational, it was steeped in a combo of my oversized ego and sinus infection and overarching exhaustion, and it was the culmination of a month of planning mentor program and workshop week stuff and accreditation and going to a conference and etc. etc. Dude, the feedback wasn’t even that harsh.  People mostly said they were exhausted by the day and needed less.  A few got a bit more heated in their reply about the uselessness and utter disrespect they felt that day, but they too spoke their truth.  When faculty speak, I listen.

Here is one thing that bugged me.  When we gathered as senior leadership to reflect on workshop week, the conversation centered mostly around the 8/11 day of sessions.. . in not a good way.  Very few faculty had feedback about the Tuesday (first day) of meetings, and it is clear that divisional meetings are really needed for nuts and bolts things.  I’m also the only one dumb enough to send out a formal survey soliciting faculty feedback about what I planned. Ha! I suspect there was also just something about the timing of that Thursday that set people off.  I worry that Kevin and others may have gotten the message that faculty don’t like faculty-led PD.  I worry that I won’t have the courage to propose something similar again.  I worry because that kind of day is my favorite version of my job, and I want to love my job. 

I never shared with folks the kind, positive words I got about that day.  There were 3-5 thank you emails and a few “let’s walk together and lemme tell you what an incredibly valuable, power-packed day it was.”

The bad sticks with us and the good slides right off of us.  Perhaps this isn’t great. Or perhaps this is distinctly human in an evolutionary sort of way.  We have to pay most attention when we are in danger, threatened.  We are in peak performance when the defensive adrenaline kicks in.  “HEY JULIE” the bad feedback yells, “THIS FEELS BAD, SO THIS MUST BE A LEARNING MOMENT!  BUCK UP AND LISTEN!”

So what, exactly, did I learn?

  1. I will never ask for a whole school day dedicated to whole-school teaching and learning during workshop week again.
  2. Those sessions and presenters were FIRE.  
  3. I need to get over myself.
  4. Tell people they have permission to take a break during the day, and trust that they won’t all skip the last session.  Fatigue is REAL.  Info-overload is real too. 
  5. Just because sessions are fire to me doesn’t mean there will be unanimous agreement all around.
  6. Different divisions have different divisional needs; sure we can all learn together, but it takes a lot of work and thoughtfulness for that to go down well.
  7. Many faculty really do feel ignored and dismissed by admin decisions, despite all of the work we have poured into  this very issue of faculty leadership and admin listening. We need to keep digging to figure out why and make changes so they don’t feel this way. 
  8. Less is rarely less.  Less is usually more. 
  9. I shouldn’t come to school and work when I am sick. I am not that important.
  10.  I am not what I do.  I am not what I do.  I am not what I do. (Neither are you.)

I told our TEAM folks I needed to write about this topic on the blog because writing, for me, is sense-making, and I still can’t see my way clear on the Great 8/11 Breakout Session Day of 2022.  I think it was the simultaneously the grandest success and the most spectacular failure of my career at St. Andrew’s.  I reminded myself as I cried my way through that weekend that I am only three years into this career.  My grad school mentor had to remind me this when I got like one negative comment on my student evaluations in my first English Education class for undergrads.  She was shocked when she heard how high my eval numbers were (“I’ve never gotten numbers that high!”) and she followed it up with an appropriately patronizing tone: “Baby- you are just STARTING your career.”

I’m an impatient one. Three years in,  I feel old, seasoned, veteran.  This is absurd. I am a brand new baby administrator. I am going on four years old.  I still benefit from sippy cups generally, and naptime is still needed to get through the rigors of the day.  Sometimes I can navigate complex situations like a pro, and sometimes I find myself reaching for a pacifier and crying myself to sleep.  I am grateful for a faculty and admin community at St. Andrew’s that is willing to tolerate me and my flurry of ideas, despite all of this.

My  intentions were good.  And so were all of yours. And I am grateful for all of you who have tried, gently and not-so-gently, to show me how good intentions are not all that matters.  

The Importance of Fun

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.

May Day, 4th Grade Crossing, and Teaching Assistant Nostalgia

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.

Godspeed, kiddos. Please don’t drown.

If this school year was a mixed tape: Top hits of 2021-2022

“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:

  1. 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.

With gratitude,


Final Episode of Bridging the Faculty/Admin Divide: Discipline & Restorative Practices

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:

Gaudeamus Igitur: It’s Gonna be… Nay, It IS May!

May Favorites: It's Gonna Be May - Constantine's Confections | It's gonna  be may, Roses are red funny, Roses are red memes

Authored by Marty Kelly

(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. 

jean claude van damme bloodsport - - Yahoo Image Search Results | Funny  celebrity pics, Jean claude van damme, Van damme

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).

We did it! – Alexandra Solender's Blog

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.” 

Tom Nordling on Twitter: "What I think Patrick Swayze would say at a time  like this...#roadhouse #everyonetakeabreath #itsgoingtobeok  https://t.co/9wqUeWwKOl" / Twitter

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!

Michael jones @ApolloKeiko Replacing the meme of Justin Timberlake MAY meme  with a Britney Spears meme is the type of positivity that the month should  start with JUST SO TYPICALLY - Keke

Starting Fresh: Building Community with Admin & Faculty at Foundations (Episode 5)

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.

“A Day in the Life”: Episode 4 in Bridging the Faculty/Admin Divide

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.

Episode 3 Drops on “Bridging the Faculty/Admin Divide”: Unpacking Teacher Support with Rachel Scott, Michelle Portera, and Shea Egger

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!

When the Grass is Greener: A Case for Better Teacher Compensation

Authored by Dean Julius

Jingle All The Way Christmas Movies GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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 World points 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.

Office of Postsecondary education, “Title II Higher Education Act: Enrollment in Teacher Preparation Programs”

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.

Shark Tank Meets HISTORY Class?!

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.

Bridging the Faculty/Admin Divide (Ep 2): On Greatness

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.

8th Grade Attitudes of Gratitude

Authored by Dean Julius

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.”